Goddesses of India – the One and the Many

Hinduism can be a confusing religion to many westerners. The profusion of deities with multiple arms and who are sometimes shown with animal heads, can seem strange and exotic. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and there are aspects of it that can be traced back to the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilisations of 1200 BC.  Many of the practices and social institutions of Hinduism that flourish today are a glimpse into a world that we have lost in the West; temple cities and schools of philosophy, elaborate public processions and festivals to celebrate the seasons, and the daily rituals to honour deities, are all reminders of life and religion in Classical Greece and Rome.

One aspect of the ancient past to survive into modern day India is the worship of God in female form. The goddess can take many forms, such as the ferocious and protective Durga or Kali, Sarasvati the goddess of learning and knowledge, Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, among many others. Although they are labelled with a specific function all of these goddesses have deeper, spiritual roles that resonate with their worshippers. Many of the more well-known and popular goddesses are known as ‘pan-Indian’ deities in that they are worshipped by any level of society and are found throughout the vast sub-continent. The goddess is seen to be one who can manifest into multiple forms for the needs of her devotees. The goddess is both the one and the many. As the one goddess she is known as Devi (Goddess) or Shakti (energy), or on a more personal level, Ma or Amma, both meaning mother.

Bronze statue of the goddess Durga on my bookcase at home

Some goddesses however, are only found at a local level and will act on the behalf of a community. India is still a predominantly agricultural country and the majority of its population live in villages. But, these local village goddesses are still seen to be manifestations of the one great goddess. In Hinduism the goddess can either be the consort to one of the male deities, or is worshipped in her own right. When worshipped on her own she is perceived to be the ultimate form of godhead and is considered to be more powerful than the male deities. In village religion the goddess is usually the most powerful and primary deity and will have a shrine at the centre of the village under a sacred tree. These shrines can either be small, enclosed temples, or open air platforms with either statues or vermillion smeared sacred stones as the focus of worship.

An interesting object that I have been working on as part of the Derbyshire School Library Service project, is a wooden head of a village goddess, known as a Gramadevata. The village goddesses are intimately connected with village life; on the one hand presiding over the fertility of the fields and animals and the well being of the community, and on the other expressing her wrath by drought, floods and epidemics; the goddess has always been perceived to be both benign and ferocious.

Wooden head of a village goddess at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

As a goddess of nature she is omnipresent in the world, not otherworldly and distant like many of her male counterparts. She is primarily associated with fertility and the earth, and the land of India itself is seen as the body of the goddess, whose forms can be found in the features of the landscape. As a mother she protects her devotees from the dangers of the world.

The goddess often takes on a primary role as a healing deity and offerings are left at her shrines to ask for help. Hinduism is not a static religion, and is constantly developing all the time. New deities appear in response to new needs; established goddesses undergo change. For example the goddess of smallpox, Sitala, underwent such a change when this disease was eradicated in the 1970’s. She is now supplicated to protect her devotees from measles, chickenpox and other diseases.

As one devastating disease is eradicated, another rears its ugly head! In the 20th century HIV/AIDS became one of the most insidious diseases to affect the world, and in India AIDS-amma appeared in response to the growing threat. This modern day goddess was installed in a small shrine in the village of Menasikyathana Halli, in rural Karnataka. She was created by a civic-minded schoolteacher as part of an AIDS awareness campaign.

With Coronavirus raging across the globe the response to this threat in India has again been expressed through the goddess. Images are starting to appear of the ferocious warrior goddess Durga, weapons in hand fighting a personification of the virus. She also holds in her numerous hands a face-mask and bottle of hand sanitiser; it must be remembered that many in India are still illiterate and so symbolic images such as this are a way to get important messages across.

Display of goddesses at Buxton Museum and Art gallery

The head of the village goddess is currently on display in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Once we are open again to the public, and some sort of normality returns, we hope, by the blessing of the goddess, to see you soon.

An Egyptian Goddess Abroad

Many of you may not know that for about fifty years a goddess used to travel round the schools of Derbyshire. This particular goddess is a small bronze statue from Egypt, and who forms part of the Derbyshire School Loans service – she used to be sent out as a teaching resource to schools and has now been transferred to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. She is currently on display along with some other goddesses from around the world in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Sadly we are closed at the moment because of the Coronavirus outbreak, but once we are open please come and support us, and take a look at this ancient and powerful lady.

The goddess Isis in Buxton

The statue that we have depicts the goddess seated on a throne and holding her infant son, Horus, on her lap. She dates to the Late Period of Egyptian history (664 – 332 BC); this was a period which saw the reunification of Egypt after foreign rule, and several wars for independence. Sadly this independence didn’t last long as a hundred years later the Persians invaded; it was only until Alexander the Great liberated the country that Egypt once again went through a Golden Age, this time under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic kings.

