Harnessing our inner goddess

Thirty years ago I published an edited collection, The Feminist Companion to Mythologylater retitled The Woman’s Companion to Mythology. This was a collection of essays about goddesses and other female supernatural entities across different mythologies. That book is long out of print, but interest in such figures, their significance, roles and histories, has grown remarkably. This new exhibition at the British Museum focuses on female figures imagined as wielding different kinds of power, and its subtitle reveals the particular domain – that of the supernatural or sacred – that the images and artefacts on display aim to explore. What, I wondered, might have changed in the conceptualization and framing of the feminine divine and demonic after thirty years?

The exhibition brings together artefacts already in the British Museum’s collection, along with loans and some new commissions. Standouts here are the wonderful sculpture that closes the show, “Grow the Tea, then Break the Cups” by the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, a brand-new, highly colored Kali icon by Kaushik Ghosh, trampling the god Shiva in bloody triumph, and A muscular, defiant Lilith by Kiki Smith, crouched high above exhibition-goers’ heads, forcing us to look up to Adam’s first wife, who refused to submit to him. Particularly striking are the divinities from non-western – and thus less familiar – traditions: the Nigerian mermaid-like Mami Wata, the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, the enigmatic Tlazolteotl, “eater of filth”, from Mexico, and the terrifying, teeth- baring figures of the Cihuateteo, Aztec women who died in childbirth and return to snatch the babies of more fortunate mothers. Australia, where the exhibition will go on tour, is represented only by a single sculpture of a Yawkyawk, a female ancestral spirit – for Aboriginal Australians regard their myths as “men’s and women’s business”, not to be communicated to those outside the tribal group . The curators have engaged thoughtfully with a range of practising faith communities: quotes from Wiccans and Hindu and Muslim women remind us that many of the divinities represented here are both living and potent within the spirits of their devotees.

Feminine Power is organized into five sections: “Creation and Nature”; “Passion and Desire”; “Magic and Malice”; “Justice and Defense”; and “Compassion and Salvation”. Each bears the imprint of five high-profile women who introduce and respond to the material in their section: the objects are thus partly to be viewed through a celebrity lens. This is a popularizing move in some ways, involving writers and broadcasters, women of color and (inevitably, perhaps) Mary Beard, who contributes a thoughtful introduction to the exhibition’s handsome and well-written catalog. Beard, of course, brings genuine expertise to the table, emphasizing the representational nature of the artefacts. Each goddess or spirit speaks to some facet of power that has gendered associations in particular cultures. Power is thus made visible and material, and the artefacts have a second-order relationship to the value systems of the cultures in which they originate. The other contributors (Bonnie Greer, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White) tend to offer positive and rousing rhetoric in their comments and responses, suggesting that these divinities can be reclaimed or activated in contemporary women’s lives. Even the terrifying ones, it is suggested, employ their aggression against injustice and evil.

While this is often the case in the section dedicated to justice, overall this upbeat approach tends to downplay the fates of unruly or resisting women whose employment of violence precipitates their destruction by representatives of normative masculine power. The Japanese princess Takiyasha-hime becomes a powerful sorceress, seeking vengeance for her father, who rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor. The last of her family, she is rumoured to be on the verge of using her magic to revive her father’s revolt. A brave young samurai is sent to track her down and eliminate her in the family’s crumbling mansion. He successfully destroys both the murderous giant skeleton Takiyasha-hime unleashes against him, and the enchantress herself. In other contexts the surviving daughter who determines to avenge her father and carry on his work might be read as heroic: here the prevailing imperial ideology brands the woman’s aims as illegitimate and licenses her destruction.

Hybrid representations of certain goddesses call into question long-held views about the binary relationship between nature and culture, conceptizations that used to beitive to depict the feminine as animalistic and primitive. Two divinities linked with the sea and rivers possess lower halves that are seal or fish tails: the Inuit Sea Mother Sedna and Mami Wata. The latter is depicted as confidently handling a huge python and wearing smart business attire; she brings prosperity to her devotees, whether they are working the land or setting up commercial enterprises in the city. These are figures whose connections to animality bespeak a power that derives from a deep connection to the vigour and bounty of the natural world. Pele’s lava, unleashed in rage, destroys human habitation and ravages fields, but the fiery material will break down into dark, fertile soil where the crops that sustain her people can flourish. The destructive is intimately linked with cycles of creation.

Some divinities are long-lived in political and artistic imaginations: the Greek goddesses and related semi-supernatural figures continue to signify long after the end of classical civilization, and well beyond the Mediterranean. Many exhibition-goers paused to sit before John William Waterhouse’s painting “Circe” (1891), in which the enthroned goddess’s expression combines allure and danger as she lifts a (poisoned) cup of welcome, offered to her latest guest – and to us. The mirror behind her reflects an approaching and wary Odysseus; by Circe’s feet lounge two dazed-looking wild boars – Odysseus’ scouts, transformed through the goddess’s powers. Queens, from Elizabeth I to Empress Maria Theresa, are shown to identify with Athena (Minerva to the Romans), representing wisdom, justice and brave warrior, along with sexual continence. The goddess was worshiped at Aquae Sulis, Roman Bath, from where we have lead cursing tablets that invoke her power to punish thieves and wrongdoers.

The exhibition itself is not enormous; The artefacts on display, videos, sculptures (predominantly), paintings, photographs and even tiny incised jewels, are beautiful and skilfully made. What we see is choice, and well-chosen, clusters of objects grouped with helpful, if brief, commentary. Missing is a sense of connection between traditions – continuities, for example, between the goddesses of the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman deities. Only later, when Mary is first introduced as Maryam, the mother of Isa, accompanied by an image of the surah, or chapter, of the Qur’an that narrates her life, are the links between these two women and the Chinese Guanyin (or Japanese Kannon) explored. If parallels are to be drawn, or larger patterns are to be discerned, then these are produced largely by grouping within the five overall, leaving the viewer to form their own conclusions as to unifying principles.

What has changed, then, in the contemporary discourse around feminine divine and demonic power? Certain ideas that were current and popular in the 1980s, in the wake of second-wave feminism, have vanished. There is no place for superannuated concepts of matriarchy, whether envisaged as an idealized past when women exercised benevolent power or as a time of female tyranny, driving downtrodden men to rebel and seize power. The Great Goddess appears only as a translation of Mahadevi, the female principle within the Shaktism branch of Hinduism. Jungian notions of a universal feminine that is deeply embedded in the human psyche are absent, so too generalizing theories of fertility rituals and sacrifice. Strikingly, sisterhood is no longer powerful, whether among the divinities and supernatural figures depicted or in the rhetoric of potential with which the five respondents assert the goddesses’ relevance and potentiality. The energies of collective action, the transformative power of women’s love and rage, are largely sidelined, with women’s community glimpsed only in the video of the festival of the Yoruba spirit Oshun. Here, masses of women – dancing, singing, wearing their finery – make their way to the sacred grove at Osgobo, in Nigeria, where Oshun is venerated in a fourteen-day festival. In contrast, the objects displayed in Feminine Power (sponsored by Citi, a global bank) are distinctive and discrete avatars of the divine and demonic feminine, speaking to individualized and privatized concepts of women’s empowerment. If the exhibition inspires us, as some of the inner respondents hope, to harness our own goddess power, it will be within a very twenty-first-century project of self-improvement.

Carolyne Larringtonis Professor of Medieval European Literature at the University of Oxford. Her books includeWinter Is Coming: The medieval world of “Game of Thrones”2015, andThe Norse Myths2017

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