‘Goddesses, I yield to you!’ Marina Warner on the volcanic power of witches, she-devils and divinities

·8 min read

The British Museum is filled with objects that were once sacred to one culture or another. Until recently, the move into a museum setting disenchanted such artefacts. Their new surroundings effectively deadened the mysterious spiritual power they had enjoyed when displayed in a shrine, be it a cult site, a sanctuary or a Christian church. But this is changing: I was startled when, visiting the London venue one afternoon, a group of visitors drifted past and paused briefly to genuflect and cross themselves before a stone statue of a Huastec goddess from Mexico. This divinity, ancient and obscure, still possessed spiritual meaning for them.

Curators are newly sensitised to such visitors’ beliefs: claims for repatriation of ancestral items have prompted the recognition that their spiritual energy is intrinsic to their meaning. Exclusionary terms – “idolatry”, “unbeliever” – are now, thankfully, dead letters; the word “pagan” has new value, and respect is the guiding principle.

The argument that religions oppress women is now strongly contested

Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, a new show at the British Museum, gathers together an exhilarating array of goddesses, sorceresses and demonesses from living religions as varied as Tibetan Buddhism and Wicca, jostling side by side with cult objects from antiquity all over the globe. Belinda Crerar, the curator and author of the lucidly argued and richly illustrated catalogue, has also invited respondents – some of them adherents to a faith – to express their feelings about the female divinity in question.

The curation signals from the start the difficult questions the material poses: a small, bulbous, squatting, steeple-headed clay sculpture from around 6000BC and two guitar-shaped Cycladic figurines, made about 3,000 years later, face a marble abstract female form, called Mother Earth and carved out of red-veined marble in 2010 by the Jordanian artist Mona Saudi (who sadly died in February). Mother goddesses? Evidence of matriarchy? Nobody knows, but the arguments in favour of such an interpretation are no longer upheld.

The feminine here is not necessarily gendered female, though it manifests mostly in a female form, sometimes monstrous, sometimes zoomorphic. The show scrupulously sidesteps stereotypical categories such as Mother, Virgin, Whore. Instead, through five cellular spaces, it follows strands in which roles often overlap. In the first section, Creation & Nature, a video follows vodun-like ceremonies held in high summer in honour of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of fresh water and healing. In the second, Love & Desire, the famous tablet of Ishtar-Inanna from the museum’s own collection shows the goddess full frontal, with eagle’s talons for feet, lions underfoot and a sentinel owl on each side.

The power of this image is reawakened in the next section, Magic & Malice, where Kiki Smith’s bronze sculpture of Lilith hangs high on the wall. Lilith was the first wife of Adam and refused to lie down under him when making love, but flew away and was turned into a she-devil, abductor of children. Smith, born in 1954, has long revisited mythic figures who’ve been reviled, reclaiming them as patron saints and kindred spirits: Lot’s wife, Eve, Mary Magdalen. Her commanding vision of Lilith, with the bluest eyes (like the artist’s own), appears on the cover of the catalogue and presents the show’s leitmotiv: as with the celebrated publishing houses of the 1970s – Shameless Hussy in the US, Virago in the UK – appropriation of negative tropes has long been an effective feminist stratagem, but it used to be laced with more scepticism and irony.

Feminine Power’s mood differs from the rebellious spirit of earlier times because the argument that religious systems oppress women is now strongly contested. The view is growing that the feminine imagery in religions attracts female devotees because it holds up a mirror to their/our lives and needs. Men’s interest in these manifestations of the feminine is not inquired into. By contrast, for my generation, religious views were considered to imprison women in low expectations and instil misogyny in men and women alike.

I still waver over this because – while revelling in the enchantments of Circe, and riveted by the terrifying Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl, Eater of Filth – I am still troubled by the doctrine of the Fall and Eve’s role, and numerous aspects of different faiths’ attitudes to women; for example, by the sweet benign grace of Mary and her Buddhist counterpart Guanyin, goddess of Mercy, who both assign women in particular the duty of kindness and care.

The function of images is far more complex, however, than simple mirroring and reinforcement. Motives – revenge against oppressors, a promise of reward in the hereafter, the need to feed divine powers in order to turn away their wrath – can only be touched on given the celebratory spirit of the exhibition. It would be a duller show and its narrative soapier if the negative stereotypes were all rehabilitated. The divine and demonic powers at issue would be weakened.