Isis is an ancient goddess, and she played a central role to the lives of the Egyptians, and later across the Roman Empire, as a loving, protective mother. She first appears in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest known corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts dating to the Old Kingdom (2400 BC). It is here that the tales surrounding her were first formulated. The story was adapted over time but briefly it consists of the following.

Isis and her brother Osiris ruled the earth, being given the power to do so by their grandfather Ra, the sun-god. They introduced farming and crops to Egypt and taught the people the ways of civilisation and laws. Their brother Seth however, was jealous and in a plot murdered Osiris, cutting his body into pieces and scattering it across Egypt. Isis and her sister, Nepthys, gathered up the remains and mummified them. Isis then transformed herself into a bird, and through the action of her wings blew life into the dead god. Osiris was rejuvenated and Isis coupled with him to produce their heir, the god Horus. Osiris would then go to the realm of the dead, where he would be the ruler of the underworld.

Isis hid in the delta marshes with her child and protected him with great magic to keep him away from his jealous uncle. When Horus was old enough he challenged his uncle to a battle for the throne of Egypt, and after a lengthy fight he defeated Seth to become the next divine ruler of Egypt.

At its core the story is one of order and truth overcoming the powers of chaos, but also the protective power of the goddess toward her husband and son, as well as the whole of humanity.

Isis was appealed to for healing, the safe delivery of children, as the overseer of divine order, the protector of the throne, as well as being considered powerful in magic and the guardian of the dead, among many others roles.

During the time of the Greek Ptolemaic rule of Egypt her worship underwent a change with it becoming a Mystery religion; this is most likely due to the influence of the Mysteries of Eleusis near Athens, which was one of the most ancient and popular of the Mystery Cults; others included the Great Mother Cybele, Dionysus, the Orphic Mysteries, and later Mithras who was a favourite of the Roman soldiers. Central to these cults was the belief in salvation and life after death, the revealing of sacred secrets and initiation ceremonies, and a religious society who supported their members.

As Romans began to trade with Egypt they came into contact with the goddess and her worship began to appeal to them. Temples were built and the Mysteries developed further. Temples were set up across the Empire with the largest being in Rome at the Camps Martius near the Pantheon. The best preserved temple is that at Pompeii which preserves the beautiful wall paintings narrating the legends of the goddess.

There is evidence for the worship of the goddess in Roman Britain too; a flagon dating to the 2nd century AD, and destined for a tavern in London reads ‘Londini ad fanum Isidis’, meaning ‘London, next to the temple of Isis’. York also had a large temple complex dedicated to the goddess and her consort Osiris-Serapis, and this temple seems to have been built for use by the Emperor Septimius Severus, a well-known devotee of the goddess who visited Britain and was based at York from 208 to 211 AD.

A novel was also written about the goddess in the 2nd century AD, known as The Metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius, or more commonly ‘The Golden Ass’. This is a tale of witchcraft and magic where the main character is turned into a donkey by a witch. After many adventures Lucius wakes up to a vision of the goddess rising from the sea. She promises him that he will be turned back to human shape by seeking out her priest, and that after he must become initiated into the cult where he will receive salvation and the promise of a blessed afterlife.

It was not until the 6th century AD that the worship of Isis finally ended when the Christian Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of her most holy shrine on the Island of Philae in Egypt.

When Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens in the near future the goddess would love for you to come and see her.

Shamans of the Arctic

I have been very fortunate to work on the exhibition, Between Two Worlds, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. This is a unique collection of work from artists affected by war and intolerance in the 20th century, much of it never seen by the public before. On the surface, much of the artwork on display is vibrant and colourful but beneath are stories of artists who were persecuted, interned and displaced. Even within the permissive art world, these individuals faced discrimination and prejudice for not conforming to society’s expectations either through religious beliefs, race or sexuality. The exhibition is also about a time when colonial governments sought to impose Western society and religion, depriving indigenous communities of their cultural identity.

The exhibition draws on artworks from Derbyshire County Council’s own collection, the bequest of Arto Funduklian, the son of Armenian emigres, as well as from the Derbyshire School Library Service. Pictures and artefacts from around the world were purchased by Derbyshire County Council with the classroom in mind and was an innovative education resource, established in the 1930s to lend museum quality objects to schools. A project to oversee the dispersal of the collection, following the closure of the SLS in 2018, received funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, in conjunction with the Museum Association (MA). The MA Code of Ethics is guiding the work.

Between Two Worlds exhibition

Some of my favourite objects in the exhibition, and which I was lucky to work on, are the Inuit items. These enigmatic pieces from the frozen Arctic reveal a way of life that is rapidly changing due to the imposition of a Western lifestyle, as well as climate change.

