The exhibit Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, currently on display at the British Museum, contains images of goddesses and other supernatural female beings from across the globe and throughout history. To Matthew J. Milliner, it appears a throwback to the “goddess movement” that originated in the 1970s, and imagined a primitive past of matriarchal cultures that worshipped female divinities and stood in contrast to the patriarchal societies of the modern West, with their male clergy and paternal God. But this view of the past never held up to scholarly scrutiny, as is self-evident from the artifacts themselves:
Visitors to this British Museum exhibition are immediately faced with a nude Inanna (whose Akkadian name was Ishtar), the ferocious forerunner of Aphrodite. She stands naked and exposed, just as men like King Sargon the Great of Assyria wished her to be. She is sometimes known as Astarte or the Canaanite goddess Anat, but whatever one calls her, she was merciless and vindictive. Using Inanna to advance female empowerment, as the exhibition intimates, is comparable to prescribing crystal meth to combat mild depression.
The Egyptian goddess Sekhmet was as bloodthirsty as Astarte, and she makes an appearance as well, enabling women (so the gallery label suggests) “to be lionesses and warriors, to be advocates and change agents.” But those who read a bit closer will learn that Sekhmet’s bloodlust, according to Egyptian mythology, is in fact a result of humble obedience to her father, the male god Ra, who sent Sekhmet to do his bidding. In short, even when the goddess went on a rampage, it was because Daddy made her do it. This is no different with Taraka, the Hindu flesh-eating ogre who is also proudly featured in this exhibition.
The Egyptian goddess Isis, who compensated for Astarte’s aggression with an undeniable tenderness, also has a cameo in the show. She shows her breast to her son Horus, urging him to receive her nourishing milk. Still, the fact that much of Isis’s time is spent rehabilitating her husband/brother Osiris’s lost penis gives us quite a window into what Egyptian men felt the job of women to be. . . . In view of the sex-soaked Egyptian phallocracy, no wonder monotheistic women like Miriam shook their timbrels in celebration when they left (Exodus 15:20–21).