Posted by: aediculaantinoi | January 3, 2014

Near and Far Gods and Spirits in the Seattle Art Museum

Continuing on with my account that I began yesterday, I’d like to share with you some of my impressions from my visit to the permanent collections at the Seattle Art Museum, roughly in the order that I encountered them.

First up, the Graeco-Roman portions.

I’m rather upset, I’ll say initially, that the museum’s website doesn’t have photos of everything on display at present, and where they do, they can’t be linked to directly, so you’ll just have to follow some links if you’d like to actually see some of these things…and not as many as I’d prefer can be seen at links, even. For example, there is a statue head of a Dacian barbarian, which I really wanted to share because it strongly resembles my Anomalous Thracian (and sometimes Daco-Thracian) colleague in the morning before he’s had coffee.

I went through the exhibit specifically looking for deities, and I found a few, certainly: Zeus, Poseidon, Dionysos, Eros, and Aphrodite–in fact, quite a bit of her (though often headless, sadly), and often Venus would be there as well. There was a cup in the shape of a griffin’s head that had Aphrodite and Nike on it as well, which was rather interesting. Perhaps the most unexpected in that section was a coin that had the head of the Carthaginian goddess Tanit on it!

I was rather upset, though, because this is the third time I’ve been to SAM at its current location (once in 2008 for the Roman Art from the Louvre exhibit, when I saw my first ancient Antinous statue in person [!]; and once sometime between ’03 and ’06 for an exhibit of Dutch art from the last two centuries, including Jan Toorop’s “The Three Brides”), but only the second time I’ve looked at their permanent exhibits (we didn’t in 2008 because I was with someone [an ex boyfriend, actually] who didn’t want to spend very much time there, unfortunately…), and they didn’t have some of the same things on display last time that they did this time. Of course, I’m happy to have seen the items they had this time, but I would have liked it if they had at least one of the Roman altars that they had on display last time, so I could read who made it and to whom it was dedicated. Alas…

The adjacent room had both Egyptian and Near Eastern pieces in it, and of the latter, there was a fragment with Ea and Ishtar on it, and then several “entrail-faced” Humbaba amulets, which were apparently (not unlike Medusae in Greece–a favorite device of Hadrian, actually!) used for apotropaic purposes.

In the Egyptian pieces, I noted the presence of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris (both in their usual combined form, as well as in a dwarf “Pataikos” form), Hathor, Bes, Bast, Taweret (who was called Thueris in the information plaques), Sekhmet, Ptah, Isis, Horus, and in an interesting figure adjacent to an Isis suckling Horus figure, Horus was being suckled by a lion-headed goddess who the information plaque called “Uto,” often known as Buto, and being the Egyptian goddess Wadjet (only in feline form here).

But what struck me the most was that there were individual humans also identifiable amongst these various objects–people whom we should regard as ancestors. Of the objects on display at the exhibit on this occasion, I noted the following names of individuals:

Chaywet, a count from the 6th Dynasty
Djefi and his wife Henits
Hor-udja, a priest of Neith in the 4th c. BCE
Montuemhet and his wife Shepetenmut, 7th c. BCE

May their kas be fed, may their bas be honored, and may their rens be remembered and spoken again!

I went through the Northwest Coast Native American art section, and marveled at the many objects on display. I’ve been fascinated by this group of cultures since I was a small child, given that I grew up amidst them and saw these types of art everywhere, including in my own home, from the age of three onwards. But I think the thing which got me the most excited amongst the many items displayed was a Makah wolf mask, from their wolf society initiations–and, their practices are not that different from most werewolf-type groups of youthful wolf warriors found elsewhere in the world. I really wish I had a photo to share with you of the particular mask that was there (but photos aren’t allowed, and they didn’t have postcards of it, either), and the internet is not cooperating with me to find something like it either. However, the museum itself has a PDF on the Quileute people (made famous, alas, by a certain book and film series featuring sparkly vampires whose name I will not mention) that has a few photos of these sorts of masks (though not the one that was on display), which you can view here. You can always tell wolves in Northwest Coast art because they have a kind of “curly nose.” The one shown here is of this style, but not the one that was on display at the museum (sadly, because the one at the museum is pretty cool!).

wolf mask

There was also an interesting story of the Makah (if I am remembering correctly) on the origins of the moon, who was a child of a human and the Red Star, and it was placed next to a modern piece showing the moon and then an anthropomorphic wolf figure dancing and drumming beneath it which was quite lovely!

I passed through the small sections on African arts, and as I’m not sure on the protocols for Yoruba powers and the objects associated with them, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Eshu, Ogun, and others being there. There were small piles of modern U.S. change/coins before a few of the images, but these were “part of the display,” so to speak, because they were behind the glass. There was also a pouch, divining tray, and other items associated with Ifa divination. People who are more versed in these matters and may wish to comment here on them would be greatly appreciated for the information on such things that they could provide.

I also went through a few other rooms, but very quickly, because they didn’t have a lot that interested me: European collections from the last few centuries, and a few modern and abstract rooms as well. There was also an exhibit on of a more modern Northwest Coast artist, but it was specifically exploring indigenous art motifs as “abstract,” entirely removed from the context of larger figures…which was simultaneously an interesting notion and yet something that decontextualizes these forms from their spiritual significance into mere “interesting use of shapes, lines, and forms,” I think…no matter how beautifully presented some of them might have been.

As much as I enjoy visiting museums and seeing some of these cultural and spiritual artifacts (though I tend to get overwhelmed in museums rather quickly–I can’t spend more than an hour in most of them, and I was at SAM the other day for more than two hours), and as important as the work they do in collecting and preserving these things is, I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with this practice generally speaking. Museums are where things go to die, so to speak–they are out of circulation and usage, and are on display, rarely if ever to be touched again. Museums are extended exercises in decontextualization of material artifacts, and no matter how good and accurate the information given on explanatory placards next to them or on audio tours about them might be, they tend to be isolated like more expensive and well-guarded curios in a building-sized curio cabinet than what they originally were.

And, they tend to be classified not as “religious” (which so many of these things were, and still are for some of us), but instead as Art, while ignoring that these arts were used in the service of religion. So many people seem to think, because they see Greek and Roman and Egyptian religious artifacts in museums, art history slides, and so forth, that all of these cultures had a similar approach to “Art” as we have had in the last few centuries in the Western world, one that is entirely secular, independent of religion (even when influenced by it), and is “art for art’s sake.” While the latter artistic modus operandi and credo is one that has lead to some interesting works, certainly, I can’t help but feel that this overall trend is one of the things that keeps modern people–including modern pagans and polytheists–from having an approach to the world that is spiritually informed, infused, and inhabited more prominently by the gods, ancestors, and spirits that we revere and recognize.

In any case, that’s my feelings on the matter for the moment. Certainly, I’ll happily go to many different museums in the future, when I’m in the area and get the chance, because I want to have some immediate sensual experience of these artifacts outside of internet images or pictures (or often just descriptions) in books.


  1. Speaking of the Pacific Northwest Coast wolf ritual, I just recently got a copy (facsimile) of Alice Henson Ernst’s The Wolf Ritual of the Northwest Coast. I haven’t read it as yet, but a quick skim shows that it gives detailed descriptions of four variations (two Makah, one Quillayute, and one Nootka) of the ritual, along with discussion of the religious/cultural meaning of the ritual.

    • I have the book as well, but have not read it…I think it’s in storage somewhere…

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