This week: Feminine power

19th-century painting of the goddess Kali striding over Shiva. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons.

Few figures in our culture have been so vilified as Lilith, the first wife of Adam – who, according to Jewish tradition, insolently refused to submit to her husband’s desires, preferring to leave the perfection of the Garden of Eden, and become the consort of Satan instead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lilith’s early act of independence did little to enhance her reputation among the patriarchy, and her name has become a byword for feminine evil. She has been portrayed down the ages as a demoness, a serpent, and a killer of babies. More recently, she has popped up in popular culture as everything from the Queen of Hell to the mother of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

But as we learn this week on The Past, Lilith is finally now being rehabilitated as a positive role model – even as something of an icon – as traditional narratives increasingly come under question. Instead of denouncing her, more and more people now celebrate her as the ‘first feminist’, and as an empowering force for refusing to subjugate herself to her husband.

Lilith is just one of the many fascinating and complex characters to be featured in Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic, a new exhibition at the British Museum, which looks at goddesses and other female spiritual beings in different cultures around the world, and includes more than 70 objects dating from 6000 BC to the present day.

In the new issue of Minerva magazine, Lindsay Fulcher talks to the show’s curator, Belinda Crerar, who guides us through the exhibits, both sacred and secular, and highlights some of the changing attitudes to potent female figures.

Also this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives to discover more about the history of feminine power: we tracked the Roman women who ensured the succession of the Julio-Claudian dynasty; we travelled to Ancient Egypt to learn more about Nerfertari, one of the greatest queens of the Nile; and we journeyed to India to discover how celebrating the feminine lies at the heart of Tantra.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on goddesses. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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