The British Museum has good reason to put together the exhibition Feminine Power. After all, when girls are actually being advised, with the full endorsement of the psychological and medical establishments, to surgically remove their breasts in an attempt to become male, misogyny has reached a new apogee. (See, for just one example, the harrowing interview recorded here.) Accordingly, any museum’s effort to signal the importance of being female should be welcomed. Clipboard-bearing curators at this show collect viewer responses and display them on a large screen. One of them boldly proclaims, “Woman, an adult human female,” surely indicating this visitor knows that very definition is under baffling new attack.
Even so, the subtitle of this particular show at the British Museum suggests problems: Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic. The images here gathered span epoch and geography, their only commonality being “profound influence on human lives, both past and present.” Which is to say, every global goddess within reach has been thrown into the curatorial blender for this exhibition, and—not unlike the $25 smoothie I recently saw advertised and sampled in Los Angeles—the results are less than invigorating. And that may be part of the point.
Back in the 1990s, the goddess movement, which also attempted to scramble the divine feminine across cultures, was lambasted by a series of scholars. The New York Times, for example, issued a blistering review of publications that recklessly fused disparate divinities. “By forcing ‘the’ goddess to say the same thing for 20,000 years,” complained one reviewer, modern goddess enthusiasts “perpetuate the repression they claim to abhor.” But the death blow was delivered by major scholars such as the University of Chicago’s Tikva Frymer-Kensky, who—I once thought—had laid all such hasty conflations to rest on feminist grounds:
In The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton went so far as to suggest that the foundational facts of the movement were wrong in the same way it is wrong to say that Manchester, not London, is the capital of the United Kingdom. But memory is short. A new generation seems unaware of such effective deconstructions, and so a goddess conflation—this time with more scholarly attention to distinctions—has been attempted again.
Visitors to this British Museum exhibition are immediately faced with a nude Inanna (whose Akkadian name was Ishtar), the ferocious forerunner of Aphrodite. She stands naked and exposed, just as men like King Sargon the Great of Assyria wished her to be. She is sometimes known as Astarte or the Canaanite goddess Anat, but whatever one calls her, she was merciless and vindictive. Using Inanna to advance female empowerment, as the exhibition intimates, is comparable to prescribing crystal meth to combat mild depression. Here is just a taste of what she was like in her original context, according to no less an authority than William Albright:
The shrewd visitor to this show, before purchasing an Astarte mug, is likely to see the goddess for what she was, a fantasy of erotic availability, a misogynistic caricature of female “power,” a caricature conjured, and very effectively perpetuated, by men, even if female poets like Enheduanna (King Sargon’s daughter) were sometimes drafted to assist.
The Egyptian goddess Sekhmet was as bloodthirsty as Astarte, and she makes an appearance as well, enabling women (so the gallery label suggests) “to be lionesses and warriors, to be advocates and change agents.” But those who read a bit closer will learn that Sekhmet’s bloodlust, according to Egyptian mythology, is in fact a result of humble obedience to her father, the male god Ra, who sent Sekhmet to do his bidding. In short, even when the goddess went on a rampage, it was because Daddy made her do it.
This is no different with Taraka, the Hindu flesh-eating ogre who is also proudly featured in this exhibition. Again, the museum label makes no attempt to conceal the fact that men get the last word. In the Ramayana, the great Sanskrit epic, Taraka is defeated by Rama, the male hero of the poem. The only reason Taraka is ugly, moreover, is from rage that her husband had been killed. So hideous Taraka, sent into monstrous grief by her slain husband, is then killed by a male god. I’m not sure this empowers women as much as it empowers men who believe assertive women to in fact be flesh-eating ogres, men who will leave this exhibition with their dangerous convictions confirmed.
Even Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, offers much less than raw female empowerment. Anyone who dutifully watches the richly informative video of Hindu devotees explaining the purpose of her ferocious appearance will immediately realize that the image is not announcing female conquest of men but is itself a depiction of a mistake. For Kali has accidentally stepped on her husband Shiva, who outranks her, and Kali is horrified. The image is therefore a call for restraint of female power rather than its celebration. The cheeky Christian viewer might even go so far as to suggest that the image evokes the divine identification with the downtrodden famously announced in Matthew 25 (“Whatsoever you have done to the least of these you have done to me”).
The Egyptian goddess Isis, who compensated for Astarte’s aggression with an undeniable tenderness, also has a cameo in the show. She shows her breast to her son Horus, urging him to receive her nourishing milk. Still, the fact that much of Isis’s time is spent rehabilitating her husband/brother Osiris’s lost penis gives us quite a window into what Egyptian men felt the job of women to be. Though aspects of the Isis myth are undeniably beautiful, she was still the distant progeny of the male high god Atum-Ra, who masturbated the world into existence without any assistance from feminine aspects of the pantheon. In view of the sex-soaked Egyptian phallocracy, no wonder monotheistic women like Miriam shook their timbrels in celebration when they left (Exodus 15:20–21).
In view of the sex-soaked Egyptian phallocracy, no wonder monotheistic women like Miriam shook their timbrels in celebration when they left.
