Pagan myths in Caesarea

A ‘Medusa’ sarcophagus on display in the ancient port city refers to Poseidon chaining Andromeda to a rock, the only event in Greek mythology set in the Land of Israel.

An ornately carved, 1,700-year-old sarcophagus lid depicting venomous snake-haired Medusa went on display in Caesarea recently. The four-ton lid, likely carved from marble quarried in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), suggests the luxurious lifestyle of this eastern Mediterranean entrepôt in late antiquity as paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Mithraism competed for the hearts and minds of the port city’s heterogeneous population.
“The impressive sarcophagus cover, which was probably used in the burial of one of Caesarea’s wealthiest denizens in the late-Roman period, is one of an assortment of unique stone items that were exposed in archaeological excavations and by other means in Caesarea. The items constitute living and tangible evidence of the lives of the rich in Caesarea, at a time when the city was a vibrant Roman provincial capital,” according to Ayelet Grover, of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The sarcophagus lid obliquely refers to the only event in Greek mythology set in the Land of Israel: The sea god Poseidon chained Andromeda – a princess in Greek mythology – to a rock in the sea off Jaffa where she was to have been devoured by a sea monster, but instead was rescued by the hero Perseus. Andromeda’s legendary rescuer then went on to kill Medusa, a terrifying vixen called a Gorgon.
While descriptions of Gorgons – from the Greek word gorgós, meaning “dreadful” – vary across Greek and Latin literature, the term commonly refers to any of three sisters who had hair of writhing, poisonous snakes, and a horrifying gaze that turned anyone who beheld it to stone. Perseus, aided by the gods – Hermes supplied him with winged sandals and a scythe, Athena equipped him with a mirror-like bronze shield, and Hades provided a helmet of invisibility – was able to avoid being petrified and slay Medusa by looking at her harmless mirror reflection.
Unlike Medusa, her sisters Stheno and Euryale were immortal. Because of their legendary gaze, images of the Gorgons were put upon objects and buildings as an evil-averting device, known as the Gorgoneion.
THE GORGONS, especially Medusa, have been a common motif in Western art and literature over the millennia. Placed on doorways, walls, armor and tombstones, and generally used as an amulet for protection against the evil eye, Gorgon reliefs and images often include snakes protruding wildly and the tongue sticking out between her fangs.
“Interment in large stone coffins (sarcophagi) was widespread in the Mediterranean basin in the second to fifth centuries CE,” explains Grover. “This funerary custom was first practiced among pagans and was later also adopted by Jews, Christians and Samaritans.”
“The word sarcophagus is Greek in origin, meaning ‘flesh-eating,’” she continues. “The sarcophagus has two parts: A rectangular chest-like receptacle in which the deceased was placed, and a lid. The sarcophagi were interred inside burial structures (mausoleum; pl. mausolea) or in rock-hewn burial caves. The residents of ancient Caesarea were buried in cemeteries that were located in regions outside the built-up area of the city.”
The sarcophagus with its Medusa relief is part of a new permanent exhibit created by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Caesarea Development Corporation, and Israel Nature and Parks Authority, on display at the Crusader harbor in the Caesarea National Park.
Other artifacts in the new exhibit include a dedicatory inscription from a magnificent public building bearing the name Cleopatra. It seems that she and her son or daughter were members of a family of local nobility that donated the structure to Colonia Caesarea.
A second sarcophagus on display bears a Greek inscription by Eliphis dedicated to his beloved wife Manophila stating, “Man is not immortal, and such is life…”
“The inscriptions are a rich source of information for understanding the history of Caesarea in the Roman and Byzantine periods. We can learn from them about public life in the city, its institutions, political ties and personal relations, and about the city’s residents – their names, professions and religious beliefs,” says Grover.