An Erotic Talisman
Michael Bennett Curator of Greek and Roman Art
Woman’s Belt Hanger (Zone) c. 725–675 bc. Greece, Geometric period (900–700 bc). Bronze; 32.5 x 14.5 cm. Jane B. Tripp Charitable Lead Annuity Trust 2006.5
In 2006 the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired an early Greek bronze personal ornament, identified through archaeological evidence as a woman’s belt hanger. A closely similar hanger was discovered in 1950 in a grave in Kozani, Macedonia, lying on a female skeleton directly over the pelvic bone.1 For several years such a personal ornament was considered to be a pectoral (worn over the chest), until in 1973 the scholar V. G. Kallipolitis, publishing the decades-old excavation of the Macedonian grave, called it a zone, a Greek word with several associations and shades of meaning, which in Homeric poetry may be translated “woman’s belt of chastity and sexual attraction.”2 The zone at the Cleveland Museum of Art, measuring 32.5 x 14.5 cm, is the second largest such object known to me, and one of the best preserved and most skillfully decorated.3 It dates to the late eighth or early seventh century bc. There are at least 27 other zonai (pl.) in private and public collections in the United States.
The bold shape and intricately composed cold-worked decoration of the museum’s zone convey a curious attractive power. The main body consists of a thin plate with a triangular contour. The two bottom edges run down in strong, straight diagonals, meeting at a central point. In contradistinction, the top edge droops down from the left and right corners like a slackened rope. These corners are extended and worked into pins, round in section; each curves back into matching loops. Flat, roughly square elements at the base of the loops, set apart by their silhouettes and worked decoration, are continuous with the triangular plate. Form and contour direct and redirect attention to the widest, central area of the plate, where the abstract ornamentation builds to a focal point. The back surface is undecorated and apparently not meant to be seen.
The cold-worked decoration, applied after the object was cast, hammered, and shaped, reinforces its triangular silhouette with an elaborate border enclosing groups of single and concentric dotted circles leading to a large radiate central emblem resembling a rosette with six pointed petals. This applied decoration is perfectly symmetrical. A number of tools were used, including punches and a compass. The superb technical sophistication clearly evident in the production of this bronze personal ornament indicates a practiced and refined workshop tradition.
Said to be from northern Greece, an unpublished Geometric-period bronze female figurine in the Sol Rabin collection provides important new evidence for better understanding the function of the CMA zone and its special meaning as an attribute of femininity.4 The figure, clearly female, is nude save for the carefully delineated raised triangular form over the pubic area. This is not an anatomical feature but an article of adornment. Considerable cold-working was needed to create the impression that the figure is wearing this accessory, eliminating any possibility that the triangular form is an accident of casting. The object both covers and emphasizes the structure and outlines of the pubis and genitalia, its triangular dimensions closely matching those of the zone and recalling the position of the example found in the Kozani grave, over the pubic bone of the female skeleton.
Exactly how the zone was worn around the woman’s waist is unclear. It may have been a hanging attachment to a waistband of leather or cloth worn under, or on top of, other clothing. Another possibility may be that the object was attached to a backing of some type and material that could then be incorporated into a waist belt, or applied to the clothing in some way at waist level. The Rabin figurine lends support to the idea that the zonewas worn under clothing directly on the body. That one was found over the body of a deceased woman in precise alignment with the pubic region strongly suggests that it was designed to emphasize this anatomical area, appearing to have been ergonomically designed for the purpose.
Ancient Model This Geometric-period bronze figurine in the Sol Rabin collection suggests how the zone may have been worn.
Since archaeological and iconographic evidence link the zone to this region of a woman’s body, it may be understood as a symbolic abstraction or diagram of the anatomy of the female reproductive system. This resemblance extends not only to the outward appearance and dimensions of the pubis but, curiously, even to internal anatomical structures such as the uterus and fallopian tubes, although it is not known to what degree early Greeks had knowledge of these internal structures.
In Homeric poetry, thezoneis a feminine attribute with a nexus of complementary meanings: chastity, propriety, cleanliness, submissiveness, and safety.5 To the male mind, these attractive qualities are virtues that project a particular type of womanly charis, a Greek word meaning “charisma,” a quality that men find re-assuring and sexually irresistible.6 In the Iliad Hera puts on a zone before her seduction of Zeus.7 In the Odyssey, the seductresses of Odysseus, Circe and Calypso, both wear the zone.8These Homeric versions show that women’s belts were powerful erotic talismans in the epic poems. Charis is actually visualized in the Odyssey as a ring, similar to the idea of a zone(Od. 8, line 175). The zone enhances a woman’s sexual desirability and increases her charis by signifying chastity and purity, possibly the most esteemed female virtues in ancient Greek society.9 In this way, the zone’s poetic signification is very similar to that of the woman’s veil (kredemnon) in the Homeric poems.10 Through cover and containment, both articles of feminine adornment assuage male anxieties that under a beguilingly innocent and lovely veneer, female sexuality is in fact wild and dangerous.
Such societal values and attitudes reflect a perception that women are competitively superior but potentially volatile and destabilizing in their mastery of the beguilements of love and sex, and should be appropriately contained to ensure the integrity of the family and, by extension, civil society. The allure of the zone signifies containment of the presumed wild and chaotic potential of female sexuality.
1 V. G. Kallipolitis, “Chalkoun kosmema gynaikeias zones ek Dytikes Makedonias,” Archaiologike ephemeris (1973), fig. 2, pls. 65a, b; and “À propos d’un type de ‘mitrè’ macédonienne,” in Ancient Macedonia II: Papers Read at the Second International Symposium in Thessaloniki, 19–24 August 1973 (Thessaloniki, 1977), pl. 1.
2 M. J. Bennett, Belted Heroes and Bound Women: The Myth of the Homeric Warrior-King (Lanham, 1997), 126–27, n. 9.
3 An example measuring 33.8 cm in width was on the art market in 1997; Frederick Schultz Ancient Art, Plain Geometry: Armament and Adornment in Pre-Classical Europe (1997), no. 14.
4 I thank Sol Rabin for kindly permitting me to publish this statuette; h. 6.9 cm.
5 Bennett, Belted Heroes and Bound Women, 125–60.
6 On Homeric charis see M. N. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley, 1974), 56–57, 117–18.
7 Iliad 14, lines 161–88.
8 Odyssey 5, lines 230–32 and Od. 10, lines 541–45.
9 The zone is a “symbol of female modesty . . . and part of her terrific charis” (Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition, 56–57).
10 Bennett, Belted Heroes and Bound Women, 129–30.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2010