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WOMEN IN THE MARINE MYTHOLOGY OF ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN
THEIR ROLES & SYMBOLISMS

George Pararas-Carayannis & Amanda Laoupi

Presentation at Pacem in Maribus XXXII, Malta, 5-8 November 2007

Introduction

Throughout human 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 Sea

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.

Grouping 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 (i.e. Poseidon's 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.

Indicative examples are the following six categories:

1. The primordial forces of waters (the Sumerian Nammu - sea goddess and creator of
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 and
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
Hyrie); and

6. Some special cases with multi-layered symbolism such as Ariadne and her watery
symbol - the labyrinth, Leto / Asteria & Helle - who fell onto the sea which took her name - Hellespont.
(Pindar frg. 29, 179; Aeschylos, Perses 68)

Limnades 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.

The Archetypal 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 water (
according 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.

Sea-Goddess Thetis - 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 Terpsichore (Apollonius 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 (Orpheus, Argonautics 1281). According 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).

Gendered 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 of communities.

Conclusion

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.

References

Burkert, W. (1993): The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influences on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Harvard University Press

Dalley, Stephanie (1987): Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Gimbutas, Marija (1974): 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.

Gimbutas, Marija (1991): The Civilization of the Goddess. Harper Collins, New York.

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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