The Queenager | Eleanor's Letter
What is female power and why is it so scary? Goddesses, demons, life, death and everything in between.
On Sunday I went to the Feminine Power exhibition at the British Museum – it was a bit of a bizarre choice on a boiling hot sunny morning, but it also felt like illicit fun to meet a girlfriend a deux and go together.
The actual exhibits are a little disappointing – pretty small, not very impressive apart from the beautiful lifesize statue of Aphrodite. But the intellectual content is fantastic. So much so that I bought the book… although again I had a quibble with the title, Feminine Power: The divine to the demonic. I think that misses the point. All women are both goddesses and demons, none of us is saintly and pure Virgin Marys or totally evil, and what became clear walking around the museum was how interlinked the good and bad behaviour is in women anyway. (And hell, who gets to decide what is good and what is bad, eh?)
What struck me most was how so-called ‘bad’ female behaviour – that of the diabolical goddesses, female monsters, demons and witches - was often the result of terrible abuse or suffering that had been inflicted upon them. Medusa turned men into snakes – because she had been abused herself. Other female demons were widows bent on vengeance, women who died in childbirth, or other survivors of violence; literally driven to madness by suffering. Medusa, like Circe the sorceress in the Greek myths, represented women forced to live on the fringes of society, drummed out of it by their behaviour or circumstances.
This independence of normal rules and mores is the source of the power these women wield, they are associated with aggression and danger but also freedom and knowledge. They are feared because they live beyond the rules of society – but they are also called upon for protection and guidance. Their wisdom comes from suffering, as does their power to up-end the usual tropes.
Perhaps most famous of all witches is Hecate – we see her in Macbeth, of course - and, in classical texts, she is the triple-headed witch who stands between life and death at the entrance to the underworld. She also represents transition – those moments when life shifts, those liminal spaces where we are no longer what we were but have not yet become what we are destined to be.
That transition between not being and being alive, that astral portal, is a very feminine zone – it is birth, it is death. With both of those events, the transition is a physical process. I remember my granny saying to me that at the beginning and end of life we know that it is happening but not WHEN it will happen. Birth and death have their own rhythms, governed by tiny nudges and shifts, many of them emotional, not physical - this is women’s territory.
Women’s bodies are miraculous, they are where life grows and comes out into the world. We wield the ultimate power for our species in being those who give birth. All over the exhibition that polarity is clear: the mother who brings life, but who also wields terrible, terrifying power is real. She is depicted as Kali or Durga, the mother warrior. Bringer of life but also destruction. She is there in the Hawaiian goddess who is both lava and fire and new birth – the lava destroys but in its wake brings fertility. Death and life are two sides of the same coin.
In our modern age when all fruits are available all of the year, we too often forget that we don’t live in abundant spring and summer all the time. Our bodies bring forth life but they also need seasons where they die off, where they lie fallow, where we sit under the earth and regenerate. The Queen of that is Inanna or Ishtar – the Assyrian Goddess of Goddesses – of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation and also of war. In the myth – written 6000 years ago, she goes into the underworld and hangs there on a hook through the fallow time, lifeless, inert, waiting, until she springs back to life; regenerated.
What I have learnt during my own regeneration period is the value of fallow time. How there are periods in our life where we need to burrow down, embrace the darkness, and mourn what has gone. Sit in the dark and weep – allow ourselves that time to lick our wounds, and regroup.
Often when we see people who are sad, we want to cheer them up. During my own transition, lots of friends tried to encourage me by saying: you’ll bounce back, or it’ll be the making of you, or chin up and get out there. But actually, the most helpful comment was from someone who just said, “Change is difficult. Give yourself some time and space. Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect too much.”
Losses can of course take many forms. At Noon we particularly see divorce, bereavement, redundancy, the loss of elderly parents, empty nests, our own health issues, and of course menopause. Each of these marks an ending but also a beginning. Death clears the way for something new – in the space someone leaves when they go, there is room for something else. Not immediately, of course. But rather than jumping in to urge people on to their next phase, it is important to recognise the importance of fallow periods, of the cycle of endings – of how in time – they become new beginnings. Inanna comes back to take her place in heaven, wiser and reunited with herself, after her time underground.
So it is with all of us going through transition, through change. Hecate the witch oversees life and death and the transition between them. As we all live longer more of us will go through transitional moments, it is something we all need to get better at.
If you are interested in that idea I highly recommend a brilliant book called The Hundred Year Life which says that for transitions we need to train new muscles. To get through them we need patience, the ability to reinvent ourselves - which relies on knowing who we really are and what we really value so we can pivot to something new and purposeful. We also need a new tribe, often those who love us the way we are, are not so keen on what we might become. (That’s what we do at our Noon Retreats, create new tribes and allow people that fallow space to shed what they need to shed so they can move on to their next chapter).
Of course Hecate the witch is not just a symbol of transition, but of everything men fear. In one of the sketches in the Feminine Power exhibition, she is depicted flying backwards on a broomstick surrounded by floppy sausages lying over tree branches (it did make me think about my limp dick comment at Adweek… maybe I am a witch!)
It is fun to joke, but the serious bit about witches is that it is only 70 years since the last trial brought under 18th-century witchcraft rules. It is only a few generations back that powerful women in touch with ancient deep wisdom, often midwives, or medicine women, were burned at the stake as witches and heretics.
What the British Museum exhibition most reveals is the deep terror in our culture of women who speak their truth, are in touch with themselves, dare to break the rules or challenge the status quo. They are seen as so dangerous they must be annihilated. Wiped out. Killed. Is it so surprising that so many women who occupy unchartered territory in our society, who speak out as journalists, or politicians or activists or scientists, basically any woman who dares to put her head above the parapet, can suffer from fear? It is generally dubbed imposter syndrome but many argue that some ancestral memory is telling us we are in danger when we dare to challenge – and that the more we are out on a limb, the worse it gets. Certainly looking at the online trolling which still greets women today who dare to speak out, it looks like old habits die hard.
Overall though, what comes through is that Feminine Power is complex stuff – nurturing and life-bringing, loving and devoted, sure; but also destructive and fiery, dead-set on vengeance, insisting on being honoured and revered. Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of abundance takes all her gifts away when she is not appreciated by her earthly flock when her bounty is not reciprocated and when there is no flow back to her from those who should be grateful, the earth becomes barren and dead. My big takeaway is that old chestnut: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, (or wronged, or violated.) We need and deserve to be appreciated and revered. And perhaps no one more than Gaia, mother Earth herself, the most desecrated, ravaged female body of all.
Female Power is both divine and demonic – they are flipsides of the same characteristics.
Ignore us at your peril.
I suppose that is a good motto for all Queenagers!