the pz gesture of the lactating goddess Table of contents

Abstract & Preface

poetry by
Adrienne Rich

Chapter I
The hand of "El caballero de la mano al pecho"

Chapter II
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures

Chapter III
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in Christian cultures

Chapter IV
Breast-feeding forms in the Renaissance

Chapter V
Literary sources of lactating goddesses

Chapter VI
The meaning of the Ostentatio Mammarum
and the pseudo- zygodactylous gesture

Illustrations & Bibliography

Biographical sketch


Chapter II:
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in various pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures

Pre-Indo-European Europe:

The pre-Indo-European cultures of Europe offer the distinction from other imagery in that it is generally agreed to have a greater feminine aspect than the Europe after the invasion of the patriarchal Indo-Europeans.48 Images of the female nursing are not common and are found primarily throughout the eastern European archaeological sites as distinct figurines that do not compose a class in and of themselves. Female figurines in the attitude of nursing from neolithic and pre-Indo-European times offer the most basic maternal gesture, that of cradling the child while it nurses at the mother's breast. The hand is not placed to the breast nor is there a distinction between the fingers except for the basic incisions or lines used to distinguish the digits. Some scholars have referred to these female figurines as 'goddesses'49 but given the lack of textual evidence to corroborate this view, there can be no final decision. Most scholars do agree, however, that these images relate to the procreative, nurturing ability of women in general, which may have magical or religious significance.50 The breast, in these images, serves to distinguish and qualify the figurine as female, as seen in the paleolithic images of the so-called 'Venus' figurines.51 Other metaphysical qualities attributed to these images are the subject of much interpretation, primarily focused on the feminine image as a fertility symbol.52 In this age of female nursing figurines the woman can be said to play the major role in the encounter between mother and child, so much that it often seems that the child is a mere appendage added to the adult woman to verify her sex and her maternity.

Gradac, central Yugoslavia, from the classical Vinca site: As with nearly all paleolithic and neolithic images, this headless 'Madonna'53 is a figurine, sculpted in terracotta, of a female figure holding an infant as it nurses at her breast. 5000-4000 bce It is headless and seated, like another nursing pair from the Dimini period at Sesklo near Volos, Thessaly in eastern Greece, dating from approximately 4000 bce.54 Sardinia: seated robed woman with upstretched right hand, holding a child two-thirds her size on her lap. His left hand covers her right breast, with her left breast at his chin. Prehistoric.55

the Ancient Near East:

the Hittites, Sumeria, Ur, Warka/Uruk, Ugarit, Hebrews As with the pre-Indo-European nursing images, the Near East offers the same common type of nursing posture, i.e., woman cradling the child as it nurses. Here in the ancient Near East, however, the image begins to distinguish itself from nursing babies to nursing boys and grown men; from the mundane physical feeding of an immature non-gender-specific infant to the sacral metaphysical nourishment of princes and kings. One major deviance is noted in the Hittite culture in an orthostat relief carved in basalt from Karatepe/anatolian of a woman standing by a palm tree, well dressed with a cap on her head, nursing a young boy who stands at her side as she clasps his back with her right arm and holds her right breast with her left hand, ca. 700 bce.56 This is the earliest example in the Near East of a woman placing her hand to her breast directly to offer or guide it to the child's mouth. It is also the first example of an older child, two-thirds her height, nursing as it stands by her side. This could be a depiction of the young prince nursed by his mother, the queen, or an analogy of the goddess nursing the sacred king-to-be. In addition to breast-feeding and nurturing images of the female, in Mesopotamia we first see the breast used as an overt sexual symbol as a woman offers her adult male bed-partner her breast.57 Significant to both the pre-Indo-European period to the north and to the cultures of the ancient Near East is the preeminent role that the female mother figure plays in relation to the child which she is nursing. As time moves on, in Egypt and in Europe, the infant becomes more and more the central focus in the nursing dyad. This is evidenced by the coming of written language and the literature that it created, especially in the ancient Near East, with primary characters such as Inanna and Ishtar.


