Ancient history was a man’s world – but women were considered closer to the gods. The historian and TV presenter reveals the secrets of Athenian priestesses, Byzantine empresses and Stone Age fertility goddesses.
Just to be clear, when you talk about divine women – who are you referring to?
It’s a catch-all title for a mixture of those women who have some kind of deity or are connected to the divine. They are either goddesses or semi-goddesses or were thought to be divine heroines in the ancient world. I also take it to mean women who, by association from their work with goddesses, were thought in their day and age to be in touch with the divine. These were normally people like priestesses – so flesh and blood women who had a very intimate relationship with the divine.
When you were researching your BBC series about this, what kind of power did you find these “divine women” had in the ancient world?
The answer really explains why I set about doing the series. As an historian I know that, like it or not, women have always been 50% of the population but we certainly haven’t occupied 50% of human history, apart from when it comes to our relationship with the divine, which is remarkably well documented. There is a lot of very exciting evidence, such as archaeological evidence and texts that talk about women’s role in religion.
“Even though women were often denied a place in the political forum, when it came to religion they had a lot more power than many people are aware of. ”
All this gives us a much broader and truer picture of the story of civilisation. So for me as an historian it was a very important area to research, not just in terms of women but also to get a better understanding of what the world was like in those epochs. These are vital bits of the jigsaw puzzle of the story of human civilisation – the “divine women” evidence helps us understand a whole lot more about daily life in ancient and medieval communities. The series goes right up to the seventh century AD.
I have been gathering evidence about all this for the last 15 years and I discovered that even though women were often denied a place in the political forum, when it came to religion they had a lot more power than many people are aware of. A classic example is fifth century Athens, where you have a democracy but women aren’t allowed to vote or speak to the assembly or have many legal rights. The polar case is true when you look at women who are priestesses in Athens, where they have enormous respect and clout. They are independently wealthy. We think they are actually allowed to go and address the all-male assembly and talk to people at the Pnyx [the hill used as the meeting place], which is unheard of for any other woman. So actually their association to the greatest of all powers, the spirits and the gods, gives them by definition a greater power in human society. I think that is a story that is often not told, which is partly because in the 21st century, and particularly in more secular countries, we see religion as an optional extra.
But at that time it was very much the centre of everything.
Yes, in Ancient Greece there is no separate word for religion because there is this understanding that it is everywhere and in everything. There is a god or a spirit around every corner, the divine, the sublime is there in every piece of fruit that ripens on the tree and in every breath of wind. So the gods are everywhere, and then you can start to unpack that and think that women were thought to be somehow especially close to the gods and the spirit order. And that gives them enormous presence in both that sphere and in day-to-day life.
Let’s look at some of your book choices, which explore in more detail these ideas. Your first choice is Ancient Goddesses edited by Lucy Goodinson and Christine Morris.
This is a collection of chapters published by the British Museum Press. It was published in 1998, which was just at the time when I was starting to really consolidate all my research in this field. It was one of those moments when I was walking through the British Museum and I saw this book and thought, how fantastic, someone is thinking along the same lines as me.
What is incredibly helpful about this book is that it deals with different kinds of goddesses, right from the very earliest examples in prehistory, going back to around 25,000 BC, and it looks at the goddesses in the Middle East and the early Israelite religion and then the slightly later British goddesses. This book is a very good place to start because it very intelligently does the beginning of the story. What is very useful about it is that it challenges what had become a kind of orthodoxy among people who study goddess worship. There was a very rose-tinted spectacle view of things that said that at one point in time goddesses were in charge and there was an almighty mother goddess. The world was at peace, matriarchy was the order of the day, everything was OK with human society. And of course the picture is much more subtle and varied and complex than that. The book is very good at looking in great depth at different traditions, but it doesn’t do so with a polemic or with an idealised view of the world.
To give us flavour of the book, can you describe one of those traditions that particularly interested you?
They talk about the goddesses of Çatalhöyük [in Neolithic Anatolia], which is one the earliest surviving cities that we know of. What is fascinating about it is that it is one of the first examples we have of people living together in a kind of proto-city. They have found both male and female figurines, and what is really striking is the potency of the female figures that are found there. It is almost like the birth of the goddess. She is not in charge but this is where we see her emerging. She is often beautifully fat. There is a very famous picture of this goddess figurine from Çatalhöyük where she is sitting with these wonderful big fat thighs and breasts and stomach, flanked by two big cats, probably leopards. So there is no denying her potency in a figurine like that.
