Fatal Attraction: Obsession, Aversion, and the Femme Fatale of Ancient Judah

Despite our difficulty understanding them, JPFs [Judean Pillar Figurines] are among the most prevalent iconographic “religious” images in the Iron IIB-C (925-586 B.C.E.). They come from almost every site in Judah, and when we consider the sheer numbers – over 500 from Jerusalem alone, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we cannot understand the ritual practices of ancient Judah without understanding the figurines. Even more interesting, this image is never discussed in the Hebrew Bible.

See Also: Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines: Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual (FAT II 69. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

By Erin Darby
Co-director of the 'Ayn Gharandal Archaeological Project
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
University of Tennessee
February 2015


While small female figurines from southern Israel are often interpreted as the wife of God, the iconic female image has paramours of her own – a veritable harem in fact. Indeed, everywhere one looks, from television documentaries to scholarly conferences, from newspaper clipping to academic journals, excavation reports, internet blogs, antiquities shops, and museum displays, this female image attracts crowds of admirers vying to correctly identify her identity. In the main, interpreters devote their attention to describing the form of the figurine, focusing on her charms, so to speak. And after much trying and failing, it can safely be concluded that this method is no more successful for clay females than it is for real ones.

Judean Pillar Figurines (JPFs) are small clay female images found within the boundary of Judah in the eighth through sixth centuries B.C.E. They have either a separately molded head joined to the body by a clay tab or a hand-pinched head made in tandem with the body. The bodies contain arms holding or supporting the breasts placed atop a pillar base, though a small number hold objects as well. The figurines constitute one of the best witnesses to the vast expanse of lived ritual during the period of Judah’s political ascendancy and the period during which many of the biblical texts were generated.

Why Study Judean Pillar Figurines?

Oddly enough, the first answer to this question begins with my grandmother, Grace Smith. When I was finishing my dissertation, Grandma began to ask whether she could have a copy of my book. Thinking this was very sweet, but not particularly serious, I would say, “of course, Grandma.” Eventually she wanted to know if she could have two copies. I said, “What would you do with two copies?” and she replied, “One for me and one for my hairdresser, Evelyn!” At this point, I thought I should be honest with my good Lutheran grandmother and tell her what I actually study. So, I began, “Grandma, you know that I write about small naked female statues, right?” Taking a moment to absorb this information, she slowly responded, “Well… I can’t show that to my hairdresser!”

But Grandma wasn’t finished. Pausing a minute more, she asked, “Do you think it would be alright for me to read your book if I didn’t look at the pictures?” Now, it is exactly that mixture of attraction and aversion that is so interesting in contemporary responses to ancient female images. Even in scholarly literature the combination of these impulses allows JPFs to function as a cypher for whatever argument they are cited to support. Thus, JPFs have been treated as evidence for such disparate positions as female ritual empowerment, on one hand, and female estrangement, on the other.

But there are other reasons these figurines remain compelling even after a century of scholarly interest. Despite our difficulty understanding them, JPFs are among the most prevalent iconographic “religious” images in the Iron IIB-C (925-586 B.C.E.). They come from almost every site in Judah, and when we consider the sheer numbers – over 500 from Jerusalem alone, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we cannot understand the ritual practices of ancient Judah without understanding the figurines. Even more interesting, this image is never discussed in the Hebrew Bible.

What are Judean Pillar Figurines?

So, to go back to the very beginning, what are JPFs? Many scholars have argued that the figurines are idols; the position is largely based on two assumptions. First, JPFs purportedly represent high goddesses of the pantheon who would either be the “wife” of God or in competition with him. Second, owing to the figurines’ breasts, it is often assumed that they must have been associated with a fertility cult. Because JPFs are found in household structures, and scholars frequently claim that the remains from houses reflect female activity, the figurines “must” be associated with a female fertility cult that was incompatible with orthodox Yahwism (Darby 34-60).

Like many interpretations circulating over the last century, these suggestions are interesting hypotheses posed by serious scholars. Nevertheless, how would we test their plausibility? Is it possible that many of the most dominant interpretations are reflections of modern assumptions rather than ancient textual or archaeological data?

Ancient Near Eastern Figurine Ritual Texts

In order to test these modern assumptions, we must examine many different types of evidence. Foremost in that category are the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) figurine ritual texts, especially those from the Neo-Assyrian Empire (745-612 B.C.E.). These texts date to the same time period as our figurines, and they come from an imperial power that governed Judah and her neighbors. Most importantly, the ritual texts help assess whether modern interpretations of ANE figurines follow logically from the archaeological materials upon which they are based (Darby 61-81).