At any rate, perhaps the Greco-Roman tradition can offer what women today are seeking. But I’m not sure Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena, also featured in the exhibition, do what some viewers might hope. One vast study on the ancient worship of mother goddesses concludes, “The presence of powerful goddesses in a religious pantheon rarely reflects anything about the role of females in that particular society.” This is perfectly illustrated in the remark of a privileged Greek man such as Demosthenes, who tells us that “mistresses were kept for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children.” Aphrodite, as famously illustrated in the Ludovisi throne, encapsulates each of these pleasuring responsibilities.
Not to mention prostitution, which was deeply connected to the goddess of love, a fact first reported by Herodotus. Imagine the scene for a moment—young women, and a few boys as well, seated outside the temple of Aphrodite, dutifully waiting for a strange man to drop the required fee into their laps, with the homelier women enduring the additional indignity of being picked last. Aphrodite’s prostitutes were not empowered modern femme fatales, choosing the profession by choice. While some high-class hetaeras (professional courtesans) existed then as today, Bettany Hughes describes the far more common prostitutes as “pitiful sex-slaves . . . weaving by day and being shagged by night—so cheaply, an obol at a time, that even slaves could afford to buy their wares.”
Moreover, such prostitution (practiced in the cult of Isis as well) was a part of government surveillance of sex. Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, was said to have founded the Aphrodite cult and its prostitution to convey that “even sexual urges were now in the purview of the state.” Speaking of the state, Aphrodite was the “progenitrix of the Julio-Claudian imperial line . . . mother of the Roman Empire,” which is to say, she was the poster girl for imperial male power. The fact that Greek goddesses spring from the male imagination is conveniently illustrated by the mythic origins of Aphrodite (from the testicular foam of Uranus) and Athena (straight from the forehead of Zeus). All in all, celebrating classical statues today to empower women may be like a future archaeologist, upon uncovering an early twenty-first-century billboard advertising a strip club, concluding that our society supremely honoured women because the words “Girls! Girls! Girls!” were printed so large.
Even so, props to the British Museum for including Guanyin, the female bodhisattva of compassion, and her Tibetan analogue Tara. Unfortunately, the museum label suggests that “Christianity was introduced to China during the 1700s,” which is over one thousand years off. The place to go to correct this error, moreover, is in the British Museum itself. (Just downstairs are images from the Assyrian Church of the East’s mission to China during the Tang dynasty.) Despite this minor misstep, the exhibition and its catalogue do highlight the interaction between images of the Virgin Mary and those of Guanyin, including Mary’s Japanese Buddhist disguise as Maria-Kannon.
As for the Virgin herself, she is tucked into the corner, along with a beautiful Arabic inscription of Maryam from the Qur’an. But informed viewers will not let this placement fool them. Mary is no goddess or archetype but an actual human woman. Unlike all her temporary British Museum roommates, this is part of the reason she can actually help. She proclaims not that God is a mother but (far better) that God (the inventor of mothers) also actually has one. As the ancient Christians never tired of repeating, unlike all of paganism (past or present), only Mary has offered the world salvation procured without any assistance from the phallus at all. Those who find this assertion puzzling might want to pick up a copy of my colleague Amy Peeler’s bracing new book, Women and the Gender of God.
She proclaims not that God is a mother but (far better) that God (the inventor of mothers) also actually has one.
It would be churlish, of course, to deny that pagan goddesses offer considerable psychological insight. Such stories and statues can be admired and learned from with profit, for they illuminate the human condition with singular force. Aphrodite and her retinue, for example, are not shunned but insightfully embraced by Christian commentators like C.S. Lewis (Till We Have Faces) or John Sanford (Fate, Love, and Ecstasy: Wisdom from the Lesser-Known Goddesses of the Greeks). But with the dust kicked up by the modern goddess movement since the 1970s having now largely settled, and with so much of its literature thoroughly discredited, we are in position to see something else as well: there is good reason why the pagan gods and goddesses, unpredictable and elitist, lost the hearts and minds of the ancient world. As Friedrich Solmsen concludes in his classic study of Isis, Christianity offered “love of a more outgoing kind and broader in scope, love between man and his neighbor, love for the poor and the downtrodden, even, in principle at least, for one’s enemy.”
In sum, goddesses may offer a fleeting spike of confidence to entrepreneurs seeking fresh opportunities, but less so to the persons who clean their toilets. They might offer a wealthy woman a role model for voluptuousness, but if she gets breast cancer, they provide little assistance. They might attract a man seeking a plaything or a partner, but not one who is in divorce proceedings. They can inspire rage, but not forgiveness; self-aggrandizement, but not love. This may be why today so many of these goddesses are in the convalescent home for images that we call the museum. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic example of “feminine power” than Elizabeth II’s seventy-year reign, and it was sustained not by Astarte, Aphrodite, or Athena but—as the queen never tired of repeating—by the one held in Mary’s arms. We mortals, it turns out, need more than smoothies to sustain us, especially ones that so easily legitimate the lusts of men for territory and sex.
But perhaps the curators were aware that an amalgamation of global goddesses would spur viewers toward such conclusions—in which case this is one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.