“Through early religions…goddesses are both wonderful and sexual and in charge of fertility, but also very scary and very closely connected with death.”
But what I am fascinated by is that if you look at some of the other female figurines – and this is something I do a whole section on in Divine Women – you will see that although she is pregnant from the front, if you turn her slowly around the flesh starts to give way to bones and she becomes a skeleton from behind. I think that is really key because what that is doing is setting up a paradigm that you then see right through early religions, where goddesses are both wonderful and sexual and in charge of fertility, but also very scary and very closely connected with death. And my theory, as a mother, is that if you look at the infant mortality rates in ancient societies you will find that for every two children that were born one would be born dead – so it was 50-50 if they lived or were stillborn.
So there was a very close relationship between birth and death.
Very close, and I think more than it just being about women dying in childbirth. There is this idea that women were thought to be creatures that could physically generate both life and death, and who could almost decide whether they were carrying life or death within them.
Next up is Joan Breton’s book about priestesses in Ancient Greece.
This is a lovely book which is beautifully produced and very detailed. It puts the priestesses in the classical world in their prehistoric context and then it looks ahead to Christianity. One of the sections which really appeals to me is the discussion about the priestesses who were the keepers of keys of the temples in ancient Athens. These keys were huge great things. You see them carved on the headstones of women when they are buried. They are probably slightly magnified to make an impressive picture but nonetheless they were big things. They were almost like the starter handles to crank up cars.
The priestesses really were the keepers of the temples.
Exactly, and what is important to remember is that this was a very important position to have because temples were really the banks of the city. That is where all the treasures were stored, so these women were in charge of protecting the material physical wealth of the community. I really loved the fact that Joan focused on that because it was very clever and visual. It really brought into focus an aspect of priestess culture that we might not automatically think of. When you say priestesses it sort of conjures up women wafting about in flowing robes, but I think there is something much earthier going on.
How would they be chosen?
It is something you could inherit so you could get these dynasties of priests and priestesses. Often it was the aristocrats, it is what noble women did. And if you look right back to Bronze Age texts you can see it was a way of becoming wealthy. There is this fantastic collection of texts from the Hittites in Turkey and they talk about the kind of wealth that the priestess could inherit, and we are talking about huge amounts of stuff – like 150 male slaves.
But could they have children to pass it on to?
Yes, you didn’t have to be celibate so they almost certainly had children.
Your next book, translated by Anne Carson, focuses on the Greek poet Sappho.
This is a collection of fragments of Sappho’s poems. They are so beautiful, I would recommend them to anyone.
Despite writing nine books of poems, only one of them has survived in its entirety so this book focuses on the fragments of those that remain.
Yes, she is concentrating on the fragments so you might get three words and then a gap, which makes the poems even more tantalising and mesmerising because that which is left is so beautiful. Sappho has such wonderful lines. She writes “My child is like golden flowers to me”, and is the first person to talk about love being bittersweet, although she is actually more apposite because she says it is sweet and then bitter, which is how love often ends up.
As well as being a great poet, why does she count as a divine woman?
Increasingly we think that she was a priestess for the goddess Aphrodite and one of the things she was trying to do was to coach young girls in the story of the goddess and how important love is in all its aspects.
She has the reputation for being one of the world’s first well-known lesbians – is that true?
She comes from the island of Lesbos, which is where we get the word lesbian. And there is no doubt that the poetry is very erotic in the way it describes girls. But you have to think of it as a completely different sexual landscape back in the ancient world. So it is also possible that she was just being very sensual. She writes about the landscape and the girls in a similar way.
So where has this idea that she was a lesbian come from?
Well, I think it is because she has got all these young girls in her care where they write love poems to one another. They do describe one another in very erotic terms, so it is possible that they had some kind of sexual relationship.
Or it could just be an appreciation of their beauty.
Yes, and you have to understand that all these girls were being trained to be good wives so it wasn’t this little lesbian enclave. And this was a stage of their sexual and social development. It is almost like they are learning about love with one another and then they go into heterosexual marriage after that.
