How fear shaped ancient mythology

How fear, sex and power shaped ancient mythology

(Image credit: Gallery Oldham)


The mythical goddesses who broke the rules of sex and power – and manifested our worst anxieties. Daisy Dunn explores the fierce deities who were both revered and feared


In the 1st Century, bathers in the city of Bath who suffered the ignominy of having their clothes stolen while they were enjoying a soak knew exactly who to call upon for help. The goddess Sulis, who presided over the hot baths, cold baths and glistening plunge pools of the Roman complex, was known principally for her ability to heal, but she also had a remarkable capacity for vengeance. More than 100 ancient curse tablets have been excavated from her spring, many of them featuring strong-worded pleas for the goddess to punish those who’d made off with other people’s possessions. Thieves beware.

More like this:

–          The ancient enigma that still resonates

–          Why magic’s secret symbols fascinate us

–          Eight nature books to change your life

Sulis is just one of a number of goddesses who feature in an ambitious new exhibition,  Feminine Power, at the British Museum in London. Examining the prominence of female deities and figures of reverence from six continents across thousands of years, the show is as rich in scope as it is in divine faces. Sharing the gallery with Sulis, a local manifestation of the Roman goddess Minerva, is everyone from the Egyptian deity Sekhmet to the Hindu Kali, the Japanese Kannon and the Mexican Coatlicue.

The painted clay relief Queen of the Night (circa 1750 BCE) from Iraq is exhibited at the new show Feminine Power at the British Museum (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)

The painted clay relief Queen of the Night (circa 1750 BCE) from Iraq is exhibited at the new show Feminine Power at the British Museum (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)

It is striking how many of these goddesses have been worshipped for seemingly contradictory qualities. Just as Sulis was credited with powers of healing as well as powers of exacting revenge, so Inanna of ancient Mesopotamia was viewed as a goddess of both sex and war. An early hymn describes her as a dread deity who brings death to men on the battlefield and mourning to the households they leave behind. In other writings, she is celebrated for the sexual potency she inspires in mortals she favours. Sumerian kings did their best to combine the best of both worlds by envisaging themselves as sleeping with Inanna in order to attain her protection in war. This was, perhaps in part, a way of tempering their fears of her authority.

The ability of goddesses to cross societal boundaries established between the sexes on Earth was one of the main things that elevated them above most mortal women. Inanna, who was credited with the power to transform men into women, and women into men, was sometimes even described as if she herself were male. Professor Mary Beard, one of five guest contributors to the exhibition, observes in her prologue to the show’s catalogue that the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena similarly had “martial attributes that fundamentally conflict with Greek concepts of female gender”.

The Roman goddess Venus overstepped the accepted boundaries with particular aplomb. Like Inanna, she found a place in men’s hearts on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom. Mary Beard explains: “It’s Venus and the unswayable, unstoppable power of desire that in a way brings Rome its military victories.” Julius Caesar claimed to be a descendent of Venus via her son Aeneas, hero-turned-refugee of the Trojan War, and placed the goddess prominently on some of his coinage. Later leaders, too, looked back to Roman goddesses almost as a hallmark of their authority. Minerva was depicted in the presence of Wellington and Napoleon as well as Queen Elizabeth I. 

The ancient goddess Kali Murti represents time, doomsday and death (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)

The ancient goddess Kali Murti represents time, doomsday and death (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)

The idea that female figures of power have been more important to women throughout history than to men is certainly belied. Amenhotep, a Pharoah of the 18th dynasty in Egypt, went so far as to commission a vast quantity of sculptures of Sekhmet for his mortuary temple on the Nile, in the belief that she would help ward off pestilence and plague. And men were responsible for making at least some of the cult statues and artworks of goddesses that still survive today.  

Belinda Crerar, lead curator of the exhibition, tells BBC Culture, “In a lot of cases, we don’t know exactly who was making the objects. We tend to assume they were made by men, but this was not necessarily the case. In the first section of the exhibition there’s a bronze dish, probably made in Birmingham, and decorated by women.” 

Feared and revered

While many goddesses were thought to lend their support to women in conceiving and delivering children, there were also individuals credited with the power to do the opposite. Female figures of power could in fact be a source of anxiety to women in the very sphere in which their assistance was needed most. Among the Sumerians, Lamashtu, a goddess with the head of a lion and the jaw of a donkey, was believed to creep into the houses of women while they were in labour to steal their babies. In Mexico, Cihuateteo (“divine women”), the spirits of would-be mothers who had died in labour, were rumoured to return on five days in the Aztec year to snatch newborns from their cradles. And Lilith was described as the first wife of Adam, and as a bringer of infant death and sterility. A haunting sculpture of her by contemporary artist Kiki Smith is mounted high on one wall of the exhibition. Her fierce blue eyes are liable to catch you off guard.  

A 1994 sculpture by Kiki Smith depicts Lilith as a bringer of infant death and sterility (Credit: Pace Gallery)

A 1994 sculpture by Kiki Smith depicts Lilith as a bringer of infant death and sterility (Credit: Pace Gallery)

These deities were profound manifestations of real human fears. It would be true to say that anxiety has helped shape several of the stories that have come down to us about female figures of power.

In many early cultures, the Earth itself was seen to be female, or to revolve around the behaviour of Earth goddesses. The ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, for example, was used to explain the existence of the seasons. Upon hearing that her daughter had been abducted by Hades of the Underworld, Demeter went into mourning, causing the crops she usually protected to fail. Persephone’s consumption of some pomegranate seeds kept her in the darkness for part of the year only. Her return to the upper world cheered her mother and heralded the arrival of spring and its fruits. Similarly, in Hindu texts, the goddess Shri-Lakshmi was described as leaving the Earth after suffering a slight, thereby wreaking devastation in the fields.

These stories had agency because feminine power was intrinsic to man’s conception of our planet. In Hinduism, Shiva’s wife, Sati, was believed to become part of the physical universe after she died. Her body fell in pieces across the landscapes below, inspiring the foundation of the Kamakhya Temple in Assam, on the very spot her vulva was said to have settled. Still today, a festival is held here in monsoon season. Worshippers gaze in wonder as the natural spring turns red with the seepage of iron oxide. It is as if the goddess were menstruating.

In an 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse, Circe offers a cup to Ulysses (Credit: Gallery Oldham)

In an 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse, Circe offers a cup to Ulysses (Credit: Gallery Oldham)

As important as these modes of worship are, one can’t help but feel that men have endowed female deities with powers beyond their human counterparts to illustrate why female rule on Earth would be disastrous. While the Egyptian Sekhmet was upheld for her life-giving potential, like Shri-Lakshmi and Demeter, she could also deliver destruction. It was said that she was sent to plunder the Earth after mortals rebelled against her father, the sun god, Ra. Sekhmet did as she was told but got carried away. Ra was so ashamed by her bloodlust that he recalled her. Sekhmet would not give up. The only way Ra could stop her in her tracks was by disguising alcohol as blood so that she would become too inebriated to continue.

Still today, women in power are often as much feared as they are revered or, at least, are presented as threatening in their success and their ability to smash glass ceilings. If the examples of the past reveal anything, it is that female figures of authority are always at the ready to rise up and defy expectation. They are brilliant for being everything people assume they are not.    

Daisy Dunn’s new book, Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford between the Wars, is out now.

Feminine Power – the Divine to the Demonic is at the British Museum, London, until 25 September.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *