Rabia Sadique and Professor Mary Berry. Photos: Trustees of the British Museum
SHE is small, carved in stone and over 900 years old. Yet the meaning behind the Sheela-na-gig, one of which is featured 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.
Hitherto so commonplace, you may think. Until you take a closer look and realize that these curious sculptures actually clearly display their vulvas and show their teeth.
Some claim these are Christian warnings against lust. But there is also the theory that they are symbols of fertility and regeneration: their bald heads and malnourished bodies suggest death, and their vulva represents birth and life. The circle of life.
British Museum curator Belinda Crerar explains: “There are many different ideas about what Sheela-na-gig actually means and where it came from. It is usually interpreted to mean something like “old witch”. It relates to the idea that they somehow express a negative view of female sexuality, lust, and gratuitousness, and they were placed in churches as warnings against the deadly sin of lust.
“There is a kind of alternative theory that the prominence of the vulva on these figures expresses ideas relating to birth, fertility and life and that the upper body is related to death. I have the impression that all these perspectives are valid.
This exhibit focuses on religious and spiritual beliefs that “promote and revere female power” and challenge us to “reflect on definitions of femininity from cultural and spiritual traditions.”
And what this Sheela-na-gig encapsulates perfectly is the complicated and often contradictory perception of female power: it’s something to be both revered and feared.
Bonnie Greer and Elizabeth Day
The goddess Venus also combines such widely contradictory aspects. Familiar to Western audiences because it is associated with ideas of love, beauty, desire, seduction and sexuality, it is also venerated in the military context as a bearer of victory.
In the exhibition next to a statue of Venus, coins are exhibited. Ambitious Roman statesmen, generals, and emperors would claim Venus “as their patron deity, even their ancestor, and their source of manhood.” Julius Caesar, for example, sometimes placed his image alongside war trophies on coins marking victories achieved through his divine favor.
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 a whole range 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 revered in India – loved and feared for her power and aggression, she is also honored as a 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 which symbolizes her power to destroy the ego and free her followers from worldly concerns. Her skirt with severed arms signifies that she frees her followers from the cycle of death and rebirth through the many weapons she wields. Often, she is depicted standing or dancing on the god Shiva, lying under 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 wickedness; justice and defence; compassion and salvation and contains artifacts from six continents dating back to around 6000 BCE.
It is, according to the British Museum, the first major exhibition to “explore female spiritual beings in global beliefs and mythological traditions around the world”.
Another first is the inclusion of guest contributions, which dot 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 britishmuseum.org/feminine-power or call 020 7323 8181.