Anyone who is really passionate about ancient history knows that feeling of a subtle adrenaline rush caused by an unexpected discovery. I had that kind of sensation recently, seeing for the first time the so-called “Lady of the spiked throne”. It has been a while since I have seen something so profoundly mysterious as this set of figurines roughly dated to 3rd millennium BC Indus Valley civilization. While searching for more information I discovered a book by Mr. Massimo Vidale, entitled: “The lady of the spiked throne – The power of a lost ritual” (full text is available on this link)
This book is pretty much the only thing you will need to read regarding the characteristics of this find. Mr. Vidale was commissioned by a private collector, the owner of this object, to give his opinion about its authenticity. He spent two days doing so and the results of this thorough analysis were published in the form of the book. Without getting deeper in all technicalities already mentioned there, I will summarize here the most important observations in my opinion:
The object represents a set of 15 figurines in a bull-shaped object.
One of the female figurines holds central position sitting on the throne with bull-shaped armrests. She is around 30% bigger than the rest of the figures and could represent a priestess, a queen or a divinity.
6 other male figurines are standing on the sides, 4 in a cabin and 2 in front, as a sort of entourage. “The eyes of all male ‘attendants’ are constantly fixed on the enthroned lady, thus expressing a relationship of total subordination.”
8 figurines are in the position of “rowers” 4 figurines are male and 4 female. (alternating female and male couples)
The bull-shaped object is a vehicle of some sort, a boat or a chariot, but more likely a boat since the design on it’s sides shows plants that are normally identified as aquatic in other finds and there is also a wave-like design on the sides.
On the shoulders and thighs of the bulls are representations of snakes – cobras with inflated hoods.
When it comes to what this object represents, Mr. Vidale is balancing between two theories, both of which he finds plausible. According to the first one, this is a representation of a boat that is supposed to carry a divinity trough supernatural waters. As an argument for this theory he points out to many similarities from cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, coming from the same period. He also points out to the fact that there are no navigable waters in the regions of Pakistan or Afghanistan where this object is presumably discovered, thus giving ground to the second theory – that the object could also represent a model of a bizarre real life chariot.
He also mentions that the back handle has been worn out before it was finally buried, meaning that it was probably used in some form of rituals. But this is where his debate ends, and we are left with no real conclusions about the meaning behind this ritual.
He is also not willing to take a clear stand weather there is something grim going on in this scene or something positive on the contrary:
Such ‘Zhob figurines’ in the past have been interpreted in religious horrific light, as
“…grim embodiment of the mother-goddess who is also a guardian of the dead… underworld deities concerned alike with the corpse and the seed-corn buried beneath the earth…”, in the words of S. Piggott(190: 127), later quoted also by L. duPrEE (1963: 93).
There is little doubt that this sentence reflects a colonial fear of a presumed ‘savage’ or ‘prehistoric’ side of Hinduism. Contemporary impressions on the same evidence may be quite different. The recent discovery of the painted figurines of Nausharo ID, with their vivid colours, the sharp contrast between the naked parts of the bodies and the rich attires and ornaments, the heavy makeup on the eyes, and even red dots on the forehead, similar to one of the most popular auspicious symbols of the contemporary Hindu tradition have strengthened the impression of a fundamental continuity in the use of important symbols from the early Bronze age to the present.
Needless to say, all these interpretations are as intriguing, as quite subjective.
Now that we have all the facts in one place, I would like to propose my interpretation of some of the symbolic we see here.
I will start with the middle section, and pairs of male and female “rowers”. There is obviously some pattern here, as they are gender separated and sitting in alternative rows. Presence of male and female couples reminds me on divine couples from ancient mythologies, Enûma Eliš for example, where the primordial Gods appear as couples. However, due to the presence of a larger figure in the center, and the fact that male and female figurine are not in the same row, it is highly unlikely that these are divinities. They seem the least important in this composition, surrounded by the Goddess and her entourage. So what else could it be?
This of course just my humble opinion, but they could represent a human sacrifice. Evidence of human sacrifice can be found in virtually all of the ancient cultures, but what is particularly interesting for our case is that quite often sacrificial victims were couples. Livy writes about one such case in ancient Rome, 216 BC:
In the meantime, by the direction of the Books of Fate, some unusual sacrifices were offered; amongst others a Gaulish man and woman and a Greek man and woman were buried alive in the Cattle Market, in a place walled in with stone, which even before this time had been defiled with human victims, a sacrifice wholly alien to the Roman spirit. Livy 22.57
In this short passage we see some really interesting information:
- The victims were couples
- The sacrifice is performed in the Cattle Market
- Victims were buried alive
- The sacrifice was alien to the Roman spirit (As the comment states: “Livy means that the sacrifice, prescribed by the Greek Sibylline Books, was a Greek and not a Roman rite.”)
