Category Archives: Art and religion

Associations of Immigrants: Thracians and the goddess Bendis near Athens

As I have mentioned, I am presently writing an article on immigrants and immigrant associations in the Greco-Roman world. My primary focus now is on comparing Judean (Jewish) synagogues in the dispersion with other immigrants from the Levant (east of the Mediterranean) who likewise formed associations, especially Syrians or Phoenicians.

Jews were by no means the only group of immigrants who gathered together regularly in associations and maintained important connections with the culture and religion of their homeland. I will save the Syrians for future posts, but thought I’d mention one of our earliest attested cases of a group of immigrants who formed an association devoted to the deity of their homeland: the Thracians devoted to the goddess Bendis near Athens, Greece, in the Piraeus.

Thracian Goddess Bendis with devoteesVotive relief depicting the Thracian goddess Bendis with a number of torch-race victors approaching their goddess (c. 400-350 BCE, now in the British Museum, photo by Phil)

We know very little about the goddess Bendis herself, who is often (as here) depicted in Thracian hunting gear (and with affinities to Artemis the huntress). At the Piraeus there were at least two associations devoted to her, one of them for immigrants from Thracia (north of Macedonia) specifically and the other for citizens of the city. We first catch a glimpse of a group of Thracians requesting and gaining permission from Athens (which controlled the port city of Piraeus) to set up a temple for their goddess somewhere between 434 and 411 BCE.

Modern art and the gospels: “The Gospel of Luke” by Stephen Harland

As I’ve been speaking about the portrayals of Jesus in the gospels and recently talked to my brother about some artwork of his relating to the gospels, I thought it would be nice to post in several installments some of his recent work which he did for the church he attends. Unlike my brother Stephen, I am far from an art-savvy person when it comes to modern art, and I was at first tempted to ask him for a full description of the symbolism to accompany the artwork here. He then helped me remember that that’s not the way that art is presented. The viewer is left to see what they see and to develop their own reactions to what they witness, of course. This one, entitled “The Gospel of Luke”, happens to be my favourite, visually speaking, among the four.

“The Gospel of Luke” by Stephen Harland
(copyright 2005 Stephen Harland)

Fish in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian mosaics (Megiddo mosaics 5)

In a recent email, one reader asked about the two fish depicted in the Megiddo mosaics, and wondered whether there may be any connection to astrology and pisces. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some examples of sea-creatures in Greco-Roman art and to post a few photos (or links to photos) to illustrate (when else might I have the opportunity to use photos of fish?).

It is very true that there are other mosaics in which two fish are depicted in a similar manner in reference to pisces, but in the context of other signs of the zodiac. See, for instance, the two fish depicted alongside other signs of the zodiac in a third-century mosaic now in the Bardo Museum in Tunisia (also described here), or the two fish in the mosaic from a synagogue at Hammat Tiberias in the Galilee (another photo here; fourth-fifth century CE). The latter is just one among the examples of the zodiac in Jewish synagogue art (see, for instance, the description of the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic here).

Setting aside astrological symbols specifically, fish and other sea creatures were also common within Greco-Roman (“pagan”) art in other ways. Here I have posted a few photos I took in the British museum. Some are focussed on the fish themselves, as in the early second-century mosaic with a lobster and fish from Papalonia, near Rome (above). Other mosaics depict actual hunting and fishing scenes, as in the third century mosaic from North Africa (right). In still other cases fish are depicted in scenes of abundant food, as in the first or second century mosaic from Carthage, likely from a dining-room (triclinium), which depicts a basket of fish alongside a basket of fruit (see below).

Quite well known, of course, is the fact that early Christians attached special significance to the symbol of the fish, which may directly relate to the Christian mosaics which have been uncovered at Megiddo. There are numerous stories involving fish in the gospels, with the most obvious being Jesus’ multiplication of the fish and loaves to feed thousands. The disciples, some of whom were literally fishermen, are characterized as fishers of people in the gospels as well. Gradually, the fish also became associated with other specifically Christian rituals, including the thanksgiving meal (eucharist) and baptism. Tertullian, for instance, speaks of Christians as fish following the chief fish (ΙΧΘΥΣ) Jesus Christ in connection with baptism: “But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound” (On Baptism 1; trans by Ernest Evans, online here). Tertullian may here be alluding to the fact that the Greek word for “fish”, ΙΧΘΥΣ, was used by some Christians as an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”, with each letter representing part of this name / title (cf. Sibylline Oracles 8:217-250). Fish commonly appear in Christian funerary art of the third and following centuries, sometimes alongside other symbols which were given a Christian meaning, including the anchor. This Christian understanding of the symbol may be primary in the Megiddo case (if no other zodiacal symbols are found). Yet it is worth mentioning the possibility that the (non-Christian?) artist hired to create the mosaic may well have had in his mind the model of pisces as commonly depicted in other mosaics.

For further discussion of fish in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian art, see Erwin R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period and Graydon Snyder’s Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine.