IN THE MARINE MYTHOLOGY OF ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN
THEIR ROLES & SYMBOLISMS
Pararas-Carayannis & Amanda Laoupi
at Pacem in Maribus XXXII, Malta, 5-8 November 2007
history and in all ancient societies women constituted a significant
and active force in sustaining the development of communities,
safeguarding resources, educating youth and ensuring continuity
of social, cultural and historical heritage values. Although
this role is not explicitly stated in ancient texts, the impact
and influence of women is evident by implied symbolisms in mythology.
For example the circum-Mediterranean area, a cradle of civilization,
embodied a rich variety of feminine symbolic expressions that
echoes the socio-economic structures of past societies, as well
as the impact of the sea upon their fate. Noteworthy is also
the fact that water was initially part of feminine symbolism.
The Ancient Mediterranean
The connection between
the feminine element and water involving Mediterranean coastal
communities dates back to Prehistoric Times, as aquatic features,
marine disasters and natural phenomena (tsunami, flooding, stormy
winds & rainfalls, submergence of islands and coastal areas,
coastal erosion and transgression /regression of the seashore,
sea currents, isthmuses and straits, tides and whirlpools) were
strongly interrelated with human life and the progress of civilization
(i.e. navigation, archaeoastronomy, socio-economic contacts via
a sea communication network, wars and geopolitical conflicts).
Women helped increase the awareness of youth through communication
and education and contributed to the remediation of damage caused
by environmental or man-induced hazards. Youths, upon reaching
maturity, were better prepared to assume roles of leadership
in alleviating the impact of environmental hazards threatening
communities and their resources.
The aim of this paper is to: a) illustrate the presence and importance
of the afore-mentioned feminine elements in the marine mythology
of ancient Mediterranean through philological and archaeological
evidence, along with other social and religious testimonies;
b) determine their spatio-temporal distribution within the process
of symbols' migration, and c) group them into coherent cycles
(thematic, phyletic, and other) in order to elucidate their diffusion
and importance in the ancient world.
In brief, the analysis of the mythological symbolisms illustrates
the important and continuous role that women have always played
in protecting marine resources and in helping conserve the heritage
of mankind - a role that must be properly acknowledged, appreciated
and encouraged, now and in the future.
the Mediterranean Symbolisms
People of the circum-Mediterranean
area of the ancient world embraced a rich variety of feminine
symbolisms. Survival of their coastal communities, productivity
of their aquatic ecosystems and omens of the priesthood were
all dependent on female deities. Even the splendor and glory
of the accomplishments of these seafaring nations were dependent
upon divine feminine interventions (i.e. the goddess Athena helping
Odysseus). And conversely, so were their hardships and losses
wrath - Scylla & Charybdis). Water was considered a feminine realm by these
ancient communities and was represented by a variety of rich
and diverse feminine, marine symbolisms.
are the following six categories:
1. The primordial
forces of waters (the Sumerian Nammu - sea goddess and creator
heaven, earth, the Egyptian watery chaos out of which Nun emerged
and Isis as
protector of seamen, the Phoenician Astarte called Asherar-yam
'our lady of the sea',
the Greek Tethysand Eurynome);
2. Sea creatures and
monsters (Scylla & Charybdis, Keto, Sirens, Circe & Kalypso);
3. Nymphs and other
aquatic deities (the Minoan Diktynna & Britomartys, Thetis
Amphitrite, other Nereids & Oceaneids, Aphrodite);
4. Heroines with a
'suffering' connection to the sea (Andromeda, Danae, Alcyone,
Ino-Leucothea and her child Melikertes -Palaimon);
5. Other sea figures
whose names were associated with the seas (Myrto, Gorge and
6. Some special cases
with multi-layered symbolism such as Ariadne and her watery
or Limnatides - The nymphs and protectors of fresh water lakes,
marshes, and swamps. The nymphs known as Naiades (Naiads) were
the protectors of springs, fountains, and rivers.
symbol - the labyrinth, Leto / Asteria & Helle - who fell
onto the sea which took her name - Hellespont. (Pindar frg. 29, 179; Aeschylos, Perses 68)
Symbolism of Creation: Waters: A Women's Realm
The world was once
thought to be composed of the four basic elements of water, fire,
earth and air. This concept is of little use to modern science,
which has defined many more elements than these original basic
four. However, the four elements still maintain a powerful symbolism
within the overall realm of imaginative experience, possessing
a strong correspondence to internal states and emotions.
