Friday, 31 July 2009

Early civilisation, part 9: Women in art

In the last of our articles on the early civilisations, we will take a look at how the enormous social changes of the period influenced the role of women in art.

It isn’t always possible to distinguish between women and men in prehistoric and ancient art. When it is, a society’s artistic depictions of men and women’s behaviours and activities, along with the archaeological contexts, provide valuable evidence about gender roles.

Women had been relatively equal to men under primitive communism, but suffered, in Engels’ words, a ‘world-historical defeat’ [1] with the advent of class society. We have already outlined the roots of the oppression of women, and shan’t repeat those arguments here. The degree and forms of this oppression varied from civilisation to civilisation — they had more rights in Egypt than in Greece, for example — but wherever class society existed they were pushed into a subordinate relationship with men. The situation is summed up in Genesis when God casts Adam and Eve out of Eden, and tells Eve: “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” [2]. In the ancient world, it was mostly assumed that men should administer society and control its wealth. This had an inevitable influence upon the arts.

The inequality of the sexes has been universal in class society, to the point that it became thought of as innate to human nature. Yet as Rosalind Miles argued in her book The Women’s History of the World, “Women have been active, competent and important through all the ages of man.” Even though women were subordinated to men, they still lived, worked, and contributed to society and culture, and many succeeded in carving out significant roles for themselves. There have always been women who managed to overcome the obstacles placed in their way.

Images of women, possibly also by women, take an immense variety of forms after the Paleolithic, far more than we can examine here. We could mention votive statuettes of women worshippers from Mesopotamia; statuettes of ageing midwives or codex drawings of the exploits of Lady Six Monkey, from Mesoamerica; clay figurines of women by the Jōmon culture of Japan; fresco paintings of ladies from the Minoan culture of Crete; and much more. Many forms, such as textiles or tattooing, are much less durable than others, so as ever we are restricted by what archaeological evidence happens to have come down to us — we must also practice caution in our interpretations.

Neolithic art

As we have discussed, images of women are predominant in the Paleolithic, mostly in the form of figurines.

Female figurine from the Cycladic cultureFemale figurine from the Cycladic culture of the Aegean. White marble, ca. 3000 BCE.

The creation of female figurines persists into the Neolithic, with a geographical shift towards the Mediterranean and a much greater diversity of forms, commensurate with a higher level of development and a wider variety of societies. Their purpose is often unclear: their diversity across time and space means that however tempting it may be to seek a single interpretation, we must consider each culture independently. Archaeologists have suggested that they are images of deities or of esteemed ancestors, magic tools aimed at helping women conceive, or even toys for the dead.

One of the most popular theories about Neolithic images of women is that they represent a universal ‘mother’ or ‘fertility’ goddess. Such claims are difficult to prove. There is documented evidence of a fertility goddess cult from Anatolia which post-dates the region’s figurines but does suggest that they might be early forms of such a cult. Cases like this cannot be put forward as an explanation for such images across all Eurasia, especially in the early Neolithic when religion is likely to have focused on spirits and natural forces rather than humanised deities; nor does it explain the male figurines that are often found at the same sites. Archaeologists and other commentators are sometimes too quick to label a female representation as a ‘fertility’ figure, as if that explains everything, or as an incarnation of the ‘great goddess’. In reality each culture and/or region has to be considered upon its own evidence.

It was between the early Neolithic and the rise of literate society that women lost their relative importance in food production and became increasingly subordinated to men. As gatherers, it was probably women who took the decisive steps towards agriculture, but with the advent of more intensive farming techniques — above all the introduction of the plough — the food surplus became an increasingly male sphere. It may be no coincidence that these enigmatic works of art disappear over the same period.

Gordon Childe raised the likelihood that several Neolithic crafts — pot-making, spinning, weaving — were the invention of women, and noted for example that a temple in Lagash listed female spinners and weavers amongst its considerable staff.[3] Pottery, one of the most distinctive Neolithic art forms, was largely made by women as a public and collective activity. When the wheel was introduced, pottery production became faster and more regular: “the making of pots by hand is a domestic craft plied by the women, whereas manufacture on the wheel is a specialised trade reserved to men” (Childe).[4] Thus pottery became an increasingly male art as it gained in status.

Weaving, which began with the making of baskets and mats, is one of the most ancient arts, often associated with women in tradition and mythology. The discovery of silk-making in ancient China (around 2700–2650 BCE) is credited by tradition to a woman named Lei-tzu, also known as ‘Si Ling-Chi’ or ‘Lady of the Silkworm’. Male weavers did exist — we see them in images from the New Kingdom in Egypt, for example — but the loom, one of the great inventions of agricultural society, was predominantly worked by women. Used to produce linens for clothing, household items and funerary goods, the loom used yarn created above all from cotton and wool. Ancient looms were mostly made of wood, so little has survived of them besides spindle whorls and weights. The vast majority of the textiles created are also lost (one finely preserved exception is the set of clothes found with the body of a girl at the Egtved site in Denmark). But we get an insight into their aesthetics from images such as wall-paintings that record decorative textiles and fashions [5].

Fresco image of a woman, from KnossosFresco image of a woman, from Knossos, Crete. Mid-second millenium BCE.

It is likely these were also designed by the women who made them.

In Greek mythology, it was seen as a sexual humiliation for Herakles to have to assist Omphale with her spinning. The story reminds us of the loss of status suffered by women and the activities associated with them — despite women’s indispensable role in food production, child-rearing, toolmaking and many other skills both before and after the Neolithic Revolution, ‘women’s work’ became a perjorative term.

A key expression of this loss of status is the movement away from ‘mother right’. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels discusses the transition to monogamous marriage and its role as the core of the nuclear family, in which the woman and children were dependent upon the man. Developing alongside class society, this saw the replacement of matrilinearity or ‘mother right’ with ‘father right’ — measuring the line of descent through the father. Engels proposed an example of how this was later expressed in literature:

Bachofen [6] interprets the Oresteia of Aschylus as the dramatic representation of the conflict between declining mother-right and the new father-right that arose and triumphed in the heroic age. For the sake of her paramour, Aegisthus, Clytemnestra slays her husband, Agamemnon, on his return from the Trojan War; but Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and herself, avenges his father’s murder by slaying his mother. For this act he is pursued by the Furies, the demonic guardians of mother-right, according to which matricide is the gravest and most inexpiable crime... Apollo now comes forward in Orestes’ defence; Athena calls upon the Areopagites — the Athenian jurors — to vote; the votes for Orestes’ condemnation and for his acquittal are equal; Athena, as president, gives her vote for Orestes and acquits him. Father-right has triumphed over mother-right, the “gods of young descent,” as the Furies themselves call them, have triumphed over the Furies; the latter then finally allow themselves to be persuaded to take up a new office in the service of the new order.[7]

We won’t extend this article further to Greece and Rome, as we will be examining those cultures separately. But there is no need to jump to ancient Greece to see the effect of women’s falling status on their representation in the arts.

The early civilisations

After the Urban Revolution, the Stone Age emphasis on women in art faded away as the predominance of males became established in most societies. In the schematic art of early civilisation, males become prominent, engaging in dynamic deeds such as hunts or battles. Renfew and Bahn pointed out:

Three new dominant themes appear: weaponry, especially males with daggers; hunting images, particularly stags identified by antlers; and plowing, with oxen identified by horns. This consistent association of male form with male cultural icon — men/daggers; stags/antlers; oxen/horns — builds a symbolic system used to enact and express male gender from which an ideology of male power and vitality is created.[8]

From the Bronze Age there is an increasingly clear social distinction between the sexes, which laid the basis for a division that persists to this day. (The Egyptian practice of representing wives on a smaller scale than their husbands sums it up.) Instead of being equally respected, women were seen as ornaments, breeders, or objects of sexual pleasure. This was particularly true of ruling class women, who despite their material privileges were broadly sheltered from wider society. Women in the toiling classes, by contrast, were essential to production and so had a different experience of oppression — not least a long series of pregnancies to reproduce labour and sustain the household income.

Various cultures are held up as exceptions to this pattern. One was the diverse Iron Age Celtic culture of north-western Europe, which we shall return to when we discuss the Roman Empire and its contemporaries. Another was the Minoan culture which flourished on Crete from about 2700–1450 BCE. The Minoans were a highly civilised trading people, who created very beautiful works of art [9]. These include murals of bull-leaping where women participate alongside men on an apparently equal footing, and put a disproportionate emphasis upon female deities and priestesses; the Grand Fresco from the palace of Knossos portrays a large number of men (painted red) together with a smaller number of women (painted white) who seem to have the best seats. Such works have been cited by archaeologists and feminists as evidence that Minoan women enjoyed equal or even superior status.

Snake goddess figurineSnake goddess figurine from the palace of Knossos. Photo: Chris 73.

Some of the most regularly reproduced works are the so-called ‘snake goddess’ figurines which have been found at various Minoan sites. These terracotta statuettes, of bare-breasted women in long skirts with snakes curling around their hands, seem to be religious in purpose, perhaps representing priestesses or goddesses. Depictions in frescos show figures like these being venerated, mostly by women.

However, the anthropologist Margaret Ehrenberg sounded a note of caution about overstating the status of women because of Minoan art:

The frescos certainly show women involved in a wide variety of activities, some physical... There may well be some connection here with religious ritual, in which women, in the form either of goddesses or of cult leaders or priestesses, or both, certainly appear to predominate. But it is important to bear in mind that all the evidence comes from the palaces, which clearly were primarily occupied by the wealthy or higher strata of society, and that the frescos presumably reflect the interests of these people. Taken at face value, it certainly seems that elite women may have had more status and participated in a wider range of activities than women in many other societies. But the question of how relevant the frescos and other evidence are to the lives of most women living in Crete during the Minoan period remains unclear.[10]

The degree of oppression of women in the early civilisations varied a great deal. It seems likely that women held a respected place in Minoan society. But an emphasis upon women in art, and their likely predominance in religion, does not by itself prove they enjoyed pre-eminence in politics. To claim matriarchy existed in the Minoan culture or any other is, on the evidence, unsustainable.

Ruling class women

Given the disproportionate control of material and human resources enjoyed by the ruling class, it is no surprise that the most accomplished images portray elite women.

One of the most significant is an alabaster disc found in the residence of a priestess in Ur.

Disc from Ur portraying the priestess EnheduannaDisc from Ur portraying the priestess Enheduanna. Alabaster, ca. 3rd millennium BCE.

The front shows four figures approaching a ziggurat, the second of whom wears the headgear of a priestess. A cuneiform inscription mentions Enheduanna, princess of Akkad and priestess of the moon god Nanna, whom we have mentioned briefly before. Enheduanna is one of the most prominent figures from ancient Mesopotamia, and as the author of several hymns she is the earliest ever literary figure known by name. This ten-inch disc is a relative rarity in the ancient world because it honours a woman.

More impressive again are the images of female royalty. The most famous female image of the ancient period is probably Thutmose’s bust of Queen Nefertiti. But there are other lesser known works, such as the life-size bronze and copper statue of the Elamite queen Napir-Asu or the carved wooden head of Queen Tiye. One of the most interesting cases is that of the female Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Hatshepsut.

Limestone sculpture of HatshepsutLimestone sculpture of Hatshepsut. The queen is recogniseably female, although dressed as a king. Photo: Postdlf.

Hatshepsut occupies an unusual place in ancient history. She was exceptional in being a female Pharaoh, but she was not unique — Cleopatra VII is the most famous of the others, but we could also mention such figures as Merneith (whether she was actually a Pharaoh is unclear), Sobeknefru and Twosret. Archaeologists believe that Hatshepsut acted as regent during the minority of Thutmose III and was accepted as Pharaoh, reigning for roughly twenty-one years. Only upon her death in 1458 BCE did Thutmose take power.

One product of Hatshepsut’s very successful reign was the production of a great deal of building and statuary, including of course images of herself. The great architectural achievement of her reign is the remarkable mortuary temple at Deir el Bahari, designed by her architect Senenmut, where relief sculptures unusually tell the story of the birth of a female Pharaoh.

As Pharaoh, Hatshepsut adopted the regalia associated with kings, such as the khat headcloth and even the traditional false beard. As Gay Robins observed:

The majority of Hatshepsut’s images show her as a male king in male dress and without female breasts. A few, however, show her in female dress. It is possible that when she proclaimed herself king, artists tried to reconcile her biologically female sex with what was traditionally a male gender role. The result may have been felt to be unsatisfactory, since for most of her reign Hatshepsut was represented by the conventional image of a male king.[11]

Whether Hatshepsut wore male clothing in real life is not as important as the fact that over time she felt an increasing need to adopt a more masculine appearance in art to legitimise herself as a ruler.

Female Pharaohs were very exceptional cases, of course. Here is Gay Robins again to put it into context:

Women could not hold office and benefit from its privileges, so that their status accrued mainly from that of their parents or their husbands. The male monopoly of office is reflected in the art through the far greater number of monuments owned by men than women, and through the gender hierarchy that privileged husbands over wives by generally giving them the primary position in both two- and three-dimensional compositions. Nevertheless, the frequent inclusion of wives, mothers and other female relatives on the monuments of men suggests they had a salient role within society. The nature of their contribution is indicated by the idealised female image used to depict women of all ages. As well as embodying an aesthetic concept of feminine beauty, the youthful image that frequently reveals the form of the body stresses the role of women as potential child-bearers, on whom the continuity of the family and society depended.

Some of the best images of lower class women are also from Egypt. They were not created because artists had a documentary interest in depicting workers. Rather, they take the form of ‘servant statuettes’ buried in tombs so that nobles would still be provided for after death.

Woman making bread. Photo: Einsamer Schütze.

Made of stone and later increasingly of wood, many of these illustrate women baking, brewing, carrying baskets, grinding grain and carrying out other day-to-day work, and have a directness and realism at odds with the idealised images of aristocratic women.

Egyptologist Jaromir Malek commented: “Women were involved in the manufacture of everyday objects such as textiles and pottery, which form some of the most attractive products of ancient art” [12]. But there is little evidence, across all the ancient world, of women participating in large-scale works of art or in workshops as professional craftspeople or artists.

Fertility and sexuality

Regarding the figurines of the Stone Age, we have advised a cautious approach to their proposed role in ‘fertility’ cults or rituals. The early civilisations, by contrast, devised many deities responsible for pregnancy, birth and reproduction both in humans and in nature as a whole. The cult of fertility made particular reference to women, not least because of their role in childbirth, and probably also their likely role in the discovery of agriculture.

Fertility was important firstly because of the reproduction of the species, itself tied to the compelling subject of sex. It was also a key theme in agricultural societies whose wealth was hard-won from the soil and who lived in fear of famine. Animal fertility was important for replenishing a community’s livestock, and it was women who bore the main burden of producing more hands to work the land. In the ancient world it was considered women’s duty to bear children, leading to a pregnancy rate significantly higher than that under primitive communism. Eleanor Leacock was not just speaking for the modern world when she wrote: “In some ways it is the ultimate alienation in our society that the ability to give birth has been transformed into a liability.”[13]

A variety of goddesses relating to the earth, fertility and birth can be found in the ancient world — such as the Egyptian Isis or the Greek Gaia — who appear in creation stories and a wide variety of other works of art. In Mesopotamia, the most important figure connected to fertility was a goddess known as Inanna to the Sumerians, Ishtar to the Babylonians.

Babylonian relief of IshtarBabylonian relief of Ishtar, ca. 1700 BCE. Photo: seriykotik1970.

Inanna was also responsible for sexual love and, curiously given its male-dominated nature, also for warfare [14]. Among her artistic incarnations are the Warka vase, on which she is depicted in an agricultural context receiving gifts; the female poet Enheduanna’s hymn, the Nin-me-sara, or ‘Exhaltation of Inanna’; and her role in the Ur III poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.

Goddesses were essential in the ancient pantheons, but they tended to become objects of beauty and motherhood/fertility. There are few male equivalents for such female deities of beauty and sex as Inanna, Aphrodite/Venus, and Astarte. The trend was for the old goddesses to be gradually demoted and made subordinate to ruling male deities. An example of this is the overthrow of Tiamat by Marduk in Tablet IV of the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish:

He seized the spear and burst her belly,
He severed her inward parts, he pierced her heart.
He overcame her and cut off her life;
He cast down her body and stood upon it.

When the single deity of the Abrahamic religions became ascendant in the Middle East, he was created in a male image.

As women lost status relative to their husbands, their sexuality too became male property, something which should be constrained to guarantee the legitimacy of the husband’s children. The term ‘patriarchy’ — rule of the father over the household — is often misused, but in the ancient world it actually prevailed.

