Paganism, a modern myth

Paganism, a modern myth

Not yet published: Sample, The matriarchy hypothesis

Links within this sample:  The origins of the idea of matriarchy  ‘Goddess’ figurines

One interesting aspect of modern Paganism is the widespread belief that modern “patriarchal” society succeeded a previous, near-paradisal matriarchal society, “womanly times” in the words of Frankie Armstrong’s song Shall There Be Womanly Times or Shall We Die?. If true, however, this raises as many new questions as answers:

  • would such a matriarchy be merely a mirror image of the patriarchy which supplanted it, or
  • would it have special characteristics, in which religion and such power structures played no part,
  • what was the economic basis for such a society, and who owned the instruments of production?

Not to mention,

  • by what mechanism was matriarchy overthrown, and patriarchy substituted?

The matriarchal hypothesis is common within contemporary feminism, though at least one leading writer, the maverick feminist, Camille Paglia, has declared forthrightly:

“Not a shred of evidence supports the existence of matriarchy anywhere in the world at any time. Matriarchy, political rule by women, must not be confused with matrilineage, passive transmission of property or authority through the female side.”

(Sexual Personae, p. 42)

A contrary view would be taken by people like Heide Göttner Abendroth, whose studies of the Mosuo people who live in China, on the borders of Yuennan and Szetchuan provinces, not far from Tibet, do indeed describe a society where women certainly play a dominant role, and an anonymous contributor of an essay on “The Science of Matriarchy” who draws on Freud, Kraft-Ebing, and Richard Dawkins to maintain that

“The war of the sexes is not a battle between feme and male but is a conflict between the male overrider geneplexes (demonism) which attempt to suppress feme mate choice and selection and the feme negator geneplexes which have evolved to suppress male demonism. Thus the battle of the sexes is a conflict between the geneplexes which seek to maximize male reproductive interests and the geneplexes which seek to maximize feme reproductive interests.”


Abendroth’s depiction of the Mosuo festival is very Stubbesian, though her tone is celebratory rather than condemning:

“Once a year, the young people of the region go on a pilgrimage to their sacred mountain. There they have a dance festival to honour Gan mu as the great Goddess of Love. On this occasion, the young women choose a new lover among the young men. The men do not initiate the choice themselves. The elected lover has the right to visit his love at night in her private chamber in the house of her clan. But the next morning at dawn he must leave because he has no right to live with her, not even to eat there. The custom is that every person eats where she or he works. The man works in the house of his mother, where he is at home. Thus, every evening the brothers leave the clan house and the lovers enter, and every morning the lovers leave and the brothers come back. This is the classic matriarchal visiting marriage, which still exists among the Mosuo. A Mosuo man has his rights and duties in the house of his mother, not in the house of his love, where he is only a guest.

“The children belong exclusively to the mother and her clan. The brothers of the young women take care of the nieces and nephews, who are regarded as their children, too, because they share the same clan name. The uncles of the children fulfill the role of social fatherhood, which is typical for matriarchal societies. Biological fatherhood makes no sense to the Mosuo, socially or spiritually.”


Frustratingly, the two references to work in these paragraphs are the only places where she discusses the labour process. For these are not poor hunter-gatherers:

“In spite of their hard life as peasant women and fishermen, the Mosuo are a cultivated people. Their traditional festive costume is made of velvet and silk, which turns every young woman into a princess. The traditional colours of these costumes are white (the long skirt made of silk), red (the velvet jacket), and black (the hair dress). Variations of this costume indicate a woman’s age and status. The older women are dressed exclusively in dark linen working clothes; they are the matriarchs, the most powerful women in the community. To dress in bright colours, as the young women do, would not be in accordance with their dignity, they told us. The costume of the men is simpler. They wear hats similar to those worn by American cowboys and ride small horses of Mongolian stock.”

Tacitus described what could be traces of a matriarchy in the customs of the German tribes:

“. . . their squadrons or battalions, instead of being formed by chance or by a fortuitous gathering, are composed of families and clans. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that they hear the shrieks of women, the cries of infants. They are to every man the most sacred witnesses of his bravery – they are his most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to mother and wife, who shrink not from counting or even demanding them and who administer food and encouragement to the combatants.

