The National Museum of AnthropologyThrough Women's Eyes

Take a look at our fantastic selection of objects relating to women.

By Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Senufo mask, "kpeliye'e". (1901-1984)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Discover objects from the National Museum of Anthropology's permanent exhibition, relating to women from different cultures in America, Africa, and Asia. You'll be taken on a tour of objects made by women, female symbols, representations of women, female clothing, and goddesses.

Shipibo vessel, "chomo". (2008)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología


Lakota female dress. (1900-1923)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Lakota Dress, Great Plains (USA)

Most museum objects relating to the cultures of the Great Plains were made by women whose names have not been recorded. Information about the makers' names was not kept, because it was not considered important by the collectors. Conversely, objects made by men have their makers' names noted, and the names of the men who wore particular garments are also recorded.

This robe belonged to the wife of the Lakota chief, White Buffalo Man. While we know his name, his wife's name is not noted beyond "wife of White Buffalo Man."

The presence of a semi-circular shape below the chest is very common in this type of garment. It represents the shell of a turtle, emerging from the water. To the Lakota people, the turtle was closely linked to the healing and protection of women, and therefore the wellbeing of the person who wore the dress.

Shipibo vessel, "chomo". (1933-1934)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Shipibo Ceramic, Peruvian Amazon

These ceramics are used to hold water and chicha, a weak liquor made from fermented yucca plant. Chicha is made by women and plays an important role in social and ritual events. Shipibo ceramics are among the most beautiful in the Amazon region, and are highly sought after. They are made by women. The designs reflect the Shipibo world view, and are considered to be kené, or signs of ethnic identity.

Shipibo vessel, "chomo". (2008)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

As many of the Amazonian cultures have become part of the market economy, the role of women has declined. The traditional, gender-based division of work has been replaced with western models in which women are subordinate to men and dependent on them for survival.

The Shipibo people developed a way of living that was different to other Amazonian communities, since their principal source of income comes from the sale of ceramics, textiles and jewellery, all of which are produced by women. This reinforced the social and economic role of women.

Pastaza Kichwa Nacionality bowl, "mukawa". (2008) by Melva ShiwangoOriginal Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Ceramic, Kichwa Nacionality of Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon

Ceramics are the highest form of artistic expression in this community. They are passed down from generation to generation by the women who make them.

The designs are inspired by the ceramicists' dreams, visions, personal experiences, and knowledge of the Amazonian environment, as well as by Kichwa mythology and world vision. The most common motif is the anaconda snake. Sinchi Amarun, the anaconda of the underwater world, appears in their dreams to show them designs for their ceramics, as well as where to find the best clay.

Pastaza Kichwa Nacionality bowl, "mukawa". (2008) by Melva ShiwangoOriginal Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

The production of ceramics is linked to Nungüi: the goddess of cultivated plants and ceramics, and a role model for women. She is also responsible for female productivity. One of her manifestations is Manka Allpa Mama, the spirit of clay ceramics and the goddess of clay deposits. Her permission is required before the clay is collected, and she appears in the dreams of female potters.

These remarkable ceramicists are extremely knowledgeable and have a special relationship with the supernatural world. Their male equivalents are shamans, and they both have the same name: yachak—one who knows.

Inuit female knife, "ulu". (1968) by Susan OotnooyukOriginal Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Inuit Knife, Canadian Arctic

This knife, known as an ulu, was the main tool carried by women and one of the symbols of Inuit women. Girls were given a small ulu made by a male relative, to start working on the tasks they would be expected to perform in the future.

Men were considered to be ready for marriage when, among other things, they could make an ulu for their future wife. The bride and groom would exchange gifts on marriage, and one of the gifts given by the man would be an ulu. Women were buried with an ulu when they died.

Fang figure, "byeri". (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología


Yoruba mask, "gelede". (1887)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Yoruba Mask, Nigeria

In common with many African communities, the Yoruba people believe that women are the intermediary between the human and the divine, between culture and nature, and, as givers of life, the narrow connection with the earth. This type of mask pays homage to the spiritual powers of old women, so that they may use them for the benefit of the community. The Gelede festival takes place during the dry season, once the growing season is over, to encourage fertility and drive away evil spirits.

Senufo figure of "fila" masked. (1998)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

The Sandogo women's society is also important in Senufo culture. It practices divination and communicates with the spirit world. Membership of this prestigious society is passed down from mother to daughter, and only a chosen few become sandobele or diviners.

Many people come to them with their problems. To find out the cause of a problem, they make contact with the madebele, or bush spirits, and will recommend a treatment for their client. One treatment could be to carry out a ceremony to pacify the madebele, in which the masked fila play a key role: restoring equilibrium with the spirit world.

Senufo mask, "kpeliye'e". (1901-1984)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Male and Female Senufo Societies, Côte d'Ivoire

Kpeliye’e masks represent an ideal of feminine beauty, although they are always worn by men. They are used in initiation ceremonies by the Poro society, in rituals to honor their ancestors, and at funerals. The Poro is a men's secret society and a central pillar of Senufo culture. Its main objective is male education, to produce men who are useful and respected members of their community.

