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.
Islam too recognised the key role women should play in implementing God’s instruction “to seek knowledge”. Hadiths – sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad – recommended this as an activity for both women and men. Not only did Muslim women frequently found schools, but also one of the first recorded universities in the world – the Qarawiyyin University in Fez – was built in the ninth century by a Muslim Tunisian woman, Fatima al-Fihri.