A goddess of the underworld receives homage and libations from lionine attendants.
A gold signet ring showing a seated female figure holding a chalice with a falcon behind her. She is approached by four upright lionlike daimons, separated from one another by stalks of grain. Each daimon carries a libation vessel with the left hand and raises the right hand in homage. Above the scene are representations of the sun, the moon, and grain.
The scene clearly suggests the seated figure of an archaic goddess of the Minoan-Mycenean world–Potnia, mistress of the animals and of the underworld. The falcon that sits behind her is a typical Cretan emblem of divine power, which appears often in such representations on the goddess’s head. Potnia is closely associated with the Minoan snake goddess, although, interestingly, the snake goddess herself never appears in frescoes or on rings, only in statuette form.
As is usual with this goddess, she is not shown as the mother of a child. She is the goddess of the grain, of animal life, and of the dead–a precursor of “the two goddesses,” Demeter and Persephone. The scene suggests a ritual in which a priestess would have taken the place of the goddess and priests or worshipers dressed in animal skins might have masqueraded as her attendants. Here the goddess is attended by lion-headed genii in bee skins bearing her offerings. Libation vessels came in many shapes besides the one depicted here, including vessels in the form of a bull’s head, of a pregnant woman with an opening for pouring from the pudendum, or of a female with holes at her nipples. The celestial symbols suggest that the festival may involve not only the earthly cycles of animal and vegetable life but also the regeneration of the cosmos as a whole. The four libation vessels probably each contained a different libation–perhaps milk, wine, honey, and blood–all of which would later be combined in the larger chalice. Although most Minoan sacrifices were bloodless, blood was traditionally offered to underworld deities.
A more usual representation of the mistress of the animals shows her standing in the center of a circle made up of symmetrically arranged beasts. Often she grasps them, one in each hand, by their necks or legs to demonstrate her power over them. In this aspect, the goddess’s affinity to Artemis and to Aphrodite becomes apparent. Although the animals associated with the goddess may be any truly wild beast–wolf, deer or bear, for instance–among the Minoans and later among the Greeks the lion seems to have been a favored symbol of this dimension of life. Artemis is often shown, not only with a lion on each side, but nursing an abandoned lion cub. In The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, panthers, wolves, bears, and lions follow Aphrodite up the slopes of Mount Ida and then slip away in pairs to copulate in the woods.
The idea of a special type of deity or spirit that reigns over the animal kingdom is common among many Old and New World peoples. In some cultures, this figure is a male god or lord of the animals. Elsewhere, especially in ancient Greece and Crete, the deity is female, and she is called potnia theron, or mistress of animals. The mistress of animals usually appears in the wilderness and accompanied by wild, rather than domesticated, animals. She may have originated in the religious life of hunting and gathering peoples. A distinctive characteristic of the mistress of animals is the fact that, despite her role as protector of wild game, she will make certain concessions when considering the needs of the hunter. Among the Greek deities, Artemis is most obviously a mistress of animals. A goddess of the wilderness, she is often surrounded by wild life. Indeed, one of her main epiphanies is in the form of a bear. Her counterpart in Roman religion is Diana, among the Gauls; Artio (from the Celtic word for “bear”).
The discovery of the domestication of plants and animals led to the Neolithic revolution, which gave rise to settlements on a grand scale and the birth of cities. The goddess in the present image is clearly connected with wheat or cereal, and so she is not exclusively a goddess of the wilderness. Jane Ellen Harrison has discussed the connection between the mistress of animals and the corn mother in her study of ancient Greek religion. In her view, both are secondary forms of an earth goddess. Originally, Earth was regarded as mother not only of mankind but of all creatures. Furthermore, she is mother of the dead as well as of the living, as in the words of Aeschylus: “Yea, summon Earth, who brings all things to life and rears and takes again into her womb” (Choephoroi 127). Indeed, during the Nekusia, or festival of the dead, it was to Earth that the Greeks offered up their sacrifices.
Perhaps the goddess in this image represents the earth goddess in her underworld aspect–an early prefiguration of Kore, or Persephone. Seated on a throne, she looks like the queen of the underworld–mother of both plants and animals. The libations that are offered to her reflect a ritual that is known to have existed throughout the history of the ancient Mediterranean cultures, as well as elsewhere. Libations were common as early as 2000 BCE in the Minoan-Mycenaean period. Gems often depict sacrificial scenes with libation pitchers and altars laden with bread and fruit. Sometimes the images from this period will depict the sacrifice of a bull, his blood flowing from his throat into a vessel on the floor.
Libations served many purposes. Sometimes they were offered as a legal binding in a contract between two parties. Libations for the dead may have been offered so that the souls of the dead might receive nourishment. Water libations were understood mostly in terms of purification, although they were also performed at tombs in funerary rites. Many religions have rejected libations altogether; Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are examples. In Judaism, since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, sacrificial ritual in general has been abandoned.
The libation in this image seems to be an offering of sanctified beverages to the underworld goddess. There is probably a sense that she will be able to utilize this gift, just as the earth itself “drinks” the rain from heaven. Water and other liquids often represent emotion, which must keep flowing in order to stay spontaneous and vital. Frozen water may signify the inhibition of emotion, just as tears may express the renewal that comes with emotional connectedness. The libation ritual suggests that the flow of emotion must go both ways. Emotions rise to the surface of the unconscious and make themselves felt by the conscious ego–they are not products of the ego. If the individual cultivates a feeling connection to the unconscious– in music, dance, the arts, and through play–a renewal is experienced on both levels.
Material or Technique
Jewelry: gold, cast
Width: 2.2 in. (5.6 cm.)
Repository or Site
Greece: Athens, National Archaeological Museum, no. 6208
Christopoulos, George A., History of the Hellenic World, vol. 1 (Ekdotike Atenon: Athens, 1974): 307.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley, 1982.
Harding, M. Esther. Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern: A Psychological Interpretation of the Feminine Principle as Portrayed in Myth. Story, and Dreams. 2d rev. ed. New York, 1955.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1922.
Zerries, Otto. “Lord of the Animals.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York, 1988.