Pause to ponder: four deities in ancient Syracuse

Considering the vast history of the area around Syracuse, I knew that its archaeological museum would be a gem worth seeing. The city was founded in 734 BC by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea and grew to be the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean for some time. Its hub in the ancient period was the small island of Ortygia, where many of the statues and artifacts in the museum were found.

The Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi, close to the Neapolis ancient site in Syracuse, is so packed with statues and ornaments that it can be difficult to know what to focus on. I’ve picked out four statues of deities that I found particularly interesting to give a sense of the wealth this museum holds.

Firstly, one of the oldest and most fascinating pieces is this limestone statue of a mother goddess feeding twins. This headless statue dates back to 550 BC and was found in a necropolis in Megara Hyblaea, an ancient Greek colony that was situated about 20 km northwest of Syracuse. The goddess tenderly holds her twins who eagerly grasp for her voluptuous breasts.

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I have discovered that this portrays “Kourotrophos”: a deity who protects young people. She had a strong cult following at the time this statue was created, and was worshiped with sacrifices in rituals connected to fertility and childcare.

The next piece I liked was this limestone statue of Priapus– a male fertility god. This was found in a well in Syracuse and is believed to date from the 3rd century BC– making it one of the oldest representations of this god. Unfortunately his arms and his prime asset appear to have fallen off (he was known as having a large and permanent erection!) Nevertheless, his mischievous face is still well-preserved. His statues were popular in gardens and orchards of the time and so this probably stood in monumental grounds of Syracuse that were sacked when the Romans besieged the town in 212-214 BC.

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Next up was this very beautiful statue of Hygieia– the daughter of Asclepius, god of medicine. She is the personification of health, cleanliness and hygiene– a word that derives from her name!  This statue dates from the late second century BC and was found in Ortygia island. She is portrayed in a traditional fashion, with the snake wrapped around her arm. Her symbol of the snake and bowl is connected to her father’s symbol of a rod with a snake twined around it. This derives from the legend that in exchange for some kindness shown, a snake licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him some secret knowledge. While Asclepius’ rod is a commonly-used symbol of medicine, Hygieia’s snake and bowl have become a symbol in the pharmacy world, used by many industry associations.

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Another beautiful feminine statue on show in the museum is this Venus dating from the 2nd century AD, which may have served as decoration in a nymphaeum, a monument dedicated to nymphs. It is a Roman copy of a Rhodian-Micrasiatic original from the 2nd century BC. This statue is known as the “Venus Landolina” after the archaeologist Saverio Landolina, who discovered her. It portrays the goddess of love and beauty as a modest lady at her bath. Her right arm, now unfortunately lost, originally sought to shield her breasts.

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It was wonderful to discover more about these gods and goddesses from the statues on show in this interesting archaeology museum. There is such a rich collection here that it is well worth a visit when you are in this ancient city! Enjoy darlings!

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