Historian Bettany Hughes reveals the hidden history of women in religion, from dominatrix goddesses to feisty political operators and warrior empresses. In this provocative new BBC series, Bettany Hughes tells the stories of the extraordinary women whose legends and lives cast new light on some of the hottest arguments about the role of women in religion today. And drawing on cutting edge scholarship and archaeological evidence, she reveals what her favourite women in religion tell us about the lives of the real flesh and blood women of their day.
Episode one – When God was a Girl
In this episode, Bettany Hughes visits the world’s oldest religious site to uncover the startling evidence that women were present at the very birth of organised religion. Travelling across the remotest parts of the Mediterranean and Near East, she encounters fearsome goddesses who controlled life and death, including the formidable goddesses Kybele and Gaia.
She then arrives in modern day India, where the goddess is still a powerful force for thousands of Hindus. Immersing herself in the excitement of the Durga Puja festival, Bettany Hughes experiences goddess worship first hand and finds out what she means to her devotees.
Episode two – Handmaids of the Gods
In this episiode, Bettany travels to the island of Lesbos to discover the truth behind the much sensationalized poet Sappho. Best known today for giving us the words sapphic and lesbian, in her own time Sappho fulfilled the important role of a priestess, channeling the power of Aphrodite the goddess of sex.
Then in Athens, the heart of Ancient Greece, Bettany Hughes reveals how religion gave women a vital role in a society which otherwise regarded them as worthless. She then heads to Ancient Rome where the fate of the civilisation lay in the hands of six sacred women – the vestal virgins. She discovers how religion gave this select group of women a life of privilege and luxury, but how their status came at a terrifying price.
Finally, Hughes returns to those crucial early years of Christianity where she finds evidence about the role of women that contradicts centuries of Christian teaching and challenges the belief that women should not be priests.
Episode three – War of the Words
In the last episode of Divine Women, Bettany Hughs looks at Theodora, the prostitute who became an empress and allied herself with Mary the Mother of God to rule over a great Christian empire. She also looks at the legacy of the wives of the prophet Mohammad: Khadija, the first convert to Islam and Aisha, whose words are still read by over two billion men and women today.
Her focus then turns to Wu Zetien – a courtesan who harnessed the power of Buddhism to become the only women to rule China as Emperor – and St. Hilda who presided over the crucial conference, the Synod of Whitby, which decided when Christians in Britain celebrate Easter.