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 percent — 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 capitalized on the wisdom she was rightfully allowed to wield. Wisdom had already been memorialized in sensuous, female form in the Old Testament in the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs. 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 judgements 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 recognized the key role women should play in implementing God’s instruction “to seek knowledge.”
Hadiths — sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed — 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.
For the past 25 years Muhammad Akram Nadwi, from the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, has been researching the role of female Muslim academics. His tally of names reaches 8,500 to date. Particularly in the very early years of Islam, and again in the 12th century as a reaction to the threat of the crusades, women preached in the great mosques of Damascus, Medina, Cairo and Jerusalem.
The story was the same the further you traveled east. We eagerly discuss the educating vigor of the “Tiger mother” today. Wait until you meet the premiere Asian matriarch — Wu Zetian (武則天), who in the seventh century used the power of words and belief to win out.
By rights Wu should be a household name, her achievements were so remarkable, but within decades of her death her memory had been slandered and physically eradicated, and her memorial stone at Qianling in China’s Shanxi Province has been left blank.
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.
Determined to promote Buddhist ideas (and word of her power) throughout her vast territories, which reached from outer Mongolia to the Pacific ocean, she ordered the mass production of 84,000 Buddhist texts. She was also the first imperial ruler to see the potential of printing technology in successful, sacrally tinged statecraft. For centuries Wu has been commemorated only by remote communities of Buddhist monks. To this day, at dawn prayers at Famen-Si monastery, they still chant the poetry she composed.