We are now settling in happily with Gucci in Reading. She is sweet and lovable, and is positively thrilled to take strolls with us around Bugs Bottom.
I fear we aren’t active enough for her: she’s often bouncing around, barking, and presenting us with a tennis ball or other toy, hoping for playmates, and probably exasperated with our doddering, sedentary ways.
I’ve gotten a lot of work done, including writing an article on domestic violence for Meredith Fuller in Australia and submitting a proposal to the International Association for Jungian Studies (IAJS) for their virtual conference in December.
Now I want to rewind the clock and pick up where I left off last time, which was in the British Museum just after having enjoyed the exhibition on Stonehenge. Settle in for a long saga!
A banner advertising a concurrent exhibition titled “Feminine power: the divine to the demonic” had caught my eye on the way in. Robin and I negotiated: What if I were allotted around an hour to blow through that exhibition while he scoped out possibilities for lunch, relaxed, and prepared for the next leg of our escapade? I accepted the deal! And off I went…
Okay, I’ll be honest: an hour was not enough time. This was not something one should rush through, and it was rather like reading a thick, juicy book in an hour—there’s no way you’re going to do it justice. But hey, at least I got to skim the surface.
The exhibition explored feminine power ranging through the domains of passion and desire, magic and malice, justice and defense, compassion and salvation, and ended on Feminine Power Today.
The book affiliated with the exhibition (authored by its curator) states: “Until the mid-twentieth century, the disciplines of theology, archaeology and history were heavily dominated by male academics, resulting in the under-representation of women’s experience and fewer studies on female divinity. This timely book…seeks to redress that balance.”
I’ll share a few highlights from the show. (Excuse the weird selfies. As mentioned, my personal photographer did not accompany me.)
First off, I was ecstatic to encounter a sheela-na-gig at last in one of the first showcases. I’d been hoping to run into one sometime while church crawling! Sheela-na-gigs are stone carvings of female figures prominently displaying their vulvas. This particular carving comes from Ireland and is dated between 1100–1200 AD.
Adorning churches and secular buildings across Ireland, Britain, France, and Spain, sheela-na-gigs are sometimes interpreted as Christian warnings against lust, but that meaning is up for debate. They have also been interpreted as symbols of fertility and regeneration with their typically bald heads and emaciated bodies evoking death, and their vulvas representing birth and life.
Further along was Aphrodite.
How many statues of Aphrodite did I show you while I was on Cyprus? That girl got around! This particular lady is made of marble and dates from 100–150 AD.
This next image I greatly admired was a famous 1891 painting by Waterhouse, a Pre-Raphaelite gem titled “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses.”
This divine Greek sorceress offers a cup of poisoned wine while at her feet lie two members of Ulysses’ crew, now transformed into pigs.
Now, it felt somewhat grim to be taking the following selfie:
This is a 1494 copy of the infamous Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of witches), a sinister witch-hunting manual. It explicitly attributed harmful magic to women, believing they were more susceptible to the devil’s influence, and advocated using torture to extract confessions. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just from being near it.
Unfortunately, its passion for “othering” women seems to linger on today in a variety of misogynistic guises. (Don’t start me.)
I’ll skip over Sekhmet, Athena/Minerva, and the Virgin Mary, et al., in favor of reuniting with Robin and picking up subsequent strands of the story.
We next scrambled off to the Enlightenment Gallery to visit the John Dee “corner” contained in a display case that holds several artifacts associated with him. (If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll know I’ve chased John Dee around quite a bit.)
That day happened to be the anniversary of Dee's birthday, July 13, and together we sang “Happy Birthday” in front of his objects. It felt curiously satisfying.
Then we raced out of the British Museum and caught an underground train to our next destination. Along the way, we noticed signs for the new Elizabeth Line, which only recently opened. It’s named for Queen Elizabeth and, despite being 96, she made a surprise appearance at its unveiling. I think she was thrilled to see her namesake go into operation.