Snake-headed figurine made from terracotta of a standing woman holding her nursing infant as it clasps her breast. Obeid epoch, 4000-3500 bce58 Neo-Sumerian: a sculpted plaque of a dressed mother figurine standing as she nurses her child, also made of terracotta around 2150 bce.59 Hittite: Bronze statue from Horoztepe of a wide-eyed woman standing, holding her child in both arms to her breast as it nurses. ca. 2000 bce, predating the beginnings of the ancient Hittite empire, about the time of the Egyptian Middle Empire ( XI dynasty).60 Hittite: Bronze statue of a nude woman, with headdress and ankle bracelets, standing on the back of a small lion, holding a nursing child to her right breast, ca. 1500 bce.61 Proto-Iranian: from a necropolis in Hurvin, 80 kilometers northwest of Teheran, dating from around 850-750 bce, this standing figurine in terracotta appears more bear-like than human. It has short arms which do not support the armless infant fastened to her right breast.62


Fragment of a terracotta statue of an enthroned woman nursing a misshapen child, from Tyr, southern Lebanon, ca. 325 bce. The prototype is said to have appeared on the cylinder of Khay-Tou in Byblos at the beginning of the third millennium, reappearing in the 13th and 4th centuries. 63


Hathor nursing the pharaoh, from B.Lesko's _the Great Goddesses of Egypt_
Isis, Hathor, et al. In Egypt the nursing goddess rises to its first great height in art, religion, and literature for a period over 2500 years.64 Two separate goddesses, Hathor and Isis (who later often are merged into one being), are depicted most frequently as nursing Isis' son, Horus (Harpokrates in Greek), and the incumbent pharaoh. Both Hathor, the cow goddess, and Isis, sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, began in antiquity as separate local goddesses, limited to their geographical district of origin: Isis of the Nile delta, and Hathor of Momenphis65 and Byblos.66 As Egypt grew, and as the influence of the pharaohs in the Upper and Lower kingdoms increased with commercial and military travel, the goddesses were transposed to other areas and became the primary females in the Egyptian pantheon. With the syncretism of centuries, Hathor became identified with Isis, as Isis with Hathor, culminating in Isis wearing the cow horns and sun disc of Hathor, adding her hieroglyphic name, Isis qua throne, on top. The artwork dedicated to the image of Hathor nursing portrays her in three incarnations: as full cow, as half-cow, half-woman, and as full woman. As a cow Hathor nurses the boy Horus, posthumous son of Osiris and Isis, on his knees sucking her udder,67 the queen Hatchepsut (ca. 1490-68 bce) who sucks on Hathor's udder,68 and later nurses Hatchepsut's grandson, the king Amenhotep (ca. 1440 bce), depicted as sucking on Hathor's udder in a statue-drawing.69 Hathor as half-woman nurses the infant Horus in a kneeling posture, proffering her left breast with her right hand as Horus himself places his inside hand on her proffering arm. Hathor is also seen as a human goddess in the same source (birth house [mammisi] of Dendera) nursing Horus as half-cow goddess, sitting on a throne, almost indistinguishable from Isis.70

Isis as Tree, nursing a pharaoh, from B.Lesko's _the Great Goddesses of Egypt_<> Isis nursing Horus (the pharaoh) (fig. 3)71 in literally thousands of extant statues, steles, and drawings: sitting for the infant, as is the most common, or standing for the rarer boy or adult male.72 In the traditional form Isis sits on a plain throne that is her namesake with her left hand on the infant Horus' back for support, proffering her left breast to the child. Horus is not usually placed on or at Isis' nipple or breast but is generally a little distant, offering the viewer the focus on Isis's breast more than on Horus nursing at the breast. In many of the images of Isis and Horus found in the official tombs and monuments dedicated to the deceased pharaoh, Horus symbolically represents the dead king himself who nurses at the breast of Isis in order to gain the afterlife.73

