Museum: New Walk Museum and Art Gallery
Era: Stone Age
Status: Completed Project
Objective: Display Improvement
The Queen of the Night, a 4000 year old Babylonian statue, went ‘on tour’ of British Museums in 2006. HAD took the opportunity to liaise with museums to see if local Pagan groups could be given access to the museum in order to honour this goddess statue with ritual and prayer.
Information about this piece can be found on the British Museum website page on the Queen of the Night Relief.
The Queen of the Night comes to Leicester!
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester welcomed a remarkable weekend visitor earlier this year: The Queen of the Night, an elegantly curvaceous winged and claw-footed goddess, nude except for her horn headdress of divinity and sumptuous necklaces. She came with her entourage of two lions (which she stood on), two owls, and numerous staff from her home in the British Museum in London, including its Director, Sir Neil MacGregor.
The Queen of the Night plaque was created nearly 4,000 years ago in Babylon, from baked clay and straw, painted red, black and white, and given blue lapis lazuli eyes. Her identity is a mystery. She stands straight, with rods and rings of justice held high; poised, alert and still holding you in the gaze of her now empty eyes. She probably isn’t Lilith, she could be an aspect of Ishtar, but Ereshkigal, goddess of the underworld, is a more likely candidate. Whatever her identity she was clearly powerful and revered. She is one of only a handful of objects of this quality to survive from Babylon at this period, but smaller, cruder representations of her and a mould for mass production have been found.
Babylon has had a profound influence on western civilisation: The rural Israelites’ horror at this first bustling metropolis, clamouring in so many tongues, gave us its reputation as a city of sin. Images like the Queen of the Night may well have fed Hebrew nightmares, thus helping to create the demons in Christian tradition. Since her rediscovery over 100 years ago, the Queen of the Night has once more provided an archetype for Western cultures as they have explored different ways of engaging with divinity and the supernatural.
The British Museum bought the plaque as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. These prompted the BM to take a fresh look at its work, in order to become more relevant to the people of this country and the world. The Queen of the Night’s tour to Leicester and other cities is a result of this process. It launched a national partnership between the BM and major regional museums across the country. It raised awareness of Iraq’s legacy to the West, the plight of its museums and archaeological sites, and the BM’s role in supporting them.
The weekend visit to Leicester included a programme of talks, storytelling and handling sessions, and a colourful launch party, attended by guests from Leicester’s many communities, including its Pagan one, plus Iraqi and Kurd refugees who provided the food and music. The British Museum also readily agreed to a request from Charnwood Grove of Druids to hold an open ritual to honour the Queen of the Night’s visit, and so the weekend was rounded off with a fabulous event, attended by 50 participants from many paths, and across the East Midlands and beyond, plus around ten staff from Leicester and the BM.
Careful planning went into this – not only because of the importance of the object and the nature of the divinity it represents; it was important to create an experience that worked well in a grand Victorian Art Gallery. The rite welcomed the Queen of the Night as a mighty dignitary, visiting this land from afar, and so it was carried out in familiar ways, rather than guessing at hers! Destruction and injustice were acknowledged, both in her own land and across the world, but the emphasis was on regeneration, justice and healing. As everyone made their offerings, in so many different ways, heaps of May blossom and spring flowers grew around her. This memory will stay with me for a long time, together with the experience of working in such a space, with such acoustics, and sharing the pleasure with so many people.
This was almost certainly the first time that either museum had been formally involved in a Pagan ritual, but it probably is not the last. Leicester Museums and the British Museum, like all publicly funded museums nowadays, are committed to working with as many of their communities as they can. They work with a wide range of faiths, and welcome approaches from local organisations seeking to organise relevant events. Leicester and the BM are also committed to enabling objects to be used in all kinds of ways, including spiritual ones. This is a newer but increasingly common approach.
HAD Museums Advisor
The Queen of the Night at the Birmingham Museum
Following the success of the event organized in Leicester, HAD approached the Birmingham Museum to see if it would be possible to put together an event during the four months the Queen of the Night was to be resident in their galleries.
Following a number of phone conversations, Birmingham Museum events organizer, Phil Watson, met with myself and two local Druids in late December, and we were able to discuss freely the possibilities of holding an event in the gallery. Happily and easily agreeing what was feasible and respectful, taking into consideration the BM’s policies, the museum’s own concerns, and our own hopes, a date was set for late January.
Because of the nature of the Pagan community in Birmingham, it was necessary for the event to be more open than that held in Leicester the previous summer. Prayers were made to the spirits of the city, acknowledging the Queen of the Night herself to be very much an urban goddess, a principal deity of Babylon. Prayers were made to our ancestors, acknowledging the Indo-European root of our blood and heritage. And prayers were made to honour and welcome the Queen of the Night, as an honoured guest and traveller from another landscape.
Then, gently over the course of an hour or so, individuals and groups made their way to the case in which the plaque is held, and made prayers, some silently, some aloud, some in song or poetry, each person making an offering with reverence. Songs were sung in her honour, honouring goddesses of the nature, and a long period of silence allowed the gathering to meditate in her presence. To some she was Lilith, to some Ereshkigal, Ishtar or Inanna, while to others she held the energy of Babylon, or simply darkness, sexuality, female strength, death or celebration.
We had asked beforehand that offerings come in the form of flowers and money. After the event, we were able to take a great armful of flowers to a local hospice, and £185 was donated to Medecins Sans Frontiers, acknowledging the Queen of the Night’s origins in Iraq and the Middle East, currently struggling with violence and war.
It was the first Pagan ritual to be held within Birmingham Museum in honour of an object, deity or spirit within their care. It is hoped that more events will be possible in the future.
Emma Restall Orr
HAD Founder/Theological Advisor
Contact: HAD Office