Documentary Series, BBC2

Divine Women

Like many of us goddess lovers, I awaited this programme with bated breath. I have always enjoyed the ever-popular Bettany Hughes’ views on ancient history, especially her programmes about Minoan civilisation. I guess like many, I felt glad that at least the topic has been raised for public opinion, whilst left frustrated at the inevitable skating over surfaces and sound-bite mentions of whole swathes of civilisation.

The first episode set the scene with the Victorian patriarchal museum curators who hid Neolithic fertility figures in the basement, disgusted by their blatant sexuality. Basements figured large in this episode with the knowledge that Cybele’s (oddly pronounced ‘Kibbly’ by Hughes) temple was obliterated by the massive structure of the Vatican that now sits on top of her shrine, (as indeed so many Christian churches are placed atop older shrines). I found myself fascinated by the parallel between the self-castration offerings of her priests in mass ceremonies, and the priestly celibacy demanded by the Catholic Church. There’s got to be a poem here somewhere.

Whilst the early Anatolian temples were mentioned, Maltese temples which are built in the female shape were not. And while the first image we saw was of the Minoan snake goddess, her central role in that goddess civilisation was not discussed.

The continuing Hindu festivals devoted to Durga and Kali were a welcome inclusion and I enjoyed the contributions of the Indian women scholars interviewed. It was also great to see men celebrating their relationship with Mother Goddess even in her fiercest aspects and carrying her colourful images back to the Ganges for recycling.

The second episode focused on the role of priestesses and especially the cult of Aphrodite. It mentioned priestess oracles such as the one at Delphi and described in detail the significance of the Vestal Virgins in maintaining the spirit of Rome, including the particularly tragic tale of one the Virgins who transgressed her virginal state and was condemned to be entombed alive.

The final episode focused on the major part women played in the earliest days of the patriarchal religions. Hughes detailed two Muslim matriarchs: Kadija, a wealthy woman who was the first Muslim convert as well as Mohammed’s employer and consort, and Aisha, who was later the prophet’s wife and became a notable teacher of Islam after his death. Also mentioned was Theodora, the Empress-wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who passed many enlightened laws to safeguard women’s rights. Another figure was Wu Ze Tien, a Buddhist nun who first became the Emperor’s wife and eventually Emperor of China in her own right, helping to spread Buddhism through China in 800 CE. Needless to say, like the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, her image and name were expunged and removed by priests after her death. Finally, Rome’s catacombs reveal portraits of early Christian priestesses who travelled and taught the gospel, until St Augustine put a stop to women in the priesthood.

"Divine Women" was broadcast on BBC2 in three hour-long programmes, and is currently being repeated in short chapters for use in schools.  You can still read more about the programme and order a free booklet from the Open University's Open Learn website.