This is not the case: in Justice & Defence, the terror of Kali beams out from the huge effigy of the goddess, which the museum commissioned from Indian artist Kaushik Ghosh. Made in the bright daylight of India, this ferocious and garish apparition, with her lolling scarlet tongue, the slick of blood on her raised sword, as well as the dumpy doll-like Shiva pinned down under her trampling feet, could appear histrionic and might arouse horrid laughter if it weren’t displayed next to a real weapon, an impressively long 19th-century iron “sword-axe” with the all-seeing eye of Kali, from whom no wrongdoer is safe, incised on its surface. The goddess symbolises, we are told, evil being cut away, hypocrisy undone, abusive powers crushed. (I rather hoped the necklace of severed male heads she wears might be portraits of well-known oppressors, but no, they mostly look like Salvador Dalí.)

A statuette of Guanyin on a lotus holds a symbol of blessing in each of her 18 arms, every finger in lucent porcelain

The closing section, Compassion & Salvation, turns to Mary and her Quranic counterpart, Maryam, as well as to the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, who began as a male bodhisattva (an enlightened being). This section exemplifies therefore potentially non-binary strands in the conception of feminine power. Some of the most exquisite art appears here: a wonderful miniature of talismanic calligraphy gives the full Surah Maryam, the Quranic story of the birth of Jesus; an image of the Madonna of Guadalupe – enveloped in a radiant scarlet aureole and green mantle – is made, if you look closely, entirely in minute straws laid side by side. Meanwhile, an 18th-century Chinese statuette of Guanyin on a lotus holds a symbol of blessing in each of her 18 arms, every tiny graceful finger miraculously modelled in lucent porcelain. These beautiful images made my anxious, ingrained resistance to goddess worship falter. I then yielded – to pure delight.

In some cases, a finer object could have been chosen to illustrate the point: John William Waterhouse’s maidenly Circe only feebly conveys that founding sorceress’s magic. Nor does the terracotta Medusa carry the full force of the gorgon’s magnificent fury.

But overall, Feminine Power spreads a feast of objects both precious and popular, ancient and new: it has something of the character of a cabinet of curiosities. Walking through the curving spaces (the layout reminded me of Skara Brae, thought to be shaped like the interior of a woman’s body), I found my senses rewired and sparking at the sheer variety of materials on show, the contrasts of medium, texture, scale and luminosity: the rich gleaming chestnut-red Ohia wood carved and buffed by a contemporary Māori sculptor, Tom Pico, for his image of a crouching flower goddess; the waxy dark soapstone of a bulbous mermaid-like deity Sedna, mistress of the sea, by an Inuit artist, Lincassie Kenuajuak; and the cornelian Ankh-shaped amulet from 1400BC that symbolises the blood of Isis (her menstrual blood, Belinda Crerar told me), which was placed on the neck or chest of the dead to protect them. When it comes to forms of expression in order to invoke the powers above and below, human ingenuity, it seems, knows no bounds.

Feminine Power belongs in a splendid line of British Museum explorations of the sacred, with Grayson Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman in 2011 an outstanding example. This series exemplifies the fundamental shift in the concept of museums and their relation to their publics: the visit becomes an ecumenical ritual, the museum a site where differing systems meet in peace (it is to be hoped) and a form of modern syncretism develops, with contemporary Wiccan devotees of Artemis coexisting with followers of Kali.

Related: ‘Every year it astounds us’: the Orkney dig uncovering Britain’s stone age culture

Surprisingly, this echoes the approach of the Roman empire to religious variety: Romans were unexpectedly welcoming to new gods (Cybele, Mithras) and, as is notorious, deified their emperors even during their lifetime. The landscape of faith today, as this exhibition reveals, reflects this same push towards all-embracing ecumenism. The final note is struck by one of Wangechi Mutu’s “sentinel” or “guardian” series: called Grow the Tea, Then Break the Cups, she’s a Giacometti-like female bust made of dark soil, charcoal, oyster shells, feathers, hide, china and hair. It’s an alarming, secret-looking, numinous piece, and an example of the artist’s call to each of us to create our own divinities.

Some of this new approach may conform, surprisingly, to western ideals of individual empowerment rather than the collective strength offered by a shared faith. It may also contain a dose of wishful thinking, as Feminine Power overlooks inherently troubling aspects in the interest of civility and inclusiveness. But the overall impetus, to reconnect us to the volcanic energy of goddess cults the world over, has inspired a treasure store of fascinating artefacts, thoughtfully chosen and arranged.

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