In human spirituality, the element of water was always connected
to the female nature. The cold, moist properties of water symbolize
the enclosing, generating forces of the womb, intuition and the
unconscious mind. In addition, by way of the color blue -the
color of light, electricity and the oceans - consciousness awareness
spirals and cultivates the feminine intuitive, creative part
of the brain.
Historical symbolic representations of water - such as the alchemical/magical
symbol of an inverted triangle that symbolizes the downward,
gravitational flow of water - and the Cup or Chalice - symbolic
of the water triangle - parallel the ancient feminine symbolisms
of a downward pointing triangle (the representation of female
genitalia) and the feminine elements of intuition, gestation,
psychic ability, and the subconscious, respectively. Moreover,
the Cup also stands as a symbol of the Goddess, the womb and
the female generative organs.
One of the earliest symbols in human history is the zigzag, which
was used by Neanderthals around 40,000 B.C., which, represents
to Marija Gimbutas 1974, 1989 & 1991). The 'M' symbol is interpreted as shorthand
for the zigzag, and it is found on water containers. The chevron
(repetitive form of the 'V') is often found along with the meander,
which is also a water symbol. On the other hand, the meander
was a symbol of the Great Mother Goddess and her life-giving
and nourishing aspects. It was from the divine waters of the
Mother's womb that life came into existence. Some of the earliest
depictions of the Goddess showed her as a hybrid woman/waterbird.
Without water, life cannot be sustained, and for ancient people
waterfowl were an important source of food. Consequently, as
water is an archetype from where all life flows, Gimbutas claims
it to be representative of the Mother Goddess as the Life-Giver.
And, although evidence for the Goddess culture is still disputable,
the new feminist views in archaeology have made many archaeologists
re-evaluate their concepts of civilization.
Later on, in Ancient Egypt, the hieroglyphic sign for water was
a horizontal zigzag line. The small sharp crests on this sign
appear to represent wavelets or ripples on the water's surface.
Egyptian artists indicated bodies of water, such as a lake, or
a pool or the primeval ocean, by placing the zigzag line in a
vertical position and then multiplying it in an equally spaced
pattern. Of significance is the ancient Egyptian name for water,
"uat", which also meant the color green and, for ancient
Egyptians, characterized the hard green stone, the emerald, and
the green feldspar. Of these stones, the emerald is associated
with romantic love and the sensual side of nature; and sacred
to the goddess Aphrodite/Venus, a sea-divinity who was born from
the sea. Some early Greek thinkers conceived the sea-divinities
as feminine primordial powers, since the Goddess of the Sea took
a part in the creation of the world, due to an old belief, in
which life began in the water.
The oceans and other large bodies of water in the world are a
type of middle ground between the activity of rivers and the
passiveness and reflection of lakes. In the ancient world, the
protectors of these water systems, the Sea-deities, the Limnades
(of the lakes, marshes and swamps), and the Naiades (of the springs,
fountains and rivers), maintained the balance. The symbol of
agitated 'troubled waters' has traditionally related to the illusions
and vanities of life. Agitated waters are more subject to climatic
conditions involving wind, while deep waters such as seas, lakes
and wells have a symbolism related to the dead and the supernatural.
Conversely, water plays a major part in various weather phenomena.
Rainstorms and snowstorms involve the free-fall of water from
above to below. Floods occur when containment of water fails.
Tsunamis, hurricanes and tornados involve the movement of water
and turbulence in the seas. Clouds, fog, humidity and mist symbolize
in-between states where water is mixed with air. Like a time
of twilight between night and day, fog and mist are the 'twilight'
states of water and air.
The Dual Nature of
Sea Creatures and Goddesses
Since ancient times,
washing with water has signified, in both a literal and metaphoric
sense, the process of cleansing, purification, transformation
and metamorphosis. Although water itself may contain the power
to bring about change, it also serves as the medium through which
a god, goddess, or priest exercises change. Change in the form
of physical transformation or metamorphosis is characteristic
of the female nature through menstruation and birth. Water, identified
as female and associated with women, symbolizes seduction and
transformation, a powerful and often feared aspect of women by
men. Death and destruction were usually the fate of mortal men
that were seduced by divine females, as depicted by the paradigms
of Aphrodite, Artemis, Circe and Calypso.
