Life and death in a Cypriot Bronze Age society
The figurine featured in CWA 108 was one of a number discovered at Hala Sultan Tekke, similar to others found at other sites in Cyprus, which can be found in Cypriot museums and elsewhere (especially in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). From my research in Cyprus, I believe that such bird-headed figurines with beaked noses and ears, and arms folded above or below their breasts, are sometimes known in Cypriot archaeology as ‘Astarte figures’. A question of interest is where their ‘genus’ came from. There are no precedents to them in Cypriot archaeology. Figurines from the Neolithic are chiefly anthropomorphic or roughly human in shape. Figurines from the following era of the Chalcolithic are chiefly cruciform and stylised female human in shape. And then suddenly, in the Bronze Age, these ‘bird goddess’ figurines appear, with no known antecedents or contemporary parallels.
Pendeen, Cornwall, UK
Looking at similar Cypriot owl-human figurines, it is noticeable that babies are present in some but not all cases. This suggests they are not intrinsic to the owl-woman representation. Interestingly, some babies look like owl-human crosses (with more owl) with owl-like feet. Is it possible that these represent real fledgling owls being cared for as part of an owl cult that merged human (specifically women’s) characteristics with those of owls?
Cathy Rozel Farnworth
Warleggan, Cornwall, UK
The archaeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas said, ‘the Owl Goddess is richly represented in terracotta figurines in the Cypriot Bronze Age of the 13th and 14th centuries BC. She is portrayed with a beaked nose, large round eyes, gigantic earlobes with ringed earrings, and a huge pubic triangle’ (The Language of the Goddess, Thames & Hudson, 1989). She went on to point out that owls in mythology are often associated with wisdom and death, and the location of these bird goddess figurines, which have almost always been found in tombs, is perhaps indicative that they represented a passage to the afterlife for the dead. However, it is also true that a number of them are depicted carrying or nursing babies, which is where the idea of their fertility and maternity presumably came from. Or perhaps the figurines represent birth, life, death, and rebirth?
I do not agree with Gimbutas’ characterisation of the lower body containing a pronounced pubic triangle. Rather I interpret this shape as akin to a skimpy pair of shorts or skirt. It is noticeable that the ‘shorts’ have hems and extend right over the thighs to the hips. The markings look a lot like plumage (and given the striations vary between figurines, could even represent different owl species – and indeed depict clothing made of owl feathers). Some figurines also wear waistbands and neck-rings as well as earrings. Perhaps they wore masks to depict big eyes and the facial ruff. I see them therefore as representing fully dressed real women, priestesses perhaps, mediating and integrating human and animal worlds.
You may well be right. In many different cultures throughout Europe and the Near East, prehistoric peoples have created human figurines with animal and bird attributes. The further we go back in time, these have often been interpreted as representations of shamanic figures – that is, shamans who are embodying animal and bird characteristics, as part of a rite taking place within an altered state of consciousness. However, when a certain class of artefact (for example, these Cypriot bird figurines) are regularly found within tombs, I think we have to consider the possibility that they were placed there as psychopomps to guide the dead to the afterworld.
Of course, one interpretation does not necessarily preclude the other. It would be interesting to see what ideas and theories CWA readers may have about these Cypriot bird figurines.
Please note: letters may be edited; views expressed here are those of our readers, and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine.