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Work Standing nude statuette of a goddess

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Near Eastern Antiquities
The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Author(s):
Marie-José Castor

Nude alabaster figurines produced in the Parthian period (2nd century BC-1st century AD) perpetuated an age-old technique, that of composite sculpture using several materials. Often identified with Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality and fertility, these statuettes in Greco-Babylonian style were deposited in tombs.

A figurine discovered in a tomb

This alabaster statuette, discovered in 1862 by Pacifique-Henri Delaporte, the French consul in Bagdad, comes from a tomb dating from the Parthian period. This period marked the start of an Indo-European dynasty of Iranian origin which, supplanting the Greek Seleucid kingdom, extended its dominion from the Iranian plateau to Mesopotamia. It brought with it a civilization with both Near Eastern and Greek heritage. The family tomb in which this statuette was found was a funerary chamber containing five tombs. The figurine was found upright in one of these tombs, near the head of the body, laid in a wooden coffin.

A Greco-Oriental style

This gracefully modeled alabaster statuette depicts a naked woman, standing with her right arm against her body and her left arm bent, palm raised. She wears a stucco headdress topped with a gilded crescent. Her eyes are set with rubies. She has a small mouth and a rounded chin, and pierced ears decorated with gold pendants. She is wearing a gold necklace. Her high breasts are well shaped. The arms are articulated and attached with a thread, no doubt originally a gold wire. The woman has a slim waist and broad curving hips, and wears a ruby in her navel. Her thighs and legs are close together. Although the modeling is consistent with the canons of Greek art, the use of several materials such as gold, stucco, alabaster, and precious stones is a truly Mesopotamian tradition. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sexuality and war, has taken on Greek attributes and metamorphosed into Aphrodite.

The female principle? A symbol of renewal?

Although people readily recognize the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar in this odalisque, and identify her with Venus, we know little about the meaning of these figurines. Were they manifestations of female principles, such as sexuality or motherhood? It has been suggested that there is a relationship between these figurines and the dead person in whose tomb they were placed: rather than a representation of the goddess Ishtar, they may be, as Françoise Tallon suggests, "the idealized image of the deceased seeking the protection of a fertility goddess."

Bibliography

Tallon Françoise, "Les rubis d'Ishtar : étude archéologique",
in Cornaline et pierres précieuses : la Méditerranée, de l'Antiquité à l'Islam, Actes du colloque organisé au musée du Louvre par le Service culturel,
les 24 et 25 novembre 1995 et établis par Annie Caubet, Paris,
La Documentation française, 1999, pp. 229-243.

Technical description

  • Standing nude statuette of a goddess

    Parthian period, 143 BC-224 AD

    Necropolis of Hillah, Babylon, Mesopotamia

  • Alabaster, rubies, gold

    H. 24.8 cm

  • Gift of Delaporte, 1866

    AO 20217

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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