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Cista Mystica from a marble funerary altar of the Flavian period (69-96 CE)

Our lives are filled with Greco-Roman symbols and memes which have lasted for thousands of years: Cupids, cornucopias, the bowl of Hygeia, the staff of Asclepius, Justice with her scales, the gorgonian, Mercury’s feet, the centurion’s helmet, the Aegis, the victor’s wreath, the quincunx, Athena’s owl, the lyre, the comic/tragic masks–they all have immediate meanings for us.  Thus it comes as a surprise to look at actual classical art and see how many ancient Mediterranean motifs have not survived at all, but have become baffling to everyone except for classical scholars.  We now scratch our heads when we realize how many ancient coins and sculptures bear the modius (a grain basket symbolic of the underworld), the lituus (a ritual wand which betokened augury), or the cista mystica—which is the subject of today’s post.

 

Roman coin showing cista mystica

A cista was a little basket/casket which was used to store toiletries, jewels, or other small personal effects.  A cista mystica (literally “secret casket”) was a sacred object of the mystery cults which (seems to have) contained a living serpent.  The cista mystica was known to be sacred to Bacchus, but similar cult objects were probably also affiliated with Isis (and the perhaps with the Ophites, a Gnostic worship sect). In the Bacchic mysteries the serpent was carried on a bed of grape leaves and was a stand in for the god.  The characteristic form of the serpent was an important component of the symbolism and classical sources note it shares its shape with “the forms of men” (which is to say that it directly betokened virility and male fertility).

 

Frescos from a Roman villa (50-40 BC) showing objects associated with the cult of Bacchus

The Roman mind sometimes was surprisingly literal and several preeminent men were rumored to have been fathered by gods in serpent form. Olympias mother of Alexander the Great was allegedly found sleeping next to a snake before giving birth to Alexander and Phillip of Macedon was said to shun her bed afterwards (Renaissance artists enjoyed painting this episode, but I’ll leave it to you to google the paintings and drawings).  It should also be noted that the marriage of Phillip and Olympias was infamously volatile thanks to Phillip’s propensity to take other wives (and everything else).  Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was also allegedly the son of a snake and it was said that his mother always bore the mark of the serpent’s embrace after his birth.  Any Roman seeing the cista mystica on the coin of the realm would understand the message–not only were serpents fertility symbols which betokened otherworldly wisdom, but they were also proxies of divine mystery and Roman ascendance.

During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras.  One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.

Statue of Pluto (Roman, ca. First Century, Marble)

The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:

Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld.  He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance.  The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak.  A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity.  Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)

Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans.  When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.

Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse.  The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy.  The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses.  The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead.  No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion.  The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.

Rape of Proserpine (Niccolò dell'Abbate, ca. 1571, oil on canvas)

Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath.  She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved.  The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.

Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities.  Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship.  There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”.  Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.

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