Bettany Hughes is an English historian and documentary filmmaker. Before moderating a Zócalo/Getty panel discussion titled “Did Women Ever Rule the World?” she spoke in the green room about learning to swim in the English Channel, the interesting people who wandered into her parents’ home, and the Minoan snake goddess who changed her life.
You come from quite a remarkable family. Your parents were actors and your brother was a famous cricket player. What was it like at the family dinner table?
I was very lucky in that my parents were both actors, which meant that they were out of work almost all the time, and so we spent a lot of time around the kitchen table, drinking cups of tea, but what was important was sharing ideas. So the kind of beautiful thing about our house in London was that the backdoor was always open, the back gate, onto the road, so you really never knew who was going to walk in. Random people and robbers and all kinds of people walked in. We found at one point that there was an old woman who’d made a home in a car at the end of the garden—we hadn’t noticed that she’d appeared. It was a very open house. And the fact that my brother was a cricketer meant that there was an interesting mix of sportsmen and people from the theater world, book world, and then from my classical world as well.
I’ve tried to hit a cricket ball a couple times but couldn’t do it to save my life. How about you?
Yeah, I was basically a target in the back garden for my brother’s [cricket] bowling practice, which is obviously why he became a professional bowler! I loved cricket. At another age, I had to pretend to be a boy at the local cricket club, because they didn’t accept girls. And then it became impossible to conceal the fact that I was a girl, so I had to stop, I had to leave.
What was it like being a boy?
Well, I was a real tomboy, so I quite liked it; I kind of played up to that. But I remember feeling this fundamental political injustice when I had to [leave the cricket club], when it was revealed that I was a girl. But those were different times; that’s what you had to do.
Did it take them a while to catch on that you were a girl?
Yeah, yeah it did! Basically—not to be too crude—when I started to develop they were like, “Oh, yeah. I think she’s definitely….” You know what? I think they knew, actually, and they just turned a blind eye. So I love cricket and my daughters both play cricket. So they’ve continued the family tradition.
What are you reading for pleasure?
Well, I adore my academic subject. So everything that I read is for pleasure. But I don’t have guilty pleasures. So I don’t think, “Oh, I’m going to sneak off and read that novel!” At the moment, I’m actually just about to go out and do a big series about the Nile, so I’m reading a book by Toby Wilkinson about the Nile. I’ve been given a novel called Embers by a very, very dear friend, and, if I can, maybe on the plane on the way home I’ll start it. I’ve got a feeling he’s going to ask me about it, so I’d better read it so that we can discuss it.
Where and how did you learn to swim?
We used to spend every summer holiday on a freezing beach on the south coast of England. And now kids all go into the water there in wetsuits. We were thrown in, in swimming costumes. So I learned to swim in the very rough sea of the [English] Channel.
Was there a teacher or professor who helped nudge you into your career?
I would say I owe almost everything to one secondary school teacher. At that time, the classics were really being pushed out [of the curriculum] in Britain. It was considered an elite subject, and there was this kind of education revolution in the 1960s, and hardly anybody taught Latin or Greek classical civilization. And we had these two women who were kind of hanging on by their fingernails at our school. And they were the most inspiring women, and they were brilliant teachers. One of them, particularly, we never knew whether she was going to be declining Latin or telling us about her first kiss—we were on the edge of our seats waiting for it! But it was very dynamic. It made me realize that this was a field worth exploring.
I still remember, to this day, in the upper fourth form [group of pupils], in the old geography room, on a very wet, cold November afternoon, when everybody was sort of falling asleep on the desks, and she suddenly flashed onto the screen this very scratched black-and-white photograph of the Minoan snake goddess, with this amazing figure, and her breasts bare, holding up these snakes, flashing kohl-rimmed eyes! And I remember her saying, “We’re not sure who she is, whether she’s a goddess or a priestess or an ordinary woman.” And I remember thinking at that point, “That’s what I want to do, I want to find out her story.”
And did you?
Well, she’s still slightly enigmatic! But I’ve spent my happiest days in the Bronze Age—either physically, in a [archaeological] dig, or in my head. So I’m still chasing the goddess.
How did your interest in the ancient world get started?
I think two things. I was five, and I went to the amazing exhibition of Tutankhamun’s mask, in London. An aunt took me and I was inspired by it that I came home and wrote my version of the Tutankhamun story and my theory of why he died, and I thought he died from an infected mosquito bite. And that was my first book. It absolutely blew me away, this notion that all those things we’d heard of—fairy tales of kings buried in gold—that they could be true. And I think probably also [I possessed] a kind of bloody-mindedness. As I said, [classical history] was very unpopular when I was growing up. Classical departments were being shut down, classics teachers were being retired, history wasn’t cool. But I knew it mattered. I was definitely wanting to swim against the tide, and prove that it was something that people should be doing.
If you could time-travel, where would you go?
I would definitely go to Sparta, to see whether what all the ancient authors tell us—about this being a gynocracy run by women, women having special power, special standing, because their male counterparts were all of in this kind of military training camp—I would love to go and find out if that was actually true.
Other than a female relative or teacher, who was the first woman you really looked up to?
I know exactly. It was a woman called Dinny Pagan. She was my godmother. She was one of those people that ended up in the house when my father was playing Badger in Toad of Toad Hall. She was a dancing Field Mouse, and didn’t have anywhere to live, and she ended up living in our house. And she was the most brilliant, slightly naughty, perfect godmother to have: gave me my first lipstick, talked to me about boys, and also had an amazing moral compass. She was definitely a role model for me.