Does this look like a lamp to you?
A recent article on a Cypriot Art Blog claims to shed “new light on an ancient lamp”. The lamp, from the Kent Collection (but previously owned by Thomas Sandwith) at the Harrogate Museum in England, is shown here to the right. It is dated to the 5th Century BCE (around the time of the founding of the Knights and Sisters of Paphos). As a lamp, it would have been filled with flammable oil and set alight. So, what’s wrong with this picture?
The Kents kept a register of their collection which reads, in part, of this piece, “Lamp, open type, shallow bowl with flat base, and flat rim pinched abruptly, slit narrow … Cyprus, Cudworth Collection.” And Mr. Cudworth published a guide to his collection which featured a woodcut calling the lamp an “Early Open Lamp.” He also said, of the lamp, “If we have not in the fossilised Terebratula the original design of the early open lamp used for domestic purposes, the coincidence is, at any rate, somewhat remarkable.” Terebratula? We’ll get to that in a bit.
So, here’s the thing. If you look at other lamps from Cyprus around the same time, you’ll see very different (read: actually usable) styles of design. You know, designs that wouldn’t spill the flaming oil all over your mosaic tile floor.
If you research (as I did) a little, you’ll find that these types of “open lamps” are attributed to those citizens of Cyprus who were of such low means that they could not afford the better, closed versions of lamps. That might have made some sort of sense in the 18th Century, when many of these artifacts were excavated. But three hundred years later it sounds ridiculous. Even if it is a lesser type of lamp, it would not have the need to be “pinched abruptly”, a pottery move that renders it useless as a lamp.
Cudworth had a different opinion of why it may have been designed in this way. While he agreed that it was a common “grave-good” (something found in a vast number of grave sites of common citizens), he found it beautifully similar to the Terebratula shell, thinking it may have been the inspiration for the design. Two things about that: 1. As you can see in the woodcut, though a Terebratula shell is pinched, it is not something that would leak out any liquids you might want to hold in the shell and 2. Well, let’s do this. Let’s keep a modicum of suspense going and say I’ll get to number two later.
Why am I making such a big deal about this? Because it’s pretty obvious that this piece is not a lamp. There are a lot of reasons why this might have been thought to be a lamp three hundred years ago. Here are four compelling ones for me:
- These “open lamp” objects tended to be found in the company of other, actual lamps.
- In the 18th Century, archaeological digs were being done by the thousands, usually by people with little skill and even less proper education. The outcome? They were making a lot of things up.
- The 18th Century was a time when many citizens of Cyprus were eschewing the name Cyprian and adopting Cypriot instead. This was basically a PR move because Cyprian had also become a synonym for “prostitute” due to the ancient sacred courtesanry practiced for centuries on the island.
- One piece of information the finders would have had access to was a Greek (Athenian, to be specific) term for similar “vessels” – καράφα του φωτός – a term that very loosely translates to “decanter (or carafe) of light”.
This last one is what really excites me. Yes, I’m excited about this because I love when history and sex converge. What?
Okay, stick with me.
Remember that “light” in Latin is Lux. And in Cyprianism the phrase Fiat Lux Lunae means “Let there be moonlight.” Lux is also related to Luxuria – Lust. And the Diamond Gate, our symbol for Lust is literally a representation of Paphia’s vulva – the light of Beauty. So, how might one decant or have a carafe of vulva?
Let’s get back to the tease from above where I didn’t quite reveal my second thought about the relationship between the “open lamp” and the Terabratula shell. To make the point, let’s flip the woodcut 180 degrees. Look familiar?
Between the connection of Paphia to seashells and the beautifully vulvar shape of the Terebratula, the clues are starting to add up. But if we stopped here we’d just have a cunt shaped lamp. I mean, that would be awesome, but it still wouldn’t hold the liquid.
And that is precisely the point. It was not meant to hold liquid. It was meant to decant liquid. Poems and story fragments from the history of Paphianism speak of decanters which were ritually placed between the legs of a sacred courtesan after she had been pleasured to orgasm. Once in place, ceremonial wines would be poured either down her back or belly, where it would mingle with her natural perfumes before spilling into the decanter and then out into the goblets of initiates. Descriptions of these decanters typically include references to them being of a seashell or vulvar shape. In this way, the Current, Beauty, light would be symbolically distributed from a “decanter of light”to those gathered.
I believe that what we have here is a Cypriot – no, Cyprian (to reclaim the word) – wine decanter which was likely used in such ceremonies. If it could speak, what stories it might tell…
Fiat Lux Lunae.