The Bearded Goddess

Androgynes, goddesses and monsters in ancient Cyprus

Armida Publications, CYPRUS,  2012

106 pages, 100 colour prints


This book is a short introduction to the rich and complex religious life of the ancients Cypriots during more than 6000 years. From the earliest periods the worship of a Fertility Goddess remained supreme in Cyprus. The Goddess and her retinue of deities were worshipped to sustain life dependent on the soil. They protected the fields and the animals that enabled human beings to survive. The cult around this Goddess runs like a main thread through the centuries.

            Ever since prehistory around 6000 BC have many sculptures an obvious androgynous or bisexual character. This shape was perhaps considered to be more powerful since the figure was complete and self-sufficient. Some 2000 years later, people made tiny figurines that could represent women giving birth in a sitting position. In the tombs, these small idols symbolised a possibility of rebirth and thereby became the guarantor of a new life.

            The Fertility Goddess gradually received the name Aphrodite, who was the goddess of love in Greek mythology and who was considered to originate from Cyprus.

            Much later the new commercial and cultural connections with other countries during the late Bronze Age brought an influx of religious ideas and foreign divinities. In a very Cypriot way, these newcomers were transformed to suit domestic conditions. We now meet the Great Goddess of the Near East in the shape of a new type of Cypriot goddess. She has broad hips, large pointed breasts and impressive sexual parts. The oriental goddess was responsible for the fertility of men and animals. She was both mother and spouse, and was united with her son in a holy marriage, where the fertility of nature was guaranteed in a magical way.

            The gods were also expected to protect the copper mines on the island. The Cypriot Goddess was venerated in a twin-cult together with a male smithing god and was supposed to have a relationship with an oriental war god. In Greek mythology Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods. One of her many lovers was Ares, the war god. Perhaps the myth about Aphrodite, Hephaestus and Ares is of Cypriot origin.

            At the famous sanctuary of Ayia Irini, excavated in 1929 by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, we find a crowd of ancient Cypriots – warriors, priests, chariots and bulls.

Among them were also Minotaurs, a peculiar crossbreed of bull and man. The Cypriot Minotaur seems to be unique of its kind and does not occur anywhere else.

            The Cypriots believed that the god dwelt in the sanctuary and attended the religious ceremonies, including holy banquets, offerings and the burning of incense. They danced, accompanied by flute, lyre and tambourine, around the sacred trees shaking their branches, while waiting for the epiphany (“manifestation”) of the Goddess. The air was full of spices with an overpowering scent of thyme, oregano and basil, and the “singing” of cicadas.

            During the 8th - 5th cent. BC, the sacred area at Paphos and other places was dedicated to the Phoenician Astarte, and later the Greek Aphrodite. The air was heavy with aroma from sweet-scented sacred gardens with bushes of myrtle, which was the flower of Aphrodite. Ceremonies were held and incense was burnt on the altar. 

            Traditional scholarly opinion maintains that prostitution in the temples occurred in many of the Mediterranean countries. Women supposedly served voluntarily in the sanctuaries of the Goddess, where they had intercourse with men who paid in the form of offerings. Many temples in Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean, particularly in the harbour towns, were believed to have founded their wealth on prostitution. A number of ancient sources have contributed to the spreading of a persistent rumour of "sacred prostitution" and describe the phenomenon with evident disgust.

            Cypriot archaeologists at Kition below today’s Larnaca excavated the most monumental Phoenician Astarte temple ever found. Standing close to the excavated remains of this sacred place pregnant with myths, it is not difficult to feel the atmosphere from the remote past when swarms of devotees came from all over the Mediterranean. The priests wore real sculls from bulls on their heads in order to share the life-giving forces and power of the animal. The priestess most probably inhaled opium for religious ceremonies in order to hallucinate and utter prophesies of the Goddess. From earliest times, opium appears to have had ritual significance, and perhaps ancient priests may have used the drug as a proof of their healing power.

            The forbidden love affair between goddess Aphrodite and Adonis perhaps started in the verdant woods on the eastern hill of Idalion. The most celebrated shrine at ancient Idalion was located on the eastern acropolis and was dedicated to the Great Mother, who gradually was identified with Aphrodite by the Greeks.

            Finally, the title of the book hints at the famous statuette from Ayia Irini in the Cyprus Collections. This figure has a female appearance, but she also has a big black beard and raises her hands in a blessing gesture. The Bearded Goddess hints at the ancient literary texts where the authors describe the cult of a bearded Aphrodite or Venus. This cult seems to have been widely spread especially in Cyprus and was perhaps concentrated in the town of Amathus. Some theories also interpret the Ayia Irini hermaphrodite as an image of the bearded Aphrodite. The much later Greeks and Romans identified the Cypriot bisexual goddess with Aphrodite and Venus, in whose honour people engaged in transvestite rituals.

            Modern man has much to learn from prehistory, when people didn’t have problems in crossing borders and perhaps were less biased. In the prehistoric Mediterranean the many bisexual figurines could perhaps indicate that the perception of androgynes was much different from today.


Armida Publications, CYPRUS,  2012

106 pages, 100 colour prints 

Price: 25 Euro