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by Archaeology Newsroom

Women and rituals of initiation in frescoes from Thera

The frescoes from building “Xeste 3” at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, constitute a coherent iconographical complex. The theme centres on womanhood, women’s coming of age, and the concepts that are associated with it. The main scene, situated in the upper storey, depicts a seated goddess. She is flanked by a griffin and a monkey and receives an offering of saffron from a group of young girls. They are at a pre-marriage stage, as we can tell by their shaved (or partially shaved) heads and absence of breasts. Below this scene, on the ground floor, was a second goddess with a group of young girls undergoing initiation. A shrine topped with “horns” indicates the sacred character of the ceremony. On a different wall are mature women, with full breasts and hair bound up in a scarf. They too are carrying flowers, in order to offer them presumably to a goddess. If seen together, the paintings refer to rituals of maturation. Two more walls belong to this conceptual cycle. One depicts ducks flying among reeds and another monkeys engaged in a mock sword fight. Swallows feeding their young chicks in a nest are also depicted on the same frieze as the monkeys. The animal paintings suggest that womanhood and coming of age were linked with the cycles of nature. Animal, bird and insect life are used as symbols to link human and natural institutions and to suggest visual similes.

Interestingly enough, the coming of age is not associated with the institution of marriage, as is the case in Greek historical times. The women are separated from men and the family ties are only hinted at without being explicitly shown.