But if this rite was really Greek we would surely have much more information about similar episodes from the ancient authors. The fact is that we don’t really have much. Moreover, only a few centuries before above described event took place, Herodotus labels a similar custom that took place in Thracia as Persian:
When they learned that Nine Ways was the name of the place, they buried alive that number of boys and maidens, children of the local people. Hdt. 7.114.1
To bury people alive is a Persian custom; I have learned by inquiry that when Xerxes’ wife Amestris reached old age, she buried twice seven sons of notable Persians as an offering on her own behalf to the fabled god beneath the earth. Hdt. 7.114.2
It seems that by tracing the origins of this custom we are getting quite close to the area where “The lady of the spiked throne” originates. Indeed “sacrifice in pairs” is better documented in the East than in the West. For example in ancient China, many of texts written in the Oracle bone script speak precisely about that. Quite a few examples are mentioned in a work Archaic Chinese Sacrificial Practices in the Light of Generative Anthropology Here we read that typical questions were:
“Should one or three pairs of sheep be promised?” “Should a petition for rain be addressed to Hsi? Should nine pairs of sheep be sacrificed?”
The river deity
But who is this “fabled god” to whom the sacrifices are made? Maybe it wasn’t just one god to start with. As we see in the above-mentioned book, sacrifices of the ancient Chinese people had different goals, mainly to appease natural calamities or bring rain, but also to bring military success and good fortune. However, there is one Chinese deity that could shed some light on our mysterious object. Hebo, meaning “Lord of the River”, was a deity to whom human sacrifices were made in pairs! Moreover, he is represented riding a chariot pulled by the dragons across the waters.
Classic of Mountains and Seas (1597 edition), plate LXI
Even though Hebo’s chariot is not bull-shaped, there is an obvious parallel to be made between these dragons and snakes on “The lady of the spiked throne”. Bull as a divine vehicle is a well-known trait of an old Indo-European religion, from Shiva and Nandi, to the story of Zeus and Europa. Moreover, bull and the snake are amongst the most common symbols of fertility rites throughout the whole ancient world. In the ancient Mediterranean, Dionysus (the calf), had a crown of snakes and in the Knossos palace the main symbolic revolves around these two symbols.
The list of all parallels is too long to be mentioned in detail, but one particular group of deities of the ancient Greek pantheon really stands out in the context of our story. They are known as the Potamoi – river gods. Wikipedia states the following:
“The river gods were depicted in one of three forms: a man-headed bull, a bull-headed man with the body of a serpent-like fish from the waist down, or as an arm resting upon an amphora jug pouring water.”
Out of these Potamoi, the most famous is undoubtedly Achelous of whom Sophocles says:
‘My suitor was the river Achelóüs,
who took three forms to ask me of my father:
a rambling bull once, then a writhing snake
of gleaming colors, then again a man
with ox-like face: and from his beard’s dark shadows
stream upon stream of water tumbled down.
Such was my suitor.’
We can hardly ask for a better description of how the “Lord of the river” has looked like in the mind of the ancients. It goes without saying that he is not only representing the river, but fertility, virility and life-giving force, with whom a snake and a bull symbols are associated. For this obvious reason, deities of the river are the ones to whom most of the human sacrifices had been offered in antiquity, not only across the Indo-European world, but in civilizations of pre-Columbian America as well, as it is well documented with the Maya. This fact strongly reinforces the notion that the human sacrifice is presented on “The lady of the spiked throne” composition.
Which brings us to the final question – who is the seated figure? Having in mind all that has been said so far, the answer pretty much comes down as obvious. In this context it could only be the representation of the Earth Mother, the one who will become fertile again once the ritual is performed.
As for the ritual itself, the question is did this procession happen in reality or these figurines are just a “substitute” for the real thing? We do know that many ancient cultures had made a transition from human sacrifice to the sacrifice of human figurines of clay or straw, which would be tossed in the river or buried in the ground. I incline towards this option as what we see in this scene is clearly happening in the supernatural world. Goddess is also present. Moreover, the handle shows the signs of heavy usage of this object, meaning that it was not made to commemorate a singular event. But if this is indeed a sacrificial procession it will be impossible to tell if 8 young people were really sacrificed at some point in time.
So much ink has been spilled on Earth mother topic already and I will not go deeper into the subject, but would just like to point out to a strange resemblance between these figurines and the ones from the Vinca culture, which are several millennia older, a resemblance that has already been recognized by other researchers, and to which even Mr. Vidale maybe vaguely hints in his work, by mentioning only the geographical areas that have yielded similar findings.
What we have here is another goddess seated in the chariot. And even though she has no entourage, there is something about her eyes and her nose, as well as the whole style that reminds on figurines of the spiked throne. Moreover, symbols that we see are clearly astrological. The same goes for the bull that could be linked to the Taurus constellation while river usually relates to the Milky way that flows past it. This gives us even a deeper insight into the timing and the purpose of described rituals.
It is worth a mention that the worship of bull was also well known to people of Vinca, already in the 6th millennium BC, as can be seen on this find kept in the historical museum of Timisoara, Romania.
Another amazing fact is that the Oracle bone script mirrors almost perfectly the Vinca signs, which will be a topic of another article. What is more interesting to note here is the flow of ideas, which seems to have been pulsating constantly between the East and the West, connecting us all in a culture which we nowadays know as Indo-European.