Creation narratives and Feminine power

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The creation narratives told by different cultures and spiritual traditions around the world are as varied as they are numerous. Throughout much of human history, the potential of the female body to grow and nourish new life has led to a spiritual association between feminine agency and generative powers of creation.

In many creation narratives, feminine and masculine powers are combined, either in the form of a divine couple or united in a single bi-gendered being with the ability to conceive existence. Here, we explore some of the diverse creation stories brought to life by objects and artworks, from the Feminine power exhibition and the wider Museum collection.

To the global followers of Judaism and Christianity, the story of creation is found in the biblical book of Genesis, which describes how the heavens, the earth and all living things were created in six days by a singular deity. Despite the description in Genesis of the creation of both men and women ‘in the image of God’, Judaeo-Christian teaching and literature has long been dominated by the use of masculine language to express the divine. The same is true of Western Christian art, in which god has been habitually represented with male characteristics – specifically those of an elderly white man – as exemplified by Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (about 1508–12), the famous fresco painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, which captures the moment in the biblical creation narrative when god breathes life into the first human being.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, questions surrounding the racialising and gendering of god have been brought into sharp focus. In the 1980s, the American artist Judy Chicago, a prominent voice within second-wave feminism, embarked on The Birth Project, a community-driven artistic endeavour. She was inspired by her interest in creation stories from around the world and sought to challenge the common visualisation of god as male in Christian artistic traditions. Executed using needlework – an art form traditionally considered women’s craft – 84 large-scale representations of childbirth were created by a collective of 150 needleworkers across America. Chicago created designs and colour schemes for the works, which were sent to needleworkers for them to embellish in their own style. A vibrant screen print from 1985, The Creation is based on one of the original designs. It depicts a female deity lying in a birthing position. Her face is entirely obscured and the primary focus is on the vulva, from which flows primordial life, evolving on the right-hand side of the scene into complex life forms and eventually human beings represented by a male figure aggressively dragging a female figure by the hair. In her right hand, the main figure grasps the sun, while her left breast is an erupting volcano. In 2019 Chicago stated that The Birth Project was her response to the ‘fake news’ of a male god creating the first man in Michelangelo’s celebrated vision. Chicago laughingly commented that her reinterpretation is ‘a different kind of fake news but I like it!’

Lintel, New Zealand, 1830s–40s.

The perception of the earth as a female entity is one of the most striking consistencies in global and historical spiritual belief. In the traditions of the Maori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand, the atua (‘deity’) of the earth is Papatuanuku and her husband is Ranginui, the sky. Many variant oral traditions describe how Papatuanuku and Ranginui were locked together in a loving embrace, from which the other gods and all living things were born. However, it is said they clung to one another so tightly that light could not get between them, forcing their children to live in darkness. Tiring of the gloom, their son Tane-nui-a-Rangi, the atua of forests, forced his father upwards, allowing light to enter the world and life to begin. The carved lintel above depicts this Maori creation narrative. Tane-nui-a-Rangi and his brothers stand on their mother, Papatuanuku (the earth). They have forced their father, Ranginui (the sky), up and out of the frame. Swirls of light and life now fill the space that they have opened up between their parents.

Book of the Dead of Nestanebetisheru, Egypt, 950–930 BC.

To the ancient Greeks, the earth was Gaia, who emerged first from chaos and created Ouranos, the sky, to be her husband. In ancient Egyptian belief, on the other hand, the earth was personified as the male god Geb, while the sky was formed from the body of the Goddess Nut, his sister and wife. As the mother of the heavenly bodies, Nut was said to give birth to the sun, the god Ra, every morning and consume him every night in a never-ending cycle of creation and destruction. As the earth, Geb brought forth water and the harvest, while his laughter brought earthquakes and his anger drought. Geb and Nut were venerated as part of the Great Ennead – nine deities who collectively brought about creation and maintained existence. They were the children of Shu and Tefnut, air and moisture, and grandchildren of the creator Atum.

Nut appears in Egyptian art more frequently than her husband and her intimate connection with the concept of rebirth made her supremely important in Egyptian funerary traditions. Her image was often painted or carved on the inside of sarcophagi or tombs, where she appears either as a woman with large outspread wings or with her body stretched across the heavens and covered in stars. The Greenfield Papyrus is one of the longest manuscripts of the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, to have survived. Nut is depicted as the largest figure arching over her husband/brother Geb, who is stretched out on the ground. They are kept apart by Shu, according to some traditions, because of Geb’s anger with Nut for consuming their children, the constellations.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), The Floating Bridge of Heaven. Colour woodblock print, Japan, 1847–51.

In some spiritual traditions, creation is attributed to distinct feminine and masculine forces working in union as a celestial couple. The Japanese religion of Shinto (‘the Way of the Spirits’), is closely linked to humankind’s relationship with the natural world, which is believed to be inhabited by countless spirits known as kami. Izanami-no-mikoto (‘She who Beckoned’) and Izanagino-mikoto (‘He who Beckoned’) are the creator kami, who gave birth to Japan and the majority of the other kami. The legend of Izanami and Izanagi relates how, standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, they stirred the primordial ocean with a jewelled spear, and the drops of water that fell from it became the many different islands of Japan. This story, with an accompanying narrative, is captured in a print, created around 1850 by the 19th-century artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Izanami stands on the floating bridge next to Izanagi, who holds the jewelled spear. The moment chosen by Hiroshige occurred just after the creation of land, when the couple observed a wagtail on the rocks in front of them. From watching the bird’s extended, bobbing tail they discovered the art of sex, and could then unite and create the other kami.

Muyiwa Osifuye (b.1960), River-side Shrine and Sacred Grove Of Oshun, Nigeria, 2003.

Oshun (whose name means ‘Source’) is the most highly venerated female orisha (spirit) among the Yoruba, one of the largest cultural groups in Africa, constituting approximately 42 million people living predominantly within Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Gambia and Sierra Leone. Ifa is the name given to the traditional Yoruba way of life, which incorporates spiritual belief, ethics and moral behaviour. Within Ifa philosophy, an intrinsic connection between water, creation and female power is exemplified by Oshun, who is the essential origin of life. She is typically viewed as the embodiment of female sensuality – joyful, generous and beautiful, but also capricious and fierce if she wishes – and she is particularly worshipped by those seeking love, happiness and children.

Several creation narratives co-exist within Yoruba belief. In one, the supreme creator – an androgynous primal force known by many names, but most commonly Olorun (‘Owner of Heaven’) or Olodumare (‘Almighty’) – delegated the completion of the earth and life to 17 orisha. Oshun was the only female orisha among the group. The male orisha enthusiastically set about the task, but they excluded Oshun because they viewed her gifts as unimportant, so Oshun quietly withdrew and watched. Time and again the efforts of the male orisha failed and the earth slipped into chaos. Confused and exhausted, they returned to Olorun/Olodumare who, seeing that Oshun was not among their group, chastised them and informed them that all good things flow from her. Returning to the earth, the 16 orisha prayed to Oshun to appease her indignation and she eventually agreed to help them by using her ase (‘vital sacred power’) to create life.

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.

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