“Tradition says that armies already wavering and giving way have been rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties and bosoms laid bare, have vividly represented the horrors of captivity, which the Germans fear with such extreme dread on behalf of their women, that the strongest tie by which a state can be bound is the being required to give, among the number of hostages, maidens of noble birth. They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers. In Vespasian’s days we saw Veleda, long regarded by many as a divinity. In former times, too, they venerated Aurinia, and many other women, but not with servile flatteries, or with sham deification.”

Their monogamous state was nevertheless matrilocal:

“Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance. The wife does not bring a dower to the husband, but the husband to the wife.”

The Chinese term, Mosuo (cowboys, presumably from their Stetson-shaped hats), may be derogatory (she does not tell us what they call themselves), but clearly, wealth is being produced, surplus value being appropriated – by someone. We are not told by whom or for whom. Yet this is the key to deciding whether this is a true matriarchy. Whoever control the means of production are the masters (or mistresses) of society. This is much more important than who sleeps with whom, or where (though these will, of course, be related to the economic relationships and class structure of that society). If the men are fishermen and the women peasants (and what does that mean? are they agriculturalists?) then presumably tools are employed, perhaps rods and lines or nets, and even boats in the case of the men, and appropriate devices like hoes or even ploughs by the women. Who owns these tools? And if they are fishermen, what are they doing riding “small horses of Mongolian stock”? Who owns these beasts?

Again, we may compare what Tacitus says of the German tribes, when relics of communal ownership may be detected:

“Land proportioned to the number of inhabitants is occupied by the whole community in turn, and afterwards divided among them according to rank. A wide expanse of plains makes the partition easy. They till fresh fields every year, and they have still more land than enough; with the richness and extent of their soil, they do not laboriously exert themselves in planting orchards, enclosing meadows and watering gardens.”

Compare this with the situation in a modern hunter-gatherer society, the Inuit (or “Eskimos”) of the Arctic. In his seminal work, The People of the Deer, Farley Mowat reports that as recently as the late 1940s,

“. . . the second and perhaps most important law of the land is that while there is food, equipment, or bodily strength in any one of the tents, no man in another tent shall want for any of these”.

He goes on:

“This belief has led to a communisation of all material things in the most real and best sense of the word. Nevertheless, individual ownership still exists in the camps, and this paradox may seem hard to grasp. Put it this way: every item of equipment is the personal property of one person, or of a family group. But if a stranger in need of a spear should come to the place, any spear is his for the taking. He does not necessarily need to ask permission of the owner, though he usually does, and no direct recompense is expected or offered. He may or may not return the spear when he is finished, for the spear is now his property, and is not just something he borrowed.”

(Seven Seas edition, Berlin, GDR, 1962, p.196)

Abendroth says:

“The Mosuo are considered by Chinese anthropologists to be matriarchal, because they are still living in accordance with the patterns of matrilinearity and matrilocality.”

Sorry, but this just doesn’t follow. Abendroth isn’t unique in thus confusing matriarchal societies with those which are either matrilocal (in which, after marriage, the man moves into the mother-in-law’s habitation) and/or matrilineal (where, as with Jews today, descent is traced through the female line).

Clearly, early Jewish society was matrilocal:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

(Genesis 2:24)

Remarkably, among all the sacred books of the world, the Judaeo-Christian Bible (or at least the Pentateuch which became the foundation of the Old Testament) has a historicity denied to the Bhagavad-Gita, for instance, or the Qu’Ran. Though the chronology is somewhat muddled (because its purpose was, after all, not ethnographical but to show the peoples’ developing relationship with their God), one is able to trace in its pages their origins as wandering foragers,

“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”

The move from endogamy (marriage within the family, as when Abram married his half-sister, Sarai) to exogamy (marriage outside the family), the development of horticulture, agriculture, and even selective breeding (Genesis 30:32). Lewis Henry Morgan, the American anthropologist whose Ancient Society analysed these ancient texts, and drew analogies with family structures in the world of his time, notably the Native American Iroquois and the Hawaiians, found the Bible a reliable enough source in his work to quote it extensively.

