15/04/2012 12:41 BST | Updated 13/06/2012 06:12 BST

When God Was a Woman

Like any good Church of England girl, I was brought up to believe that God was a man who had a Son.

Like any good Church of England girl, I was brought up to believe that God was a man who had a Son. It was only at university in Edinburgh where my English Literature course led me down some radical feminist theory thought paths (feminist deconstructions of the Bible and so on) that I started to question this Father/Son domination of the divine. Since then I have found it difficult to say the words 'In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit' in Church. What about the Mother and the Daughter? What about the Goddess?

Well thank God (and the Goddess) for historian Bettany Hughes. Her new BBC Two documentary series Divine Women shows that powerful females were at the very roots of early faiths - and yet this fact has been strangely buried and hidden away. The first episode, 'When God Was a Girl' screened last Wednesday and it didn't disappoint. Finally some balance! Finally someone who is publicly standing up for the central role the female of the species once played in the world of religion. Hughes doesn't rant and rave though - she presents persuasive evidence to support her case.

Within the first few minutes she shows us an overtly sexual, ancient figurine of a bare-breasted woman that she spotted at the Ashmolean Musuem 30 years ago while studying at Oxford. The figurine, a Minoan snake Goddess, has obsessed her ever since and has driven her quest to find the hidden history of women in religion.

She revealed how representations of the female form make up the great majority of unearthed sculptures from the past 30,000 years. Many such explicitly sexual figurines were thought obscene and barbaric by the Victorians and so weren't originally displayed in museums. After all, fecund figurines like this are a far cry from the wholesome, clothed, nurturing depictions of the Virgin Mary.

To find the very origins of worship of the female form, Hughes visits the world's oldest man-made religious structure in the world - Gobekli Tepe on the Syrian-Turkish border, a temple complex almost 12,000 years old. Between two pillars carved with lions is a highly sexual image of a naked woman scratched by stone-age worshippers in the rock. The woman has wild hair, legs apart and looks like she is either giving birth or being penetrated.

This raunchy image sets her off on a trail to find traces of Goddess worship elsewhere and there is plenty: Isis in Egypt, Cybele ('Great Mother') in Phrygia and Gaia in Greece, to name but a few. But this is no golden age headed up by gentle, maternal Goddesses. These women were often depicted as fierce, sexual and voluptuous, worthy of both reverence and fear. Hughes explains that at the time, real women were seen as both the givers of life and death (for every child that was born alive, another would be stillborn). Another characteristic of divine women, says Hughes, has been a delight in wisdom - virtually all deities of wisdom, and their acolytes, are female.

She shows that in some parts of the world, Goddess worship is still alive and thriving, travelling to India to meet Kali and Durga devotees.

Although Christianity spells the end for the Goddess with its emphasis on one God, in this week's episode she'll look at the vigorous role women played in the first 300 years of the Church, including building churches and acting as priests. Sadly women lost this status in the fifth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the patriarchal model of the Church crystallised into the male dominated form we know today.

Hughes is not arguing for this patriarchal model to be eliminated or for God to be rebranded as female. Instead she's showing that women were once at the heart of our understanding of the divine - at the very least they shared the stage with men. In an age where Catholic women can't be priests and Anglican women can't (yet) be bishops, the series might at least cause us to rethink our assumptions about religion and prompt us to question why the dominant monotheistic religions are skewed in favour of men.

It's a fascinating documentary and I look forward to the next episode, which examines the lost era of priestesses, from ancient Greeks to early Christianity (April 18, BBC Two at 9pm).