There can be a tendency to see goddesses as one-dimensional beings. Take Venus. Today, she is famous as the Roman goddess of love, while innumerable surviving nude statues seemingly place her power firmly in the realm of desire. But this quality was only one of many strings to her bow. Venus was feted by Republican leaders such as Sulla and Julius Caesar, who hoped that her ability to deliver victory, harmony, and successful statecraft would rub off on them. Caesar even claimed that he was descended from the deity, and promoted the worship of Venus Genetrix (Ancestral Venus). In the 2nd century AD, the emperor Hadrian raised the stakes with a grandiose temple that paired Venus with Rome. While dictators and emperors sought Venus’ patronage in the form of victory and a stable realm to rule over, imperial wives could also be linked with the goddess. In their case, it can be suspected that marital bliss and the arrival of heirs were desired. Considering this range of powers presents a more rounded appreciation of the goddess’ abilities. Venus was not just a purveyor of destabilising desire, but also imperial stability. Her favour was as valuable to leaders as lovers.
It is important to mull over this rich range of roles when weighing the significance of other supernatural female figures, especially those that pre-date written accounts of their powers. The oldest-known female sculpture dates back about 35,000 years, and was found in the Hohle Fels cave, Germany. More recently, in around 6000 BC, the Yarmukian culture of the Jordan Valley was manufacturing figures that usually display female traits, while Greek Cycladic figures were being carved from marble roughly 5,200-4,000 years ago. These artefacts adopt different artistic styles and cannot be firmly linked with the worship of divine beings. Even so, when looking for explanations for the production of early female sculpture, or the role of goddesses more widely, it is not unusual for an association with fertility to be seized on as a motive. While both the posture and physical features emphasised by the sculptor can support such readings, careful study of divine and demonic female beings throughout time cautions against assuming straightforward, single meanings. On the contrary, it suggests that Venus was far from alone in being able to bestow a remarkable breadth of gifts on her worshippers. Now a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum, Feminine power: the divine to the demonic, has assembled artefacts from around the world, spanning the period from 6000 BC down to today (see ‘Further information’ box). Considering a handful of examples from the displays reveals how varied such deities and demons could be, and the light they shed on the cultures that created them.
‘What we’re trying to show is that there is no single way to define feminine power’, says Belinda Crerar, exhibition curator. ‘Femininity and the concepts that have been related to those ideas in different beliefs, in different cultures, and in different periods of history are incredibly varied. They are varied today, in living traditions, and they were also varied in the ancient world. The intention with this exhibition is to bring those ideas together in one space to show just how diverse they are. We find the better-known associations with beauty, fertility, and compassion, but also justice, wisdom, and aggression. In some traditions, femininity is associated with active power. So we are introducing new ideas and new ways of thinking about how we approach and understand femininity, from the perspective of other cultures and periods of history. It allows us to think about what all of this means for how we understand these concepts today.’
‘Bringing these ideas together shows how female authority has been framed in many different ways. But even when we are looking at how such ideas are combined within single individual deities, they are very multifaceted and can sometimes have quite contradictory notions associated with them. A good example of this is Inanna/Ishtar, who is one of the oldest named goddesses in the world. She was known as Inanna to the Sumerians and Akkadians of Mesopotamia by the end of the 4th millennium BC, while the later Babylonians and Assyrians called her Ishtar. Inanna/Ishtar was the goddess of sex and war. At first glance, this seems a jarring combination. When you think about it, though, these forces can be very closely related, because they both involve strong, explosive passion. And that, really, is the force that she encapsulated. It gave Inanna/Ishtar broad powers to preside over social harmony or chaos, and peace or war.’
‘While the exhibition is not intended to be chronological, and we’re juxtaposing ideas from different cultures to highlight commonalities and contrasts in ways of thinking, at certain points we can start to trace these ideas through history and see how they are translated into different cultures. I think it is fairly well accepted that there is a link between Inanna/Ishtar and how she was understood in Mesopotamian culture in southern Iraq, and how those ideas of passion and warfare personified in female form spread around the Mediterranean and impacted on other cultures’ ideas. This gave rise to the goddess Astarte, who was worshipped from around 1000 BC by the Phoenicians. She, in turn, is believed to have influenced the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who then becomes the Roman Venus. These ideas do change and evolve slightly as they move through different cultures, to incorporate different cultural norms and perspectives. So we can see how these spiritual ideas transform.’