Tacitus wrote of the German tribes:

“Sisters’ sons are held in as much esteem by their uncles as by their fathers; indeed, some regard the relation as even more sacred and binding, and prefer it in receiving hostages, thinking thus to secure a stronger hold on the affections and a wider bond for the family. But every man’s children are his heirs and successors, and there are no wills. Should there be no issue, the next in succession to the property are brothers and his uncles on either side.”

Cosmas of Prague (1045-1125) believed there had once been a communal society, when

“like the radiance of the sun, or the wetness of the water, so the ploughed fields and the pastures, yea even the very marriages

(my emphasis),

“were all in common . . . Nor did anyone know how to say ‘Mine’, but, as in the monastic life, they called whatever they had ‘Ours’, with tongue and heart and in their deeds. There were no bolts to their shacks, they did not shut their doors against the needy, because there existed neither thief nor robber nor poor man . . .”

Friedrich Engels also maintained that “there existed among undeveloped peoples forms of marriage in which a number of men possessed a number of women in common”, and Lubbock (The Origin of Civilization, 1870) recognized this group marriage (‘communal marriage’) as a historical fact. Despite Engels’ gender bias, it is clear from Morgan that in such communal (or consanguine) marriages a number of women also possessed a number of men in common.

Abendroth tells us: “The man works in the house of his mother”, which indicates matrilocalism among the Mosuo. But does this mean that such a society was necessarily matriarchal?

Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts, spent years learning tiny languages in forbidding jungle villages of the 300-strong Pirahã people, experiences he recounted in his 2008 memoir, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s Ancient Society (data from which Engels used in his book, The Origin of the Family) will get a sense of déja vu when they read Everett’s report that “Every one of the Pirahãs is, in a sense, a brother and sister of all other Pirahãs.”

What Everett describes as “the laissez-faire nature of Pirahã society as well as the Pirahãs’ minimalist kinship system” in which “promiscuity, fun, laughing, and merriment by the entire village” are rife during ritual dancing, and the vestiges of communally-owned property persist in the sharing of resources like canoes, indicate a society that has become somehow stuck in the transition from primitive communism, a term of which the author seems ignorant.

The transitional nature of Pirahã society is indicated by the fact that some of their villages are matrilocal, in which “sisters will often bring their husbands to live around their parents” (the family system described in Genesis 2:24), but others patrilocal, in which “men bring wives to their parents’ village”, which is generally the first move towards a more patriarchal society.

He writes:

“The Pirahãs all seem to be intimate friends, no matter what village they come from. Pirahãs talk as though they know every other Pirahã extremely well. I suspect that this may be related to their physical connections. Given the lack of stigma attached to and the relative frequency of divorce, promiscuousness associated with dancing and singing, and post- and prepubescent sexual experimentation, it isn’t far off the mark to conjecture that many Pirahãs have had sex with a high percentage of the other Pirahãs. This alone means that their relationships will be based on an intimacy unfamiliar to larger societies (the community that sleeps together stays together?). Imagine if you’d had sex with a sizable percentage of the residents of your neighbourhood and that this fact was judged by the entire society as neither good nor bad, just a fact about life – like saying you’ve tasted many kinds of food. . .

“Anthropologists have long believed that the more complex the kinship system, the more likely it is that there will be kinship-based restrictions on whom to marry, which relative to live close to or with, and so on. But the inverse necessarily holds as well – the fewer the number of kinship terms, the smaller the number of kinship-related restrictions there will be in a society. This has an interesting effect in Pirãha. Since they lack any word for cousin, unsurprisingly there is no restriction against marrying a cousin. . . I have even seen men marry their half sisters.”

As Abram did Sarai (“. . . she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” – Genesis 20: 12). Later, this was forbidden, when the exogamous family had replaced the earlier, endogamous relationships (“The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover” – Leviticus 18: 9).

