Girl power

A new exhibition at the British Museum explores female spiritual beings in world belief, writes Jane Clinton

Thursday, 9th June — By Jane Clinton

Rabia Sadique and Professor Mary Berry

Rabia Sadique and Professor Mary Berry. Photos: Trustees of the British Museum

SHE is small, carved from stone and more than 900 years old. Yet the meaning behind the Sheela-na-gig, one of which is on display in the British Museum’s new exhibition, Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic, is debated to this day.

From the 1100s, Sheela-na-gigs adorned churches and secular buildings across Ireland, Britain, France and Spain.

So far so unremarkable, you may think. That is until you take a closer look and realise these curious carvings are in fact clearly displaying their vulvas and baring their teeth.

Some argue they are Christian warnings against lust. But there is also the theory they are symbols of fertility and regeneration: their bald head and malnourished bodies evoking death, and their vulva representing birth and life. The cycle of life.

Deborah Frances-White

British Museum curator Belinda Crerar explains: “There are a lot of different ideas about what Sheela-na-gig actually means and where it comes from. It’s generally interpreted to mean something like ‘old hag’. This relates to the idea that they are somehow expressing a negative view of female sexuality, lust and wantonness, and they were placed on churches as warnings against the cardinal sin of lust.”

“There is a sort of alternative theory that the prominence of the vulva on these figures is expressing ideas relating to birth, fertility and life and that the upper body relates to death. I feel like all of these perspectives are valid.”

This exhibition’s focus is on the religious and spiritual beliefs that “promote and revere feminine power” and inspire us to “reflect on definitions of femininity from cultural and spiritual traditions”.

And what this Sheela-na-gig neatly encapsulates is the complicated and often contradictory perception of female power: that it is something to be simultaneously revered and feared.

Bonnie Greer and Elizabeth Day

The goddess Venus also combines such vastly contradictory aspects. Familiar to Western audiences as associated with ideas of love, beauty, desire, seduction and sexuality, she is also venerated in the military context as the bringer of victory.

In the exhibition next to a statue of Venus there are coins displayed. Ambitious Roman statesmen and generals and emperors would claim Venus “as their patron deity, even ancestor, and source of virility”. Julius Caesar, for example, sometimes placed her image alongside trophies of war on coins marking victories achieved through her divine favour.
Venus can bring chaos and war but she can also bring peace and harmony.

As Crerar explains: “You rarely get a goddess for one thing, they have got a whole spectrum of powers, sometimes very contradictory.”

Kali by Kaushik Ghosh, 2021. Photo: Trustees of the British Museum

A highlight of the exhibition is the specially commissioned icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh. Kali, is one of the most venerated in India – loved and feared for her power and aggression she is also honoured as the Great Mother and liberator from ignorance. She is the goddess of destruction and salvation who transcends time and death and destroys ignorance and leads her followers to enlightenment.

She is often depicted wearing a garland of severed heads that symbolises her power to destroy the ego and free her followers from worldly concerns. Her skirt of severed arms signifies that she liberates her followers from the cycle of death and rebirth through the many weapons she wields. Often she is portrayed standing or dancing on the God Shiva, who lies recumbent beneath her.

The Sheela-na-gig. Photo: Trustees of the British Museum

This exhibition is divided into sections including creation and nature; passion and desire; magic and malice; justice and defence; compassion and salvation and has items from six continents dating from around 6,000bce to the present.

It is, the British Museum says, the first major exhibition, to “explore female spiritual beings in world belief and mythological traditions around the globe”.

Another first is the inclusion of guest contributions, which are dotted around the exhibition, from playwright and author Bonnie Greer; classicist, writer and broadcaster, professor Dame Mary Beard; writer and presenter Elizabeth Day; human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique and writer, comedian best known for her podcast The Guilty Feminist, Deborah Frances-White.

The Citi exhibition, Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic, at the British Museum until September 25. See or call 020 7323 8181.

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