In the dedicatory poem of his essay on poetic myth The White Goddess, first published in 1948, Robert Graves writes of a magnificent, but cruel, divine being with a brow as ‘white as any leper’s’, blue eyes, ‘rowan-berry lips’, and ‘hair curled honey-coloured to white hips’. Not all goddesses are, of course, white, and Graves’ iconic poem may seem at first sight to be somewhat passé, pointless, and politically incorrect, but hidden in it are references to many of the different aspects of female power that are graphically and diversely celebrated in a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum. Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic is the first of its kind there to focus on the many ways that female power and authority has been imagined, represented, and perceived. It features over 70 objects, both sacred and secular, from cultures from across six continents as it moves from the highest heaven to the deepest hell, from the gleaming white porcelain of the compassionate goddess Guanyin to the darkest bronze of the feared demoness Lilith.
As the exhibition’s curator Belinda Crerar explains, the whole show is divided into paired sections: Creation & Nature; Passion & Desire; Magic & Malice; Justice & Defence, and Compassion & Salvation – all these exude feminine power and are represented in multiple ways. The exhibition explores the history and background of diverse objects, some dating back as far as 6000 BC, set alongside works by living artists, such as the Lebanese sculptor Mona Saudi’s marble Mother Earth (2010), which opens the show. There are also ‘talking heads’ on screens (such as Mary Beard and Bonnie Greer), serving as live commentators, and visitors are encouraged to interact, ask questions, and make comments about how they understand feminine power.
To return to Graves, Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the poet’s concept of the White Goddess in the following way: she ‘combines the powers of love, destructiveness, and poetic inspiration. She ruled during a matriarchal period in the distant past before she was deposed by the patriarchal gods, who represent cold reason and logic.’ Graves believed that all women embody something of his White Goddess, she who creates, nourishes, seduces, and destroys, and, in the exhibition, we find all these qualities displayed.
There is a controversial theory, which I first heard from an anthropology don in the 1970s, that all early societies were matriarchies who worshipped the Great Goddess (just think of the Palaeolithic Venus of Willendorf) because the male of the species did not connect the act of sexual intercourse with procreation. And why should he? It seemed to him that women possessed divine power as, from time to time, they mysteriously swelled up and opened to give birth to other human beings. After men finally discovered that they played an equal part in this act of creation, they were extremely cross, and they have been punishing women for this unintentional deception ever since. Feminists embraced this theory with relish – well, it was the 1970s – but now it is often disputed.
As for the White Goddess, look at the startling purity of the Chinese Buddhist deity Guanyin, the ‘Perceiver of Sounds’, portrayed in white porcelain in the 18th century. Although her physical beauty is alluring, even seductive to men, she is also the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. (In Tibet, this Bodhisattva of Compassion is the male Avalokiteshvara.) Guanyin’s heavenly attractiveness is merely a means to draw mere mortals toward spiritual understanding and salvation. She appeared to often dissolute and irreligious villagers as a beautiful young woman who immediately attracted the local men. She promised to marry the one who could memorise the most Buddhist scriptures by heart in the shortest time. The repetitive reading of these texts meant that their meaning was absorbed and, eventually, the whole village was converted to the pursuit of enlightenment. Having achieved her goal, Guanyin then vanished as mysteriously as she had arrived.
The 18th-century porcelain figure of Guanyin, enthroned and with a child on her lap, was made after Catholicism was introduced to China, and figurines like this of the ‘Child-Giving’ Songzi Guanyin – a vision of the Bodhisattva invoked for help with conception and childbirth – were exported to Europe as ‘Holy Marys’. Other images of Guanyin show her sitting on a lotus flower, a symbol of enlightenment, or with numerous heads or arms, illustrating her limitless compassion.
The mothering and protective aspects of the divine female are seen in many other cultures. They are represented by bronze statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis suckling her divine child, Horus, and shielding her husband, the god Osiris. In Christianity, too, this role of the Virgin Mary is frequently depicted, for example in a late medieval ivory statuette from France, dating from c.1275-1300 (note that her left foot is crushing something rather scaly), and in the majestic 16th-century Mother of God Smolenskaya icon.
