The 1938 excavation of a house in Pompeii produced a statuette that first was believed to be Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and fertility. Newer reseach says no, but she still is Hindu. Where did she come from?
A podcast interview with art historian Laura Weinstein examines the statuette’s possible backstory.
The statuette may be a souvenir of a Roman merchant’s voyage(s) to India — or perhaps from a shorter trip to the ancient port of Alexandria (Egypt), where cargos from India were routed to new destinations in the Roman empire.The podcast is available from Apple, Spotify, Player.fm, and elsewhere. The date is August 11, 2021.
Weinstein published a chapter, “The Indian figurine from Pompeii as an emblem of East-West trade in the Early Roman imperial era,” in the collection Globalization and Transculturality from Antiquity to the Pre-Modern World (Routledge, 2021).Ask your librarian about getting a copy of the chapter.
The map above shows trade routes from the empire to southern Indian in that era. Weinstein mentions a “manual for merchants,” written in Greek, that gave sailing directions from the Red Sea and information about the various Indian ports, the products that could be purchased there, etc.
According to one article — and this is pretty much Weinstein’s view as well — she is not Lakshmi after all.
Originally, the figurine was considered to depict the goddess Lakshmi, a fertility, beauty, and riches goddess venerated by early Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. However, the iconography, particularly the exposed genitals, indicates that the image is more likely to represent a yakshi, a female tree spirit who embodies fertility, or a syncretic rendition of Venus-Sri-Lakshmi from an old trade between Classical Greco-Roman and Indian civilizations.
As for the idol, her location in the house suggests more that she was in storage than in a shrine, so perhaps she was “just a souvenir.”