“All saints revile her and all noble men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold
Her whom we desired above all things to know
Sister of the mirage and the echo
It was a virtue not to stay,
To go our headstrong and heroic way
Seeking her out at the volcano’s head
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper’s,
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
Whose hair curled honey coloured to white hips.
Green sap of spring in the young wood astir
Will celebrate with green the Mother,
And every song-bird shout awhile for her:
But we are gifted, even in November,
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal
Careless of where the next bright bolt may fall.”
I read the White Goddess: a historical grammar of poetic myth by Robert Graves from which this poem comes sometime in the 1970s after a couple of false starts. It seemed at the time to be a very difficult book to understand. It was one of those books you sometimes read, especially when you’re young which give you the feeling of a revelation about to occur. (The revelation itself may be real or imaginary – other examples for me have been been the Carlos Castaneda books and Philip K Dick’s Valis. You’re only young once.)
It’s connected in my mind with books on the occult I read in the same period – Richard Cavendish’s the Black Arts and Colin Wilson’s the Occult. The weekly encyclopedia of the occult Man, Myth and Magic also comes into it, with it’s iconic cover image of an elemental by Austin Osman Spare. Into that mix you can add films like Jason and the Argonauts and the 1981 Clash of the Titans. (Although neither were directed by the stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen you think of them as his films.) These days I would add that strange film Incense for the Damned based on the novel Doctors wear scarlet by Simon Raven which was made in 1970 but which I only saw a few years ago.
Graves’s idiosyncratic exploration of the mythology of the Goddess came to mind when I saw these pictures taken by John Bignell around 1984. As with many Bignell projects the reason for the existence of these pictures of a modern woman dressed as an ancient goddess was not immediately clear, to me at any rate. The box of negatives is labelled simply Aphrodisias. This was the location. Aprodisias is an ancient Greek city in southern Turkey.
The Stadium, one of the best preserved of its kind. In this picture the site has yet to be cleaned up and looks rather more wild and overgrown than it does today.
The city had a marble quarry nearby and hence a large number of statues and inscribed stones.
I went through all the prints from this session until I finally found a handwritten note by Bignell on on the back of one of them. This revealed the name of the model and possibly why Bignell went to Turkey in 1984 to take what he calls “the Aphrodite series” . I don’t think I should reveal this information in a blog post so for the moment I shall protect the human identity of the Goddess.
Bignell preferred to take photographs in black and white so these colour images are as unusual as the setting. But they have the right atmosphere of heat and blinding light and the exotic figure of a woman pretending (perhaps) to be a goddess.
Is this the same picture? Look again, at the mouth of the goddess slightly open in this version of the image.
And look a third time, this time at her feet.
The toes of the Goddess can be seen peeping out from under her robes.
Aphrodisias is about 60 miles from the coast so I’m not sure whether this picture was taken on the same day but it comes from the same box and has the feel of a lazy end to the day’s work.
The sun sets on one of those timeless landscapes. The Goddess has packed up her robes and returned to the home of the Gods. Bignell brings some of the magic back to London.