LONDON — Although women have been fighting for their rights for equality through the ages, a survey of traditions around the world reveal that female authority and femininity have actually been celebrated, and even feared, as we discovered in “Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic,” an ongoing exhibit at the British Museum. Paintings, sculptures and dedicatory objects from ancient and medieval cultures are shown side by side with contemporary artworks to explore the profound influence of spiritual beings within global religion and faith.
“Goddesses, witches, demons, spirits and saints have played — and continue to play — a significant role in shaping our understanding of the world,” according to exhibit curator Belinda Crerar. Looking to divine and demonic figures dreaded and revered for over 5,000 years, one sees the diverse expressions of female power — “from wisdom, passion and desire to war, justice and mercy — making us reflect on how we perceive femininity and gender identity today.”
This brought to mind the Philippine babaylan or mystical mediums who wield social power by virtue of their spiritual connectedness. Found in various ethnic groups, they are predominantly women or feminized men called asog or bayok. The anthropologist Dr. Zeus Salazar, author of “Ang Babaylan sa Kasaysayan ng Pilipinas,” describes them as “specialists in the field of culture, religion, medicine and all kinds of theoretical knowledge about the phenomenon of nature.”
Being attuned to the interconnectedness of all life forms, they are consulted for many concerns from sickness to community problems. In some Lumad communities, they could even wield weapons to defend their tribe. Their belief that God is in all nature has given them ecological relevance as they campaign against the destruction of forests and the pollution of air and water. In establishing the harmony between the supernatural, the natural and all human beings, they effect both physical and spiritual healing that extends to maintaining justice and equality, as well as leading resistance and political movements.
What lies behind much spiritual belief, after all, is “a desire to understand the origins of life, our place within the universe, and the power of the natural world,” says Crerar, who cites the multitude of creation narratives told by various cultures and faiths. A print by Judy Chicago reimagines the Christian creation story from a feminist perspective where she says “the fake news of a male god creating the first man” is challenged, by showing a female deity birthing primordial life that flows from her vulva.
Many goddesses and spirits are actually believed to embody the earth and natural phenomena, holding power over life and death. Pele, the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes and lava, depicted in a sculpture by Tom Pico, is viewed as both a force of destruction and creation. Using ohi’a reddish wood conveys the goddess’ fiery nature with flaming hair flowing like lava. Signs of new plant life at the base evokes the cycle of regeneration.
The nature of female power can indeed be nuanced and complex, as this exhibit shows, providing a lot of inspiration and food for thought as we reflect upon our own views on femininity and female authority.
Alongside creation, the exhibit also tackles how passion and erotic desire have been spiritually associated with feminine influence and the naked female body. A Babylonian clay relief depicts the goddess Ishtar who presided over sex and war. Holding emblems of justice and civic authority, with a crown that speaks of both divinity and royalty, she was a potent force who was honored through erotic hymns in the belief that she could bring chaos or stability to the home or the state. A sculpture by Kiki Smith depicts the feared demon Lilith, the first woman created by God before Eve, who asserted her equality by refusing to subordinate herself to Adam during sex and abandoning the earthly paradise of Eden to align herself with Satan.
Female demons, witches and monsters defy tropes of submissive female behavior, making them figures of both fear and empowerment. In Mexico, the Cihuateteo, spirits of women who died at childbirth, were honored for their sacrifice but were also feared since they were believed to come and steal children of the living and inflict madness on those who saw them.
Feminine strength in world religions is nowhere as celebrated as on the battlefield where it is called upon to conquer hostile forces through superior aggression and wisdom. The Egyptian goddess Sekhmet has the head of a lioness to denote ferocity and destructive power but she could also grant healing and peace. The Hindu goddess Kali also has two facets, both the creative and destructive power of time, depicted in a commissioned sculpture by Kaushik Ghosh — showing her with a garland of severed heads symbolizing her power to destroy the ego while her hand gestures articulate fearlessness and generosity.
Perhaps closer to today’s discussions on gender is Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy who may have been portrayed in female form since the Song Dynasty but actually transcends gender and may take any form — whether male or female, human or animal — just to make sure that whoever calls on her will be saved during times of need. In Tibetan Buddhism, the goddess’ counterpart is Avalokiteshvara who is usually in male or androgynous form. The nature of female power can indeed be nuanced and complex, as this exhibit shows, providing a lot of inspiration and food for thought as we reflect upon our own views on femininity and female authority.