The mythical goddesses who defied sex and power rules – and manifested our deepest fears. Daisy Dunn investigates the ferocious deities who were both revered and feared.
Bathers in the first century who had their clothes stolen while enjoying a soak in the city of Bath knew exactly who to turn to for assistance. The goddess Sulis, who presided over the Roman complex’s hot baths, cold baths, and gleaming plunge pools, was known primarily for her ability to heal, but she also had a remarkable capacity for vengeance. More than 100 ancient curse tablets have been excavated from her spring, many of them pleading with the goddess to punish those who had stolen other people’s property. Thieves, take note.
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Sulis is one of several goddesses featured in Feminine Power, an ambitious new exhibition at the British Museum in London. The show is as rich in scope as it is in divine faces, examining the prominence of female deities and figures of reverence from six continents over thousands of years. Sulis, a local manifestation of the Roman goddess Minerva, is joined in the gallery by the Egyptian deity Sekhmet, the Hindu Kali, the Japanese Kannon, and the Mexican Coatlicue.
It’s amazing how many of these goddesses have been worshipped for seemingly contradictory characteristics. Similarly to how Sulis was credited with both healing and vengeance powers, As a result, Inanna of Mesopotamia was revered as a goddess of both sex and war. In an early hymn, she is described as a terrifying deity who brings death to men on the battlefield and mourning to the families they leave behind. In other works, she is praised for the sexual potency she instills in the mortals she favours. Sumerian kings attempted to achieve the best of both worlds by imagining themselves sleeping with Inanna in order to gain her protection in battle. Perhaps this was done in part to assuage their fears of her authority.
The Roman goddess Venus overstepped the accepted boundaries with particular aplomb
One of the main reasons that goddesses were elevated above most mortal women was their ability to cross societal boundaries established between the sexes on Earth. Inanna, who was credited with the ability to transform men into women and women into men, was sometimes referred to as a male. Professor Mary Beard, one of five guest contributors to the exhibition, observes in her prologue to the show’s catalogue that the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena similarly had “martial attributes that fundamentally conflict with Greek concepts of female gender”.
Venus, the Roman goddess, defied convention with particular aplomb. She, like Inanna, found a place in men’s hearts both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. Mary Beard elaborates: “It is Venus and the unstoppable power of desire that brings Rome its military victories.” Julius Caesar claimed to be a descendant of Venus through her son Aeneas, a Trojan War hero-turned-refugee, and featured the goddess prominently on some of his coinage. Later leaders, too, looked back to Roman goddesses as a symbol of their power. Minerva was depicted in the company of Wellington, Napoleon, and Queen Elizabeth I.
The notion that female figures of power have always been more important to women than men is untrue. Amenhotep, a Pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, went so far as to commission a large number of Sekhmet sculptures for his mortuary temple on the Nile, believing that she would help ward off pestilence and plague. And men were responsible for at least some of the goddess cult statues and artworks that still exist today.
“In a lot of cases, we don’t know exactly who was making the objects,” Belinda Crerar, the exhibition’s lead curator, tells BBC Culture. We often assume they were created by men, but this was not always the case. A bronze dish, probably made in Birmingham and decorated by women, can be found in the first section of the exhibition.”
Feared and revered
While many goddesses were thought to aid women in conceiving and giving birth, there were also individuals credited with the ability to do the opposite. Female figures of power may, in fact, be a source of anxiety for women in the very field where their assistance is most needed. Lamashtu, a Sumerian goddess with the head of a lion and the jaw of a donkey, was said to sneak into women’s homes while they were in labour and steal their babies. Cihuateteo (“divine women”), the spirits of would-be mothers who died in childbirth, were said to return on five days of the Aztec calendar to steal newborns from their cradles. And Lilith was described as Adam’s first wife, as well as the bringer of infant mortality and sterility. A haunting sculpture of her by contemporary artist Kiki Smith hangs high on one of the exhibition’s walls. Her piercing blue eyes will catch you off guard.
These deities were powerful embodiments of genuine human fears. It is true that anxiety has shaped many of the stories that have come down to us about female figures of power.
These stories had agency because feminine power was intrinsic to man’s conception of our planet
Many early cultures perceived the Earth to be female or to revolve around the behaviour of Earth goddesses. For example, the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone was used to explain the existence of the seasons. Demeter went into mourning after learning that her daughter had been abducted by Hades of the Underworld, causing the crops she normally protected to fail. Persephone’s consumption of pomegranate seeds only kept her in the dark for a portion of the year. Her return to the upper world brought joy to her mother and signalled the arrival of spring and its bounty. Similarly, the goddess Shri-Lakshmi was described in Hindu texts as leaving the Earth after suffering a slight, wreaking havoc in the fields. Because feminine power was intrinsic to man’s conception of our planet, these stories had agency. Sati, Shiva’s wife, was believed to become a part of the physical universe after her death in Hinduism. Her body was scattered across the landscapes below, inspiring the construction of the Kamakhya Temple in Assam, on the site where her vulva was said to have settled. During the monsoon season, a festival is still held here. Worshippers watch in awe as the natural spring turns red from iron oxide seepage. It’s as if the goddess is having a period.
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