Super Women of the Past

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 - 3:48pm IST | Agency: dna

Historian Bettany Hughes, host of BBC's series Divine Women, which launched over the weekend, lists a few remarkable women who made history, figuratively and literally
  • Bettany Hughes

While women are still struggling to gain equality, it's tough to imagine the world historian Bettany Hughes describes, where there was "absolute equality in both society and religion". The historian tell us, "It was only after 1600 BC, that civilizations appear to have become materialistic and greedy. The requirement for military muscle to wage and win wars is what I would say marks the beginning of the rise of male dominance and the decline of female power." She cites Homer's story of the Trojan War, as the immortalization of the beginning of the degradation of equality in society.

Maybe we've fallen and perhaps we've fallen really low, but "wit, wisdom and courage" are the way back says Bettany. "We have to stick together and speak out together, in absolute solidarity, promoting the cause of women not just for women's sake, but for the sake of society as a whole".

So who are the women from the past, that Bettany thinks we can learn a lesson or two from?

The first poet that the world knows by name, Ennehuadana, who lived in 2400 BC was high-priestess of the Goddess Ishtar of Mesopotamia. She understood the power of words and used them to great effect. Some of the most powerful lines she wrote were in honour of the goddess Ishtar, who's chariot she describes as ' flaming with red fire-power''.

From 2000 BC—500 AD: Magna Mater, Great Mother of Anatolia and subsequently the Roman Empire, was in charge of nature, and controlled the passage between life and death. Her image still carved out onto the rock faces of Turkey and remind us that birth-control legislation notwithstanding, our power to create life, makes us immortal.

Durga, the invincible Indian goddess, who has been worshipped since circa 3000 BC, and witnessed particular rise in devotees from around 500 BC, is a reminder that nothing is permanent and nothing is impossible.

Behind every great man is a woman of note. In the case of Pericles (c470-400 BC), who is held responsible for the "Greek miracle" aka Democracy, it was Aspasia his consort. Plato said she was Socrates's 'tutor in reason'.

Then there is 7th century BC poet Sappho, the first to describe love as 'bittersweet', whose thoughts on love remain relevant even today, reminding us that while colours may fade and our skins wrinkle and age, love remains timeless and ageless.

While the Roman Catholic Church may not have women priests today, around 50 AD, deaconess Pheobe is said to have carried the word of God far and wide. One of St.Paul's letter's reads, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe... give her any help she may need, for she has been the benefactor of many people including me"

A supporter of Buddhism, Chinese Empress Wuxetien, who ruled China for 60 years, had no problem gaining the respect and admiration of the populations she ruled over between 625-705 AD. In face she was known as "Emperor", leading us to believe that she ruled as well as, if not better than any man could have.

Few women in history have the honour of leading a fleet of ships. As clever and wily as they come, naval commander Artemisia, who lived in 480 BC was definitely one of a kind. The Persian Emperor Xerxes said she 'proved men women and women men' and the Father of History Herodotus talked about her having 'a man's will'.

In a show of global cultural solidarity, the Indian goddess of wisdom Saraswati, finds a soul-sister in Sophia of Greece. Now, if only we could channel their wisdom to regain our lost power and set things right with our world.

As told to Averil Nunes @AverilNunes

Did you catch award-winning historian Bettany Hughes set out on an epic journey across continents and back in time to trace the history of women in religion, in the first part of the Divine Women series, "When God was a Girl"? Stay tuned for more, from dominatrix goddesses to feisty political operators and warrior empresses in "The Handmaids of God" and "The War of the Word", over the upcoming weekends. Read more at or write to @Bettany_Hughes

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