Worship of Life Creators (01:58)
For millennia, humans have turned to religion to make sense of their existence. In this episode of Divine Women, host Bettany Hughes investigates the central role of female goddesses in pre-historic and modern faiths.
Early Images of Women (01:59)
During her Oxford studies, Bettany Hughes came across a mysterious statuette made on Crete around 1600 B.C. For tens of thousands of years, humans have fashioned more female than male figurines—demonstrating the importance of women in the history of civilization and religion.
Origins of Organized Religion (01:05)
While Judaism, Christianity and Islam are dominated by a male god, goddesses have been worshiped in older faiths. Bettany Hughes travels to Turkey to explore the role of women in early civilization.
Gobekli Tepe (02:04)
A 12,000 year old archaeological site in South East Turkey contains a temple predating the Pyramids by 7,000 years. A lack of evidence of a permanent settlement challenges the common theory that society formed religion—suggesting it was the other way around.
Stone Age Graffiti (Mature themes) (01:39)
Images of wild animals are carved into stone pillars at the 12,000 year old Gobekli Tepe temple site. Only three human figures have been found; one of which is a woman simultaneously being penetrated and giving birth—demonstrating the central role of women in the prehistoric religion.
By 7,000 BC, our ancestors discovered how to farm. A Neolithic site in Turkey reveals the oldest known city, where 5,000 people lived in mud brick houses containing female figurines. Based on a voluptuous statuette sitting on a throne, archeologist James Mellart believed they worshiped a Mother Goddess.
Creating Life and Death (03:02)
Çatalhöyük field director Shahina Farid believes voluptuous female figurines represented the ideal woman and evolved into the Mother Goddess cult. As agriculture began, humans connected female and soil fertility—but harsh conditions resulted in many stillbirths, demonstrated in a carving of a pregnant skeleton.
Early Goddesses (01:07)
The idea of feminine creators of life and death gave power to women in early religions. Throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, divine women such as Isis, Ishtar and Inanna are found—symbols of both fertility and destruction.
Bettany Hughes travels to Turkey's central highlands where she finds a shrine to the 3,000 year old Phrygian goddess Kybele, also known as Mater—the mother. Worshipers believed she appeared in a doorway carved into the mountain; today her statue has been stolen by treasure hunters.
Midas City (02:10)
Bettany visits a site of Kybele worship in ancient Phrygia. Open air shrines were built on mountain tops for the maternal goddess believed to control life and death. Her representation evolved from small figurines in prehistoric Çatalhöyük site to that of a divine ruler over a larger society.
Sybil Prophecy (03:03)
In the 3rd century BC, Romans fought against Carthage. To prevent mass hysteria in Rome as Hannibal approached, they consulted an ancient prediction from a female oracle. The scrolls called upon the Phrygian goddess Kybele, mother of the gods, to protect the Empire.
Magna Mater Eunuch Cult (04:14)
After the icon of Phrygian goddess Kybele was brought to Rome; she was worshiped in the city. During celebrations, male priests would castrate themselves and dress in drag—shocking behavior that magnified the female deity’s power in the male dominated Roman society.
Kybele as a Political Ally (02:38)
In the 1st century BC, Rome was divided by civil war. After Caesar's assassination, Emperor Augustus called on the Magna Mater, goddess of creation and destruction, to legitimize his rule. Learn about bull sacrifices that demonstrated her control over humans and nature.
Replacing Paganism with Monotheism (02:22)
The Great Mother's worship flourished in ancient Rome—until Christianity emerged to challenge her position. By 4th century AD, it had become the official religion of the Empire; remnants of Kybele's sacrificial shrines were buried during construction of St. Peter's Basilica in the 17th century.
Thriving Polytheistic Faith (01:42)
Bettany Hughes travels to India to investigate the role of goddesses in Hinduism. Members of the 3,500 year old pantheon were recorded in Sanskrit texts known as Vedas.
Durga Festival (03:19)
Bettany Hughes investigates a central feminine power in Hinduism, worshiped in Assam, India as a protector and a giver of life. She visits the Kamakhya temple where the goddess' triumph over the buffalo demon as recorded in the Devi Mahatmya text is reenacted—by sacrificing a buffalo.
Shakti: Feminine Power (02:24)
The sacred Devi Mahatmya text marked a radical new direction in Hinduism—the emergence of an all-powerful goddess that created the universe. An expert believes Durga and other deities were modeled after real 5th century women; their power comes from an inner life force found in all living things.
Entering Durga's Womb (01:15)
A secret cave in the Kamakhya temple represents the goddesses' reproductive organs. During her festival, Hindus wait all day to be blessed in the sacred space; Bettany Hughes describes her experience.
Kali: Representing the Human Psyche (02:51)
In the Devi Mahatmya text, Durga is incarnated as a goddess who both creates and destroys life—an enduring concept in ancient religions of female worship. An expert explains how the Hindu deity's contradictory qualities symbolize two sides of femininity.
Durga: a Feminist Role Model (02:37)
Bettany Hughes travels to Kolkata, Bengal to investigate the Hindu goddess Durga's role in modern Indian society. As she joins Tenutri in getting ready for the women's celebration during the festival; Tenutri explains how the deity who both creates and destroys empowers women.
Mother of India Celebration (04:33)
During the annual Durga festival, communities in Kolkata create temporary shrines, fashioning her image from clay and water from the Ganges. Bettany Hughes participates in the ceremonies, accompanying the statue's return to the sacred river and reflecting on the Hindu goddess' inspiration of joy and fear among worshipers.
Uncovering Divine Women (00:60)
Bettany Hughes reflects on her journey investigating goddess cults throughout religious history, inspired by the unique feminine ability to create life. Next, she will explore the role of priestesses and women in early Christianity.
Credits: When God Was a Girl: Divine Women (00:32)
Credits: When God Was a Girl: Divine Women
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