First, the majority of texts list a great many evils that are combatted by the use of figurines, especially physical and mental illness. Texts rarely focus on a single ritual problem, like fertility. What is equally interesting is that few figurine rituals from either Mesopotamia or Egypt use figurines to target female fertility or infant health. While we have a large number of rituals that deal with these concerns, they generally focus on other remedies; and, where figurines are used, they are not female (Darby 78-79, 81, 84, 87).

Second, the incantations used in figurine rituals are not addressed to the entities represented by figurines; instead, they target main deities of the pantheon who do not seem to be represented by clay images (Darby 82, 85, 89). Third, when figurines are made from a standardized material and with set iconographic tropes they usually depict protective guardians who expel evil and guard the house (Darby 89-90). Finally, when figurines are kept in the house rather than destroyed or discarded they seem to have been used to cure mental or physical sickness, drive out those responsible for the evil, and protect against their return (Darby 91).

Thus, the Assyrian figurine rituals suggest that modern interpreters cannot simply assume, without evidence, that ANE figurines represent main deities or that they are the actual objects of supplication in accompanying prayers. Nor can scholars assume that figurine iconography was meant to represent those using the figurines or the special concerns of a particular segment of the population.

Jerusalem Archaeology

Moving on to archaeology, because over 50% of the corpus of provenienced JPFs comes from Jerusalem, the city is important for understanding how the figurines were used. Domestic and public buildings have been found throughout Jerusalem. For our purposes, we will focus on the buildings on the southeastern hill, often called the City of David (Darby 143-82).

While archaeology cannot prove exactly what the figurines are or what they were used for, it can help us assess the credibility of some hypotheses. For example, ancient texts and archaeology tell us that images of high deities are often carefully disposed not treated as regular household garbage. We might also look to see if figurines were found in certain areas that could be considered “religious,” as indicated by the presence of other religious objects or special architectural elements. Furthermore, were figurines used primarily by women for female fertility concerns or child rearing, we might ascertain whether the figurines tend to occur with objects sometimes connected with female work, such as grinding stones or loom weights.

Looking at the locations in which figurines were found on the southeastern hill, it is clear they were distributed with domestic refuse throughout structures, used secondarily to make walls and floors, and never associated with space we might otherwise define as “religious.” These patterns are consistent throughout all excavated areas. Judean Pillar Figurines are not normally found with cultic objects (with the exception of zoomorphic figurines) nor are they disproportionally found with ground stones or loom weights (Darby 176-82). All of these data suggest that, at least in Jerusalem where the majority of figurines have been found, we have no evidence supporting the assumption that JPFs represented high deities or that they were used for a fertility cult. The fact that figurines are usually found in domestic structures has been given as one reason for their connection with females and fertility; however, it is short-sighted to claim that only women lived in Judean houses or that the only activity going on there was sex!

Naked Female Iconography

Yet another piece of evidence that can be brought to bear on our question is ANE iconography. Other depictions of naked females can help us test whether the “naked female image” is normally associated with either main goddesses or fertility. Across the ANE, despite the wide distribution of naked female images, she is never clearly associated with a named goddess. This suggests that the image’s ambiguity may have been essential for its wide dissemination and adoption by many different peoples throughout multiple time periods (Darby 363-66).

Even more curious, if the naked female in the Iron II was associated with women and fertility, as modern interpreters suppose, the image crops up in some curious places. For example, naked females of varying types have been discovered on equestrian frontlets. The naked female is also occasionally found on Levantine seal impressions, and, in every known case, the accompanying inscription indicates the seal was owned by a male. The naked female standing en face occurs on small model shrines, which are commonly found in spaces accessible to both males and females. Even in large scale art, female images are sometimes placed outside actual public buildings, where it is doubtful that they were used solely by ancient women or for “female” concerns (Darby 325-27). Thus, it is perhaps safe to assume that the iconography of JPFs alone would not constitute sound evidence supporting their unique connection with fertility or females.

Clay and Idols in the Hebrew Bible

This brings us to the Hebrew Bible. While it is true that the Bible does not discuss clay figurines, it does give some important information about clay objects and idols – namely, that they are entirely separate categories. By comparing biblical depictions of clay objects with biblical descriptions of idols it becomes clear that the materials out of which objects are constructed are paramount for their function.

Passages focusing on clay items routinely describe them as breakable and cheap, sometimes in contrast with temple artifacts like jewels and gold (Darby 260-77; e.g., Lam 4:2; Ps 2:9; Isa 29:16, 45:9). A general survey of idol production terms in the Hebrew Bible demonstrates that many passages focus on the materials from which idols were produced, especially wood and metal (Darby 283-97). So, if clay was not normally used to create idols, for what was it used? Fired clay is mentioned a number of times in Leviticus (6:21; 11:33; 15:12; 14:5) and once in Numbers (5:17). In some texts the clay objects must be destroyed when they come into contact with something unclean because they are a permanent conduit across the sacred/profane divide. In others, the clay vessels are required because they act as a conduit between these realms, purifying a formerly diseased human or house or transferring curses to a woman’s body. Although the result is different, i.e. whether or not the vessel is destroyed, in both types of rituals, clay clearly absorbs and conducts ritual purity and impurity. Moreover, in many cases clay alone has this property, in contrast with bronze, wood, skin, clothing, or sackcloth (Darby 277-83).