Love of a different kind is represented by a much more sensual goddess, who is very much making a show of herself: a creamy marble Venus, carved around AD 100-150. This is a famous type known as the ‘Capitoline Venus’ and is a Roman copy of a Greek original, whose roots go back to the work of the celebrated Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. When he unveiled his cult statue of Aphrodite, stepping naked out of her bath, in her temple in Knidos (now in western Turkey), all those who saw her were overcome with desire. So much so that, as the story goes, one young man made sure he spent the night in the temple, where he attempted to make love to the statue. The next morning, he threw himself off a cliff. Well, as Socrates said in the 5th century BC, ‘One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life: that word is Love’. Another 5th-century figure, Sophocles, described the goddess thus: ‘she is immortal life, she is raving madness, she is unmixed desire, she is lamentation; in her is all activity, all tranquillity, all that leads to violence. For she sinks into the vitals of all that have life, who is not greedy for that goddess?’’.
The ‘Capitoline Venus’ is trying, but not very hard, to cover her modesty. At first sight she seems to be simpering but, when we look more closely, we see that she is, in fact, smirking – and what has she got to smirk about? It is the simple fact that by displaying her naked body she gains power over the men before her, who are awestruck, irresistibly attracted, ensnared and, finally, disarmed by her beauty.
We find quite another sort of feminine power emanating from the forbidding figure of Lilith, who appears in several forms in the exhibition, but most notably in a modern sculpture by Kiki Smith. This creature is crouching upside down, hanging on the wall above us – a dark omen that defies gravity and, perhaps, all other natural laws. Her disturbingly blue eyes pierce us, causing an icy dart of fear to run down our spines and fill us with palpable dread.
As Belinda Crerar explains, ‘According to Jewish tradition, Lilith was the first wife of Adam who, having refused to submit to him, left the Garden of Eden and became the consort of Satan. She is a much-feared demoness, known for killing babies. When, in 1994, Kiki Smith’s sculpture was first hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the female curators refused to go into the gallery where it was displayed. She was Jewish and pregnant…’. So it seems that at least this ancient myth still holds considerable power today.
The name Lilith may have originated in Mesopotamia, in those of the demons known as lilitu (feminine) and lilu (masculine), succubus- and incubus-like beings who preyed on men, women, and children, causing sterility and death. In order to protect your household from these fiends, it was necessary to obtain a bowl on which was written an incantation to keep them at bay. These ceramic bowls were then buried upside down under the thresholds of the entrance doors to houses. One fine example, found in Iraq and dating from AD 500-800, not only displays a written charm to prevent Lilith from harming the inhabitants of the house but also a rare, early image of the demoness with wild hair and exposed breasts, struggling to get free from the spell that binds her.
Centuries later, Lilith began to be portrayed more sympathetically by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti who, in his Lady Lilith (1867), made her into a much softer and more sensual woman, with flowing Titian hair, admiring herself in a mirror. Even so, she is still a threat, and so Rossetti attached the following lines from Goethe’s Faust to the original frame of the painting: ‘Beware… for she excels all women in the magic of her locks, and when she twines them round a young man’s neck, she will not ever set him free again.’ Exuberant, freely hanging hair is often associated with female power and its attendant threat. Some 50 years later, the Symbolist illustrator Henry Weston Keen mixes the erotic with the macabre to make a powerful kind of nasty nakedness in his lithograph Lilith (1925-1930).
Today, though, Lilith has become something of a feminist icon and is seen as a positive, empowering force because she refused to be subjugated by Adam and never had children. She is, however, also one of the most evil of all female demons and deities – one of those that harm or kill babies and children, along with several other unnatural creatures that appear in the exhibition.
Becoming a mother has a great mythic significance, so much so that it has even been said that, unless a woman has a child, she is not a real woman. An outrageous notion, but one that still subconsciously influences certain societal attitudes. In Aztec Mexico, childbirth was seen as war, and mothers who died in childbirth were honoured like fallen warriors and deified for bravery and sacrifice. (The connection between war and childbirth was also made in ancient Greece: in Euripides’ Medea, his protagonist declares that she would rather face battle three times than give birth once.) The Aztec dead became Cihuateteo (‘divine women’) who went not to the land of the dead but to ‘the land of the women’. They could, however, also be dangerous as, on five days of the Aztec calendar, they came down to earth, causing paralysis and madness in anyone they met; they also stole living children to replace their own dead ones.
