An Archaeological Mystery: Why Ancient Hebrews Made Figurines of Naked Women

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Female figurines found in Israel from the First Temple period
Figurines from ancient Judah, some with molded heads and some with ‘pinched’ headsCredit: Chamberi
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

Their name couldn’t possibly sound less exciting: Judean Pillar Figurines. But behind this dry technical nomenclature lies a headscratcher that has stumped experts for more than a century. Ever since archaeologists began digging up the remains of Jerusalem and the surrounding Kingdom of Judah from the First Temple period, one find has consistently cropped up: thousands of clay statuettes of an apparently naked woman using her hands to hold up her breasts.

What these figurines represented and how they were used by the ancient Hebrews has been the subject of fiery disputes, not least because this puzzle intersects the broader debate on whether the Bible is a true story.

To be clear, this was not the only type of figurine that was popular in the biblical Kingdom of Judah and its northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Israel. Archaeologists have found an even larger sample of other statuettes, mainly depicting animals as well as a horse-and-rider motif.

But the Judean Pillar Figurines, or JPFs for short, have held a particular fascination. Perhaps their seemingly sensuous pose grates heavily on our modern interpretation of the biblical prohibition on making graven images and preconceived notions of the First Temple period as a time of great holiness and monotheistic fervor. Or maybe, since biblical studies and archaeology are particularly male-dominated fields, it’s also a case of men obsessing over images of naked women.

Hey, my Egyptian weave is up here

There are multiple contrasting theories and few certainties about JPFs, which were recently discussed at an Israel Antiquities Authority conference as part of a talk on ancient Israelite women given by Carol Meyers, an emeritus professor of religious studies at Duke University.

Female figurine, Judah, 8th–6th century B.C.E.Credit: Israel Museum

Let’s start with the facts: JPFs were first uncovered in a tomb near Bethlehem in the 1880s, Meyers notes. Since then, thousands have been unearthed in and around Jerusalem, mostly broken and thrown into trash piles in domestic contexts: houses, courtyards, city streets and so on. They seem to have been continuously used in Judah during the late First Temple period, from the eighth century B.C.E. until the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E., after which they quickly fade from the archaeological record.

The figurines, usually around 15 centimeters in height, do not depict the woman’s lower body, which is replaced by a cylindrical base enabling the statuettes to stand on their own (hence the “pillar” in their scientific name). Some of the artifacts still have faint traces of paint on them, meaning it’s not clear whether they really depicted a naked woman or whether there were some clothes and decorations drawn on the figure.

Another distinctive trait is the head, which in some cases is crudely handmade, with just two cavities pinched into the clay to form a nose and the eyes, while in others is a more elaborate, molded shape, sporting an Egyptian-style headdress and a Mona Lisa smile.

God’s wife

So who is hiding behind that smile? Archaeologists once assumed that JPFs depicted a goddess, possibly the Canaanite deities Astarte or Anat. But because they were so common in Judahite households it is more likely that this was a local goddess, rather than a figure connected to a cult that would have been perceived as foreign, says Raz Kletter, an archaeologist and researcher at Helsinki and Warsaw universities who is an expert on the figurines.

The most plausible candidate for this is Asherah, a deity which inscriptions found at Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite shrine in the Sinai, identify as the wife or divine companion of Yahweh, the God of the Bible, Kletter notes.

A Judean Pillar Figurine of the type with a crude handmade headCredit: Israel Museum / Peter Lanyi

The Bible also mentions Asherah frequently, stigmatizing her worship as an idolatrous cult, and praising those kings of Judah, like Hezekiah and Josiah, who are said to have led religious reforms and cut down the images of this goddess.

For example, the pious King Josiah “took the Asherah pole from the temple of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people. He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the Lord, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah.” (2 Kings 23:6-7)

Some researchers, especially conservative scholars eager to find proof of the Bible’s historicity in archaeological finds, have seized upon the fragmented remains of the JPFs as tangible evidence of the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, which would have happened respectively in the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.

There is no evidence however to suggest that these figurines would have been considered transgressive in the First Temple period or that the shambolic state in which most are found is the result of an iconoclastic campaign, counters Erin Darby, an archaeologist and professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee.

“Drop a coin in Jerusalem and decide you are going to dig a hole – you are probably going to find a figurine,” she says. JPFs are found in the houses of the rich and poor and, more importantly, they continue to appear until the very end of the First Temple period. They are just too ubiquitous to suggest that their use was considered unorthodox and was violently stamped out at some point, Kletter agrees.

