Thursday, 12 April 2012

Bettany Hughes: Gushing over goddesses

In advance of her new TV series on the subject of women in religion, Bettany Hughes has been hard to avoid, with interviews and puff-pieces (some written by herself) popping up everywhere. 

The overwhelming message was depressingly familiar  -- basically, that the history of religion is really the history of women (incarnation of the divine life-force, earthly channels of the sacred, mistresses of mystery and wisdom) being squeezed out and written out of the picture by jealous men.  It didn't exactly raise great hopes for the series, especially as Hughes seemed happy to play fast-and-loose with the (few available) facts.

In the Telegraph, she proclaimed as fact (rather than highly contested speculation) that there were female priests and even bishops in the early Christian church.  In the Guardian yesterday she claimed that Theodora, wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, was largely responsible for the legal reforms named after her husband.  She "incarnated the Biblical understand of wisdom as the ability to make sound judgements" and ruled "with wisdom's lilies woven through her crown."  This is, shall we say, a partial description of her known character.  Hughes also celebrates the little-known (in the West) 7th century Chinese Empress Wu Zetian:

Consider what Wu achieved. She invaded Korea and Tibet; reformed the administrative system of the Chinese empire; provided Buddhism with a warm embrace when its influence was waning across the Indian subcontinent; and, vitally, she was a patron of printing 700 years before it arrived in Europe.

She sounds like a powerful and fairly enlightened female ruler in the mould of Catherine the Great or or own Elizabeth I, holding her own in a male-dominated society.  Good for her, though it seems a stretch to regard her as the incarnation of female wisdom rather than as a successful political leader.  As for invading Korea and Tibet, is that really something to celebrate?

Hughes is a good historian and a superlative TV presenter, but when it comes to the Eternal Mysteries of Female Wisdom and Power she does have a tendency to come out with sentimental, romanticised tosh.  Her book on Helen of Troy is full of it.  When it comes to someone like Helen, a figure of whom the only reliable thing that can be said is that she never existed, the temptation is probably too great to resist.  But it is dangerous to present it as history. 

Hughes is keen to tell us that "virtually all deities of wisdom, and their acolytes, are female"  (in the Telegraph).  More specifically, in the Guardian article,

Of all deities of wisdom across the globe and through known time, the massive majority – 97% – were (or are) female. Mankind, for the vast span of human experience, has worshipped at the shrine not of the god, but the goddess, of wisdom.

97% seems a remarkably specific figure.  I wonder where she can have found it.  Wikipedia has pages for 17 goddesses of wisdom or knowledge and 23 male gods; that list can scarcely be exhaustive, but to reach that 97% would require discovering another 727 goddesses of wisdom and then another 32 for each male deity subsequently found.  This is highly unlikely.  I haven't tracked any source for the 97% claim prior to recent publicity for Hughes' TV series.  I did however discover this, from the write-up to a Radio 3 documentary about Roman Britain that Hughes presented last year:

We love discoveries of forts and towns and baths, and we're lot less impressed by a nice British round house. Yet perhaps 97% of our ancestors would have been living in those roundhouses, many of them turning up their noses at Roman culture beyond the odd bit of bracelet or pottery.


As for last night's programme, it was more interesting for what it left out.  Hughes offered us a short history of goddesses from Catal Huyuk to Kali's Calcutta, taking in Cybele along the way.  The emphasis was on the goddess as the arbiter of life and death, giving birth equally to live and stillborn offspring and thus (as her Telegraph article put it) "a sexually powerful creature who delights in bloodshed."  Hence the goddesses selected. 

Hinduism reveres many female deities: Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Shakti. But only at Kali's temple in Calcutta are bulls still ritually sacrificed to appease the divine bloodlust.  Cybele -- the Phrygian import known to the Romans as Magna Mater -- took up almost half the programme's running time.  Much was made of the Galli, the eunuch priests of the goddess who would castrate themselves in a state of ecstatic devotion and thereafter wear women's clothing.  Much too was made of the taurobolium, the literal bloodbath (or blood-shower, I suppose) in which the worshipper stood beneath a grating above which a bull was being slaughtered.  Very primal.  But also, in terms of classical goddess worship, extremely atypical.

Concentrating on Cybele risks perpetuating the hackneyed (and surely deeply sexist) equation of Woman with Nature, the chthonian and the primitive.  "Mother cults," wrote Camille Paglia, "did not mean social freedom for women" because "nature's burden falls more heavily on one sex,"  a fact to which honouring the female-ruled mysteries of life and death can only draw attention.  I don't agree with Paglia that civilisation was invented by men as a defence against the oppressiveness of female nature.  But  goddesses like Cybele do embody a set of misogynistic assumptions; at the very least they represent a male way of thinking about, and failing to come to terms with, the Otherness of women.  There's nothing whatever "feminist" about them and little that modern women should be wanting to "reclaim".

Hughes could instead have chosen to explore Isis, a goddess most associated with healing and initiation, a deity of compassion, civilisation and, yes, wisdom.  Her worshippers didn't castrate themselves or bathe in bulls' blood; they sang hymns and shook rattles.  And many of them were women.  Or how about Athena -- Hughes' home ground, after all?  Athena was the goddess of the city -- and not just of any city, but of the city that, more than any other, lives in the Western imagination as the birthplace of rationality, civilisation and art.

Classical Athens was, needless to say, male-dominated; male-dominated, in fact, to an extent unusual even in ancient Greece.  The women were kept at home weaving.  A few really lucky ones (Phryne, Aspasia) got to be high-class hookers and went to parties.  But women were completely excluded from public life.  They couldn't vote.  They couldn't even go to the theatre.

Athena, or rather the spindoctors who created her myths, resolved this paradox by downplaying her femininity.  She was a virgin (and thus free from the cycles of pregnancy, birth and lactation).  She was born, fully-armed, from the head of Zeus.  She was depicted as Athena Promachos, fighting on the front-line with spear and armour in defence of her city.  She was "all for the father".  She has a walk-on role at the end of the Oresteia, where she turns up to cast her vote against the Furies, representatives of vengeance and ancestral irrationality: the old goddesses, in other words. 

A male creation she may have been, but precisely for that reason Athena is much more relevant to a modern world in which women are no longer confined to the domestic sphere, or to the biological realm of night, than the bloodthirsty goddesses that she replaced.  Women who are expected to compete on equal terms in the Academy and in the Agora have little to learn from the likes of Cybele; Athena, however, shows the way.

The developed Athena was exceptional, but the association of a female figure with civilisation and the city is not. Most ancient cities had a patron goddess.  And in the much older epic of Gilgamesh, it is a woman (a temple prostitute) who tames the wild man Enkidu, turns him into a civilised human being.  Here it is the woman who represents Culture and the man who represents untamed Nature; and sex, far from being the irruption of subterranean and primeval forces, becomes something civilising and humane.

The series may improve next week.  I  hope so.  It has always struck me, however, that Bettany Hughes is more interesting, as well as more reliable, when talking about men: her series on the Spartans was fascinating, as was her book about Socrates.  It's rude (and of course facile) to try to psychoanalyse someone, but it could just be that she has an Athena-like ambivalence about her own sex and, when it comes to goddesses, tends to over-compensate by gushing.