Global Cultures Have Always Worshipped—and Feared—Women

A new explores two sides of female divinity

A colorful nature scene shows a bursting creation of the world, hearkening back to female power.
Judy Chicago’s 1985 painting The Creation shows a woman birthing the world.  The Trustees of the British Museum

In ancient Rome, a group of young women known as the Vestal Virgins maintained the everlasting flame that burned in the Forum’s Temple of Vesta—a potent symbol of their civilization’s legitimacy and political power. If they finished their 30-year term with virginity intact, they went on to live a relatively independent life. But if they broke their vow, they were buried alive in a chamber with a small amount of food and water. After all, the blood of these divine women could not fall.

Though ancient cultures elevated some women, they vilified others. ”Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic,” at the British Museum in London through September 25, endeavors to show both sides of female power in ancient and modern cultures around the world, examining female deities who were exalted in some way—even when they were represented as evil.

An 18th-century piece showing Buddhist goddess Guanyin, who represents compassion.
An 18th-century Chinese porcelain piece of Buddhist Guanyin, who represents compassion The Trustees of the British Museum

Visitors will meet Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, Kali, the Hindu goddess whose very name translates to “She Who Is Death,” Guanyin, the Buddhist’s gender-shifting ideal of compassion, and Sekhmet, an Egyptian goddess of war who could both bring disease and heal.

The exhibition spans six continents and 5,000 years, according to its website, which calls it a “cross-cultural look at the profound influence of female spiritual beings within global religion and faith.”

The ancient and modern artworks and devotional objects in the exhibition “shine a light on 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 rendered as divine, they often existed to illustrate certain concepts central to the societies that worshiped them. The Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, for example, both represented “war and sexual love,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica—perhaps two sides of the same coin. In a clay relief from the 19th to 18th centuries B.C.E. in south Iraq, the goddess is shown on the back of a lion with arms in the air.

A clay relief of Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, goddess of both sex and war.
A 1750 B.C.E. clay relief of Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, goddess of both sex and war The Trustees of the British Museum

“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,” Crerar and Dahlsen write.

Other works re-envision the creation myth and center divine femininity. Prominent modern artist Judy Chicago‘s aptly-named The Creation depicts a female goddess birthing the world from her vulva as her breast becomes a spewing volcano.

Women were not merely creators, symbols of romantic or sexual love and purveyors of justice. They could also bring evil, and could be just as feared and beloved.

Take Lilith, often considered the first wife of Adam who would not obey her biblical husband’s desires. Rebranded as a feminist icon in the 20th century, a 1994 piece by Kiki Smith portrays her with stirring blue eyes and on all fours.

Much like the Vestal Virgins, these goddesses were at once utterly important and easily dismissed. Like Ishtar, the god of both sex and war, they represent “seemingly contradictory qualities,” writes the BBC‘s Daisy Dunn.

“Sumerian kings did their best to combine the best of both worlds by envisaging themselves as sleeping with [Ishtar] in order to attain her protection in war,” Dunn writes. “This was, perhaps in part, a way of tempering their fears of her authority.”

By centering women with mythical power, the exhibition subtly points to who actually called the shots: men. Often, goddesses who were able to gender-shift and take on male attributes were considered more powerful than those who could not.

“One can’t help but feel that men have endowed female deities with powers beyond their human counterparts to illustrate why female rule on Earth would be disastrous,” Dunn writes.

And yet, the exhibition leaves viewers with a sense of women’s real power—a sacred, complex force that that men, however hard they try, cannot truly bottle and contain.

On a visit, the Guardian‘s Marina Warner watched as a group stopped to “genuflect and cross themselves” by a stone statue of a Huastec divinity from Mexico. For them, these female goddesses were still awesome, in the Biblical sense of that term, worthy of fear and veneration alike.

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic“ is on view at the British Museum in London, United Kingdom, through September 25, 2022.