Priestesses and the Divine (01:46)
In this part of a series on women in religious history, Host Bettany Hughes explores the role of women in classical religion and early Christianity.
Contrary to modern views, Ancient Greeks viewed the powerful goddess’ sexuality as dark and dangerous. In 700 BC the elusive female poet Sappho wrote about her creation.
Discovering Sacred Poems (01:37)
Host Bettany Hughes researches Sappho in Oxford. Celebrated as one of the Ancient World's greatest poets, her works were lost for centuries until 19th century British classicists stumbled across texts in an Egyptian garbage dump.
Sappho's Sacred Poetry (02:34)
Host Bettany Hughes visits an Oxford archaeological project piecing together fragments of ancient texts. Ancient Greek poet Sappho is believed to be among them; much of her work was destroyed to censorship.
Lesbos: Home to a Sacred Poet (01:51)
Sappho first wrote about love as bittersweet; many of her poems were directed toward women. More than 2,000 years later, her work provides a window to the world of Ancient Greece.
A Priestess Poet Worships Love (02:49)
Ancient Greeks didn't separate religion from daily life; Sappho's poetry portrays love as a divine act. Professor Edith Hall discusses her relationship to the goddess Aphrodite—her works were designed to be performed in temples.
Evidence of Sappho's Popularity (01:11)
Worshipping Aphrodite empowered women in Ancient Greece and enabled them to hold prominent positions in society. A coin depicting the poet produced 600 years after her death shows she was renowned in the ancient world.
Poetry of Human Desire (01:36)
Raised on Lesbos, photographer Tzeli Hadjidimitriou is influenced by ancient fellow islander Sappho. The poet was the first to express her feelings, channeling the dark passions of Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Eros.
Legacy of a Divine Poet (01:12)
In Ancient Greece, poetry was recited to lyre music—ritual dance steps are still practiced on Sappho's home island of Lesbos. Her sacred lines gave women a sense of feminine empowerment but they knew their place in Greek society.
Ancient Greece: a Patriarchal Society (01:39)
As second class citizens, women had few rights in Ancient Athens. War conquests and monumental buildings overshadow a richer history that included women's achievements.
Safeguarding Ancient Greek Fertility (02:59)
Professor Judy Barringer discusses a ceremony in which young girls offered sacred objects to Aphrodite in the Parthenon. The ritual reveals how religion gave women a vital role in a male dominated society.
Elevating Women's Status Through the Divine (00:59)
Although most women had no rights in the male dominated society of Ancient Athens, priestesses occupied positions of power. Greek religion was a female dominated realm—from goddesses to their earthly representatives.
Respecting the Power of Human Desire (01:59)
Evidence of Aphrodite worship is visible in modern Athens. Her realm of love and sexuality was an integral part of Ancient Greek culture—unlike in Judeo-Christian societies where it became taboo.
Monotheism's Male Orientation (02:07)
Christianity was the Roman Empire's official religion by the 4th century AD. Historically, representatives of the Christian god have been male—but women played an important role in the religion's infancy.
End of Days: Converting the Roman Empire (01:59)
Paul opened the new Christ cult to non Jews, preaching the world would soon end—a message first heard in the Greek city of Corinth. Early followers no longer cared about earthly matters; a development that impacted women.
Acts of Paul and Thecla: Inspiring Rebellion (02:43)
An early Christian text was omitted from the Bible because of questionable content. When a young Greek woman heard Paul's message of the approaching doomsday, she abandoned her domestic duties to follow the Christ cult.
Women's Role in Early Christianity (02:16)
Paul's doomsday prediction freed early Christians from domestic pressures. Women focused on preaching rather than motherhood—and although the world didn't end, they embraced religious empowerment.
Early Christianity: Sponsored by Women (01:54)
As citizens, Roman women had a legal right to property and were financially independent from their husbands. Early female Christian converts supported the religion's preachers and were instrumental in its growth.
Letter to the Romans (03:03)
In the first two centuries of Christianity, women founded 50% of Rome's churches. Father Scott Brodeur discusses a verse where Paul entrusts Phoebe to deliver the gospel—symbolizing gender equality in the religion's early days.
Women: Destroyers of God's Image (01:24)
Despite women's importance in early Christianity, they have been misrepresented in its history. Early theologians argued that only men should hold religious positions.
Women's Universal Fall from Grace (04:10)
After being baptized in Milan in 387 AD, Augustine adopting celibacy but remained haunted by desire. He developed the concept of original sin and antagonized Eve and all women as temptresses—sex was now considered a betrayal of God.
Interpreting the Bible in terms of Gender Equality (01:25)
Seen as sinful temptresses in early Christianity, women were thought to be unworthy of representing God—a viewpoint that persists today. Father Scott points out that Jesus' disciples included women; he believes their early role should be honored.
Council of Nicea: End of Priestesses (02:00)
Early Christian freedoms for women were stifled in 325 AD. Despite women’s vital role in the religion's development, it was ruled that women could no longer be ordained. The age of women channeling the divine was over—for now.
Credits: Handmaids of the Gods: Divine Women (00:41)
Credits: Handmaids of the Gods: Divine Women
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