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Museums and exhibitions Religion Reviews

What a single bronze statuette can teach you about divine (and demonic) feminine power

The new British Museum exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic promises to be a summer blockbuster. It’s got everything from Tlazolteotl, the Huaxtec goddess of purification to the wooden statue of Tiare Wahine by Tom Pico, covering a vast range of time periods, regions and cultures. It’s a stunning show in which every single object is quite simply a masterpiece of its form.

Yet for all its richness the show lacks depth. It somehow feels flat. This flatness is perhaps clearer if we focus on one object. Let’s choose, oh I don’t know, a random small copper alloy statuette of a female deity from Byblos (Lebanon). 

Statuette, bronze, 22cm (BM1966,1010.1)

The caption says it was purchased by the Museum in 1966 from the dealer Alan Safani (who is still active – he recently sued the Italy).

It depicts a nude female figure. She holds a garland or wreath in her right hand and a round object (likely a piece of fruit) in her left hand. Her eyes and hair are finely rendered. On her head she wears an Egyptian inspired headdress on top of a bird. 

The Museum interprets the figure as Astarte: ‘Like Inanna / Ishtar, the Phoenician goddess Astarte was connected to war, as well as passion and sex … Like Aphrodite / Venus, in art her sexual power came to be expressed through her nudity’. 

Yet we might pause a little.  

The object’s find-spot in Byblos, its date in the Roman period, the style with its combination of Greek and Egyptian features might instead, I would argue, lead to an identification of Astarte-Isis-Aphrodite.

The identification between Astarte and Aphrodite makes sense, the goddesses were often  linked especially in the east. In the west the goddess was also associated with Hera and Juno. She is not just nude but resembles other images of Aphrodite. (Depicting Aphrodite as nude female was a relatively late development in Greek art linked to the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles, also in the show).

However as Corinne Bonnet has argued we must be careful from making such ‘automatic’ identifications:

The situation is in fact infinitely more nuanced and complex: the Phoenician goddess corresponds to more than one “Foreign” divinity, chosen according to the circumstances, to highlight one or other of her facets.

Bonnet, 1996, 21

Byblos had a millennia long commercial and diplomatic relationship with Egypt. The goddess Hathor was worshiped in the City, in association with Asherah the Phoenician sex and sea goddess. 

Hathor was the mother goddess. In traditional ancient Egyptian religion, deities combined powers with each other. Hathor was associated with both Isis in her funerary roles and Sekhmet as a “destructive principle, a bloody lioness” (Bonnet, 1996, 21).

Sekhmet brand from exhibition. “Sekhmet was honoured with blood and this branding-iron castin her image (1) was probably used on sacrificial cattle. Some ancient sources describe Sekhmet as the ferocious manifestation of Hathor, the gentle goddess of beautiful and pleasure.” (Exhibition Interpretation Panel). Bronze Egypt, about 1550-1295 BCE, BM 1928.0604.1

Over time, Isis took over more and more of Hathor’s roles and attributes including her position in Byblos (Bricault, 2021, 14). By the first century CE, the city had an important temple to the Egyptian gods. In Plutarch’s retelling of the myth of Isis (46 – 119 CE), the goddess was said to have traveled to Byblos in her search for Osiris. 

The statuette’s headdress resembles a combination of the Isiac Crown, a solar or lunar disk, placed between cow horns (originally associated with Hathor), with a feathered headdress. 

Given all this we can safely include Isis in the composite identity of the goddess. 

Why then was Isis not mentioned? I might suggest that it’s part of the ‘automatic’ use of Greek and Roman as standard cultural comparisons which everyone is assumed to know. It’s part of a reading of ancient history which sees ‘Greek’ as the connector between different ‘foreign’ cultures. It’s part the erasure of Egyptian and other non-Western cultures within ‘Classic’ history. It is wrong and must stop.

Yet we must be clear. Identifying deities based on visual attributes is not as straightforward as it seems, especially when we rely on cultural styles to link them to particular religious traditions. There is a tendency to identify goddesses from one culture with goddesses from another (e.g. Ceres is Demeter is Isis or Asherah is Aphrodite is Venus). The reasons ancient people did this were varied: physical resemblance, family resemblance or even similar powers, to name the most common reasons. However, ancient polytheisms were never so neat.  Ancient people might even identify a statuette created according to the standard repertoire of one deity, as a completely other deity. Similar to the woman in Brazil who prayed to an Elrond figurine.

Beneath an attempt at simplicity are revealed hidden depths and conundrums.

In the exhibition, the objects were fitted into themed rooms, removed from both their original contexts and their contexts within museums. Although the curators have worked with four women, including the wonderful Bonnie Greer, who offered their own insightful takes on the objects, it’s hard to find the space to draw your own conclusions or connections (not helped by overcrowding).

We are left with an almost impossible set of questions to answer: how do these complex objects interact and connect with each other? What are the networks of identity, style, culture, acquisition and scholarship that are rendered invisible in the British Museum’s glossy presentation.

A better example of what I think the museum was trying to do was Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Reframed: The Woman in the Window (which also features Asherah in a starring role). The Dulwich curators invited community members to share their interpretations and thoughts alongside the more standard museum captions. This allowed the audience to enter a conversation, opening them up to new questions and connections.

The bronze statuette of Astarte-Isis-Aphrodite offers new ways of reading our shared histories, understanding identity and cross-cultural connections. Important lessons from the most powerful of ancient goddesses.

Further Reading

Corinne Bonnet, 1996, Astarté : dossier documentaire et perspectives historiques

Laurent Bricault, Isis Pelagia: Images, Names and Cults of a Goddess of the Seas