Snakes and Lions

A New Reading of the West House Frescoes from Thera

By: Karen Polinger Foster

Originally Published in 1988

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In the Aegean Bronze Age, palaces and some private houses were richly decorated by murals depicting people, animals, and landscape features, as well as non­representational motifs. Unfor­tunately, only a small portion of these frescoes have survived. On Crete, the best-preserved Minoan wall paintings come from the palace at Knossos, while on the Greek mainland there are fairly complete frescoes from the Mycenaean palaces at Pylos and Tiryns. Very few frescoes had been recovered on the Cycladic islands until the recent discovery of extraordinary wall paintings, long buried beneath violcanic debris, on the island of San­torini. The Thera frescoes, as they are usually known, present exciting challenges of interpretation and as­sessment. This article offers a new analysis of a particularly intriguing group of paintings from the West House.

Destruction and Rediscovery

Some 3500 years ago, ominous rumbles came from the volcano at the heart of the island known as Thera, Stronghyle, or Kalliste in an­cient times, and now called Santorini (Fig. 1; see box on historical and geological background). The in­habitants of a thriving harbor town near the modern village of Akrotiri on the island’s southern coast heeded the warnings and fled with most of their valuables and livestock. After the first eruption, a few people returned to clear the rubble, but they soon abandoned their work in the face of a second cataclysm.

In 1967 the archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos began probing the thick deposits of volcanic material that blanketed the town. As at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the fall of pumice and ash had completely entombed the settlement, preventing its reoccupation. Marinatos and his successor, Chris­tos Doumas, discovered a nearly in­tact Bronze Age town, with its streets, squares, buildings, and inte­rior furnishings just as they had been left (Fig. 2). The excavated remains have been painstakingly con­solidated and restored, especially the wall paintings, many of which are now on view in the National Ar­chaeological Museum in Athens.

Most of the frescoes are on a large scale, with vivid colors, sure draftsmanship, and a certain ex­uberance. Subject matter is ex­tremely varied, since the paintings were intended for particular types of rooms and specific purposes. In Section Delta, for instance, three sides of a room have a continuous frieze of blooming lilies, rock forma­tions, and swallows darting about. Building Beta contains floor-to-ceil­ing pictures of cavorting monkeys, as well as a room with antelope pairs and boxing children. Nearly full-size papyrus plants and beautifully drawn women decorate a room in the House of the Ladies. The two floors of frescoes in Xeste 3 seem to depict women at important stages of initiation rites. Tantalizing fragments of sword-wielding and lyre-playing monkeys, perhaps satiric, were also found in this building.

The West House Frescoes

Of all the frescoes discovered thus far, those from Rooms 4 and 5 of the West House have excited the most interest. The West House sits prominently on the north side of Tri­angle Square (Figs. 2-3), with kitchen, workshop, and storage rooms at ground level. The rooms of the upper story are more elaborate, with niches and windows along the walls (Fig. 4).

From the top of the stairs, one passes either into Room 3, with its large window overlooking Triangle Square, or into Room 6, which was perhaps a banquet hall. Room 5 could be entered directly from Room 3 or through a cupboarded passage behind Room 6. From Room 5, a door leads into Room 4, whose par­titioned southwest corner (Room 4a) is referred to as a lavatory or purification room.

In Room 5, there are two large-scale frescoes, each showing a nude male carrying clutches of mackerel and dolphin fish. The young men occupy the northeast and southwest corners respectively, and if actually walking, they would converge upon the northwest corner, where a large offering table with marine decorations was found on the window ledge (N. Marinatos 1984:37).

The other frescoes in Room 5 were necessarily confined to long, high panels and were painted in min­iature style, since the walls were otherwise given over to windows, niches, and doors. The east wall frieze depicts a stream or river wind­ing across a semi-tropical landscape of palms and papyri, through which a griffin and a wild cat chase birds and deer. The north wall panel is unfortunately quite frag­mentary. The lower portion shows parts of four boats, among which three figures tumble in the water (Fig. 13). Above, on a rocky coast, march warriors equipped with boar’s tusk helmets and rectangular body shields. Animals are herded left and right in two rows at the top of the frieze, next to a sheepfold, a well, and a gathering of men and women. A small gap separates these pieces from ones in which a man in a tong robe, accompanied by kilted atten­dants, meets at least four similarly garbed men atop a barren-looking hill.

