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Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age: Reconsidering Fertility, Maternity, and Gender in the Ancient World

Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age: Reconsidering Fertility, Maternity, and Gender in the Ancient World

By Stephanie L. Budin. Pp. x + 384, figs. 45. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $95. ISBN 978-0-521-19304-7 (cloth).

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Budin’s Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age is an ambitious overview of kourotrophoi, images of humans or gods holding or nursing infants or young children. Budin investigates the meaning of those images for third–first-millennia B.C.E. communities including Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran, Cyprus, Mycenaean Greece, and Minoan Crete. Her evidence comes primarily from figurines but also from carvings, seals, and more. She makes a point of countering the notion that images have consistent universal meanings, in keeping with scholarship in the last decades, which has emphasized cultural specificity rather than pan-global ideologies. This publication is a useful compendium of kourotrophic images and analysis.

Kourotrophoi were quite common in Egypt. Used from the Predynastic to Graeco-Roman periods, they appear most frequently in the New Kingdom. Included are goddesses nursing kings, royal and nonroyal mothers, wet-nurses, tutors, and the rare royal father. Status accrued to those nursed by goddesses or holding kings. Budin pays special attention to “potency images,” plaque figurines depicting supine women, occasionally with a child (117–35), and her assessment mirrors those of previous scholars, who relate them to Hathor, procreation, and medico-magical rites.

For the Levant, Budin argues for the primacy of foreign, primarily Egyptian, influence on kourotrophic imagery. In some cases, her comparisons are appropriate; elsewhere, they seem forced. For example, the absence of Egyptian materials at Tell el-Wawiyat undermines her contention that its Late Bronze (LB) II mother-and-child figurine had New (or even Middle) Kingdom cognates (165). As Nakhai (“Mother-and-Child Figurines in the Late Bronze–Persian Period Levant,” in J. Spencer et al., eds., Material Culture Matters: Essays on the Archaeology of the Southern Levant in Honor of Seymour Gitin [Winona Lake, Ind., forthcoming]) has argued, comparanda for the Wawiyat figurine can be found locally, at sites such as Beth Shean and Tall al-’Umayri.

Considering the value of the Hebrew Bible as a primary resource for Iron Age Israel, it is unfortunate that Budin’s limited treatment of it is flawed. For example, she rightly notes that Bronze Age imagery depicts multiple deities but misses that the Hebrew Bible does so as well. Her contention that “the Biblical literature gives little indication that it saw females as givers of new life” (173) ignores, for example, Genesis 3:20, in which the first man calls his wife Eve (hawwâ) “because she was the mother of all who live” (hay). Budin’s lapses here raise questions about her ability to master fully archaeological and textual material from so many disparate cultures, times, and places.

The kourotrophoi from Anatolia include lead plaques illustrating small families; other images appear in bronze, gold, and stone relief. They emphasize women as goddesses, not as humans. In Mesopotamia, kourotrophoi appear in only a few periods (Early Dynastic, Old Akkadian, Old Babylonian, and Neo-Babylonian); some come from Elamite Iran as well. The Mesopotamian corpus contains a limited number of images, which appear first in glyptic art and later in ceramic plaques and figurines. The early seals include those of a royal nurse and a queen; women owned those seals that depicted mortal women holding children. Plaque figurines, some containing kourotrophoi, became popular in the Old Babylonian period. They come primarily from residential settings, including domestic shrines, and Budin argues for a magical, protective function—and also for their use in evoking the erotic female, thereby stimulating men and facilitating fertility (which, she notes, ancients attributed to men, not women). Mesopotamian images of women or goddesses nursing infants are rare, despite texts that mention goddesses nursing kings. The small corpus of Iranian kourotrophoi, which comes from Susa and environs, includes images of the Old Elamite goddess Narundi and of Middle Elamite mortals.

In Cyprus, kourotrophoi come from almost every era; sometimes, images of pregnancy and childbirth are also found. Picrolite pendants with childbirth imagery were popular in the Chalcolithic (and childbirth was not again depicted until the sixth century B.C.E., in response to Greek and Phoenician influences). The kourotrophic plank figures of the subsequent Bronze Age indicate a change for women, from producers of children to caretakers within their families and clans. Budin argues that this was not a harbinger of patriarchy; rather, women’s status was being reconceptualized and renegotiated (258–59). Other Bronze Age kourotrophoi reflected the worship of a mother goddess. Budin’s treatment of the relationship between Middle–Late Bronze Age Cypriot and Levantine figurines is problematic. Despite evidence for Levantine influence in Cyprus at this time, her claim that bird-faced figurines, some of them kourotrophic, derive from the Levant is weak, as Budin herself notes (262). The end of the Bronze Age saw the cessation of indigenous traditions in Cypriot kourotrophism, one result of increased contact with the Aegean and Minoan worlds.

Kourotrophoi were not indigenous to Minoan Crete; the few known pieces result from Egyptian influence. Portrayals of women and children are related to social settings of a public nature. Budin argues that Minoans actively rejected kourotrophoi, but she fails to consider the mechanism for this rejection. Nakhai’s discussion (“Plaque and Recumbent Figurines of the Late Bronze II,” in C. Carter et al., eds., Celebrate Her for the Fruit of Her Hands: Studies in Honor of Carol L. Meyers [Winona Lake, Ind., forthcoming]) of the human dimension of imagery shared by New Kingdom Egyptian and LB II Canaanite women, in the form of plaque and recumbent (Budin’s “potency”) figurines, demonstrates the potential for such work. In contrast to Minoan Crete, kourotrophoi are found in two prominent coastal centers in Mycenaean Greece, possibly popularized under foreign influence. Other depictions of women—as goddesses, in authority, as cult functionaries, and more—followed the Minoan example.

Overall, Budin’s most significant conclusion is that kourotrophic imagery is neither generic nor common throughout the Bronze Age Near East and Mediterranean; most examples come from New Kingdom Egypt and from Cyprus. She relates the scarcity of kourotrophoi to “the ambivalence that existed between maternity-as-child-care and social status” (329), but it is hard to see what evidence supports this interpretation. In her opinion, the kourotrophic motif displays “an extensive involvement in the more grueling and even demeaning aspects of daily child care, those tasks worthy of gratitude but seldom rushed into with glee” (337). Given that, as Budin points out, those females depicted are most often goddesses who might, for example, imbue kings with divine power, this position is hard to accept. Ultimately, she concludes that kourotrophic imagery was important because it played a role in stimulating a male sexual response, resulting in fertility and progeny (348).

In Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age, Budin has compiled and discussed an extensive corpus of important imagery. The addition of maps would have improved the book. So, too, would the elimination of overly personal comments (e.g., “If all goes well in terms of fertility, the fetus incubates for approximately nine months [or seventeen, if you ask new mothers what it felt like at the time]” [9]; “Serves them right” [13 n. 36]; “demeaning” [337]). Nonetheless, the book is an important addition to the study of gender and iconography in the ancient world, which will be appreciated by graduate students and professionals working in these research areas.

Beth Alpert Nakhai
Arizona Center for Judaic Studies
The University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721

Book Review of Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age: Reconsidering Fertility, Maternity, and Gender in the Ancient World, by Stephanie L. Budin

Reviewed by Beth Alpert Nakhai

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Nakhai

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