HEAD OF A MAIDEN (DEMETER OR KORE/PERSEPHONE)
Etruscan, ca. 4th century BC
Height: 8-1/4 inches (21 cm)
Provenance: Private collection, Nicolas Koutoulakis – 1950s-1960s – thence by descent; Merrin Gallery, 1997; Private collection, Westchester, New York
This lovely and serene head represents either Demeter, or her daughter Kore (also known as Persephone). She wears a plain diadem above her sinuous hair which is parted in the center and styled in deep furrows that end in spit curls at either temple. Her large eyes are incised and have traces of pigment remaining on the pupils. Her “Roman” nose descends in a straight sweep from the forehead. Her lower lip is slightly fuller than the upper, imbuing her with a delicate pouting expression. The sides and back of the head were not modeled.
The Greek and Roman mythological cycles in which these deities participate are much more widely known than the obscure Etruscan versions, hence the reliance on the Greek counterparts. Demeter is the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility, and fecundity. She may be equivalent with the little known Etruscan goddess Vei or the goddess Horta (who had dominion over agriculture) or Tvath (who had dominion over resurrection). When Hades, perhaps equivalent to the Etruscan Underworld god, Vetis, espied the lovely Kore ( Persipnei in Etruscan) picking flowers in the field, he fell in love and abducted her to his realm, the Underworld. Her mother’s grief was so overwhelming that she neglected her duties leading. Drought and famine ensued. Beseeching the Olympians for help, Demeter prevailed and Zeus decreed that her daughter return to her but only if she had consumed no food while in the chthonic realm. Alas, Kore had eaten six pomegranate seeds, so she had to remain below for half the year. When she returns to the terrestrial realm, her mother rejoices and life – whether agrarian or animal – rebounds. When she returns to her husband in the Underworld, where she reigns beside him as queen, the crops again wither and lands are fallow.
In addition to her role as goddess of the harvest, Demeter also had sovereignty over sacred law and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter were celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the annual initiation rites into their cults that originated during the Mycenaean period, ca. 1500 BC. The secret rites promised initiates reward in the afterlife.