The south wall frieze is highly in­volved, with a multitude of miniature details compressed into a space about 16 inches high and 20 feet long (Fig. 5). At either end, clusters of buildings enclose the composi­tion. These towns are animated by  tiny people, many of them looking out of windows or surveying the scene from rooftops. Along the right-hand shore a procession of men forms up, while above men sprint to a tower and back to the town. Six other men wear furry cloaks.

The central part of the south wall fresco is devoted to a flotilla moving from left to right in a dolphin-filled sea: six special boats with stern cabins, deck canopies, festoons, prow ornaments, and other embel­lishments; one boat with a small deck canopy; one boat under sail; and six plain boats, three in one bay, two in another, and one being pad­dled along, perhaps as a pilot boat.

On the wide door jamb between Rooms 5 and 4, there was another large-scale figure, that of a woman. Her unusual hairstyle (also inter­preted as a cap with stuffed snakes; N. Marinatos 1983:5), her body and face paint, and her shaggy robe have earned her the title “young priestess.” In her hands she holds an object most often identified as an incense burner.Room 4 is decorated by eight (presently seven and one-half) full-size structures, here called kiosks but also referred to as stern cabins, banners, palanquins, and litters (Fig. 6). These kiosks surmount a lower panel or dado painted in imitation stone patterns. On the west side of Room 4 is a deep-set window, with faux marbling on the ledge and two marbled vases painted on either side. Each vase holds format sprays of lilies, either arranged in water or pruned in soil.

Sense and Significance

We may begin by posing some general questions about the West House paintings. First, to what ex­tent are we to conceive of them as a unified pictorial program, a set of images linked by a common theme or function (see Flagg 1985; Morgan 1983)? Second, how can we best correlate pictorial, archaeological, and architectural evidence for the function of these rooms (N. Marinatos 1983, 1984, 1985)? Finally, how much of what we see is meant to be narrative, a cohesive account of a story or event? This is particularly difficult to determine in the case of the West House paintings, since they do not have registers to help order space and time, and the viewer must imagine baselines and arrange the images for himself.

In the West House frescoes, nar­ration and pictorial unification were achieved by showing important episodes within a story as vignettes,linked by iconographic and temporal means: for example, the direction in which the boats are moving, the shared details of male robing repeated in different scenes, and the appearance of kiosks in miniature on boat sterns and full-size in Room 4.

As for the subject matter portrayed, many interpretations of the West House frescoes have been put forward. A representative selec­tion of the meanings proposed for just two of the panels in Room 5 isshown in Figure 7. These fall into two main thematic groups: celebra­tion of a special event or festival; and the preparation for, or the aftermath of, armed conflict. In my own view, the theme is one of celebration rather than confrontation. I would like to propose that the pictures in Rooms 4 and 5 served to com­memorate and describe a particular Cycladic festival, which I take to be an anniversary celebration or jubilee. In addition, the frescoes provided the setting or “backdrop” for certain rites essentially for the jubilee’s enactment.

A Cycladic Jubilee

The paintings in Room 4 are cru­cial for this new reading. Figure 8 offers a reconstruction of how the eight kiosks were arranged. (The south doorway may once have been narrower to accommodate a com­plete kiosk Epsilon). Figure 10 provides a close look at individual kiosk details; dotted lines indicate pole tops restored by analogy.

These two diagrams make it clear that there is a fundamental duality in the decoration of Room 4. Not­withstanding gaps in published in­formation, it seems that four of the kiosks were topped by waz-lilies with filled tufts (e.g., kiosk Delta 2), while the other four bore waz-lilies with sacral ivy and papyriform fil­ling (e.g., kiosk Delta 1). Further­more, the two types appear to be symmetrically arranged on either side of the window, which is itself flanked by vases holding lilies.

Nearly identical kiosks occur in miniature, placed at the sterns of six of the small boats on the south wall of Room 5 (Fig. 9). A seventh is sometimes restored on the sailing vessel. Only the largest kiosk is shown with topped poles, and these have waz-lilies with filled tufts. Four of the others seem to have had their ornaments removed to make room for helmets, which are drawn as though pegged atop center or side poles. It is important to note that each stern kiosk is shown occupied by a man (or a statue), the heights and seated positions of which vary.

Despite these suggestive differ­ences, the duality observed in Room 4 is likewise present in Room 5, here achieved by direct association of the six stern kiosks with six stern totems—three snakes and three lions. The large size and rigidity of the totems make it unlikely that they were actual stuffed skins. They were evidently carved from wood in the manner of figureheads, as shown on some Minoan seals (e.g., Evans 1927: Fig. 147a; Morgan 1978:Fig. 6; Shaw 1980:177).

The significance of the dualities just described, and of dualism within a celebrational context, may be il­luminated by a look at the Egyptian Sed Festival. This jubilee festival brought divine and human repre­sentatives of Upper and Lower Egypt together with the pharaoh in a periodic rejuvenation of the Egyp­tian concept of kingship. Ideally, the pharaoh was supposed to unite and keep in balance Egypt’s fundamen­tal dualities: Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley as far south as the first cataract at Aswan), and Lower Egypt (the Delta). The Sed Festival afforded an opportunity to dramatize the pharaoh’s unification of the land and his maintenance of equilibrium. In addition, the jubilee provided oc­casion to personify Upper and Lower Egypt and their constituent districts (called nomes) by creating life-size versions of their symbols: for Upper Egypt, the lotus and White Crown, the god Seth, and the vulture-goddess Nekhbet; for Lower Egypt, the papyrus and Red Crown, the god Horus, and the cobra-goddess Wadjet. Each of the 42 nomes had individual gods and sym­bols as well.

The Egyptian rituals are amply documented in both texts and art (see Bleeker 1967; Frankfort 1948; Hornung and Staehelin 1974; Uphill 1965). Over the millennia, aspects of the Sed Festival’s celebration varied, but the following elements can be considered characteristic:

1 . Scheduling the jubilee to begin on the first day of the Season of Coming Forth (that is, the re­emergence of fields and plants after the annual Nile flood).

2 . Constructing shrines and kiosks for the nomes of Upper andLower Egypt using temporary, lightweight materials (Fig. 11) or stone (Fig. 12); shipment off these       structures by boat to the jubilee site; visiting of the shrines by pharaoh and others.

3 . Arrival of barges with attendants and statues of gods from Upper and Lower Egypt; holding of mooring ropes by king and court.

4 . Donning of special garments for processions and ceremonies, in particular an archaic pharaonic cloak (Fig. 14).

5 . Designation of certain members of the royal entourage as rustics or herdsmen, and their outfitting with wolfskin caps (Fig. 15).

6 . Enactment of ritual-mythological battles and boxing matches (Figs. 16, 17).

7 . Driving of asses and oxen about the walls (Fig. 16).

8 . Participation of monkeys.

9 . Dedication of field and shooting arrows.

10. Carrying of pharaoh and princes in palanquins (Fig. 17).

11. Reception of foreign digni­taries.

12. Dual recoronation of pharaoh as King of Upper and of Lower Egypt (Fig. 14).

13. Erecting the Djed pillar, a symbol of stability (Fig. 16).

Returning to Thera and the West House paintings, I suggest that they show a Cycladic jubilee celebration, with strong Egyptian influence in both its structure and its substance. When seen in this light, the diverse and seemingly unrelated elements in the frescoes coalesce into a meaningful pictorial program. The festival seems set before us: the life-size pictures of hide-covered kiosks or shrines, four of one type and four of another; the arrival of the snake- and lion-totemed boats with their kiosks and visitors (both human and divine?); the groups of men garbed specially in long robes or furry cloaks; the ritual sea battle; the paraded herds; the readying of spears; the hilltop gathering of long-robed dignitaries; and even a monkey holding a rope (S. Marinatos 1974:41).