Also, for his 1996 book about JPFs, Kletter made reproductions of the figurines and launched them from different heights. He found that the clay statuettes broke in naturally weak points, just like most of the originals, suggesting again that they were not smashed intentionally, which would have left them in tinier bits.

Whether or not the figurines depict Asherah (more on that soon), one question that arises is how could they be so popular and used with impunity in a society whose second most basic commandment recites “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

Most scholars today agree that the Hebrew Bible was only put in writing, at the earliest, at the end of First Temple period, in Josiah’s time, and underwent numerous revisions and edits during the Babylonian exile and the early Second Temple period. So we don’t really know how much of the biblical prohibitions as we read them today would have been part of the belief system of the ancient Israelites before the Babylonian destruction.

Metal statues of the Canaanite storm god BaalCredit: Hanay

“Many biblical scholars argue that certain versions of the idol prohibition are later than others,” Darby notes. “What could have initially been a prohibition of not making a statue of the Lord, later turned into a broader ban on images in the exilic and post-exilic period when indeed we don’t find figurines.”

Making babies

While it’s clear that the ancient Hebrews were not as monotheistic and averse to images as the biblical authors would have liked, it is far from certain that the ubiquitous JPFs really were intended as cult figurines representing Asherah.

That identification relies too much on the biblical text and ignores that the figurines don’t match up with how people in the ancient Levant depicted deities, Meyers says. Statues of gods were usually larger; they were not made with cheap clay but with more costly materials like metal; and a deity was usually depicted standing on an animal or displaying a symbolic attribute, like horns for Baal or a star for Ishtar.

“These are utterly plain. There is no signifier, which is why scholars have gone crazy trying to figure out which deity they represent,” Meyers tells Haaretz. “This leads me to believe they are not cult images; that they have something to do with magical practices.”

Meyers, whose research focuses on the lives of ancient Israelite women, has suggested that the JPFs may be fertility figurines, votive statuettes that represented not a goddess but the mortal women who were praying for a child. This theory has gained popularity among feminist scholars like Meyers, who see in the figurines a possible window into the lives of First Temple period women, often ignored by the male-driven narrative of the Bible and by modern researchers. “Fertility figurines” is now also a frequent interpretation given by many Israeli archaeologists when remains of these statuettes emerge - at pretty much any dig from that period in and around Jerusalem.

But this hypothesis also has multiple holes in it, and Meyers is the first to admit she can’t square it with the fact that the figurines are sometimes found in tombs, not exactly a context connected to fertility.

Even in their more common environment, the homes of ancient Judahites, the figurines are not found in association with loom weights or grindstones, objects generally used by women, Darby adds.

Statuette of a naked woman, maybe the Great Goddess of Babylon (or Ishtar). From the necropolis of Hillah, near BabylonCredit: Louvre Museum

“Just because the figurines were in households it doesn’t mean they were solely associated with women, because it turns out men lived in houses too,” she quips. “In Assyrian texts from the period there are rituals centered on different figurines that involve the whole family, including the man, who was considered the head of the household.”

Got milk?

In the end, the fertility argument comes down to how we interpret the most prominent iconographic element of the JPFs, the hand-held breasts. Would the ancient Hebrews have interpreted this is as a symbol of fertility?

Darby has her own theory, discussed in a recent 600-page tome, which apparently has prompted some of her colleagues to jokingly complain that she “has managed to make naked women boring.”

Exposed women, sometimes holding up their breasts with their hands, appear elsewhere in ancient Levantine art during the Bronze and Iron Ages, in contexts that have nothing to do with fertility. The motif is used in guardian figures for cultic stands and shrine models from ancient Israel and Philistia; on personal seals of men; on the battle armor of horses from Phoenicia and Syria, Darby says. These uses suggest that the imagery had something to do with keeping away evil and invoking protection and healing. This is because in the ancient Levant, breasts and breast milk in particular were believed to have magical curative properties, the archaeologist says.

For example “in ancient Egyptian literature, breast milk has a medical function and is very important in various cures for headaches, fevers and other ailments,” Darby says.

In other words, JPFs could have been the local Judahite version of a region-wide apotropaic good luck charm symbol, the breasts, which were not intended as sexual or fertility symbolsicons, but as protection from injury, disease or other misfortunes, she concludes. This would explain why the image could be used so broadly: by soldiers heading into battle, to watch over the deceased, to guard houses, shrines and simple men and women.

While this interpretation is as plausible as the one that makes the JPFs out to be deities, it will remain a theory until more concrete evidence emerges from archaeological digs to tip the scales in favor of any one hypothesis, Meyers comments. Until then, it seems that these figurines will continue to tease us with their enigmatic smile and the allure of their mystery.

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