Judith Herrin’s book takes us to the Byzantine Empire. What role did divine women play during a time that is normally remembered for the crusades between the East and the West?
Byzantium is one of the first ever monotheistic empires. It is incredibly influential. It always appears as a footnote in Western history but at the time it was in control of vast parts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and at times North Africa. So this was a Greek Orthodox Christian Empire. It is interesting to see what you do in a monotheistic civilisation. It is the first time it has really happened to any full-blooded degree. The Romans became Christians very late in their development and the Byzantine Empire was set up in the fourth century as the new Christian capital of the new Roman world.
“Mary the mother of Jesus was not just described as the mother of Jesus but as the actual mother of God himself, which is really amazing.”
So suddenly you have a male God, and Jesus who is the Son of God as our chief representative. What the Byzantine empresses did, very cleverly, was to keep one foot in the pagan past. They used their old traditions, which believed in female deities, and took on the mantle in a monotheistic way. You have the great Empress Theodora who helped to build Hagia Sophia in Istanbul with her husband Justinian. She sits alongside Justinian as if she is the mother of God, making judgement in the heavenly court. By this time, interestingly, among the Byzantine empresses, Mary the mother of Jesus was not just described as the mother of Jesus but as the actual mother of God himself, which is really amazing. So that puts her in pole position, and the empresses really associate themselves with the cult of Mary. Here you have these flesh and blood women associating themselves with the divine.
Finally you have chosen The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination by Gary Macy, which sheds light on what was actually going on in the early Roman Catholic Church regarding female priests.
We are talking about very early Christianity here and it is a much neglected field of study to which Gary has contributed a great deal of scholarship. He is very balanced and doesn’t come to any conclusions for which there is no evidence. But he does point out that women had a much stronger role in the early church than the official versions tell us. Women were working as priests and possibly bishops in the early church. He doesn’t say there were definitely female bishops but I think there were. So if you want a book which pulls together all the evidence of what was actually going on in the church, it is a fantastically robust volume because this is the kind of topic that you can’t mess around with. He is great at putting all the evidence on the page.
And you’ve got an interesting theory as to why women’s power within the church waned.
I think there is an initial killer blow, in that once Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire it means it suddenly goes from being a fledgling faith, which is primarily to do with social justice and nurtures women and their role, to something that has a massive territory and militarised infrastructure to call its own – it has soldiers and garrisons. The emperor is the head of the army and he is one of the key players and so it becomes a militarised religion rather than one that is standing outside society and trying to get in.
And women became less powerful because they couldn’t go out crusading and didn’t fit in with the new image.
That is a bit later, but the foot soldiers of Christ had more muscle than the priestesses of Christ.
What about in other religions, what was happening with women’s roles there?
In Divine Women we interview an academic from Oxford who has collated 53 volumes on the women of Islam and there are thousands of named women there over the early years. He found huge numbers of women who not only taught the basic precepts of Islam but actually preached in the mosques of Medina, Cairo and even Jerusalem, which is a hugely different picture to that which we are used to of women being segregated in mosques and certainly not allowed to stand up and speak in them. But, actually, women were preaching.
Why do you think women became less powerful?
I think it is a mixture. Men were writing the books and that might be one of the reasons it has taken so long to come to light but also exactly the same thing happened to Islam that happened to Christianity. It went from being a radical new idea to something that is very consolidated and is as much about temporal power as spiritual power. That was a world which was run by men in secular terms so it was very easy to sideline the role of those early women. But if you go back to the early teaching of Mohammed, the scholar we spoke to from Oxford believes that those teachings envisaged a world where women did take a prominent role.
What kind of role do you think divine women are still playing today?
If you look at all the deities of wisdom that there have been in the world, over 90% of them are female. So obviously, through time, people have thought that wisdom is something that belonged to the female of the species! I think that women do have the capacity for wisdom, which has been underplayed, and, thank goodness, increasingly we are allowed to give voice to our ideas. And maybe what our role is going to be is to act as a conduit for the divine force that is wisdom.
But who knows what will happen in organised religion. I’m not a prophet so I don’t know. But there is the notion that wisdom is something that binds the world, and makes us love it and not hate it. I think that if women are allowed to give voice to those ideas they can be their own kind of divine women.
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