Friday 26 May 2017

She-Gods of Justice Ancient & Modern

Protest against the Dhaka Themis
So the angry conservative Sunnis of Bangladesh have won their months-long battle to get the statue of Themis, reported as being ‘the Greek goddess of Justice’, removed from her plinth outside the nation’s Supreme Court in Dhaka. 

Do the Bangladeshis really believe that anyone might start worshipping sculptor Mrinal Haque’s eye-catching creation?* Or is the problem that she is a sign of creeping ‘western’ secularisation in public art as well as law? Or is it that she is a female in a position of authority?

Antelope-fabric-clad Themis in British Museum
Regardless of the reason, her removal is at least aesthetically sad for everyone who is, like me, partial to statues. Ever since my garden gnomes named after philosophers (René, Immanuel, Karl etc.) mysteriously vanished from my (then) East Oxford garden, I have collected (indoors) busts of Greek sages instead.

And the Bangladeshi Themis was a fabulous creation, not least as a product of millennia of intercultural symbol-swapping. Themis was in charge of overseeing right thinking and conduct in the divine sphere, delegating human law to her daughter Dikē, but the Greeks never portrayed her looking static or solemn with a sword, scales or blindfold: on the contrary, she was famed for her good eyesight, liked flashy textiles embroidered with antelopes, escaped riding a bull bareback from the primordial flood, and giggled as she laid the tables at Peleus & Thetis’ wedding.**

Scale-wielding Equity, not Justice, on a Coin of Hadrian
Scales were carried on Roman coins not by Justitia but by Aequitas (Equity) or Moneta (Money).  And the Romans seem to have borrowed them from the Egyptian god Anubis, who used scales to measure a deceased person’s heart against the weight representing Truth. Truth (Ma’at) was herself sometimes imagined with a fetching ostrich feather on her head. The exact process by which personified Justice acquired all her now familiar accoutrements is unclear, but she was certainly imagined with scales by the 13th century.
Anubis and his Scales; Befeathered Ma'at

The Dhaka ‘Themis’ continued this riotous process of intercultural cross-pollination by wearing a distinctly local sari. It would be so nice if she could get re-erected, perhaps with an Egyptian ostrich feather and added Greek antelopes on the outfit. Law is indeed a weighty matter, but perhaps the Bangladeshi authorities, instead of letting the iconoclasts win, need to lighten up?
Mosaic in St. Mark's Venice

[*Although the Qur'an nowhere bans statues, many Muslims have always worried that art representing living forms encourages idolatry--actual worship of the entities represented. One of their most sacred traditions, recorded  in a Sunni prophecy collection, says that when Muhammad conquered Mecca, he immediately removed 360 idols from around the Ka'bah. ‘The Prophet started striking them with a stick he had in his hand and was saying [this is a line from the Qur’an], "Truth has come and Falsehood has Vanished”.']
[**Quintus of Smyrna's Fall of Troy  4.128ff., 13.298ff. and Suda under 'Boucheta'.]

1 comment:

  1. I believe this has more to do with their severe form of monotheism and iconoclasm as well as misogyny. Even though I believe in Themis unhooded, she is mostly symbolic in the West. This is a starkly beautiful statue of her and it is a pity it was taken down; but, rather that than having it be destroyed.