Previously obscure details now find places within the pictorial and narrative structure. The two boats at the far right of the miniature ships panel, for example, might well hold a pair of dismantled kiosk or shrine frameworks. As for the small (in­scribed?) rectangle beside an open­mouthed man in the staged sea bat­tle, this may include his recitation of ritual directions.

Snakes and Lions

As we have seen, the Egyptian concept of dualism was based upon a relatively clear-cut geographical division of the land into Upper and Lower parts. Elsewhere in the Aegean, it is more difficult to define the relationship between topography and geocultic or geopolitical con­cepts.

What then does the dualism in the West House frescoes signify? Theonographic pairs—snakes and lions, waz-lily tops with tufts and with ivy/papyriform fillings—suggest the existence of a league of Cycladic islands or districts aligned in two groups, with individual members readily identifiable (though not to us) by such emblems as hull decoration or the type of kiosk pendant and swag (Fig. 10).

The lion and tuft-filled waz-lily group may have dominated, to judge from the fact that a lion stern-totem and a kiosk with this type of pole-top appear on the most elaborate of the miniature ships. Or perhaps Thera was in this group, and so its impor­tance was enhanced since Thera was the jubilee site on this occasion. We might also recall that a pouncing lion figures prominently in the small landscape scene in the ships panel, as does a leaping wild cat on the east wall frieze in Room 5.

The frescoes offer ambiguous clues as to whether six or eight members participated in the jubilee. One is inclined to think that there were eight, not only because of the eight kiosks in Room 4, but also because of the eight rooftop ladies who greet the flotilla. These women stand singly or in twos and threes, and are larger than any of the men depicted. In addition, eight horns of consecration, four on each side, bor­der the buildings from which the women watch. The number of women and horns may be neither premeditated nor reliable, yet we are led nevertheless to seek places on the ships fresco for one more snake, one more lion, and two more kiosks or shrines. Though candidates present themselves (the two puta­tive frameworks or the two larger ships, one sailed and one paddled), there is no basis for a final decision.

Historical and Geological Background

Thera, the southernmost of the Cyclades, was originally a small round island, the result of several prehistoric volcanic eruptions caused by friction between African and Eurasian tectonic plates. In the mid-2nd millennium B.C., the Thera volcano erupted in an explosion thought to be comparable in scale to the A.D. 1883 Krakatoa eruption, which was so violent that it could be heard 3000 miles away. A quiet period ensued until 197 B.C., when Strabo tells us that “the whole sea boiled and blazed.” Sporadic, less dramatic activity persists to the present day.

Thera was settled in the mid-3rd millennium (Early Cycladic II and III periods, ca. 2600-2000 B.C.). During the Middle Cycladic period (ca. 2000-1550/1700? B.C.), Thera established increasingly wider con­tacts with the other Cycladic islands, the Greek mainland, and Crete. The end of the Middle Cycladic period on Thera is marked by damage of un­certain cause, following which the harbor town near modern Akrotiri on the southern coast was rebuilt on a rather grand scale (Late Cycladic IA).

Marinatos’s excavation of this elegant seaside town seemed at first to support a theory he had elaborated nearly 30 years before, in which he proposed that the mid-2nd millennium eruption of the Thera volcano buried the harbor town and simultaneously devas­tated Knossos and the other great Minoan palace centers on Crete, only 70 miles to the south.

Attractive though the theory is, recent interdisciplinary research now makes it certain that at least half a century separated the two events. Whatever the reasons for the Cretan disasters—whether the Minoanpalaces burned at the hands of Mycenaean invaders from the Greek mainland, or whether they caught fire during a Crete-wide earthquake—the destructions at the end of the Late Minoan IB period marked the rise of Mycenaean power throughout the Aegean.

As for Thera, about 200 years elapsed before there was resettle­ment elsewhere on the island. Thera was, and still is, valued strategically for its protected harbors and deep-water moorings and for its dramatic volcanic promontories; several of which were fortified during the Hel­lenistic, Roman, and Venetian periods.

Cite This Article

Foster, Karen Polinger. "Snakes and Lions." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 2 (July, 1988): -. Accessed February 27, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/snakes-and-lions/


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