Inuit material on display in Between Two Worlds

Some of these objects are associated with Shamanism, the practitioners of the indigenous Inuit animist religion. Animism was once widespread across the world and is possibly the oldest form of religious/spiritual expression. Evidence for it goes back at least to the hunter-gatherers of the Ice Age 35,000 years ago. Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This belief system perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems – as animated and alive.

A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing on behalf of an individual or entire community. The role of a shaman is often inherited, and both men and women can take on the role. Today, traditional animistic shamanism is found mainly in the Arctic, Siberia, Mongolia, the Himalayas and among Native American and First Nation tribes.

One of my personal favourite objects is a whale tooth carved into a strange creature, described by one of my colleagues as looking like a Moomin ! However, this is not as cute and cuddly as a Moomin. Known as a Tupilak, this one was made for the tourist market in the mid-20th century. The original Tupilaks were made from perishable materials and their purpose, once they were brought to life by a shaman performing a ritual, was to locate and destroy an enemy. After the ceremony the shaman would place it into water, where it was believed to swim off in search of its prey. Europeans were fascinated by these creatures and so the Inuit began to carve them from marine ivory to sell as curiosities.

The Buxton Tupilak

Another intriguing object, also carved from marine ivory, depicts an aquatic bird, possibly a cormorant. Closer inspection reveals that the bird has human legs and feet. This beautiful carving depicts a shaman shapeshifting into a bird so that she/he could travel to the spirit world. Shamans believed that during the trance rituals their soul would transform into an animal so that it could safely travel to the spirit world to communicate with the ancestors and spirits to appeal for a good hunt, the safe birth of a child or to heal an illness.

Shaman transforming into a bird

Other Inuit shaman items in the exhibition include a whale tooth carved with depictions of plants and animals that was one of many that hung from a shaman’s cloak, and a soapstone pendant with the facial features contorted as the shaman transforms during a ritual.

These intriguing items have now been transferred from the School Library Service to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

Between two Worlds is on at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until June 10th. Entry to the museum and exhibitions is free and your donations to support the work of the museum are very welcome.

The Wreck of the Royal Charter

Working on the School Library Loans project at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery I come across a diverse range of wonderful objects; Maori clubs, Egyptian amulets, African statues and Tibetan ritual paraphernalia, to name but a few. One item that I came across, was, I have to be honest, not very exciting to look at. A block of polished fossiliferous limestone, 12cm square, with a small bronze plaque set into one side which reads, ‘A piece of rock on which the ROYAL CHARTER struck MOELFRE October 25th 1859’. However, all objects in a museum have a story to tell, and this rather unassuming block of stone tells of a tragedy that struck the coast of Anglesey over 150 years ago.

Memorial stone to the wreck of the Royal Charter in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

The stone commemorates the wrecking of the Royal Charter, a passenger ship that was destroyed in one of the worst storms to hit Britain. The Royal Charter was built at the Sandycroft Ironworks on the River Dee at Hawarden, Flintshire, and was launched in 1855. She was a new type of ship, a 2719-ton iron-hulled steam clipper, built in the same way as an ordinary clipper ship but with auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of suitable winds. The ship was used to take passengers to and from Australia and could carry up to 600 passengers. The ship was considered one of the fastest at the time and could make the journey to Australia in 60 days via the Cape of Good Hope.

On the fateful day of 25th October 1859 the ship was returning from Australia with 371 passengers and 112 crew, though exact numbers are sketchy as the inventory was lost in the wreck; the passengers included many gold miners, some of whom had struck it rich in Australia and were carrying large sums of gold about their persons. A consignment of gold was also being carried as cargo. As the ship reached the north-western tip of Anglesey the weather turned for the worse – in fact it would prove to be one of the most ferocious and destructive storms ever to hit the shores of Britain.

As the storm gathered the captain of the ship, Thomas Taylor, was advised to dock at Holyhead for shelter, but instead he decided to try and carry on to Liverpool, a decision that would have disastrous consequences. Near Point Lynas the Captain signalled to a Liverpool Pilot Boat, but conditions were so bad that the pilot could not reach the ship. During the night of 25/26 October the wind rose to Hurricane force 12 on the Beaufort Scale in what became known as the “Royal Charter Storm”.

Also known as the Great Storm of 1859, it is considered to be the most severe storm to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century. There was extensive structural damage along the West coast of Britain and a total of 133 ships were sunk during the storm and another 90 badly damaged. The death toll was estimated at around 800, including some people killed on land by falling rocks and masonry.

As the conditions got worse the ship dropped both of its anchors late at night in the hope of riding out the storm. However, at around 2am on the morning of the 26th both anchor chains snapped. Despite cutting the masts to reduce the drag of the wind, the Royal Charter was driven inshore, with the steam engines unable to make headway against the gale. The ship initially grounded on a sandbank, but the rising tide drove her on to the rocks at a point just north of Moelfre at Porth Alerth on the north coast of Anglesey. Battered against the rocks by huge waves whipped up by winds of over 100 mph, she quickly broke up.

