White Idols from the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean

It was supposed to be a high-speed ferry ride from Crete (Heraklion Port) to Santorini (Thera), which usually takes around two hours. In our case, the estimated time was disrupted by a sudden storm that broke out at sea. Raging waves ruthlessly played with our boat throughout the whole sea crossing. People were swinging on their feet or wading across the deck of the ferry, which was dangerously shaken in its foundations, together with tearing the screens off the walls. Passengers felt as if they had been on a roller coaster, with their stomach approaching the throat. The lucky ones managed to get to the toilet on time, primarily still available, and others grabbed the last resort, usually one of the paper bags distributed dispassionately by the crew.

My friend sitting next to me got frozen in fear of another stomach contraction, squeezing the edges of the bag in the fingers. The colours of her face kept changing from pale white to green. In the midst of this collective hysteria, apparently I was the only person who felt well. Maybe yet except for the crew, who looked at me in disbelief.

‘Could I go outside?’, I asked hesitantly. ‘I just can’t handle staying inside’.

It was indeed stuffy inside the ferry; all windows and doors were closed tightly. and the atmosphere became more and more unpleasant due to the sick passengers.

In response to my question, two crew members looked at each other and one of them in turn looked at me asking: ‘Don’t suffer from seasickness?’,
‘It looks like no’, I smiled.

Finally the captain agreed, and after a while I was standing outside, in the crisp sea air, with the rope strongly tied around my waist and firmly attached to the side of the jumping on the waves ferry. The gusts of wind were hitting me with all its force and blowing up the folds of my long and light skirt. The rough sea kept splashing over my face again and again, leaving flecks of salt on my skin and in the long locks of hair, dancing in the breeze.

When we finally got to the port of Santorini, the storm ceased. The sun shone and the earth emanated with an usual peace, as if black clouds never appeared in this area. However, it is known that this volcanic island in particular has experienced the wrath of nature. There was always something happening in Santorini, known in Greek as Thera, and the face of the island has been shaped in equal measure by people and nature (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45).

“As its own archipelago, Santorini encompasses the islands of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea Kaméni and Nea Kaméni, which all lie in the southern part of the Cyclades, and are the result of [ancient] volcanic activity” (“Cyclades” 2021). Five thousand years ago, there was a thriving center of Minoan civilization on the archipelago (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). In mid-two thousand BC., a volcano erupted on Thera, or in fact the entire island blew out, as it had grown out of a volcano (Ibid.:45; see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans). The volcanic eruption destroyed everything, not only the island itself and its closest area, but also had a negative impact on the entire world of that time, including the Minoan culture, for which the volcanic eruption was the beginning of the end (Ibid.:45). The volcano itself collapsed into the abyss of the sea but it did not disappear (Ibid.:45).

After volcanologists monitoring the island, the volcano is going to be reborn and will erupt again in the future (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The trace of those dramatic events not only changed the shape of the island, looking now like a crescent, but also made one of the largest calderas in the world, that is to say. the collapsed crater flooded by the waters of the sea (Ibid.:45). It is naturally still active, which may be felt by microseismic activity. At that time, it is possible to observe rings forming on the water. While staying on Satorini, I noticed it once in the morning, while I was reaching for a glass of water on my table. Such a phenomenon is not usually dangerous and does not last long.

In the port, my friend was still recovering from the seasickness. Surely, I did not look too good either; I was covered from head to toe with flecks of sea salt, and my hair for the same reason formed a kind of stiff and disheveled basket on my head. Additionally, it turned out that the car sent by the hotel did not show up to pick us up from the port. Fortunately, several taxis and buses were waiting for the visitors, and one of the drivers offered to take two emaciated travelers, because our hotel was on his way. He did not take a cent from us. It was probably because we looked like two poor relatives who had managed to finally save enough to go on holidays.

Towns and villages on Santorini are all like taken from postcards. The town of Pyrgos, built at the foot of Mount Profitis Ilias and in the center of hinterland, is one of the hidden gems of Santorini. Life there seems slower and more relaxing. It is also a fantastic place for taking beautiful pictures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The towns and villages of the main island are trully picturesque: the former capital of Santorini, Pyrgos, inland (the city’s name sounds almost like my surname, and so my origins may be possibly traced to Greece), seaside Oia in the north or Fira, the charming capital of the island (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). Although Pyrgos is situated almost in the central island, like most towns on Santorini, it is built up the hill so it is still possible to observe the sea from its highest parts.

