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JUNE 2024

The revered goddess of nature


Boeotian pithos-amphora, with depiction of Potnia Theron – Mistress of the Animals
Hellenic National Archaeological Museum
Collection of Vases, inv. no. A 220

Provenance: From a grave at Thebes, Boeotia.
Height: 0.86 m.
Date: 680-670 B.C.
Displayed in: Exhibition of Vases, Room 49

On the main side (A) of the Boeotian pithos-amphora NAM A 220, a vase type used for storage, as well as for funerary purposes, the Mistress or Patroness of the Animals, the great goddess of nature is depicted, flanked by lions. A large fish decorates her long garment, while a dismembered bovine and birds fill in the background. Wavy lines or representations of snakes flank the main image on either side. The inclusion of animals of the earth, water and sky in the same image probably underscores the omnipotent character of the goddess. On the other side (B) of the vase, an eagle is shown chasing a rabbit. A large number of linear subsidiary motifs, such as lined and cross-hatched triangles, diamonds, spirals and swastikas, fill in the empty spaces in each image.

The vase was found in a grave near Thebes in Boeotia in 1890, together with a number of bronze artifacts, such as fibulae, bracelets and a diadem. The vase entered the Hellenic National Archaeological Museum as part of the Collection of the Archaeological Society in Athens that was submitted to the Museum. It is a product of a Boeotian workshop of the early Orientalizing style.[1]

Potnia Theron, or mistress of the wild animals, is the name attributed to images of archetypal female deity figures of ancient times, that were related to the protection of nature and were often connected to civilizations of the East, the Syrian – Palestinian area, as well as of the Mediterranean region. The term potnia represents a title of honour. It is found in the Homeric epics and other ancient Greek sources. It is used to describe Artemis (Iliad, 21.470), Aphrodite (ἐρώτων πότνια / the revered one of Erotes: E. Fr. 781.16), Hera (Iliad, 1.551), Circe (Odyssey, 8.448) and other deities and nymphs. After the end of the prehistoric period in Greece, the Potnia Theron figure was essentially assimilated to Artemis. A male figure of similar powers, the Potnios Theron, was also occasionally depicted in ancient art.

Lions are often mentioned in ancient Greek mythology and were occasionally depicted in ancient Greek works of art. They are considered symbols of power and authority, as well as guardian figures. Their depiction on works of the ancient Greek art was considered as a loan from civilizations of the East. Lions are mentioned in the Iliad (22.262, 3.23, 5.140). Skeletal remains of a Mediterranean lion species have been also identified recently in excavations in various regions in Greece.

The eagle, symbol of Zeus, described as the most perfect one (Iliad, 8.247) of all birds, had a significant status in ancient Greek mythology and religious practice, such as in divination (οἰωνῶν βασιλεὺς/ king of omens, Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 113), along with other birds.

The dismembered bovine image possibly stands as a symbolic representation of sacrificial practice, while the depicted birds and the hare can probably be considered as generic pictures of wild fauna or also relate to hunting.

Ancient Greek perceptions of the divine and religious rituals were indissolubly connected to nature. The sacrifice of animals, the offerings of aparchai (first fruits), the use of aromatic oils, the various libations, the burning of incense and other actions constitute some of the main elements of rituals, in which representatives of flora and fauna were present. The floral and animal elements that participated in religious practices were often connected, as offerings and sacrificial victims, to the worshipped deity and his or her qualities, through religious myths.

In Archaic Greece (8th – 7th century B.C. to 480 B.C.), the plentiful and sustainable natural environment can be seen to have been iconographically celebrated in the form of an almighty female figure depicted on vases, such as on the pithos-amphora NAM A 220, as well as on other vases, such as the relief pithos [2]of a Cycladic workshop NAM A 355, and artifacts found in various Greek regions.


[1] Trade relations were developed during the late Geometric (8th century B.C.) and the archaic period (7th to early 5th century B.C.) between the inhabitants of the Greek mainland and islands with Egypt, the Syro-Palestinian area, Cyprus and generally the eastern Mediterranean region. Orientalizing iconographical images and motifs were imported in Greece from the East, together with trade goods. These images, with their variations and adaptations, were incorporated in the repertoires of pottery and other crafts. The pottery and artefact styles and artistic developments that include these or similar eastern elements are called Orientalizing.

[2] Relief pithos from a Cycladic workshop[3] NAM A 355. On the neck of the vase is a depiction of the Mistress of the Animals, the sovereign goddess of nature, with her arms raised in a posture of epiphany, crowned with flowers and shoots. She is flanked by two confronted lions that stretch upwards, without touching her, a motif that is a survival of the Creto-Mycenaean artistic tradition, and by two smaller female figures embracing her in worship. On the body of the vase are two zones with roes walking and deer grazing. The lush crown, the gesture of the goddess and the animals that stand on either side of her, underscore her religious connection to nature.

[3]Pithoi with relief representations were made in the 7th century B.C. in various regions (Crete, Rhodes and the Cyclades, probably with Tenos as production centre). They have been also found on Delos and Mykonos, Naxos, Melos and Thera, in Boeotia, Eretria and other Euboean sites, and Athens.

Dr Maria Chidiroglou



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