An introduction to Feminine power

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The British Museum’s upcoming exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic takes you on a journey through 5,000 years of belief in female spiritual beings. For the first time, sculptures, paintings and dedicatory objects from ancient and medieval cultures across the globe are brought together with modern and contemporary artworks to shine a light on the diversity of ways in which female authority and femininity have been celebrated, feared and understood, throughout history.

From Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of annihilation whose amulets were carried for protection and healing, to Guanyin, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion who may appear in the world in either female or male form, these spiritual forces have had a profound influence on people’s lives for millennia. Join our five guest commentators – Leyla Hussein, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White – in considering how spiritual belief in female power, and its many manifestations, can shape our views on femininity today.

Here, we take a closer look at a few of the objects showcased in the exhibition and the ideas that surround them.

A colourful image showing birth and the creation of life in the landscape of a female body.
Judy Chicago (b.1939), The Creation, part of The Birth Project. Print, 1985. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

A desire to understand the origins of life, our place within the universe, and the power of the natural world, lies at the heart of much spiritual belief. Creation narratives told by different cultures and faiths around the world are as varied as they are numerous. This vibrant print, The Creation, by the contemporary artist Judy Chicago reimagines the Christian creation story from a feminist perspective. It challenges, in the artist’s words, the ‘fake news’ of a male god creating the first man by showing a female deity lying in a birthing position. Primordial life flows from her vulva as she grasps the sun in her right hand and her left breast erupts as a volcano. This work was created in the 1980s as part of a wider series, The Birth Project, in which Chicago collaborated with a collective of needleworkers across America to promote the depiction of birth in western art, through a traditionally female skill.

Seated female figure with arm resting on left knee. She wears a leaf and flower head garland, and her limbs are incised with geometric designs.
Tom Pico (b. 1950), Tiare Wahine. Female figure made of ‘ohi’a wood. 2001. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Holding power over both life and death, many deities, goddesses and sprits from around the world are believed to embody the earth and natural phenomena. Pele is the Hawaiian akua (deity) of volcanoes and lava. Depicted in this contemporary carving by the artist Tom Pico, she is viewed as both a force of destruction and creation. The sculpture is made from ‘ohi’a wood, which is native to Hawaii and has a natural reddish hue, conveying the goddess’s fiery nature and flaming hair, which flows down to the ground like lava. As one of the first plants to grow on lava flows, it also evokes the cycle of regeneration after destruction. Pico has left one side of the sculpture the natural rough texture of the wood while the other is highly polished, perhaps suggesting Pele’s dual nature.

Passion and desire
A nude female figure with tapering feathered wings and talons, wearing a headdress and an elaborate necklace and bracelets on each wrist.
Old Babylonian Queen of the Night plaque. South Iraq, 19th–18th centuries BC.

Alongside beliefs about creation and the fertility of the earth, the exhibition explores some of the many ways in which passion and erotic desire have been spiritually associated with feminine influence and the naked female body. Known today as the ‘Queen of the Night’, this clay relief is widely considered to show the formidable Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, who presided over both sex and war. Unclothed, she stares confidently and confrontationally at the viewer. She stands on the back of her lion mount with both arms raised, holding emblems of justice and civic authority in each hand, and her tiered crown denotes both divinity and royalty. A volatile force, Ishtar was often honoured through erotic hymns and votive models and could bring chaos or stability to the home and the state alike.

Bronze statue of a face with piercing green eyes.
Lilith, Kiki Smith, 1994. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, photo by Hyla Skopitz.

Ancient objects such as the Queen of the Night are displayed alongside contemporary artworks, including this sculpture by Kiki Smith depicting the demon Lilith. In Jewish mystical texts, Lilith is identified as the first woman created by God from the same earth as Adam and before Eve. Asserting her equality, she refused to subordinate herself to Adam during sex and abandoned the earthly paradise of Eden to align herself with Satan. She has long been feared for such defiance and, in this arresting depiction, Smith cast the image of Lilith from the body of a real woman and added piercing eyes of blue glass to convey a lifelike, and intimidating, appearance. Transcending gravity, Lilith crouches on all fours high up against the wall. Tellingly, Smith positions the figure so that it is not possible to get a full view of her naked body, preventing a voyeuristic gaze.

Stone figure wears a long skirt fastened by a knot with bare breasts and delineated nipples.
Carved stone figure of a cihuateotl, Mexico, around 1400–1521.

