In ancient Rome, a group of young women known as the Vestal Virgins kept the eternal flame burning in the Temple of Vesta in the Forum, a potent symbol of their civilization’s legitimacy and political power. While they completed their 30-year term with virginity intact, they continued to live relatively independent lives. But if they broke their vow, they were buried alive in a chamber with a small amount of food and water. After all, the blood of these divine women could not flow.
Although ancient cultures uplifted some women, they reviled others. “Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic”, at the British Museum in London until September 25, strives to show the two sides of female power in ancient and modern cultures around the world, examining female deities who have been exalted in some way, even when they were portrayed as evil.
Visitors will meet Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, Kali, the Hindu goddess whose very name translates as “She who is death”, Guanyin, the sex-changing Buddhist ideal of compassion, and Sekhmet, an Egyptian goddess of war who could both bring disease and heal.
The exhibit spans six continents and 5,000 years, according to its website, who calls it a “cross-cultural look at the profound influence of female spiritual beings within global religion and faith”.
Ancient and modern artworks and devotional objects in the exhibition “highlight the diversity of ways in which female authority and femininity have been celebrated, feared and understood, throughout history”. write curators Belinda Crerar and Lucy Dahlsen in a museum blog.
When women were made divine, they often existed to exemplify certain central concepts of the societies that worshiped them. The Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, for example, represented “war and sexual love”, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, possibly two sides of the same coin. In a clay relief from the 19th to 18th century BCE in southern Iraq, the goddess is represented on the back of a lion with her arms in the air.
“A volatile force, Ishtar was often graced with erotic hymns and votive models and could bring chaos or stability to home and state,” Crerar and Dahlsen write.
Other works revisit the myth of creation and center divine femininity. Prominent modern artist Judy Chicago aptly named Creation depicts a female goddess giving birth to the world from her vulva as her breast becomes a spitting volcano.
Women were not only creators, symbols of romantic or sexual love and providers of justice. They could also bring evil and could be equally feared and loved.
Take Lilith, often seen as Adam’s first wife who would not obey her biblical husband’s wishes. Renamed a feminist icon in the 20th century, a 1994 play by Kiki Smith depicts her with soulful blue eyes and on all fours.
Like the Vestal Virgins, these goddesses were both hugely important and easily dismissed. Like Ishtar, the god of sex and war, they represent “seemingly contradictory qualities”, writes the BBC. Daisy Dunn.
“Sumerian kings did their best to combine the best of both worlds by imagining themselves sleeping with [Ishtar] in order to gain his protection during the war,” Dunn writes. “It was, perhaps in part, a way of tempering their fears of his authority.”
By centering women with mythical power, the exhibition subtly points to who really decides: men. Often, goddesses who were able to change gender and assume male attributes were considered more powerful than those who could not.
“One can’t help but think that men endowed female deities with powers beyond their human counterparts to illustrate why female domination on Earth would be disastrous,” Dunn writes.
And yet, the exhibit leaves viewers with a sense of the real power of women – a sacred and complex force that men, no matter how hard they try, cannot truly enclose and contain.
During a visit, the Guardianby Marina Warner saw a group stop to “kneel and cross” in front of a stone statue of a Huastec deity from Mexico. For them, these female goddesses were always impressive, in the biblical sense of the word, worthy of fear and veneration.
‘Feminine Power: From Divine to Demonic’ is on view at the British Museum in London, UK, until September 25, 2022.