Fang figure, "byeri". (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Worship of Fang Ancestors, Equatorial Guinea

Byeri are anthropomorphic wooden figures that are placed inside reliquary boxes containing the bones of deceased elders, to pay homage to their remains. Although many of the byeri are male figures, there are also several that depict women. The stomach, genitals, and breasts are especially prominent on these figures. If a woman held an important position in the community, or had given birth to a large number of children, she could be elevated to the category of an ancestor of the byeri.

Fang figure, "byeri". (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

The presence of female byeri is intimately connected to women's role as mothers and creators, and to their fertility. This is because one of the functions of the ancestors is to encourage fertility.

A woman's capacity for procreation is, in turn, linked to the world of the dead, since women's sexual organs are considered to be the bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead through the birth of children, who are considered to be reincarnations of ancestors.

WoDaaBe female earrings, "kootoné kangé". (1901-2000)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

WoDaaBe Earrings, Mali

Women wear kootoné kangé earrings (gold earrings) on special occasions in which they are required to demonstrate their power and social prestige. They are decorated with engravings that allude to the wearer's social status, for example, heads of cattle in the case of communities mainly engaged in livestock keeping, or trees in the case of farmers. Personal belongings bring power and prestige, and are passed down from mother to daughter. They are only sold when all the descendants are boys, to increase the family's wealth.

Hindu shrine dedicated to the goddess Durga. (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología


Manila shawl. (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Manila Shawl, Philippines

Nowadays, the Manila shawl is seen as a typically Spanish item. Originally Chinese, they were first imported to Spain in the late 18th century, traveling via the Filipino capital, Manila, on the Manila Galleon. They were not produced in Spain until the early 20th century, although the wearing of these shawls in Spain was becoming more common by the 19th century among the upper classes and in the capital city. Later, it was more widely worn, becoming a standard part of female dress.

Manila shawls became popular in Seville. Once they had been adopted by women across the region of Andalusia, their popularity spread across the rest of the country, forming part of the traditional costumes of several regions and being used to decorate bullrings and balconies in popular festivals. They were also used at social events and celebrations as a symbol of elegance and distinction. 

For years, shawls as accessories have been passed from mother to daughter. They could be considered to be a living tradition in Spain, where they are still produced and worn, and continue to be extremely popular.

Ifugao female costume. (1801-1887)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

Ifugao Clothing, Philippines

Weaving in Ifugao culture is women's work, usually carried out on a horizontal backstrap loom. One of the bars (the one that holds the warp) is tied around the waist of the weaver, who sits on the floor, while the other bar is attached to a post on the house or to a tree. In some regions a foot loom was used, which was attached to a frame.

This technique was passed down from mother to daughter. From a young age, girls helped their mothers with all the preparatory work that was required before the fibers could be woven. They started to use the loom at around 15 years of age.

The clothing worn by the Ifugao people was fairly uniform. Women wore a skirt called a tapis, held up with a sash or belt made from braided vegetable fiber, shell fragments, and other materials. They sometimes wore jackets or shawls for warmth.

Although their clothing looked similar, there were some specific features that differentiated one group from another, as well as showing the status of the wearer. They were made from cotton, although in some areas they used barkcloth.

Hindu shrine dedicated to the goddess Durga. (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

The Goddess Durga, India

The goddess Durga is one of the most worshipped in India. She is associated with the legend of Durga and the buffalo demon, Mahishasura. A sustained war was fought by the gods of Hindu mythology, led by Indra, against the spirit and demon, Mahishasura. Mahishasura was victorious and expelled the gods, taking over their kingdom.

The gods roamed the earth until Shiva and Vishnu commanded them to concentrate their powers in a new goddess, Durga. Riding a lion, and equipped with weapons given to her by other gods, she fought alongside her army to defeat the demon Mahishasura.

Hindu shrine dedicated to the goddess Durga. (1801-1900)Original Source: Museo Nacional de Antropología

The goddess is holding a different weapon in each hand: Shiva's trident, Vishnu's discus, Agni's dart, Vayu's bow, Surya's quiver, Indra's thunderbolt, Kubera's club, Kala's sword, Vishwakarma's axe, and Brahma's rosary and water-pot.

The demon took on different forms in battle until, wounded and powerless, he took on the form of a buffalo. When Durga cut off the buffalo's head, Mahishasura tried to escape from his disguise and was killed by the goddess's trident. Thus, the sky was returned to the gods, and Durga was venerated as the symbol of the triumph of the gods over the demon.

Every year, during the harvest season in around September or October, several festivals dedicated to the goddess are held in India. The festivals are known as Durga Puja. The celebrations last several days, ending with a procession in which specially made images of the goddess are taken to a river or lake and submerged, in a ceremony known as Vijayadashami.

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