Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.
In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.
Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.
According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.
There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.
Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.
According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.
Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.
There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.
In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.
An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.
Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.
Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.
On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.
The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.
There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.
Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.
The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.
Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.
In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.
The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.
In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).
In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.
Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.
Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.
When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.
Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.
According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.
Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.
In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.
In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.
Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.
Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.
Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).
In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.
These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.
The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.
Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic is open until 25th September 2022. Tickets are priced from £15 and advanced booking is recommended.