One member of the crew, Joseph Rogers, managed to swim ashore with a line, enabling a few people to be rescued, and a few others were able to struggle to shore through the surf. Unfortunately most of the passengers and crew, a total of over 450 people, died. Many of them were killed by being dashed against the rocks by the waves. Others were said to have drowned, weighed down by the belts of gold they were wearing around their bodies. The survivors, 21 passengers and 18 crew members, were all men, with no women or children saved. Bodies continued to wash up on the beach over the weeks following the shipwreck, and a memorial was placed on the cliff top, reading:

“Where the Royal Charter met its end and the memory of those who died.”

Memorial on Anglesey to the wreck of the Royal Charter

The aftermath of the storm was described by Charles Dickens in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’. The disaster had an effect on the development of the Meteorological Office as Captain Robert FitzRoy, who was in charge of the office at the time, brought in the first gale warning service to prevent similar tragedies. The intensity of the “Royal Charter storm” and winds were frequently used as a yardstick in other national disasters – when the Tay Bridge collapsed in 1878 the Astronomer Royal referred to the Royal Charter storm frequently in his report. During an episode of the BBC TV Show Who Do YOu Think You Are?, gardener Monty Don discovered his great-great-grandfather, Reverend Charles Vere Hodge, died on board the Royal Charter.

The memorial stone from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has now been transferred to Oriel Yns Mon on Anglesey, a museum dedicated to the history of the island, where it forms part of the displays and tells the story of the tragic events.

The Strange Case of the Wandering Spoon

I am working on a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation that is overseeing the re-homing of the objects from the School library Loans Service in Derby. This collection consists of paintings, studio pottery, archaeological, ethnographic and social history items. Sadly, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery can only keep a small percentage of this wonderful and eclectic mix of items. Through detective work that involves sifting through old records, myself and my colleague have been gathering information on where the items came from over the fifty years the service was collecting. We are contacting museums and community groups in the areas that these objects originate from to see if they would like the items so that they can have a new lease of life.

The Roman spoon at Buxton museum and Art Gallery

One of these items is a Roman silver spoon, elegant in its shape and practical in its form; the handle ends in a point which enabled the wealthy Roman who owned it to pick out oysters from their shells – Britain was famed in the Roman period for its oysters ! The handle joins the bowl of the spoon with an arched shape that gives this type of spoon its name – swan necked. Through my investigations I discovered that the spoon originated from Canterbury and was purchased from an antiques dealer in Keighley in 1966. I contacted Canterbury Museum who emailed me back to say that they were very excited by the news as it appeared to have originally belonged to a hoard of precious items buried in the city as the Roman Empire collapsed.

The hoard was discovered during road works in the Longmarket area of the city in 1962. Declared treasure trove, it was bought by the city council to be displayed at the Roman Museum which had been established the year before. However five objects appeared on the London antiquities market in 1982 that were originally part of the treasure but had not been declared at the time of its discovery. They were again declared as treasure trove and purchased a year later. It would seem as though the spoon in our collection had also not been declared at the time of the discovery and had been sold to the antiques dealer in Keighley shortly after.

The Canterbury Hoard © Canterbury Museum

The treasure is mostly composed of small silver objects and jewellery. Many of the artefacts have Christian iconography on them. The silver objects include thirteen spoons (one engraved with a sea stag, another with the words in Latin ‘viribonum’-‘I belong to a good man’), a toothpick, a rough bar and three ingots which each weigh one Roman pound. The jewellery include a gold finger ring with an inset green glass stone, a gold necklace clasp and a silver pin. One of the coins in the treasure was minted at Milan in the time of Emperor Honorius which means the hoard must have been buried sometime after 402 AD.

Silver spoons from the Canterbury Hoard with Christian and Pagan symbols © Canterbury Museum

The treasure was buried at a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, the economy was nose diving and plague was sweeping across Europe, weakening the infrastructure of the once greatest Empire on earth. Britain at this time was also subject to raids by Germanic tribes from Northern Europe. In response to the anarchy many people buried their valuables with a view to coming back in safer times to retrieve them; for whatever reason many people never returned. Shortly after the treasure at Canterbury was buried the Romans left Britain to fend for itself and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, filling the power vacuum and bringing with them a new language, art form and society that would form the foundations of modern day England. The spoon from Buxton is now on display at Canterbury Roman Museum along with the rest of the hoard where it forms part of the story of the ancient Roman city of Durovernum Cantiacorum.

Picture credits: Canterbury Museums and Galleries