Among other things, Oia and Fira are famous for the fact that their buildings descend along the steep shore built by the volcanic eruption almost to the surface of the sea (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The buildings of the insular towns look like cubist paintings hung on the deep blue canvas of the sea and the sky (Ibid.:45). The landscape is composed of bright, regular blocks of houses and countless outbuildings, blue domed roofs, miniature terraces, stairs, steps, squares and streets (Ibid.:45). And all this is clustered on small areas, around the hills or cliffs, as if glued together (Ibid.:45). In this picturesque maze, holidaymakers can wander for hours, stepping into tiny galleries, museums, jewelry stores, boutiques and romantic cafes or wine bars (Ibid.:45). The white dry wine produced in Santorini tastes especially good, which is usually chosen by food connoisseurs to go with seafood dishes (Ibid.:45). On the other side, lunch or dinner in a tavern on the cliff, overlooking the endless blue of the sea with the spots of scattered islands, is a pure pleasure (Ibid.:45).

Early forms of the Cycladic idols in the form of a violin. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Fira. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
One of a typical female idols of the Cycladic culture in the Archaeological Museum of Thera, Fira. It represents a possibly pregnant woman with her arms under the breast. The features of the face are invisible. The most intriguing is an oval and elongated head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the south of the island, where we were staying, we drove to Fira by a hired car, where we got after a quarter of an hour. Actually, it is a very tiny island. First, we went to the port hugged to the rock face, and from there we climbed to the top of the two hundred meter volcanic cliff on which the city was built (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). You can get there on the back of a donkey or on foot along the paved path, as we did (Ibid.:45). The two must-see sights in Fira were definitely the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. While most of the Minoan frescoes excavated in Akrotiri (the Minoan town destroyed by the volcano) are preserved by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, they two also boast impressive collections of artifacts found on the island throughout its cultural development, starting from Prehistory. Apart from being one of the center (or an important colony) of the Minoan civilization, the island also housed the so-called Cycladic culture, having developed around the third millennium BC. (the period of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age). Its main objects of art are Cycladic marble figurines, also known as Cycladic idols.

Group of three figurines, early Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II). Photo by Smial (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Idols are objects of art typical of various prehistoric and ancient cultures, particularly from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, such as figurines of Venus, various representations of Neolithic goddesses, like the Cypriot Idol of Pomos, or more abstract depictions, including bronze discs from Cappadocia (PWN 2007:156). Most outstanding idols, however, come from the Cycladic culture in the Aegean Sea (Ibid.:156). The turn of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is a period of rapid development of settlement, trade and many other areas of life (Rutkowski 2009:7). During this period, the most interesting art depicting idols, apart from Crete, comes from the Cycladic islands, whose influences also reached the Minoan civilization (Ibid.:7). The Cyclades belonged in the Bronze Age (from 3000 BC.) to the circle of Aegean cultures (Barucki et al. 2009:170). They constitute the Aegean archipelago of thirty-one islands around the sacred island of Delos, where Apollo and Artemis were born. Hence their name ‘cyclic’ (“Cyclades” 2020).

The largest Cycladic island of all is Naxos, Apart from them, there are also Syros, Santorini, Mykonos, Amorgos, Paros and Antiparos (“Cyclades” 2020). The residential buildings on the Cyclades, except for Thera, are poorly known (Barucki et al. 2009:170). Moreover, the art having developed there was, in comparison to Crete and mainland Greece, of a peripheral character, and many of their products refer to the Minoan art and its famous frescoes (Ibid.:170). In addition to the Minoan Thera, valuable frescoes have been also found on Melos (Filakopi) (Ibid.:170). On the other side, the Cyclades equally produced original and unique of the archipelago works of art, with which this region of the world is now clearly associated (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9).

Together with my friend, who is a historian of art, we came to the island of Santorini to continue our research on the Minoan culture, which we had alrady started on Crete. Our aim was thus to describe the archaeological site of Akrotiri and Minoan artifacts exhibited by the museums in Fira. Nevertheless, the Cycladic culture seemed to me equally attracting. It developed into successive phases, from the Late Neolithic, throughout the Bronze Age, till circa 1050 BC., and although it is slightly older, the Cycladic culture stays in part chronologically parallel to the Minoan civilisation (3000-1100BC), The Cycladic art flourished north of Crete and for me the archipelago of Santorini constituted a symbolical gateway to the islands’ cycle.

On numerous and usually tiny Cycladic islands, small human figures were massively carved; they usually do not exceed a dozen or so centimetres in height (Rutkowski 2009:7). They were made of clay or stone, but most often of snow-white marble, as in the Cyclades (Paros, Naxos) there are deposits of precious marble, from which vases and figurines were made (Barucki et al. 2009:170). While the Cycladic ceramics usually imitated the forms of stone vessels and statuettes (Ibid.:170).