I considered this moment an extension of the Jubilee celebrations that transpired recently while we were sitting in Beverley. There’s a chance I’ll even get to ride it since it departs from Reading in Berkshire where we are now sitting. Eeeeekk!
After departing the train and walking a while, we came upon our final destination: the London Mithraeum!
Some people have complained about the Mithraeum because it is (as my friend Christy puts it) something of a “nothing-burger.” And it is a hyped, shiny "Disney ride" in comparison with many ancient sites we’ve visited, whether stone circles or abbey ruins lying in a field. Those attractions can be a bit coarse. But we knew its reputation ahead of time and wanted to see it anyway. Whatever you think of the venue, the ruins are still dated to 240 AD, and it lay deeply hidden beneath the streets of London for 1800 years.
My ulterior motive for visiting was that C. G. Jung had a fascination with Mithraism and the famous tauroctony (“killing of the bull,” shown symbolically in the temple’s central image). It is explored at length in Jung’s book, Psychology of the Unconscious: A Study of the Transformations and Symbolisms of the Libido. The image obviously held great meaning for him, and it also seems to mark a turning point in his life. Jung reports waiting two months before writing about the symbolism intertwined with the bull because he knew publishing his ideas would cost him his relationship with Sigmund Freud. (And it did.)
Mithraism infiltrated various aspects of Jung’s life, and he placed Aion, the key god of the Mithraic cult, on the cover of his book, Aion, and during his active imaginations he seems to have even embodied Aion briefly.
The historical Mithraeum’s ancient rituals were so secret that practically no trace was left behind. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, we don’t know what went on during their ceremonies.
The attraction did its best to emulate an ancient temple experience, with light and sound creating an atmospheric interlude… but at the end, it was kind of a nothing-burger… and I’m still glad I saw it. (For one thing, it caused me to fall down into the rabbit hole of Jung’s interest in the Mithras cult, which was surprisingly more extensive than I realized.)
After we finished our visit to the Mithraeum, we began walking back toward the Underground. We tripped over an unattractive-looking church alongside a Starbucks that I suspected might be a place where we could sit and cool off for a time. I hoped it wouldn’t be too seedy inside, but I was nervous.
So we ventured inside.
Who knew?!? The interior of this church was positively extraordinary!
The decor entirely belied the expectations it created based on its lackluster, ugly exterior. Look at that altar! It was carved by the famous sculptor Henry Moore (yes, that Henry Moore).
And now—check out the dome!
Pop quiz: guess who built this gorgeous dome!
(Annoying game-show jingle plays while you think about it… Here’s a hint: who’s famous for building domes in London?)
That’s riiiight: legendary architect Christopher Wren. By sheer coincidence we had stumbled into St. Stephen Wallbrook church, which features the dome considered to be Christopher Wren’s “masterpiece”—even more so than his legendary dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral! We spent over an hour inside, admiring its various features.
Finally they booted us out of the church and closed up, so we wandered off to find some refreshing ice cream.
What a day we’d had. We were completely tuckered out.
We moseyed back to our AirBnB for one final night of sleeping on top of the duvet, fans blasting, trying to stay cooled down. We had a long day of travel ahead of us on the morrow.
The next morning, on our way heading out of London, we made one last stop: the church of St. Mary’s in Mortlake. I was still chasing John Dee!
I knew a plaque had been placed inside the church in 2013 to commemorate his death, and I had been agitating to see it for a long time.
It finally happened!
I describe our trip to Mortlake in this short Google doc (link follows), and Robin shot a video of the premises. If you have any interest in John Dee whatsoever, I recommend you follow this link and take it all in. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1b3Ujpz-_LmagAR0a5imt86mPlY6V_Yo8TbdBhIEq1Og
Once we got on the road and left Mortlake, we headed southwest. Where do you suppose we were going?
You’ll have to wait until next week to find out, when I tell you all about my big Birthday adventure. Stay tuned!
warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo