Friday, 13 April 2012

Divine Women: In praise of historian Bettany Hughes

I first became aware of historian Bettany Hughes, who’s not a personal friend but here’s hoping, when I read her book Helen of Troy. The book, the many reviews it attracted and indeed its charismatic subject were alive with detail, fascination, vividness, momentum and intelligence. Here was a brilliant woman putting another brilliant woman back into society and history as an agent, not a victim; a personality, not a symbol or cipher; a person, not an object. Not only that but she gave life and depth to the social, political, cultural and practical workings of the society in which Helen of Troy lived. Hughes did it all with respect, great clarity and insight, delight and an awesome breadth of scholarship... which fuelled her even more acclaimed second book, The Hemlock Cup, about Socrates and classical-era Athens.

The reviews this time were positively frothing.

Having noticed her name I suddenly saw it everywhere and realised that Hughes is an accomplished, erudite and riveting broadcaster, a genially globetrotting polymath brain. This month, she has excelled herself with Divine Women, a three part BBC series that began last Wednesday, 11th April.

The series resurrects the long-erased story of women and religion, demonstrating that we were not always unheard, unseen, powerless, marginal, unimportant or uninteresting. The story begins in 9000 BC and, as Hughes writes in the series press release,

The female of the species has always formed 50% of the population but has never occupied 50% of human history. Yet the connection between women and the divine has been so strong in all societies that when we follow the stories of 'divine women' we uncover new evidence for the character of humanity and a fuller, truer history of the world.
The first instalment, When God Was A Girl, looked at the evolution of the goddess in Turkey, Greece, Rome and India. The second programme, on April 18th, promises to be even edgier. Entitled The Handmaids of God, it investigates the story of the priestess: from the poet Sappho on the island of Lesbos and her censored writing to Vestal Virgins in Rome, the role of women in the early Christian church and persecuted Christian priestesses.

Hughes saves the best (and most devastating) material for last, eschewing triumphalism for a sober, exceedingly well-researched and culturally diverse examination of the lives of incredible women who have simply been ignored, erased and written out of history. There is 7th Century Empress Wu Zetien, who called herself Emperor and saved Buddhism by establishing it in China; Empress Theodora in Byzantium, the subject of Stella Duffy's brilliant recent novel; the early women of Islam; and Anglo-Saxon Hilda of Whitby, who used the power of ancient traditions and new ideas about religion and philosophy to introduce sophisticated concepts of reform, education and the word to the intensely macho society in which she lived. This last instalment airs on Wednesday 25th April and will leave viewers filled with despair, inspiration and zeal: whether we are talking about religion, politics, culture or any other area, we can’t let this erasure from public record, acknowledgement and respect be perpetrated against the great (and indeed the ordinary) women of the future and the present as they have been against countless women in the past.