Head of a female figure, Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II, 2700–2300 BCE; Louvre). Photo by Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006). Public domain. Image cropped and sharpened. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Cycladic art, the earliest methods of shaping the human figure were limited to the simplest forms, and it was only from those models that the larger plastic compositions developed (Majewski 1935:23). A characteristic early type is composed by the so-called violin idols (Ibid.:25). They have a long neck, a circular part of the arms, and the lower part modelled in the form of a semicircle by a curved waistline (Ibid.:25). By these means, such figurines resemble the shape of a violin, or, as it is also noticed, the outlines of the island of Cyprus. Such examples are also preserved by the museums of Fira,

Other Cycladic idols mostly illustrate highly simplified but still naturalistic figurative representations; they usually show naked women, also pregnant, with arms folded at the waist level, above the belly, or under their breast, like in the case of a marble female figurine from the island of Paros, preserved by the Museum of Louvre in Paris, France (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). It represents a standing woman with arms folded under her breasts, whose body is characterized by a compact form and a synthesizing interpretation of anatomical details, such as the geometric outline of the breast, resembling two pyramids, and the pubic triangle (Rutkowski 2009:9).

Generally, figurines are built on the principle of geometrical parts of the body, usually with an elongated almond-shaped head or one in the form of an upside down triangle, a small, almost rectangular body and usually joined (early examples) or separate legs (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). This is a style that is generally defined as the tendency to synthesize human forms (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). The Polish researcher, the author of the first monograph on Cycladic art, Kazimierz Majewski (1935), supposes that the mutual relationship of individual parts of the body, i.e. the head, torso and legs, testifies to the application of almost mathematical rules by artists creating these works of fine art (Rutkowski 2009:7,9).

Although only a few figures have traces of polychrome, it is assumed that the natural white surface of the stone, especially the face, was usually enlivened with elements painted with a thick contour line in red; thus the outlines of the eyes and mouth were made (Rutkowski 2009:8-9; Barucki et al. 2009:170). Such a technique may have been also applied to a marble figurine from the Late Bronze Age, found on the island of Amorgos, now in the Museum of Louvre, in Paris (Rutkowski 2009:8). It possibly represents a female head; its schematic almond shape is only identified by an elongated nose (Ibid.:8). The lack of facial features without being underlined by paint gives the sculpture a rather raw expression (Ibid.:8).

It is believed that Cycladic idols may have been related to the sepulchral practices prevailing on the islands, as most of the statuettes come from graves, characteristic of the archipelago, namely of box, tolos and chamber types (Rutkowski 2009:9; Barucki et al. 2009:170).

Pyrgos is the largest and the well-preserved medieval settlement on Santorini, though almost completely omitted by tourists. Thanks to that, the atmosphere in Pyrgos is truly idyllique. This is also why the town offers almost empty mazes of blue-white narrow streets and lanes, sometimes leading under low and long passages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The figurines placed in the graves of the dead were usually small (Rutkowski 2009:9). However, the Cycladic artist did not abstain from making large human (female) heads and statues reaching a height of about one and a half meters (Ibid.:8-9). Some researchers believe that such large figures were placed in holy places dedicated to the cults of nature deities (Ibid.:9).

The best-known examples of Cycladic art also include male figurines depicting warriors or characters playing musical instruments (Rutkowski 2009:9). The latter group, including the figure of the Harpist of Keos, are distinguished by a much greater degree of detail in their form and equipment (Rutkowski 2009:9;Barucki et al. 2009:170). There are also some examples with visible facial features, like eyes and a mouth, and even few elements of clothes, such as necklaces.

Cycladic idols, of the FAF type below, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by I, Sailko (2008). CC BY 2.5. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During the period of the greatest development of this type of art, that is, in the third millennium BC. there were many workshops, and the stylistic differences between the statuettes make it possible to distinguish artistic individualists, which are referred to by convention, for example, by the name of private collections (Rutkowski 2009:9). The contemporary interest in Cycladic art is evidenced by the fact that a museum has been established in Athens (opened in October 2019), the core of which is the collection of N.P. Goulandris, collecting mainly figurines of Cycladic masters (Ibid.:9). But the admiration for this field of fine arts dates back to the time when in the early twentieth century, artists such as Pablo Picasso or Hans Arp looked for inspiration to express the ‘new’ in form, yet modeled on the works of primitive and ancient art, in which there was a tendency of synthesizing natural forms (Ibid.:9). Thus, in the art of the early Bronze Age, there were achievements that are still valid and admired to this day (Ibid.:9).

We still travelled around Santorini, enjoying its natural though dangerous beauty, which for ages has ideally mingled with the manmade constructions, scattered around the island. Leaving the coast behind, we headed off towards the centre of the island with its charming town, Pyrgos. At each step, apart from numerous traces left by the Minoans, there were tell-tales of the white marble idols. Sometimes, a copy of some sculpture was crouching in front of the door of somebody’s house, another time the idols were sold in souvenir shops for tourists. They all keep welcoming and inviting deeper inside their sacred cyclic kingdom of the tiny islands, dancing on the turquoise waves of the Aegean Sea. … And I have accepted their invitation.

Featured image: In the wide expanse of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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