Famous Roman ‘Tomb’ May Have Actually Been A Temple

Roman, CarmonaAt the Roman necropolis in Carmona, Spain, visitors are led to the popular “Elephant’s Tomb,” a large underground chamber that gets its name from a crude sculpture of an elephant found there.

Now archaeologists are saying it may not be a tomb at all, but rather a temple to one of the ancient world’s most mysterious religions. A team from the University of Pablo de Olavide, Seville, has analyzed the structure and says it was once a mithraeum, an underground temple for the god Mithras.

Mithraism centered on secret rites centered on the mystical slaying of a bull was one of the most popular faiths in the last years of paganism. Several mithraeums are scattered about Europe, including in London, Mérida, and along Hadrian’s Wall.

The archaeologists point out that its general shape, with a columned, three-chambered room leading to an area for altars, is the same as other mithraeums. They also found astronomical alignments. Sunlight would hit the center of the chamber during the equinoxes, and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would light up the north and south walls respectively. As the sun shines through the window during the spring equinox, Taurus rises to the East and Scorpio hides to the West. The opposite occurred during the autumn equinox. Taurus and Scorpio figure prominently in the religion’s astrological symbolism, with the God Mithras slaying a bull as a scorpion stings the animal’s testicles.

It was only later that the temple was turned into a burial chamber, researchers say.

Carmona is less than 20 miles from Seville and is a popular day trip from there.
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[Top photo courtesy Daniel Villafruela. Bottom photo courtesy Henri de Boisgelin.]

Naughty Women, Leafy Men And Shameful Anti-Semitism: Church Art The Church Would Rather Forget

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Historic European churches and cathedrals are high on many travelers’ to-see lists. People admire the soaring vaulted ceilings and richly colored stained glass windows. Look closer, though, and you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

Like this lovely lady at the Romanesque church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England, shown here courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Yes, she’s doing exactly what it looks like she’s doing. And she’s not the only one. Sculptures of naked ladies spreading it for all to see decorate numerous churches. Most are in Ireland and smaller numbers can be found in England and continental Europe.

They’re called Sheela-na-gigs and nobody has any idea what they mean. It’s uncertain when they were made as the churches they’re found on date from several centuries and some Sheela-na-gigs appear to have been reused from earlier buildings.

So why were they put in churches? Some people like to see them as pagan survivals, although that fails to explain why church authorities would permit them in churches. A bit of support for this comes from the Royal Navy, of all things. An 18th century Navy ship was named Sheela-na-gig and in the ship’s listing the name is explained as a “female sprite.” Other researchers think they’re symbols of the sinful nature of women. While this is possible, it fails to explain why the women aren’t being shown in Hell or being punished by devils, as is typical of didactic church art.

%Gallery-167773%Another mystery is the Green Man. This is a face surrounded by leaves and buds. Sometimes greenery is coming out of the Green Man’s mouth. At first glance it appears to be a very pagan symbol. Indeed, a similar type of leafy face was common in Roman art but died out when Classical art died. The Green Man reappeared in church art in the 11th century. He became hugely popular in Victorian Britain, which celebrated both nature and Classical art.

Once again, we’re stuck for an explanation. Pagan symbol or co-opted Classical decoration? Perhaps a fertility symbol celebrating the abundance of spring in what was still a predominantly agricultural society? Like with the Sheela-na-gigs, the Church didn’t leave records as to why they appear in a religious building.

The motive behind another odd bit of church art is all too clear – the Judensau, or “Jew’s sow.” In this scene a large sow is being suckled by a number of Jews, identifiable by the conical hats they were forced by law to wear. Another Jew is shown lifting up the sow’s tail to lick its rear. Often a Semitic-looking Devil stands by watching in approval. This disgusting bit of anti-Semitism first appeared in medieval Germany and remained a popular church “decoration” for several hundred years. The image seems to be limited to German-speaking areas and is found on churches and cathedrals and occasionally secular buildings.

The Stadtkirche in Wittenberg has a famous example on the exterior wall, clearly visible from the street. Martin Luther mentioned it in one of his anti-Semitic writings: “Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.” In the last line, Luther is talking about the Hebrew term for the ineffable name of God, thus insulting their beliefs as well as their dignity.

In modern times a memorial plaque was put beneath it acknowledging that six million Jews were killed “under the sign of the Cross.”

