Bettany Hughes: The Wisdom of Women Written out of History

Roundup: Talking About History

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning author, historian and broadcaster. She is a research fellow at King's College, London and a fellow of the Historical Association.

The female of the species is more deadly than the male, cautioned Rudyard Kipling. Given Kipling's love of mythology and prehistoric studies, he should perhaps have added "and smarter". Because 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.
Flesh-and-blood women, it seems, have managed to draw strength from this fact. Women were often accepted as the prime educators in their communities, but individuals also exploited the currency of sacred wisdom with surprising results. Religion is an easy target for accusations of repression and misogyny, but achievement in the sacred and therefore socio-political sphere was often an option for women, thanks not to brawn, but to brain.
Take Theodora, the empress of Byzantium – the world's first monotheist empire – who capitalised on the wisdom she was rightfully allowed to wield. Wisdom had already been memorialised in sensuous, female form in the Old Testament in the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs. And Theodora, who started life in the gutter as an erotic dancer, would end up ruling with "wisdom's lilies" woven through her crown.
Soon after her coronation, Theodora incarnated the biblical understanding of wisdom as the ability to make sound judgments, and she legislated furiously – introducing safehouses for prostitutes, outlawing pimps, and introducing new penalties for rape. The Justinian code – the system of law she developed with Justinian, her husband and co-ruler – underpins much of European law.
Islam too recognised the key role women should play in implementing God's instruction "to seek knowledge"...

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