Pitt Rivers Museum

Shiva and Parvati

Shiva and Parvati ornament

(c) Alistair Orr 2017

Date: Probably late 19th century (collected before 1910)
Culture: Hindu
Country of origin: India
Accession number: 1910.6.1
Location: Court, Religious Figures – Asia Case (123.A)
Online record: http://bit.do/shivaandparvati

This object depicts the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati as a couple. There are a variety of Hindu legends detailing the events leading to their eventual marriage, but a common theme throughout is that their courtship was not plain sailing. However, their marriage has since been viewed as a model relationship in Hinduism and there is a sense of equality implied between the two in this object as they are both of a similar size, seemingly two equal halves of a whole. Shiva and Parvati, combined, create the god Ardhanari (translated literally as “the Lord who is half woman”), a god containing both male and female elements, which challenges monotheistic gods who are traditionally wholly male. Ardhanari is a patron of hijras, a term which, in some South Asian countries, refers to transgender people or people whose gender identity is not necessarily male or female. Some of these countries’ governments have now legally recognised hijras as a third gender.

Olivia Aarons


Noh theatre mask

Japanese noh theatre mask

(c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Date: Middle Edo period
Country of origin: Japan
Accession number: 1884.114.56
Location: Court, Masks – Asia and SE Asia Case (4.A)
Online record: http://bit.do/nohmask

Noh (Nō) theatre has a fluid approach to gender; its actors perform both male and female roles with sophisticated masks. This example is a typical representation of Hannya, a woman betrayed by her lover, whose jealous rage transforms her into a demon. Although it seems like a simple prop, it is a sacred object that allows the actor to become one with a character, regardless of their own gender. Noh shares with modern gender theorists the view that gender is not the same as biological sex, but something that is performed through stylised actions [1].  For example, in the 14th century women in Japan were banned from performing or even learning Noh. Female characters were then represented by male actors – they wore masks and altered their body movements to convey gendered traits. Since the 1950s, women’s participation in Noh theatre has witnessed a resurgence: today there are around 250 professional actresses who perform male and female characters.

Ruby Gilding

Read more about Japanese Noh masks and netsuke by Victoria Sainsbury

[1] See Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: New York.


Painted wooden maiden mask

Detail of a painted wooden maiden mask

(c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Date: By 1953
Culture: North central Igbo
Country of origin: Nigeria
Accession number: 1972.24.67
Location: Court, Nigerian Masks and Masquerade Case (5.A)
Online record: http://bit.do/maidenmask

This is an example of a painted wooden mask from the Nri Awka region of Igboland in south east Nigeria known as ‘maiden masks or maiden spirit masks’. The masks are typically worn for social regulation, during agricultural cycles and in funerary processions. Masks are carved to highlight the petite features of young women and painted with a white chalk substance to represent a pale complexion, giving the mask a spiritual, ghostly quality. Masks are accompanied with multi coloured, close fitting, appliquéd costumes and topped with an elaborate hairstyle, embellished with representations of hair combs modelled after 19th century ceremonial hairstyles. The ‘fame of the maiden’ masquerade is used to educate young girls in what is considered to be the African ideal of physical and moral beauty. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that these costumes are actually worn by young adult males who, when dressed as beautiful maidens, mimic, in exaggerated performance, typical female gestures and behaviour.

G R Mills

Read more about Agbogho Mmanwu masks by G R Mills

Igbo masks are not just beautiful objects of art, but also important spiritual tools. They give full protection to the person wearing the mask as they embody its spirit when worn during a masquerade. This example is a maiden mask carved from a single piece of softwood and can be identified as female because of its name (Agbogho are maidens known for their beauty), ornate hairstyle, white face and small delicate symmetrical features. They are usually worn by men aged 30-50 from the Igbo people of Nigeria during the Agbogho Mmanwu (Maiden Masquerade). Masquerades are a central part of Igbo life offering reflection, moral insights and entertainment to the community. Men wearing female masks show an understanding of gender and sexuality that does not readily fit into modern European definitions. This fluidity is a celebration of the many ways of being.

JC Niala


False beard

False beard

(c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Date: 1936-37
Culture: Kwanyama
Coutry of origin: Southern Angola
Accession number: 1940.7.92
Location: Lower Gallery, Body Arts, Marriage – Angola Case (43.A)
Online records: http://bit.do/falsebeard and http://bit.do/bodyarts

Traditionally Kwanyama girls of marriageable age go through a five day initiation ceremony called the efundula. Towards the end of the ceremony the girls wear false beards and eyebrows to become ‘bridal boys’ who spend around 25 days living freely in the bush ‘as men’. During this period the girls assume ‘male’ gender attributes which are complemented by the ‘female’ behaviour of the men or future husbands. The false beard and eyebrows are part of the gender shifting of this ritual, with the girls’ dances mimicking the men, and the girls being well-armed and permitted to beat their future husbands. Any resulting pregnancies from this time are considered legitimate and result in marriage. The false beard is part of the elaborate costume that marks the culmination of her wanderings, the return to the village and the start of a new life in her husband’s home.


False facial hair, such as this false beard, is traditionally worn by newly-wed brides in Angola. The Kwanyama people practise this tradition for young women around the time of their marriage. An initiation ceremony is held for the girls in the community called an efundula. After this ceremony, it is possible for the girls to get married. Once the marriage ceremony is over, a girl may not immediately go back to the home of her new husband. Instead, she may go into the wilderness and live there, freely, ‘as a man’. She may do this for about a month. Whilst there, she wears false facial hair, as part of the image of the ‘bridal boy’. This marriage ritual of adopting male characteristics is a traditional rite of passage, and marks the period of transition between girlhood and married life.

Rebecca Wood


Bone pendants

Set of seven oblong bone pendants

(c) Alistair Orr 2017

Date: 13,000-10,000 BC
Culture: Natufian
Country of origin: Mugharet el-Kebarah, Mount Carmel, Palestine
Accession numbers: 1932.65.203-.209
Location: Upper Gallery, Archaeology - Bone, Shell and More Case (62.A)
Online record: http://bit.do/bonependants

These pendants were excavated by Francis Turville-Petre in 1931. Turville-Petre (1901-1941) was an openly gay archaeologist who campaigned for more tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality and reform of the laws banning sex between men. He attended the 1928 Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform in Copenhagen, and between 1928 and 1931 stayed at the renowned Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin, run by the doctor and sexologist Magnus Hirschfield. Turville-Petre was also an active member of Hirschfield’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee, whose motto (Per Scientiam ad Justitiam or ‘Justice Through Science’) expressed its desire to use research and science to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. While in Berlin, Turville-Petre socialised with other gay intellectuals, including Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden. One of Auden’s lost plays, The Fronny (1930), was inspired by Turville-Petre, who was known as ‘Fronny’ because his German lovers were unable to pronounce the name ‘Francis’. 

Martha Robinson Rhodes


The Pitt Rivers Museum

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