Runestone erected by Christian Vikings added to UNESCO list

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A Viking runestone bearing a cross and the first written mention of Norway found in the country has been added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World program. This program aims to protect important documents that contribute to our global heritage. The runestone, called the Kuli Stone, is the oldest document on Norway’s list.

It’s important for its early mention of the country’s name and also because of its Christian significance. Not all of the runes are clear and part of the inscription broke off in antiquity. The most accepted translation of the remaining text reads, “Þórir and Hallvarðr raised this stone in memory of Ulfljótr(?). . .Christianity had been twelve winters in Norway. . .”

Just what date that refers to is unclear. King Olaf Tryggvason tried to force the Norwegian Vikings to convert to Christianity in 995, leading many pagans to become martyrs for their faith. Nevertheless, a couple of generations later the Thing (Viking parliament) decided to convert the entire country in the year 1022 or 1024.

For many centuries the Kuli Stone was at the original site on the island of Kuløy off Norway’s northwestern coast. It’s now in the NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in Trondheim and a replica stands at the site. Viking runestones, both pagan and Christian, can be found in many places. Three of the best collections are at the British Museum (London), the National Museum of Denmark (Copenhagen), and Uppsala (Sweden).

Photo courtesy Kjell Jøran Hansen.

Sexy goddess bares all in Boston

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The ancient goddess of love, sex, and beauty is making an appearance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is a new exhibition examining one of the most popular ancient goddesses and her place in the Classical world. More than 150 ancient works of art are on display, including famous pieces such as the Knidia, a life-size sculpture of Aphrodite made by the 4th-century BC Greek artist, Praxiteles. Another interesting piece is the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a reclining figure who from one side looks like a voluptuous woman, and from the other like a man.

The exhibition traces Aphrodite’s sexy origins in the Near East and the place of her cult in Greek and Roman society. Aphrodite was a Greek goddess who was adopted into the Roman pantheon as Venus. She was the symbol of romantic love and ideal beauty. She also oversaw marriage, an odd choice since many of the myths surrounding her involve her cheating on her husband, the blacksmith god Hephaistos (Vulcan). Men worshiped her because she aroused male virility.

Being in charge of such important aspects of life made Aphrodite extremely popular. She was the patron goddess of Pompeii. Interestingly, Ramsay MacMullen in his Paganism in the Roman Empire points out that altars in private homes in Pompeii were more often dedicated to Foruna, Vesta, and Bacchus than Aphrodite. Perhaps because love received so much public worship, people felt they needed to give good luck, the home, and drinking some attention. They can be related, after all!

McMullen’s book (which I highly recommend) also touches on various ways the Romans worshipped Venus, including picnicking in the orchards around her sanctuary in Cnidus, and wild processions where a woman playing Venus led a string of dancing children playing Cupid. She and the other deities were very much part of daily life.

The exhibition also looks at related figures of Classical mythology, such as Aphrodite’s sons Eros (Cupid), the well-endowed Priapus, and Hermaphrodite.

If you want to meet this lovely lady and her interesting offspring, you better hurry. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is only on until February 20, 2012.

Top photo: Fresco of The Judgment of Paris, Roman, Imperial Period, 45–79 A.D. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. © www.pedicinimages.com. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Museum of European Cultures reopens in Berlin

Berlin, PerchtenThe Museum of European Cultures has reopened after a two-year renovation.

Located in Berlin, this museum focuses on the life of the common people of old Europe. While most museums focus on the famous accomplishments of the elite, this one looks at the everyday lives and traditions of regular people so often forgotten by the history books. Folklore museums can be found all over Europe and make for fascinating visits. With a collection of some 27,000 objects, the Museum of European Cultures is one of the largest.

The latest temporary exhibition is of the paintings of Wilhelm Kiesewetter, who traveled across Europe 150 years ago to paint the traditional costumes and lives of various ethnic groups. There’s also a study collection of old toys.

While many of the costumes and artifacts on display are now only museum pieces, some traditions have survived. One of the stranger ones takes place in the Alps over the Christmas season-the Perchten processions. Perchta is an old pagan goddess who was never quite suppressed by Christianity. She can appear as a beautiful maiden or an old crone and has single huge swan’s foot. She roams the countryside during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, checking to see if children and servants had been good and done their work. The good ones are rewarded with a silver coin in their shoe, while the bad ones get gutted and stuffed with straw.

Her entourage, called Perchten, includes glittering animal figures that bring luck and ugly critters like this one to scare away evil spirits.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.