The portrayal of Isis in the Egyptian style changed drastically as the Greek Ptolemaic empire (323-30 bce) adopted and exported the Isis cult to the Mediterranean world, to Greece, Rome, France, Germany, and as far as Poland, Spain, and Mesopotamia. Isis became rounder, more in keeping with the classical renderings of the Greeks and Romans. Her hairstyle became northern Mediterranean, as did her throne, her clothing, and her child, so much that the Europeanized Isis becomes only a distant replica of her Egyptian ancestor of the Nile. In one such mural painting from the third century ce74 Isis is indistinguishable from a Greek matron of the time, identifiable only by the gesture of the child that she holds, i.e., the traditional index finger to the mouth or cheek that identifies Horus, or Harpokrates as he is now known in the 'Mysteries of Isis.' Greek and Roman statues of Isis and Horus have even been known to have been worshipped as images of the Virgin Mary and her child Jesus up through the 15th century of the common era. Apart from the goddess imagery, depictions of a woman nursing a child in more mundane circumstances exist showing: a sculpted scene of a woman having her hair combed or plaited by another as she nurses an infant on the floor,75 a pharmaceutical pot in the shape of a woman clasping her right breast with her right hand to nurse her child,76 a drawing of a noble woman nursing on a chair, attended by another.77
Other goddesses depicted suckling the divine infant Horus or king are:
an unidentified ram-headed goddess wearing the Hathor headdress, with the tail of Selkit, the scorpion goddess;78
Anoukhet ('Anuqet), a goddess of the South, patroness of the region of the cataracts of the Nile, nurse of a king, giving her breast to the adult Ramses II (1298-32 bce);79
the asp-headed Rannu/Rennut, lady of Aat, who was called a divine nurse of princes,80 and the goddess Toueris, the hippopotamus goddess, in the shape of a bottle, whose left breast is horizontal, with a hole in the nipple;81
Mersekert suckling the young man Horus dressed as pharaoh;82 and Isis herself also appears once as a holy tree with a breast in its branches, nursing the king, found in the grave of Tuthmosis (Thutmosis) III,83 father of Amenhotep II and son of Hatchepsut, both also depicted as nursing from Hathor/Isis. Hathor's posture is dictated by the image she takes, cow or human. As a cow she stands on four feet, oblivious to the nurser. As a human she kneels. Her nursers, usually male except in the case of the queen Hatchepsut, are confined to the postures of kneeling at her udder or, as Horus, sitting in her lap. Isis' posture varies little, limited to sitting on the ground in the mideastern style, sitting on a throne, or standing. The nurser, always male, is either sitting in her lap as a child or standing next to her as a boy, young man, or adult. Common to all images of the human-figured goddess or anthropomorphic animal goddess of Egypt is the manner in which the breast is held, i.e., held by the hand under the breast with the thumb above the nipple like a cup. The only variations in this style are limited to the placement of the thumb, either closer or farther from the other fingers.


Maya, Yashoda, Putana, Hariti, Nayika Maya: the Hindu goddess, "represented pressing her breasts, whence flow those copious streams of milk by which all living creatures are nourished and supported."84
Hariti: passive, no gestures to the breast.85
Yashoda: "Krishna at Jasoda's breast;"86 also "Yashoda suckling Krishna" passive, Krishna has both hands on her breast--Krishna suckling at Yashoda's breast,87 woman attending her to the side. Yashoda nursing Krishna, p/z gesture on side of nipple.88

Krishna sucking the poison out of the ogress Putana who tried to kill him with it.
Putana: passive, Krishna has both hands on her breast--Krishna suckling at Putana's breast89; stone sculpture, 8th century--Putana with both hands abover her head as Krishna sucks the life out of her.90
Nayika: "Nayika nursing infant," passive, no gestures to the breast.91

Far East Asia:

Kuan Yin
Sri Lanka (Sérinde): Hariti cupping her right breast in her left hand, sitting on a low frame stool, with eight little boy figures playing in the air about her.92 Thailand: maternity dolls, height: 10-11.5 cm., woman sitting on ground, child in left arm at left breast, right hand to left breast.93
Japan: Yama Uba nursing Kintoki,94 little boy sucking on the right breast while tweaking the nipple of her left breast. We see only her right hand lying on his shoulder; passive.
China: Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, often mistaken by Western people as the Virgin Mary. Hariti nursing an infant.95 Right hand on child's left arm; no contact with breast.

