Global cultures have always worshiped and feared women | Smart News

Painting by Judy Chicago from 1985 Creation shows a woman giving birth to the world.
Trustees of the British Museum

In ancient Rome, a group of young women known as the Vestal Virgins maintained the eternal flame who burned in the Forum’s Temple of Vesta, 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 room with a small amount of food and water. After all, the blood of these divine women couldn’t fall.

Although ancient cultures uplifted some women, they reviled others. “Feminine power: from divine to demonic”, at the English Museum in London until September 25, strives to show both sides of female power in ancient and modern cultures around the world, examining female deities who were exalted in one way or another, even when they were represented as bad.

An 18th century coin showing the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, who represents compassion.

An 18th century Chinese porcelain piece of Buddhist Guanyin, which represents compassion

Trustees of the British Museum

Visitors will meet Pelethe Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, Kalithe Hindu goddess whose very name translates as “She who is death”, Guanyinthe Buddhist ideal of gender change compassion, and Sekhmetan 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 ishtarfor example, the two represented “war and sexual love”, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica – perhaps 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 clay relief of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, goddess of sex and war.

A 1750 BCE clay relief of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, goddess of sex and war

Trustees of the British Museum

“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. Leading modern artist Judy Chicagoit is 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 considered the Adam’s first wife who would not obey the biblical desires of her husband. 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 BBCit is 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 still awesomein the biblical sense of the term, worthy of fear and veneration.

Female power: from divine to demonic» is on view at English Museum in London, UK, until September 25, 2022.