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Published Date: July 30, 1987

Published Date: July 30, 1987

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An Illustration of the Greek Notion of “Head” as “Source”

Many of our readers write to ask for new insights, information, and resources about biblical feminism. The Chinese say that one peep is worth ten thousand words. Cindy McKeen kindly supplied us with the accompanying illustration; and for those anxious for new material, it may well be worth its weight in gold. The statuette which the drawing depicts does not strike one as a first-class piece of art. To be quite truthful, it seems somewhat clumsy; and the concept of one woman standing upon the head of another is downright grotesque. Nevertheless, this piece and the forty-odd similar executions of this same motif have much to tell us. Usually two which were almost identical were found together, but there are differences in form and decoration between those found in different grave-sites. Always the woman stood within the crown upon the lower female head.

Terracotta statuettes of this design were placed in tombs, much as we might place a floral offering upon a grave to-day. The burials took place about three hundred years before the birth of Christ, in an area of southern Italy where Greek colonists embraced Pythagoreanism and Orphism. The same tombs contained lovely examples of traditional Greek art, graceful and well executed; and some of these fine works of art came from the very same workshops which had created pieces similar to that in our illustration.

Archaeologists soon realized that the strange little statues, so inferior to other objects in the tomb hordes, contained a religious message, rather than an artistic one. Oddly, the upper figure was delicately draped in the fashion of the charming Tanagran style of terracottas, while the lower head was more crude – “semi-archaic,” as one archaeologist put it. The colors on the upper figure were subtle and muted, those on the lower head more garish. The marked contrast seemed to indicate two different realms of existence.

Greek tombs in southern Italy, especially around the town of Canosa, abounded in objects which portrayed the religious beliefs of the community. They are valuable because they reveal some of the secrets of the so-called mystery religions which promised salvation and immortality to the initiates. Many of these highly ornamented vessels and statues portrayed the voyage of the soul to celestial regions, and one especially famous vase from Canosa showed the arrival of the blessed dead at the throne of Hades and Persephone in the underworld. It was this vase upon which the German scholar Bachofen based his study of ancient Orphism.

In the genre of statuary here illustrated, the lower head appears to be that of Persephone, goddess of the underworld. Many of you may remember the story of how she was kidnapped by Hades, king of the realm of the dead. Her mother, Demeter, the grain goddess mourned and would not cause anything to grow upon the earth until her daughter was returned. Each year Persephone divided her time between the world of the dead and the world above, where her advent caused plant-life to grow. Many vases from southern Italy show the head of Persephone rising up out of the ground as she returns and brings with her a return of vegetation.

Persephone caused other kinds of life to sprout up on the earth as well. The Greek poet Pindar wrote that she sent the spirits of the righteous dead up into the light of the sun in the ninth year after their death. The wreath about the head of the goddess is here composed of leaves, an indication of the fertility which she brings. Other leaves are being pushed up, unfolding in the fashion of budding plants; and from within this verdure emerge tiny human heads. Within the crown on the top of the head stands the full figure of a woman. This apparently represents the soul of the dead person. In certain instances, the individual with whom the piece was buried was definitely a woman. In other cases, the gender of the dead person is not known. The piece was intended as a sort of consolation message for the dead person, promising a return to this life after nine years in Persephone’s bosom.

Ancient texts buried with skeletons in southern Italy reveal the belief that at death the properly initiated soul “stepped within the lovely crown,” sank beneath the bosom of the Persephone, and thereby became divine instead of mortal. The goddess both received souls and sent them forth again. As we mentioned, the statuettes of this genre are usually found in doublets, and in one instance a foursome. In some cases the face on the lower head is raised upwards, and the arms of the standing woman are lifted as though in expectation of new life, while the duplicate piece will have a more downward direction. Persephone, goddess of the underworld, was perceived as the beginning and the end of life, but these statuettes reveal a naive conception that the avenue to and from this world lay through her head.

In the same manner, Orphic poems speak of “Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, and in Zeus all things have their consummation.” Now this is valuable because quite clearly “head” is used in the sense of “beginning” or “source.” In fact, sometimes the ancients quoted this very line and substituted the word “beginning” (arche) for “head” (kephale ). The verse was intended to demonstrate the all-inclusive character of Zeus, but it began with him as “head” or “source.”

The belief that the head was source was widespread among the Greeks and Romans. It was even considered the seat of the soul and the source from which other parts of the body grew. (For a comparable idea see Eph. 4: 15-16 and Col. 1: 19.) The head was the well-spring of all moisture, and the source of a river was called its head. Even human sperm was thought to be produced in the brain and to descend through the spinal column to further human life. Pythagoreans forbade their adherents to eat the head of an animal because this was the generative part from which they themselves might once have originated in a prior incarnation. According to a favorite myth, Athena sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus. The head of Orpheus, though severed from the rest of his body, had continued to utter prophecies, as had the heads of Publius, Archonides, and a priest of Zeus Hoplosmios.

Among the Greeks, “head” seldom, if ever, denoted the concept of “chief’ or “boss.” The ancients themselves defined “head” as indicating “origin” or “source.” In terms of the headship passages in the Bible, this has important theological connotations. Alhanasius and others insisted that “head” must be understood as “source” rather than “boss ” lest one arrive at a faulty understanding of the Trinity. The Son and Holy Spirit proceed forth from the Father but are equal with Him in goodness, power, and love.

We can understand I Cor. 11: 1-3 to mean that the Son proceeds forth from God the Father, that every man has Christ as his Source and that woman was drawn forth from man (I Cor. 1I: 8,12), The typical Greek view was that woman was a subhuman species of monster, made of an inferior substance and deserving to be treated as an inferior. The biblical insistence that the source of woman lay in man means that woman is fully human and fully equal because she partakes of the same substance as man, “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” She too is made in God’s image (Genesis 5: 1-3).

Christ as Head and Source of the Church supplies to His Body nourishment and tender care, as should a husband for his wife (Eph. 5:29). The wife in turn must respect him and return the self-sacrificing love which he freely gives.

Those interested in academic documentation and further development of the foregoing material are referred to Gretchen Gaebelein Hull’s book, Equal to Serve, forthcoming from Revell this summer.

Since the biblical concept of Christ as Head of the Church and of husband as head of the wife is a very controversial one, we wonder if our readers would be interested in a small book which would reprint a collection of articles on headship. Do you have suggestions for works to be included, a title, and at approximately what price it should be made available? Please send your ideas and comments to the North Central Center for Christian Studies. PP