Wednesday 8 June 2022

Visit to Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic (and The Story of Swedenborg in 27 objects)


During the half-term I decided to visit the British Museum for their exhibition ‘Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic’. It’s the first big exhibition I’ve been to since covid and I was attracted to it to see the ‘Burney Relief’, also known as ‘The Queen of the Night’ relief which may (or may not) depict Inanna, one of my favourite mythological beings, who I’ve named the main character in the novel I’m currently writing.

The relief itself is usually exhibited at the British Museum for free, so there had to be some other interesting stuff to make it worth the £15 exhibition charge. There were. Arranged into loose themes, the room was stuffed with depictions of Goddesses and powerful mythological women from all over the world, principally in statues, although there were a number of pictures also. One of my favourite was the picture of Guan Yin, a Buddhist avatar of love and compassion where all the lines in the picture were made from minuscule calligraphy. It was also lovely that revered women in Islam were not left out with some beautiful calligraphy of their names and one which held the whole Maryam Surah in one frame.

The experience was a bit like meeting all the powerful beings, with an image or statue of them and a little write-up about who they are and what they represent. There was a female form from Iraq which was over 6,000 years old. Interestingly, these pre-historic forms represented women as bodies with thick thighs, large breasts and marked pubic triangles but no faces. It was as the beliefs and mythology developed that the Goddesses gained faces and personality.

And what personalities there were. There was Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes with a surprisingly calm face, Kali with her necklace of severed heads, Sekhmet, standing calmly with her lion’s head. One of my favourites was Tlazolteolt of the Huaxtec who inspires lust and eats dirt, she has a literal shit-eating smile, however she purifies the dirt into life-giving fertiliser. 

Not all the figures were old, there was a modern portrayal of Lilith, in Jewish mythology Adam’s first wife who refused to obey his wishes. Here she’s an evil looking bog-monster, lurking on the wall but the write-up said that she is an inspiration to many modern practisers of witchcraft along with Hekate and Circe. There was also an early depiction of her on a bowl which looked like a crazed child’s drawing. 

The Inanna section not only had ‘The Queen of the Night’, which is absolutely captivating to see close up, but a tablet of a hymn to her in cuneiform, a depiction of two people in bed together and a Sumerian King figure making an offering to her.

What’s amazing about the exhibition is that many of the beings portrayed in it are still worshiped today. I saw people bowing to Kali and Guan Yin and others crossing themselves in front of Mary. It brought a special frisson that the characters we were meeting still have force in people’s lives.

I suppose the big picture of ‘Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic’ was to show how multi-faceted and powerful depictions of women can be but I was left more with the thought of how interesting and inventive the human race is as a whole. A very welcome decision on the part of the curators was to talk to groups of Wiccans, Muslims, Christians, Hindus &c and ask their interpretation. For example, the Goddess Kali, known to many from the hideous portrayal in Indiana Jones, is not simply a manifestation of violence and death. The heads around her neck aren’t the result of wanton slaughter but representations of the ignorance that we need to slay in ourselves to become better people.

If anything let my experience down, it was the talking heads. It started with a word-cloud of qualities that could be attributed to women (i.e every human quality) which Time Out magazine said “feels like being stuck in a meeting with a bunch of male ad execs trying to figure out how to flog tampons.” The there were videos of five famous women teasing what the visitor would shortly be seeing. Each of the women had a section in it and the elements where they were quoted added very little to the experience.

A depiction of Mami Wata, an African water spirit had a quote by Bonnie Greer saying that she has ‘real city girl energy’ about her. I looked at this statue of a woman with a snake around her neck who represents the life-giving but also dangerous power of fresh water and couldn’t get ‘city girl’ out of it. Confused, I asked the British Museum employee sat next to the statue what Bonnie Greer might have meant by that. She ummed, aahed and essentially told me that it didn’t really mean anything in particular. I think the use of these slightly naff talking head elements did distract from the engaging and fascinating range of powerful women that we were introduced to.

Wandering back from the museum I noticed a little bookshop that had an exhibition in it and popped in. This was ‘The Story of Swedenborg in 27 objects’ and was being shown by the Swedenborg Society. I can’t say I knew much about Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish courtier and scientist who began to see visions and changed tack, writing extensively on esoteric and religious topics.

I was lucky enough, when I wandered in, to catch the chair of the society and he gave me a very interesting impromptu talk about the man, his habit of talking very close to people and playing with their buttons as he did, and his visions. The items themselves included his walking cane, his blotting paper and, strangest of all, one of his ear bones. Apparently his head went on a few adventures after he died as well. There was also a hand-translated copy of one of his books into Japanese and an English copy of the same book owned and signed by T.E Lawrence.

Best of all, the bookshop had a trunk where previously loved books can be picked up for a pound. While I doubt I’ll turn Swedenborgian anytime soon, this rationalist-mystic is certainly an interesting figure and I look forward to finding out a little more.

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