This had a strong influence upon representations of female sexuality. Women tend to be presented in terms of their physical attractiveness to men. We could take countless examples of this. One is the way female garments in art tend to reveal the body shape underneath (as in the less well-known image of Nefertiti here), along with a tendency to expose the breasts and clearly delineate the pubic area. Or to take a literary example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh the two main female characters are both seen in sexual roles. Not only does Ishtar tempt the hero, but a harlot seduces his companion Enkidu and acclimatises him to human culture against the animals with whom he used to live, in an equation of prostitution with civilisation:

Shamhat unclutched her bosom, exposed her sex, and he took in her voluptuousness.
She was not restrained, but took his energy.
She spread out her robe and he lay upon her,
she performed for the primitive the task of womankind.
His lust groaned over her;
for six days and seven nights Enkidu stayed aroused,
and had intercourse with the harlot
until he was sated with her charms.[15]

But there was more to it than that — sexuality potentially gave women the ability to overturn the ‘normal’ power balance between the sexes, and was viewed with deep suspicion. The Sumerian deity Lilith, a demon who appears from around 4000 BCE, and for whom there is again no male equivalent, was not only lascivious and a prostitute but was also associated with bringing disease and death.[16] The Hebrew story of Salome is a classic example of a woman portrayed as using her sexuality to bring ruin upon a man (John the Baptist).

The sexualisation of women has been characteristic in class society, because when women became subordinate to men it was possible to exploit them. In the early civilisations we can see the birth of stereotypes that in more recent times have given us the academic nude and the fashion model. It would be wrong to claim that women of that period never had any ability to determine their own lives. But just as the ruling class has always had the greatest power to define the form and content of art, so too have men broadly been able to define the representation of women.


We have here only offered a few snapshots of the changing representation of women in art, and risk, as in any short survey, over-simplifying an immense and complex subject.

It is only in the last fifty or so years that the study of the particular experience of women has been taken seriously. Today, the traditional approach of seeing art as the product of ‘Great Men’ has been consistently challenged and exposed, especially by feminists, and has happily become unfashionable amongst the best academics.

Reconstructing what works of art meant at the time they were created, without the distorting prism of modern Western values, styles and assumptions, is perhaps impossible. Archaeological evidence is incomplete, and much of what survives, such as literary records, will have been written by men. There are all sorts of reasons why ancient evidence cannot necessarily be taken at face value as representations of women, their lives and their contribution to culture. Some of the love poems of ancient Egypt for example are written in a female voice, which invites speculation that they were also written by women, but there is no way of knowing that they are not examples of males writing from female viewpoints [17]. There is also great diversity in how different societies across the world responded to social and historical change. The subordination of women did not follow a smooth, linear pattern, or one that can be easily applied to every culture. We must also remember that ruling class women had a different experience of oppression to that of women of the toiling classes.

It would be completely wrong to see all women post-Neolithic Revolution as passive victims of male oppression, and there is often a big gap between what a dominant ideology declares about a society and how that society actually is. However, we can assert that from the advent of class society there was a sexual division of labour, and a relative inferiority of social status for women, that greatly influenced how women were portrayed in art.


This is the last of our articles examining the art of the early civilisations. The next period we shall study is the art of ancient Greece and Rome, but before then we still have some important questions to consider. What are the origins of music? Does art ‘progress’, getting better as society advances? What is the nature of symbolic representation? These are the questions to which we will now turn.

Further investigation
An interesting article on the Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives blog about Cleopatra, archaeology and gender.

[1] Engels, 3. ‘The Pairing Family’ from Chapter 2 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[2] Genesis, 3:16. This book is believed to have been written in the 10th century BCE, with additions by subsequent writers. Another of the many examples of profound misogyny in the Bible is that Eve is created from the rib of Adam: the male is thus the basic human being, the female a mere derivative form. Biologists could argue, with reference to our chromosomes, that the reverse is true.
[3] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[4] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[5] Fashion is a fascinating art form in itself — one we shall examine another time.
[6] Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815–1887). His seminal work Mother Right was a ground-breaking study of prehistoric sexual relations — however Engels criticises him for considering religion rather than concrete social conditions as the “decisive lever in world history”.
[7] Friedrich Engels, Preface to the fourth edition (1891) of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
[8] Renfew and Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (2008).
[9] Note however that this art has been heavily restored. See for example Mary Beard, ‘Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery’, New York Review of Books (August 2009).
[10] Margaret Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory (1989).
[11] Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (2008).
[12] Jaromir Malek, Egyptian Art (1999).
[13] Eleanor Leacock, Introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
[14] The period of growth culminating in the harvest must co-exist with the barren periods of the year. The many female deities with responsibility for war — the Greek Athena, the Persian Anahita, the Egyptian Menhit, etc — may have their roots in an ancient interest in the cycle of life/birth and death. A female deity could embody the first and then, through identification with the destructiveness of war, its state of contradiction with the second.
[15] The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1.
[16] She later appears in alternative Christian mythology as the supposed first wife of Adam.
[17] See Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt (1993).

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