Indo-European Europe:

Etruria and Greece
Etruria: An adoption scene on the back of an Etruscan ivory mirror of Hera (Juno) enthroned nursing the adult man Herakles (Hercules) at her breast, and others observing (fig. 4). 96 Greece: from the necropolis of Megara Hyblæa, a so-called mother goddess, enthroned and headless, nursing two infants in swaddling clothes, dating from around 580-525 bce.97 Eriphyle nursing the baby Alcmeon in the presence of Amphiareus and Demo.98 Diana of Ephesus: the breasted-one, with rows upon rows of breasts indicating her abundant and overflowing fertility. Aphrodite: mentioned for her cupped breast gesture (left hand to left breast)--here a sexual gesture.99

the Americas:

Hatlatlaqualilztli: naked human figure suspended sideways in the air, sucking on the goddess Hatlatlaqualilztli's breast, never touching.100 Chalchihuitlicue, the water goddess101


Oya, mother goddess of the Niger, standing with her arms embracing two children who are also standing in front of her, mouths sucking and drawing out her taut breasts.102


God the Mother has a long and involved history that has been carried over into and greatly influenced modern religious practices. Known also as the Great Mother (Magna Mater) in the Latin-speaking world, she evolved into distinct entities with the different cultures. Her main role was as a benefactor and intercessor for humanity. Almost always she was coupled to a male god who, for fear of his anger, judgment, and wrath, was viewed as unapproachable by human beings. A prime example of this is the cult of Isis, one of the most important goddesses of ancient Egypt and of the whole Mediterranean basin. Her name is the Greek form of the hieroglyph that stands for 'throne,' a feminine noun, and also represents 'queen.' In ancient Egypt the royal inheritance was matrilineal--from mother to daughter. Thus the man who married the queen became the king. Later (ca. 1000 bce) as her cult took form, she became the wife of her brother Osiris and by him had a son named Horus. Through her care and shelter of her son she became the goddess of protection, and both became known as the perfect mother and son. Her chief aspect, however, was that of a great enchantress whose power transcended that of all other deities. Isis protected the dead in particular and until the coming of Christianity was the most popular goddess in Egypt and surroundings. As such her fame spread to the Greeks and through them around the Mediterranean basin. Her role as mother developed into a more important aspect, for motherhood was one of the functions of all the great goddesses and she herself was a life-giver. As mother, Isis was primarily represented in the maternal attitude of breast-feeding Horus, her child, on her lap. Temples to her were established throughout Europe as Egypt came under Roman rule, and it was Rome itself that became the new center of her worship. At this period of romanized Egypt, Christianity was introduced and developed alongside of the olde established religions. The naturalistic type of art carried away many of the stylized conventions of the past and it is now difficult to distinguish between pagan and Christian figures of the mother and child. This assimilation of the Christian mother Mary from the pagan mother goddess Isis is noted in a variety of sources: "the remarkable resemblance between this conception [of Isis suckling Horus] of the kourotrophos103 and that of the Madonna and Child in the art of the Italian Renascence,"104 "l'image intime et vivante d'Isis avec l'enfant Harpocrate [Horus] devrait tre considerée comme prototype de la Madone avec l'enfant Jesus."105 This, then, is the stepping stone between ancient and modern religions: the assimilation of a 'pagan' goddess with child into a Christian goddess with child: "Isis comme le grand percurseur de la Madone ... une continuite du culte d'Isis celui de la Vierge Marie; ... la resseamblance entre Isis lactans et Maria lactans est a la fois inconographique et theologique."106