Female demons, witches and monsters permeate mythology and folklore from across the globe. Like Lilith, these figures often defy expectations of submissive female behaviour idealised within certain cultures throughout history. Self-possessed and independent, they may display ambition or emotion, pursuing their own interests and making them figures of both fear or empowerment depending on one’s perspective. To the Mexica, or Aztecs, of Mexico, Cihuateteo (divine women) were ambiguous beings. The spirits of  women who died in childbirth, they were honoured for their bravery and sacrifice in the same way as warriors who died in battle. They were also greatly feared and believed to descend to earth on certain days of the year to steal the children of the living and inflict madness on anyone who saw them. This statue depicts the terrifying image of a Cihuateotl with wild, bulging eyes, yet her earrings and bared chest denote her former beauty. On her head, she has a glyph (symbol) meaning ‘one monkey’, indicating the day that she would descend to earth.

Justice and defence
The figure holds a papyrus-sceptre in the left hand, the top of the sceptre being embellished with incised detail.
Granodiorite statue of Sekhmet standing, Egypt, 18th Dynasty.

Within some world religions, the battlefield has been, and still is, considered the domain of divine female warriors called upon to conquer hostile forces through superior aggression and wisdom. The ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet (‘The Powerful One’) was depicted with the head of a lioness to signify her ferocity and destructive power. Known as the Lady of Slaughter, she could withhold her wrath to grant healing and peace. In this statue, the goddess holds a papyrus staff, a symbol of northern Egypt, and an ankh, the hieroglyph for ‘life’. A solar disc on her head, now lost, connected her to her father, the sun god Ra, and the scorching desert heat. It was one of hundreds of statues of Sekhmet set up by the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. about 1391–53 BC), perhaps to ensure good health and military victory.

Kali's necklace is formed of severed heads and in her arms she holds a severed head and a sword. Her skirt is composed of severed arms.
Kaushik Ghosh, Kali Murti, 2022.

The Hindu goddess Kali is both feared and loved. Terrifying in appearance, she is connected to the creative and destructive power of time. This contemporary icon of the goddess was commissioned for the exhibition by Kaushik Ghosh, a Kolkata-based artist who creates sculptures of Hindu deities for temples or festival parades. The goddess’ garland of severed heads symbolises her power to destroy the ego, while her fearlessness and generosity are shown through her hand gestures. Honoured as the Great Mother, Kali’s formidable aggression is an act of compassion as she severs her followers from karma and negative qualities that limit spiritual growth.

Figure of Guanyin with 18 arms, some hands holding attributes, seated on throne.
Porcelain figure of Guanyin, China, 18th century.

Compassion may be viewed as an intrinsically feminine or masculine quality in different traditions around the world. Popularly known in China as the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin is a Buddhist bodhisattva – an enlightened being who remains close to the world to guide others towards nirvana. The embodiment of compassion, she is believed to appear directly in times of danger. In this 18th century porcelain figure, Guanyin is shown with many arms fanned out around her, symbolising her ability to reach everyone in need. Although portrayed in female form in Chinese art since the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), Guanyin is said to transcend gender and may take any form she chooses when appearing in the world, whether female or male, human or animal, to ensure the salvation of each individual who calls on her. 

Thangka of the twenty-one seated Taras, Tibet, 19th century.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Guanyin’s counterpart is Avalokiteshvara who is usually portrayed in male or androgenous form. His gender reflects an association between compassion – one of the two primary qualities which must be cultivated in Buddhist belief to aachieve spiritual enlightenment – and male spiritual beings, who often appear in union with female counterparts representing wisdom – the second of these primary qualities.

Avalokiteshvara is often honoured alongside Tara – one of the most important spiritual beings in Tibetan Buddhism. Her name means ‘She who saves’ and it is through meditating on Tara that one can pass swiftly from the world of suffering to nirvana. This Tibetan thang kha (painted scroll) shows Tara in her 21 different forms. Green Tara in the centre is her most widely venerated manifestation and sits with one foot touching the ground signifying her readiness to spring into action. The other forms around her move from peaceful manifestations at the top to more wrathful emanations at the bottom. Each is labelled with the fear or negative quality which that form of Tara helps to overcome.

The many ways that female power has been – and is today – perceived in cultures and spiritual traditions around the world offers a rich and fascinating source of inspiration for considering our own views on femininity and female authority. Discover what these diverse beings mean to people today through commentaries from faith communities and our guest contributors, and share your own views and reflections on this important conversation, in our interactive exhibition space.

Our upcoming exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic (19 May – 25 September 2022) will take a cross-cultural look at the profound influence of female spiritual beings within global religion and faith.

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