Goddess, Blue Monkey, Saffron
Do you remember Saffron Express’s last articles about the frescoes in Thera? If you don’t, they can be found the interesting saffron gathering stories in the homepage of Saffron Express.
The wall paintings of ancient Thera are famous frescoes discovered by Spyridon Marinatos at the excavations of Akrotiri (A Cycladic Bronze Age settlement on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini (Thera). A part of this wall paintings, is dedicated to the historical role of saffron in Greek culture and mythology. In the previous articles, we discussed the painted saffron gatherers, now we are going to talk about another girl shown in the paintings.
The Goddess, The Blue Monkey, And a Basket full of Saffron
The central image on the north wall is a scene of an enthroned goddess, probably the goddess of saffron, accepting the girl’s offering from a blue monkey intermediary.
The goddess, attended by her fantastical griffin, sits on a series of saffron- colored pillows. The fourth saffron picker is tipping her basket into a container in front of the deity. She is young and flat-chested, with no nipples, and her short hair is curly. Her eyes and mouth are open as she stares at the goddess and the monkey. The girl is in awe, having an epiphany, the moment in the mystery of the deiknumena, the display, a transfigured state of consciousness. She is entirely open and vulnerable to her vision.
Such epiphanies also arise in modern women’s dreams and fantasies. The deity varies depending on the particular inner call or fate of the dreamer. The following is the dream of a 55-year-old mother of three grown children who was entering a newly independent phase of her life. Her Mormon background had served her well in raising three children as a single parent and achieving success in the world, yet it had restricted her access to her fullness as a woman.
I’m in a brown-shingled Arts and Crafts style bungalow; a women’s retreat or workshop is about to take place. I love the house; it’s cozy, old-fashioned with wood furniture. As I look around, I see one woman off by herself, watchful, shy, and reticent but interested in what is going on. I sit in a big Morris style chair in a side room where two women slowly approach me. One is about fifty years old with curly gray hair and large brown eyes; the other is younger and less distinct. They come to me and without a word, the younger one puts her left hand on my forehead and her right hand on my belly. The older woman puts her hands on my feet and holds them gently but firmly. Now I’m stretched out in the chair which reclines. They start to rock me back and forth slowly, sweetly. I close my eyes and feel the peace and relaxation. After a little while, I open my eyes, they stop rocking me, and I sit quietly savoring the moment of receptivity. I smile at the young woman and say, “What did I do to deserve that?” She smiles back and says, “You didn’t have to do anything to deserve that.” They both smile lovingly and knowingly at me, then, after a few minutes, quietly walk away.
Read also: The role of saffron in Holi celebration
I am still amazed by what has happened. I see the same shy woman across the room and smile at her. Then I am outside the house, on the tree-lined street and decide to go for a walk. The shy woman comes up and joins me. She says, “I hope I’m not intruding but I couldn’t help noticing what happened in there. It seemed like a wonderful experience for you.” I say “yes” and begin telling her my responses. Suddenly, I see ahead of us a larger than life, beautiful woman statue walking toward us. She is carved out of highly polished brown wood, just emerging from the wood, her body barely discernible beneath long, flowing robes. She is a wooden statue yet she is alive and walking toward us—tall, statuesque and proud yet not haughty. As she passes me, she slowly turns her head in my direction and smiles directly into my eyes, into my face. It feels like a visitation, and I say out loud to my woman companion, “It’s Inanna, It’s Inanna!” We are both amazed, transfixed and in total awe.
The Red Gold Dream
The dream showed the dreamer receiving an unexpected eros – laden offering from two other women that involved her being cocooned and rocked in their hands. It is reminiscent of the “molding ceremony” in the Navajo Kinaalda in which the pubescent girl’s sponsor molds her into the shape of the woman she is to become. The oscillations reminded the dreamer of the Feldenkrais exercises that she had recently taken up on the advice of a massage therapist to alleviate congenital chronic pain in her neck. Consulting a practitioner had marked a radical change in the dreamer’s behavior and her attitude toward taking care of herself. She had been taught to be stoic about her own suffering and to take care of others. And she had internalized an ethic of “being good” to earn love. The women in the dream assured her that she did not have to do anything to deserve their attention.
In the dream the woman was rocked by female attendants preparatory to the epiphany of Inanna. The dreamer’s feminine spiritual path was emerging through her attention to her body. Inanna is the Sumerian goddess whose descent to the underworld has been used as a mythic model for a woman’s initiation in analysis. The shy woman in the dream was a younger shadow figure of the dreamer, part of herself that she had left behind, not yet developed, in an earlier life of mothering and becoming established as a mature professional in social work. In the classical Greek iconography of sacrifice, one of the ways the god is represented is with a cult statue. The archetypal or spiritual entity who is motivating the psychological initiation of an individual woman often appears as a larger-than-life woman in the form of a statue, a vision, an animal, or an energetic field—goddess, grandmother, heroine, or movie star.
The girl-gatherer adoring the seated goddess seems to prefigure the classical period, during which girls were acolytes to a goddess in the pre-pubescent years of their lives, when changes in development were also marked by changes in hairstyle, clothing, and other adornment.