“The effect of the apparently universal incest taboo prohibits only a small number of sexual couplings among the Pirahãs, such as full sibling with full sibling and grandparent or parent with child. . .

“The Pirahãs seemed peaceful. I felt no aggression toward me or other outsiders, unlike in so many other new cultures I had entered over the years. And I saw no aggression internal to the group. Although, as in all societies, there were exceptions to the rule, this is still my impression of the Pirahãs after all these years. The peaceful people.

“As is the case at the village of Xagiopai, known to Brazilians as Forquilha Grande – “Big Fork”- because the Maici branches into a dead-end oxbow lake at that point, sisters will often bring their husbands to live around their parents. In other villages, though, such as the village of Pentecoste near the mouth of the Maici, men bring wives to their parents’ village. Thus one village can be matrilocal, but another patrilocal. Or neither – in some villages no pattern is discernible. This flexibility is probably based on the laissez-faire nature of Pirãha society as well as the Pirahãs’ minimalist kinship system.”

The origins of the idea of matriarchy

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The idea of a primeval matriarchy dates back to Mutterrecht und Urreligion (1861), by the criminologist turned archaeologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887). Engels summarised Bachofen’s conclusions in his Origin of the Family:

  • “That originally man lived in a state of sexual promiscuity, to describe which Bachofen uses the mistaken term ‘hetaerism’;
  • “that such promiscuity excludes any certainty of paternity, and that descent could therefore be reckoned only in the female line, according to mother-right, and that this was originally the case amongst all the peoples of antiquity;
  • “that since women, as mothers, were the only parents of the younger generation that were known with certainty, they held a position of such high respect and honour that it became the foundation, in Bachofen’s conception, of a regular rule of women (gyneocracy);
  • “that the transition to monogamy, where the woman belonged to one man exclusively, involved a violation of a primitive religious law (that is, actually a violation of the traditional right of the other men to this woman), and that in order to expiate this violation or to purchase indulgence for it the woman had to surrender herself for a limited period.”

(Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, 1891 preface to first edition)

The term gyneocracy was also used by Morgan, whose work was largely the inspiration for Origin of the Family.

Morgan classified five “different and successive forms . . . each having an institution of marriage peculiar to itself”:

  • The Consanguine FamilyIt was founded upon the intermarriage of brothers and sisters, own and collateral, in a group.
  • The Punaluan FamilyIt was founded upon the intermarriage of several sisters, own and collateral, with each other’s husbands, in a group; the joint husbands not being necessarily kinsmen of each other. Also, on the intermarriage of several brothers, own and collateral, with each other’s wives, in a group; these wives not being necessarily of kin to each other, although often the case in both instances. In each case the group of men were conjointly married to the group of women.
  • The Syndyasmian or Pairing FamilyIt was founded upon marriage between single pairs, but without an exclusive cohabitation. The marriage continued during the pleasure of the parties.
  • The Patriarchal FamilyIt was founded upon the marriage of one man with several wives; followed, in general, by the seclusion of the wives.
  • The Monogamian FamilyIt was founded upon marriage between single pairs, with an exclusive cohabitation.”

(Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, Bharati Library edition, Calcutta, undated, pp.393-394)

When the Rev. Hiram Bingham, an American missionary, landed in the Sandwich Islands of Polynesia in 1820, he was shocked by what he found:

“Polygamy, implying plurality of husbands and wives, fornication, adultery, incest, infant murder, desertion of husband and wives, parents and children; sorcery, covetousness, and oppression extensively prevailed, and seem hardly to have been forbidden by their religion.”

(Bingham: Sandwich Islands, Hartford edition, 1847, p. 21)

Not so, comments Morgan:

“. . . the innocent Hawaiians, who had not been able to advance themselves out of savagery, were living, no doubt respectably and modestly for savages, under customs and usages which to them had the force of laws. It is probable that they were living as virtuously in their faithful observance, as these excellent missionaries were in the performance of their own.”