- wife of Peleus and mother of Achilles, one of the fifty Sea
Nymphs known as Nereïds - riding Hippokampos, a Sea Horse
with a fish tail, and surrounded by dolphins and other Nereids.
Moreover, many cultures
believed that life sprang from the primordial waters that symbolize
life and eternal youth. On the other hand, too much water could
be harmful and life threatening. Water in large quantities, such
as in the sea, contains a power, which can sustain life but can
also destroy life and good order. Numerous traditions around
the world have stories of sea monsters symbolizing the violent
threat of the sea.
In Babylonian mythology, the sea monster Tiamat threatened to
overthrow the gods. However, in both Babylonian and Sumerian
mythology, Tiamat is the salt-water sea, personified also as
a creator-goddess and a primordial mother, as wells as a monstrous
embodiment of primordial chaos. In the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian
epic of creation), she gives birth to the first generation of
gods. She emerged from the waters of the Persian Gulf in the
form of a 'fish-woman', and taught humanity the arts of life,
for example to build cities and to decree laws (Dalley, 1987: 329; Jacobsen, 1968: 104-10; Kramer,
1944). Some scholars
find a linguistic analogy of the word 'Tiamat' to the Greek 'thalassa'
meaning the sea or the 'Tethys' (Burkert, 1993: 92ff.; Jacobsen 1968:105).
In other stories, human sacrifice was necessary to appease these
sea monsters. The sacrificial victim was often a young virgin
who, as in the cases of Andromeda, may be lucky enough to be
rescued at the last moment by a male hero.
Some sea monsters,
which remained located in a single place, were represented as
female. The most notorious of those were Scylla and Charybdis,
symbols of marine disasters and doom in Greek mythology. The
myth of Scylla and Charybdis, is first known by Homer in his
epic poem Odyssey (xii,
55 - 126 /201 - 259, 426/446. See also Apollodorus, 5. 7.20 ff.). Odysseus had been warned by
both Tiresias and Circe of the two monsters Scylla and Charybdis.
In Greek mythology, Scylla was a sea monster that lived underneath
a dangerous rock at one side of the Strait of Messina, opposite
the whirlpool Charybdis. Terrible and horrible freak of the sea,
she devoured the unfortunate seamen, when the heavy sea threw
their ship into her cave. The other terror, Charybdis, was a
gulf nearly on a level with the water. Thrice each day the water
rushed into a frightful chasm, and thrice was disgorged. Any
vessel coming near the whirlpool when the tide was rushing in
must inevitably be engulfed; not Neptune himself could save it.
The roar of the waters as Charybdis engulfed them gave warning
at a distance, but Scylla could nowhere be discerned.
Medusa - A monstrous
chthonic female character - a symbol of disaster - that could
turn those who gazed upon her into stone. She was beheaded by
the hero Perseus
Equally, the mysterious depths
of the ocean and the potentially destructive aspects of the sea
were also personified as female in form, such as Mermaids and
Sirens, the latter memorably encountered by Odysseus. The Sirens
were daughters of the river Acheloos and the Muse Melpomene or
of Rhodes, 4.805 & 904; Apollodorus, 1.3.4) or Gaia herself (Euripides Hecuba, 169). Hyginus (Fabulae,
110.51) refers to
the tradition that being followers of Persephone, they were punished
by Demeter to turn into marine birds with beautiful girl faces
and charming voices, which lived on an island in the SW shores
of Italy or Sicily. Poor mariners, who were seduced by their
songs, were devoured by them. Homer mentions two of them (Odyssey, xii.56). Odysseus and the Argonauts
were among those who were not seduced by the song of the Sirens
to the oracle, when this happened, the birds dropped into the
sea and drowned (Odyssey,
xii.39-46 & 173).