In classical Athens, girls had a period of training in service to the goddess Athena. One element of the rituals was the presentation of a saffron-dyed tunic to Athena on her birthday for the Greater Panathenaia. At the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, the little girls in service wore saffron-dyed tunics, the krokotos (κροκοτος), and played at being little bears in preparation for puberty and marriage. Although classical Greek girls had such ceremonies to usher them into puberty, their ambivalence about menarche reveals a more fearful picture than that of the women in Theran frescoes. The girl adorant here seems to be secure under the special protection of the goddess.
The offering basket on the floor, into which the girl has poured the saffron flowers for the goddess, is a pannier (κανεον), not the handled flower-gathering basket. The pannier is known to have been used for measuring quantities of grain (pitharia/πιθαρια). The baskets were standardized so that the volume would indicate the quantity of saffron produced; when the basket was full, it would have been taken to a central collecting point.
But What Could Possibly a Blue Monkey Be Doing There?
Surprisingly, a blue monkey, an animal not native to Thera, stands upright between the figures of the girl and the goddess. It is mounting the shrine and offering the goddess not a bunch of flowers but a handful of saffron stigmas from another pannier. Since the drama portrays human communication with the divine, the place of action is a liminal zone, a point of interaction between human, animal, and divine realms. The revelation takes place either on the tripartite shrine or on the platforms supported by incurved altars leading up to it. There are four altars, which were probably wooden structures built by the worshippers as the sacred space to receive the goddess’ visitation. Although the rocky landscape is not visible, scattered saffron plants appear in the background. This is a different liminal space from the meadow or the wildlands where girls meet their fate in later Greek mythology. But they are both initiatory thresholds, honoring a transitional state.
There are three symbolic levels in the enthroned goddess fresco: the mundane, where the girl-child stands as she empties her basket full of saffron into the pannier; the transitional liminal level, a threshold to the supernatural; and the upper, mystical level where the goddess sits, reigning splendidly over the ceremonies. It certainly shows the importance that the ancients attached to the benefits of saffron. One foot of her monkey attendant and one foot of the goddess rest on the intermediate level; the monkey has taken the stigmas from a pannier basket between his foot and the goddess’s. The goddess has one bunch of stigmas in her left hand while taking more in her outstretched right hand. Her mouth is open; she is smiling, perhaps speaking, looking into the monkey’s eyes.
Together, the frescoes on the upper floor of Xeste 3 show the girls picking saffron and transporting the flowers to a second processing location and the monkey presenting the separated stigmas to the enthroned deity. This action suits a ceremonial reenactment of the crocus stigma harvest, events that took place in the fall, the peak of the flowering season of the crocus. One scholar argues that the basket imagery is consonant with a type of women’s craft guild, one that was perhaps in charge of gathering, measuring, and distributing the saffron to various divisions to be processed into dye, medicine, perfume, or spice. For example, separating the three orange stigmas and three yellow stamens might have been done in a guild. From the standpoint of girls’ initiation motifs, the imagery reveals the elaborate adorning of the initiates, the change in hairstyles for different ages, and a relationship of the culture to a revered feminine deity. The crocus helps define the identity of the goddess and link her with women at four stages of their lives from youth through adulthood, not just at puberty.
The goddess has a mature hairstyle—long hair loose down her back but shaved behind her ear—and a band across her forehead. Her breasts are revealed. One of her necklaces has swimming cormorants on it, the other has dragonflies. These are in pairs of blue, yellow, and red in an asymmetrical sequence—red, blue, yellow and blue, yellow, red. The deity’s diaphanous dress is emblazoned with saffron. Slanting rows of black crocuses on Egyptian blue bands edge the tops of her sleeves; small orange stigmas emerge from the flowers. Saffron flowers are scattered on the light blue body of her dress. Her saffron yellow seat could represent cushions or finished bales of cloth. Saffron stigmas also appear to be painted or tattooed on her left cheek.
This goddess emanates multiple meanings. She is queen of the flora and fauna, a goddess of nature and fertility, a mistress of wild beasts (potnia theron/ποτνια θερον), and a goddess of healing. As mistress of animals, the lady is attended by both her live monkey attendant and her winged mythological griffin. Together with the young girls, her animal companions put her in the category of the later Artemis of Brauron. As goddess of nature, she is the deity who taught the Therans about the benefits of stigmas and now receives a sampling of the flowers she caused to grow. She has a crocus flower tucked into her hair at her temple. As goddess of healing, she blesses the stigmas and empowers them with her divine energies, potentiating the saffron crocus. She is the patroness of both women and the crocus harvest because saffron is also associated with regeneration and womanhood. The girls and women offer it back to the goddess to thank her for her valuable gift of both the flower and the knowledge of how to use it. This is the earliest known image of a healing deity portrayed with her realistically depicted phytotherapeutic agent. With reference to the archetype of psychological initiation, we could also call it a psychotherapeutic agent.
We hope you enjoyed reading this brief report on this memorable painting, which certainly proves the significance of saffron in ancient civilizations. We will study these mysterious paintings even more detailed in our next articles. Please share your comments with us to help us improve!