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  • Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia
  • David Christian
Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia. By Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor H. Mair. Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2010. 216 pp. $104.99 (cloth).

This book is a survey of the iconography and mythology of powerful goddess figures from various parts of Afro-Eurasia. The authors [End Page 819] describe it as a joint study "of very powerful goddesses, heroines, and even everyday women who demonstrate to us female power at its most inspiring" (p. xxii). It is largely inspired by the work of the late Marija Gimbutas, the great Lithuanian-American archaeologist of the Neolithic world. Miriam Dexter is a specialist in Indo-European studies whose main work, in the tradition of Gimbutas, has been on the iconography and mythology of powerful goddesses, while Victor Mair is an archaeologist (particularly well known for his work on the Tarim Basin mummies) and a specialist in Chinese literature and language. Their work illustrates well the powerful synergies that are so often generated within world history scholarship by collaboration between specialists in different regions and different scholarly disciplines.

The collaboration was inspired partly by the realization of how widespread in both time and space the iconography of female figures displaying their genitalia was. Such figures can be found, as Gimbutas had already shown, as early as the Neolithic, and they appear across the whole of Eurasia. (Appropriately, the text is accompanied by almost fifty illustrations.) But, in the tradition of Gimbutas, they also draw strong interpretative links between these figures and many different mythological traditions. The authors concentrate on two main iconographic forms: first, female figures, many of them combining human and animal features (particularly the forms of fish and frogs), who appear to be dancing or kneeling, and, second, figures that appear to be crouching and exposing their genitalia. The book is, in the authors' words, an attempt "to understand the nature and function of these female figures and their distribution across time and space" (p. 2).

The range of figures and myths surveyed is very broad indeed, though by no means exhaustive (there is nothing, for example, on Russian figures). The authors begin with a survey of Neolithic figures, then discuss powerful goddess figures of the ancient Near East, of India, Asia, and the Mediterranean world and then survey the European tradition of "Sheela na gigs," sculptures of women displaying their genitalia that appear on many European churches; they end with a brief survey of similar figures in Scandinavian mythology.

The central problem raised by such a study is, of course, that of interpretation. Like Gimbutas, the authors assume that all these figures can reasonably be interpreted as part of a single, if complex, iconographic tradition, in which female figures represent both life and fertility and death and terror. Anasyrma, or the ritual display of genitalia, can be interpreted as a rite of fertility and a reminder of the return of life, but the authors also offer many examples of its use to instil a sense [End Page 820] of both shock and fear, primarily in male warriors. There are many stories of such gestures being used to dispel sadness, such as an Egyptian myth dating to about 1160 B.C.E., in which "the goddess Hathor, in order to allay the sadness of the sun-god Ra . . . lifts up her skirts" (p. 36). In some cases, such gestures are clearly associated with rituals to bring rain. Equally widespread are tales of anasyrma as a way of repelling violent attacks, as in an Irish story in which Cu Chulainn's uncle, King Conchobor, repelled his nephew's attack by persuading a large group of women to expose themselves. The result? "The boy lowered his gaze away from them and laid his face against the chariot, so that he might not see the nakedness nor the boldness of the women" (p. 39).

The pervasiveness of such stories and iconography certainly makes a compelling case for their importance across many different eras and within many different cultural and ecological traditions. Unfortunately, the authors deliberately refrain from systematic interpretation, insisting that their interpretations are merely suggestive...