Odysseus tied to the
mast of his ship and the Sirens
On the contrary, compassion, salvage and initiation were also
attributed to the female nature. Female goddesses, like Isis
and Athena, were protectors of mortals undertaking long open-sea
journeys (such as the Argonautics and the voyage of Odysseus);
and Aphrodite and Ino-Leucothea were the super-natural protectors
of fishermen, sailors, navigation and the entire sea world. When
the Argonauts encountered Charybdis and Scylla and the Wandering
Rocks, it was the Nereids that helped them to steer the ship
through them (Homer,
Iliad XVIII. 36, &III. 140; Apollodorus, 1. 9. 25; Apollononius
Rhodius, 4. 859, 930).
Landscapes of the Past and Their Implications for the Present
The basic masculine and feminine
symbolism of the elements finds a correspondence in place symbolism
and the gendered landscapes. The most distinctive characteristics
of world ecosystems relate to climatic conditions and physical
landscape. Climate directly relates to the amount of water contained
in ecosystems and the major aspect of physical landscapes is
verticality. In this sense, the major natural areas of the world
can be divided between those that are dry, wet, low or high.
The quality of dryness and height is related to the elements
of air and fire and that of wetness and lowness to water and
earth. Thus, using these criteria we interpret the division of
the natural world into masculine and feminine places.
Odysseus and the
Oceanid or Atlantid Nymph Calypso was dwelled in a cave on a
lonely island, Ogygia, (Gozo, in the Maltese Archipelago)
Although the sea world
has always been a feminine realm since early prehistory, gender
dichotomies have existed. Anthropological linguistics of the
Mediterranean illustrates the 'taboos' of the aquatic psychology
and marine folklore, expressed through sexual dimorphism. For
example, the ship (a male symbol), which has a feminine name
in English (ship) and Latin (navis), 'penetrates' into the female
sea. But nevertheless, women were usually not allowed to go on
board. Gender dichotomies such as these have served to reinforce
gender differences between activities over time, and further
define feminine and masculine roles in society. The majority
of ethnographic evidence has suggested that, during ancient times,
gender differences between activities in feminine realms existed,
such as open-sea fishing, a mainly male task, and shellfish gathering,
a mainly female task.
The degree to which there are innate differences between male
and female behaviors is one of the most challenging issues in
the study of gender behavior today. Understanding gender preferences
for particular types of tasks assists both men and women, and
ultimately youths, to expand their awareness through communication
and education into new fields of work and/or learn how to utilize,
to a better degree, the resources around them.
Women's productive roles in the value of water systems are crucial
as they relate to using and managing these resources. Water is
essential for all forms of life and crucial for human development.
Water systems, including oceans, wetlands, coastal zones, surface
waters and acquifers provide a vast majority of environmental
goods and services, including drinking water, transport and food.
Today, women should continue to be positive agents of change,
in both developmental and environmental causes, because the female
nature has a more holistic, symbiotic relationship with the surroundings.
Although often limited by preconceived assumptions regarding
their gender's role in society, women, by nature, would make
better and more effective nurturers of the sea-world.
It is suggested therefore, during the process of environmental
impact assessments for developmental projects, the identification
of gender dichotomies, as well as comprehensive gender analyses
should be included as an essential ingredient of the formula.
This approach empowers women and may result in more efficient,
sustainable development of local areas and the overall welfare
Throughout the circum-Mediterranean
area, great matriarchal civilizations flourished (e.g. Anatolian,
Minoan & Cycladic, Etruscan), embedded with a rich variety
of feminine symbolic expressions. The implied symbolisms in mythology
strongly suggest that women constituted a significant and active
force in sustaining the development of ancient communities, safeguarding
their resources, nurturing youth and ensuring continuity of social
and cultural values. Because of the more holistic and symbiotic
relationship with their surroundings, women have always been
positive agents of change in protecting aquatic resources - a
role that must be properly acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged,
now and in the future.
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The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influences on Greek
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The Goddesses and
Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images (6500-3500 B.C.). Thames and Hudson, London.
Gimbutas, Marija (1989):
The Language of the
Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization. Thames and Hudson, New York.
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of the Goddess. Harper
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Jacobsen, Th. (January-March
1968): The Battle
between Marduk and Tiamat.
Journal of the American Oriental Society vol. 88 (1), pp. 104-108
Kramer, S.N. (1944):
Sumerian mythology. Memoirs of The American Philosophical
Society Series vol. 21. Lancaster Press, Lancaster, PA.
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