Thus, the biblical text suggests that clay was not commonly associated with images of high deities or major sanctuaries. It is most frequently described as cheap and easily breakable, often in contrast with materials used for idols or cultic implements. In general, the materials out of which objects are constructed are emphasized more so than their iconographic form, suggesting that the material itself may have been integral for identifying an “idol” as opposed to an “image.” Finally, clay was used because of its ritual properties, especially transferring purity and impurity, suggesting clay had particular technological significance for certain ritual manipulations.

So, What are JPFs?

Because few people are satisfied with the answer, “we may never know for sure,” I would like to hazard an educated guess. The most widely supported function for the figurines may be protection and healing. To summarize, in Mesopotamian texts standardized, molded figurines depict lower-level divine entities and guardians and are used to exorcise evil, including sickness, and to protect the home. The connection with sickness and protection is reinforced by the fact that the rites take place in the home itself, the locus of healing rituals. In fact, the Iron II saw the spread of magico-medical rituals across the Mediterranean, even as far away as Greece, including rituals using figurines (Darby 367-97).

Archaeological deposition rules out other potential uses for the Jerusalem figurines, such as dedicated votives or main cult objects in household shrines. The fact that they regularly occur in domestic spaces, though without specialized deposition, could be explained by their association with semi-divine beings rather than high deities. Biblical texts suggest that clay items transmitted purity/impurity and for that reason were used in several rituals, including those associated with purifying the recently ill.

Iconographic analogy also suggests that the naked female elsewhere in the Late Bronze Age and the Iron II was used as a symbol of healing and protection. The symbol appears as guardian figurines on model shrines and cult stands and as an apotropaic symbol on horse trappings and personal seals. The association between the naked female and healing is further supported by Egyptian medical prescriptions that name breast milk as a key ingredient to combat head colds, burns, rashes, and fever. Similarly, in the Ugaritic Kirtu Epic the chief Ugaritic god, El, creates a clay female lower-level deity to heal King Kirtu on his deathbed (Darby 319-21, 330-38, 344-46).

In the biblical text, as in the Mesopotamian world, semi-divine intermediaries caused, relieved, and protected from evil and sickness. They may even be pitted against each other (e.g., Psalm 91); but, as in the Kirtu Epic, the healing is attributed, not to the lower-level entities, but to the main deity (Darby 388-93). In this sense, if JPFs were used for protection and healing in the home, they may not have been in competition with Yahweh.

Thus, Judean Pillar Figurines have much to teach us about the ancient world of Judah as well as our own assumptions. Ironically, far from the femme fatale that she plays in the contemporary academy, in the ancient world she may have provided balm for those facing illness and fatality. Furthermore, although many types of images may have existed in Jerusalem, as fate would have it, the pillar figurine is one of the most prevalent objects preserved in the archaeological record, making her a key witness to Judean ritual life.

Work Cited

Darby, Erin. Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines: Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual. FAT II 69. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Comments (2)

I am writing a novel following Athaliah's rise to power from when she marries Jehoram to her fall and her relationship with her stepdaughter, Jehosheba. How do you see these figurines incorporated into everyday life? Would someone wave them over a sick person? I'm trying to bring the times to life, and these figurines have to show up somehow because they're both exclusively Judahite and so common. Thanks!

#1 - Emily Miceli - 09/07/2016 - 14:41

Dear Emily
I'm afraid here we are in the realm of conjecture. I have suggested in the book that some of the formal attributes of the figurines might help us posit at least plausible theories. For example, unlike some Mesopotamian figurines, Judean figurines are fired in a kiln. This has a direct impact on their durability. In contrast, unfired clay might disintegrate more quickly, especially when handled or left exposed. So, what might be the purpose for devoting the time and resources to fire the figurines? We could postulate that the rituals involved some type of manipulation by hand and that the figurines were meant to be displayed for some time. We might also hypothesize that the base of the figurines could help them stand relatively unaided in open, liminal spaces, like doorways, which might be the entry point through which malevolent forces enter a home. I reiterate, this is all conjecture, but at least it takes into account some of the data that we currently have. I'd also like to stress the possibility of ritual innovation. We can't assume that figurines were used in exactly the same ways across 200 years and multiple sites in Judah. Some differences in the archaeological distribution of figurines at various sites might be due to local variations in figurine rituals. If you ever want to talk more about these questions, my email is edarby1@utk.edu.

#2 - Erin Darby - 09/28/2016 - 18:56

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