Despite the successful transmission of love and war as concepts combined within a single figure, they were not always twinned. The Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, for instance, was primarily associated with annihilation via fighting or plague. Her talent for violence and aggression might seem to stray into what is often perceived as a masculine sphere of power. Yet it is also entirely appropriate for a deity who had the head of a lioness – the most-dangerous hunter in the region. Sekhmet’s appetite for destruction is captured by an Egyptian text known as The Destruction of Mankind. As this name suggests, it describes the sun god Ra’s decision to usher in the end of humanity. He selected Sekhmet for this task, but the carnage she wrought was so horrifying that Ra eventually relented and decided to let the survivors live. Sekhmet, though, was relishing the slaughter and refused to stop. Ra was only able to end the killing spree by tricking Sekhmet into drinking so much beer that she forgot what she was doing, thus sparing humanity. Despite this vicious streak, Sekhmet also had a softer side. The popularity of amulets bearing her image are a reminder that this harbinger of pestilence had the power to dispense cures and protection, too.
Athena was another goddess with a martial side. She had an unconventional birth, springing forth in full armour from a hole in Zeus’ head, and henceforth acted as his warrior general. If this relationship has echoes of Sekhmet’s role as Ra’s enforcer, Athena also seems to be another echo of the profound influence exerted by Ishtar and Astarte. In this case, though, the destructive excess and sexual potency embodied by Athena’s archetypes were eventually shed. Instead, she was shaped by the cultural values of the city-state that adopted her as its patron: Athens. As its citizens came to prize legal debate and democracy, so too Athena became associated with justice and intellectual endeavours. Many commentators have pointed to the irony that mortal women were firmly excluded from academic or legal careers in ancient Athens. Indeed, some recent scholarship has identified Athena as a classic example of a woman who makes it in a man’s world by suppressing her own femininity. In fairness to Athena, though, she was also credited with teaching young women essential arts and crafts, while the priestesses overseeing her cult enjoyed an elevated status in ancient Athenian society.
There were wider benefits for women under the Luba Empire, which rose in the 18th century AD and continued into the 20th century, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to their worldview, women enjoyed a close relationship with the spirit world as a font of both life and wisdom. While the role of king was bestowed upon men, the power that he wielded was viewed as female, and women were sought after as advisors, priestesses, healers, and diviners of truth. In art, images of men are rare, resulting in male kings sometimes being shown in female guise. Images of women frequently grace expressions of royal authority, such as stools that simultaneously served as symbolic thrones and staffs of office. Royal succession followed the female line, too, with an heir not being born to the king, but his sister.
Reverence for a mothering role is frequently found in religious belief. One of the best-known examples in the modern world must be Mary, who cared for the baby Jesus. Devotion to the Virgin Mary has been widespread in Europe since at least the 12th century, with a heightened interest at that time perhaps reflecting the growing prominence of queens and aristocratic women during the era. A remarkable 13th-century ivory and gold statuette shows Mary and Jesus gazing tenderly at each other. Yet Mary is not just presented as a figure of compassion in this composition. She wears a crown and is discreetly crushing a monster with her foot, symbolising her contribution – alongside her son – to the salvation of humanity. This theme can also be found on the ornate head of a bishop’s staff created at Limoges, France, c.1235. It shows Mary being reunited with Jesus following her death and ascent to heaven. Although Jesus is the larger figure, both are shown seated on thrones, and Mary is being crowned as a queen of heaven.
Shaking up the status quo
Mary’s willingness to go along with God’s plan and bear a child has been contrasted with Eve, whose wilful disregard for the rules brought sin into the world. According to a Jewish tradition that developed in around AD 700, though, Eve was Adam’s second wife. His first, Lilith, was created from the same material as Adam (rather than from Adam, as Eve was), and she was expelled from Eden for asserting equality with him. While her stance seems wholly modern from a contemporary Western perspective, this refusal to submit to male authority saw Lilith literally demonised. Those fearful of her malign powers in 7th-century Iraq would hide upturned bowls under their doorsteps to ward off her influence.
