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The Bearded Goddess: Androgynes, goddesses and monsters in ancient Cyprus

The Bearded Goddess: Androgynes, goddesses and monsters in ancient Cyprus


Most of us associate Aphrodite – also known as Venus – with love, beauty and fertility, but the symbolic value of this goddess is by far more complex than we would have known or dared to believe.

Author: Marie-Louise Winbladh more info

Most of us associate Aphrodite – also known as Venus – with love, beauty, and fertility, but the symbolic value of this goddess is by far more complex than we would have known or dared to believe.

Aphrodite – a hermaphrodite?

The book examines a rather obscure side of the cult surrounding this illustrious fertility goddess. How many of us would have guessed that one of Aphrodite’s most famous representations was, in fact, a figurine from Ayia Irini, Cyprus, that portrays this female deity as The Bearded Goddess, a bisexual and self-sufficient entity?

The book reveals the unspoken truth about Aphrodite; a closer look at the islands archaeological sites suggests a new sexual archetype of Aphrodite and other criteria for the sublime female figure in ancient religion(s).

The author, the well-known archaeologist Marie-Louise Winbladh, enlightens her audience in plain language about the mysterious devotion of Aphrodite as an androgynous being. She casts light on the enigmatic representations of this deity, who is believed to have originated from Cyprus, the epicenter of ancient crossroads.

  • How did the cult of Aphrodite evolve?
  • How was this goddess worshiped?
  • Did ‘temple prostitution’ really exist?
  • What was the role of the ‘priestesses’ and their relation to The Bearded Goddess?

These and many more questions are addressed in the book.


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Read the Introduction of the book

The importance of Cypriot civilization is not, however, restricted to its role of intermediator of culture. Cyprus was also a creator of culture and possessed an indigenous civilization, which at different times reached a high standard.

Einar Gjerstad 1948, “father” of Cypriot archaeology

Ancient Greek and Roman writers and their contemporaries looked upon Cyprus as a kind of idealized dream country; an Island of Bliss. Cyprus was considered to be fertile and fruitful, covered with flowers and fragrance. Fresh breezes from the sea and loss of snow are also mentioned; the latter particularly interesting to frozen Scandinavians.

In a less poetic and more realistic concept, Cyprus, situated between Europe and Asia, has always been a meeting place and crossroad of civilizations. The island partook of every phase of its neighbours’ civilization, which is illustrated by the nature of the island’s material culture. The Cypriots, however, never surrendered their own individuality or earlier achievements. Cyprus also influenced other cultures, as shown by the presence of Cypriot pottery all over the Mediterranean world. Indeed, Cyprus functioned as the intermediary of culture between Greece, the Ancient Near East and Egypt. Even cult objects passed through Cyprus en route to other countries. Cyprus even had a particular importance in the development of early iron metallurgy. Around 3000 years ago, a skilful Cypriot smith collected the remainders from copper smelting and produced iron. Already during the 10th century BC blacksmiths managed to produce carburized steel, and the technology spread to Greece and other countries. The oldest quench-hardened steel artefact is a knife found on Cyprus at a site dated to c. 1100 BC. The ancient Cypriots were often pioneers in many fields and passed on their inventions to neighbouring countries.

The population of Cyprus has, since early Prehistory, been dependent on farming and crops. The fertility of man was connected with the seeding, cultivating and harvesting of the fruits of earth. From the earliest periods the principal deity was the great Mother Goddess and the worship of a fertility goddess always remained supreme in Cyprus. The Goddess and her retinue of deities were worshipped to sustain life dependent on the soil. They protected the fields and the animals that enabled human beings to survive.

It is a matter of interpretation if one wish to consider some archaeological finds as a confirmation of magic, superstition or religious actions. In Cyprus there are no inscriptions until the 4th cent. BC that convey information about the gods and goddesses worshipped by the people. It seems evident that these named divinities – both Cypriot and oriental – had many predecessors of significant importance on several sites on the island.