One kneeling statue of a Cihuateotl, made rather appropriately of volcanic rock, has staring eyes and bared teeth. She raises her hands like clawed paws and looks ready to pounce. Dating from the 15th or 16th centuries, she would have been placed in a shrine or at a crossroads which, in many cultures, is a liminal place where two worlds meet and intermingle. Crossroads and liminal spaces are the dominion, in the Greek and Roman world, of another divine female we encounter, the goddess of witchcraft, magic, and ghosts, Hekate, who is often depicted in triform statues, with three figures looking in different directions.
Speaking of volcanic rock, Graves mentions goddesses associated with fire, found ‘at the volcano’s head’. In Hawai‘i, we find akua (deities) manifesting throughout the natural world in multiple forms as plants, as animals or even as geographical features; the goddess Pele, for example, is the akua of volcanoes, different forms of lava, and various plants, and she embodies both creative and destructive power. Many people still view local volcanic eruptions as evidence of Pele’s power and presence. The Hawaiian artist Tom Pico’s sculpture of the goddess, entitled Tiare Wahine (‘The flowered woman’), is carved from the wood of the ‘ōhi‘a tree which has a reddish hue evoking the fire of the volcano and Pele’s flaming red hair. She sits, brooding, sultry, eyes closed and full-lipped, under a lei, a heavy crown of flowers, her thick, lustrous locks flowing down, like lava, over her shoulders. Her skin is decorated by Polynesian tattoos, signifying that she has come from overseas.
In 2011, Pico said about his work: ‘I have never named a piece “Pele” as [there is] an ancient custom of not saying her name for fear she would respond and come to you… she is feared here as we see her destructiveness… other islands see her as a beautiful woman… none of them have experienced lava flows historically… Comfortably we say the “woman of the pit” or “Ka Wahine – The Woman”.’ During the eruption in 2018, islanders left offerings in the path of the lava flow to honour and placate Pele.
Pico’s sculpture of Pele shows an alluring though fiery figure, but the prize for the most striking goddess – attractive, feminine, devastating, and, at the same time, virile – must surely go to Inanna, ‘The Lady of Heaven’. Both the embodiment of sexual desire and martial prowess, she is one of the oldest named goddesses in the world. She was worshipped as Inanna by the Sumerians and the Akkadians from the end of the 4th millennium, and later, as Ishtar, by the Babylonians and Assyrians. Details of her cult are recorded in myths, hymns, and prayers inscribed on clay tablets, and she is referred to as both feminine and masculine.
Dating from the 19th-18th centuries BC, the so-called ‘Queen of the Night’ terracotta plaque, which was found in southern Mesopotamia, shows Inanna/Ishtar as full-breasted with a narrow-hipped body. She is bold, fearless, confronting the viewer in her nakedness without shame or modesty. But look more carefully and you will see she has wings, spurs on her legs, and the clawed feet of a bird of prey. Perched on two lions and flanked by a pair of large owls, it is not for nothing that she is known as ‘The Queen of the Night’. Clutching rod-and-ring symbols, she wears a four-tiered headdress made of horns – both signify her power. This relief can be compared with another Old Babylonian plaque, also from southern Mesopotamia, from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Words in praise of the goddess Inanna run thus:
Indeed I am the lady who is surpassing in this land
Indeed I am the emanating light
When I sit in the alehouse
I am a woman, (but) verily I am an exuberant man
The gods are (mere) birds (but) I am a falcon…
You would get on the wrong side of her or him, or them, at your peril. Like all power, feminine power is a two-edged sword.
Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic is on show at the British Museum until 25 September 2022. Visit www.british museum.org/exhibitions/feminine-power for information. An accompanying catalogue, by Belinda Crerar, is also available (ISBN 978-0714151304).
All images: © The Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise stated.