‘These incantation bowls were created on behalf of both men and women,’ says Belinda. ‘They can name a wide variety of different demonic forces, but Lilith crops up quite often. What is interesting is that at this time the concept of Lilith had not formed into an individual female demon. So sometimes she’s referred to in the singular form, but sometimes the petitioner is worried about multiple Liliths. Sometimes the feminine grammar is used, and sometimes the masculine, so we’re really seeing a medley of demonic forces. These were connected with sexual aggression, people being attacked in their sleep, and infant death. As the idea solidified over time in Jewish mystical texts, the notion of a singular female demon eventually took over. As Lilith became a singular, individual “she”, she was also associated with dark and disturbing ideas surrounding sex – such as using men to create demonic babies – which probably has a connection with cultural ideas circulating at the time.’
Childbirth remains a dangerous moment for mother and child, and the Aztecs viewed it as a form of war. Those mothers who did not survive were revered in a manner akin to slain warriors and transformed into Cihuateteo, literally ‘divine women’. While those who fell in battle would travel to the eastern sky, where the sun rose, so the Cihuateteo would be present as it set after journeying west. According to a 16th-century Hispanic account, the power that the Cihuateteo exercised over martial affairs was so potent that the corpses of women who died in childbirth had to be guarded after burial. Otherwise, body parts would be stolen and worn by warriors as talismans to bring fortune in battle. But despite the sacrifices made by the Cihuateteo, and the honours bestowed upon them, they were not benevolent figures. One 15th- or 16th- century statue of a kneeling Cihuateotl features a haunting, skull-like face. Even worse, on five days a year the Cihuateteo would walk the earth once more, stealing away children.
More wide-ranging acts of social harm became bound up in ideas of witchcraft in medieval Europe. Fears about malign sorcery can be traced back far into the past. What we now view as witches first began to appear in ancient Greek literature. Dabbling in the dark arts was far from being a female monopoly, though, and Roman law prohibiting harmful magical acts generally targeted men. It was only in the late 15th century AD that these antisocial arts came to be particularly associated with women. A key turning point was the publication of the Malleus maleficarum, meaning ‘Hammer of witches’, in 1487. Heinrich Kramer, the author, was a German monk and inquisitor, who was seemingly harbouring a grudge after his failed prosecution of 14 women for witchcraft in 1485 culminated in his expulsion from Innsbruck.
Kramer’s book went to great lengths to assert a special link between women and dangerous magic. Claims that witches would use magic to make a man’s penis disappear saw Kramer branded an extremist by some, and ripe for mockery by others. But his book found an audience and, as religious instability swept across Europe, plenty of women became victims of Kramer’s obsession. Between the late 16th century and the end of the 17th century, at least 40,000 people – mostly women – were executed in Europe for witchcraft. Such connections have not yet been consigned to the past, and there are still places in the world where women who defy social expectations risk persecution or murder following an association with witchcraft.
Messages for mortals
The impact that Kramer had on how witches were viewed raises the question of who shaped the social perceptions of the goddesses and demons considered in the exhibition. As most key religious and intellectual institutions have traditionally been dominated by men, it must be suspected that in many cases there was a strong male involvement in the fashioning of the identities of these beings. As the case of Athena illustrates, having a goddess who represents justice and cerebral achievement provides no guarantees that mortal women were seen in a similar light. While some achieved social status as her priestesses, the women of ancient Athens had no opportunity to enter the legal or academic professions. The goddess, then, could take on roles unavailable to real women. Lilith, by contrast, was vilified for refusing to follow social norms. In this case, Lilith’s demand for equality has seen her become a popular figure over the last century or so. Here, it is fascinating to compare the Roman statue of Venus with a bronze of Lilith created by Kiki Smith in 1994. As we have seen, they were both powerful individuals, but Venus’ beauty is a central part of her identity, whereas the Lilith piece is an expression of resistance towards the male gaze.
FURTHER INFORMATION Feminine power: the divine to the demonic will run at the British Museum until 25 September 2022. For more information, including ticket prices, please visit www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/feminine-power-divine-demonic. A fascinating and gloriously illustrated volume has been published to accompany the exhibition: Belinda Crerar (2022) Feminine power: the divine to the demonic (London: British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0714151304, £30). CWA is grateful to Belinda Crerar and Olivia Rickman.
All images: The Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise stated.