This book is a short introduction to the rich and complex religious life of the ancients Cypriots and presents some interpretations of various scholars. Most have chosen to see the artefacts from a “religious” point of view. They place them in a context where they function as “cult objects”. Like a rosary or amulet, these cult objects enable the worshipper to venerate the deity. Recent excavations have shown that as early as c. 3000 BC, there might have been public sanctuaries in Cyprus where people devoted themselves to rites, promoting fertility. Cypriot mythology is complex because local goddesses and gods sometimes got their names and their characteristics from non-Cypriot goddesses and gods.

The archaeological finds indicate that from the beginning there was an original Cypriot Mother Goddess, who later was accompanied by a male counterpart, a male fertility god. The cult around this Goddess runs like a main thread through the centuries. In the Christian era she was perhaps syncretised with the Virgin Mary, but the apparent similarity of the “cults” should, however, not be exaggerated. Our “modern” idea of the Christian worship of the Holy Virgin was very different from the cult of the Mother Goddess, as the early Cypriots conceived it. Not always in the favour of Christianity.

The cult of divinities, protecting the fertility of humans, animals and fields, was always important in Cyprus. During the Bronze Age the mining and smelting of copper played an important part in the economic life of the island, when fertility is expanded to include the production of copper and other fields. The development of metallurgy lead to commercial relations with the surrounding Mediterranean world. These important economic factors contributed to the continuing evolution of prominent features in Cypriot religion. The new commercial and cultural connections with other countries brought an influx of religious ideas and foreign divinities. In a very Cypriot way, these newcomers were transformed to suit domestic conditions.

Archaeological artefacts give us an idea about the prehistoric religion of Cyprus. The finds from the tombs dominate the more ancient periods, since very few cult centers and almost no settlements have so far been found. From later periods there are objects used in the cults, found in houses, and above all the numerous offerings from sanctuaries. All these artefacts, including the metallic objects, reflect the syncretistic Bronze Age of the Mediterranean.

Most of the objects reproduced in this book belong to the immense Cyprus Collections in Stockholm, which are the second biggest in the world after Lefkosia. The Swedish Cyprus Expedition brought them to Sweden in 1931 after four years of pioneering excavations in Cyprus in 1927-1931. This occurred 30 years before Cyprus was liberated from the British rule.

The title of the book is inspired by the famous statuette in the Cyprus Collections. At first sight, this figure has a female appearance, but she also has a big black beard and raises the hands in a blessing gesture. The Bearded Goddess hints at the ancient literary texts where a cult of a bearded Aphrodite or Venus is described. This cult seems to have been widely spread especially in Cyprus and was perhaps concentrated to the town of Amathus. Ever since prehistory, many sculptures have had an obvious androgynous or bisexual character, which led to many thought-provoking interpretations by different scholars. An androgynous shape was perhaps considered to be more powerful since the figure was complete and self-sufficient.

Modern man has much to learn from prehistory, when people had no problems in crossing borders and were perhaps less biased. Their dependence on and veneration of nature in their surroundings made people live and work in harmony with the environment. In the prehistoric Mediterranean the many bisexual figurines could perhaps indicate that the perception of androgynes was much different from today. In modern society, queer personalities can be regarded with contempt and suspicion. During antiquity it seems that they were considered as demi-gods and venerated. Many gods in the Greek pantheon were provided with a bisexual character. Even incest seems to have been looked at as normal, perhaps even preferred, at least among deities. These odd relationships were practised in ancient Egypt, where brothers sometimes married their sisters with a questionable outcome.

In ancient Greece pederasty was included in the education of boys and male youths. This relationship ceased when the youth grew up. However, men with male lovers often had wives or other female lovers, and were not identified as homosexual. These ideas have changed over time. Until recently homophobia was universal in Greece. In Sweden, homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness up to 1979. According to reports, bisexual individuals, more than homosexual, have been heavily discriminated against and have experienced exclusion from both homosexual and heterosexual society.

The Greek philosopher and author Plato, living during the 5th– 4th cent. BC, thought that sexual attraction was based on an idea about the origin of three sexes: female, male and hermaphrodite. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, suggested that all individuals are born with an unconscious bisexual nature and considered sexual repression being the result of the “structures of morality and authority erected by society”.