The lady of the spiked throne – decoding the symbols

The “Lady of the spiked throne”. It has been a while since I have seen something so profoundly mysterious as this set of figurines. They date to the 3rd millennium BC and belong to the culture of Indus Valley civilization. The best source of information comes from a book by Mr. Massimo Vidale. The title of this book is: “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 resulted in the form of the book. Without getting deeper into all technicalities, here are the most important observations in my opinion.

Lady of the spiked throne – a description

The object represents a set of fifteen figurines in a bull-shaped object. One of the female figurines holds a central position sitting on the throne with bull-shaped armrests. She is around 30% bigger than the rest of the figures. Obviously important, she could represent a priestess, a queen or a divinity. Six other male figurines are standing on her sides. Four of them are in a cabin and two in front, as a sort of entourage.

Eight figurines represent “rowers”. Four are male and four female. (alternating female and male couples). The bull-shaped object is a vehicle of some sort, a boat or a chariot. The design on its sides shows plants identified as aquatic. There is also a wave-like design on the sides, so it is probably a boat. On the shoulders and thighs of the bull 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 carries a divinity trough supernatural waters. As an argument for this theory, he points out many similarities from the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, coming from the same period. He also points out that there are no navigable waters in the regions of Pakistan or Afghanistan. This fact gave ground to the second theory – that the object may represent a model of a bizarre real-life chariot.

He also mentions that the back handle has been worn out before being buried. This probably means that this was some a cult object of some kind. But this is where his debate ends, without any conclusions about the meaning behind this ritual.

He also can’t decide whether there is something grim or auspicious happening in this scene. In his conclusion, all interpretations are equally intriguing and subjective. What follows is my interpretation of some of the symbols.

The rowers

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. The presence of male and female couples reminds me of divine couples from ancient mythologies. Take Enûma Eliš for example, where the primordial Gods appear as couples. However, due to the presence of a larger figure in the center, 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?

Human sacrifice?

This of course just my humble opinion, but they could represent a human sacrifice. Human sacrifice existed 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:

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 alien to the Roman spirit. Livy 22.57

In this short passage we see some really interesting information:

  • The victims were couples
  • The sacrifice, performed in the Cattle Market
  • Victims 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 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 the Livy’s event took place, Herodotus mentions a similar Persian custom in Thracia:

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. 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” was more common in the East than in the West. For example in ancient China, many texts written in the Oracle bone script speak precisely about that. Quite a few examples exist 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 bull-headed river deity

But who is this “fabled god” that demands the sacrifice? 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. The purpose was 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 riding a chariot pulled by the dragons across the waters.

Classic_of_Mountains_and_Seas,_1597,_plate_LXI

Classic of Mountains and Seas (1597 edition), Plate LXI

Even though Hebo’s chariot is not bull-like, there is an obvious parallel between these dragons and snakes on “The lady of the spiked throne”. Bull as a divine vehicle is a 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 symbolism revolves around these two symbols.

The list of all parallels is too long, but one particular group of deities of the ancient Greek pantheon really stands out in the context of our story. They are the Potamoi – river gods. They were bull-men hybrids, often with the head of the bull, and a serpent or a fish body from the waist down.

Out of these Potamoi, the most famous is undoubtedly the 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"

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, associated with a “snake” and “bull” symbols. For this reason, deities of the river are the ones to whom most of the human sacrifices had been offered. This was not only the case across the Indo-European world but even in civilizations of pre-Columbian America, Maya civilization for example. This fact strongly reinforces the notion of human sacrifice on “The lady of the spiked throne” composition.

The goddess

Which brings us to the final question – who is the seated figure? Having in mind everything said so far, the answer is pretty much 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, 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, meaning that the object did not commemorate a singular event.

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. This resemblance has already been recognized by other researchers. And even Mr. Vidale mentions this region while discussing the geographical areas that have yielded similar findings.

What we have here is another goddess 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 on her are clearly astrological. The same goes for the bull – the Taurus constellation, while the river usually relates to the Milky way that flows past it. This gives us even deeper insight into the timing and the purpose of described rituals.

It is worth a mention that the worship of bull was not foreign to people of Vinca, already in the 6th millennium BC. Here is an example from the historical museum of Timisoara, Romania.

Another amazing fact is that the Oracle bone script mirrors almost perfectly the Vinca signs. But this 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 that we nowadays know as Indo-European.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,
    I would respectfully like to offer an alternative explanation.
    Looking at religious traditions of India, I would say this could be a post-festival disposal of a divine figure. In Hinduism, we make clay images of Gods and Goddesses for festivals and once the celebrations are over, dispose the ritual image in water or earth to return the divine energy to the ‘elements’. Ganesh festival in Mumbai and Kali festival of Kolkotta are popular versions of that tradition in modern times. I have written 2 articles on ‘visarjan’ – http://www.pushti-marg.net/bhagwat/visarjan.htm / http://www.pushti-marg.net/bhagwat/visarjan-2.htm

    The goddess’s throne has ‘spikes’ for very practical, functional reasons. Divine thrones would have soft furnishings to adorn them. To secure the cloth, they would been draped over the back and secured using ‘finals’. Here are some pics to show how it is used in a temple – https://buzz-london.tumblr.com/post/155123862045/shrinathjis-svaroop-at-a-haveli-called-sethani – two silver ‘finals’ are in this pic.
    https://buzz-london.tumblr.com/post/154206366446/swapnil1690-details-of-lord-mathuradhish-ji four silver ‘finals’ are used to secure the golden cloth behind the main icon.
    Granted, in this image the spikes have no functional use, but they would have copied a throne from a temple and nothing more.

    The ‘spikes’ / ‘finals’ on thrones would also be useful for securing garlands around the deity.
    https://buzz-london.tumblr.com/post/150454441435/ganesh-in-a-swing-garlanded-by-colourful-silk I have used pearls on the top of the pins to secure the cushions and help guide and secure garlands around Ganesh. The pins are pushed in as low as possible so as not to stick out and obscure the flow of garlands. When flower garlands are put around this goddess figure, the spikes would have similarly ‘disappeared’.

    When the Goddess is ritually disposed after the festival, precious jewels are taken off and flower or silk garlands are left. These would have decomposed over time, leaving behind only the clay icons.

    I hope this helps.

    Bhagwat

  2. Am I the only one who see she is holding two chldrens hands?
    On the right figure you can make out facial features, a bellybutton and even toes on the right foot.

  3. It looks like a depiction of saptarishi from Vedas being rescued by matsya fish(lady figure) from the great flood. In ancient Indian astronomy, the constellation of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is called saptarishi, with the seven stars representing seven rishis, namely “Vashistha”, “Marichi”, “Pulastya”, “Pulaha”, “Atri”, “Angiras” and “Kratu”. See wiki for a similar image – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saptarishi

  4. Manu is the title or name of fourteen mystical Kshatriya rulers of earth, or alternatively as the head of mythical dynasties that begin with each cyclic kalpa (aeon) when the universe is born anew.
    Satyavrata, was the king of Dravida before the great flood.He was warned of the flood by the Matsya (fish) avatar of Vishnu, and built a boat that carried the Vedas, Manu’s family and the seven sages to safety, helped by Matsya.

    The first Jain tirthankar Rishabhdeva was also supposed to be a Manu and his symbol is a bull. See wiki – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rishabhanatha

    Just a thought for the mystery 😉

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