(Morgan, p. 423)

One is forced to wonder how the reverend gentleman would have regarded the nomadic chieftain in a Middle Eastern desert land who married his half-sister, something specifically prohibited in Leviticus, and she being apparently barren, was then advised (perhaps even instructed) by her to get his maidservant, Hagar, with child. Not only does this tale in Genesis depict a family structure in transition from Morgan’s Syndyasmian (or Pairing Family, stage III in his suggested declension) to the Patriarchal, but the authority with which Sarai (later Sarah) addresses Abram (later Abraham), instigating him to impregnate his servant to prevent his inheritance passing to his brother on his death (and the fact that the servant was considered a member of his family), indicates elements of his Punaluan Family surviving into the beginnings of the Patriarchal era (be it noted we are not using this term in the loose, pejorative sense employed by some of today’s feminists, but as part of the historical, ethnographical terminology proposed by Morgan, and also employed by Engels).

According to Morgan, the Semitic form of patriarchy was “the organisation of a number of persons, bond and free . . . under the paternal power of the head of the family”, in which the chief “lives in polygamy, the bondsman has a wife and children, and the purpose of the whole organisation is the care of flocks and herds over a limited area” (Ancient Society). As Engels points out, this system found its “perfected type” in the Roman family – the very name of which was derived from famulus, a slave, and originally the word familia meant the number of slaves owned by a single individual – “the head of which had under him wife and children, and a number of slaves . . . with the power of life and death over them all

(Origin of the Family, chapter 2 [iii]).

Later, when Hagar became arrogant towards her mistress after she had conceived Abraham’s first son, Sarah complained to her husband, who deferred to her: “Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee,” he says. (Genesis 16:6) Hagar flees from her mistress’s wrath, but she is turned back by an angel, who advises her to submit, since

“I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.”

(Genesis 16: 10)

(Traditionally, Ishmael, Hagar’s son, is the ancestor of the Arab peoples, which is why Muslims can claim descent from the same Abraham who also fathered the Jews, and their successors, the Christians.)

This tale is instructive, because it undermines the feminist convention that the Bible has been progressively (or, rather, retrogressively) rewritten by patriarchal scribes, to remove all traces of female power. (The word “rewritten” is probably a misnomer; as Morgan surmises, “Writing in this branch of the Semitic family was probably unknown”, having emerged among the Phoenicians on the Mediterranean coastline at roughly the same time as Abram was travelling along the donkey routes around the desert from Aram Naharayim [Aram of the Two Rivers] in Mesopotamia [now Iraq], to Haran, then the commercial and intellectual hub of the region and a key location in Babylonian culture; even into the era of Hebrew literacy, the temple liturgy which passed down these stories would have been predominantly oral, as with the Balkan bards of the 20th Century who were very ready to reinsert epics learned from print into the local tradition.)

(Morgan, p.378)

See Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, for examples of this process at work into modern times; it may not be a coincidence that Morgan states of Abram’s era, “The degree of development shown corresponds substantially with that of the Homeric Greeks”. Was he aware, one wonders, that they used techniques analogous to that of the Hebrews and the Balkan bards to compose and – more importantly – remember what had been handed down to them.

Sarah’s story is echoed by that of her son’s wife, Rebekah, whose independence of mind is forecast even before we know her name. When Abraham sends his servant to his people to seek a wife for Isaac, the servant is worried about her agreement: “Peradventure the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land.” Of course, her family may well have been matrilocal, and he would have been expected to follow her. Also, when the servant finds Rebekah, he begins by loading gifts of jewellery upon her, which is not questioned by her brother, Laban, when he sees them. Instead, he welcomes the servant, and agrees that Rebekah shall go with him to be Isaac’s wife, since it appears to be out of their hands: “The thing proceedeth from the Lord: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good”.

It is her mother who puts a small spoke in the wheel, saying “Let the damsel abide with me a few days, at the least ten; after that she shall go.” But Rebekah says she wishes to go immediately – another surprising demonstration of independence in patriarchal times.

The American Jewish feminist poet, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, says of Sarah that she was more than a womb, but Isaac seems to be not much more than a penis, for he is a cipher compared with his mother and wife, serving merely to create progeny for them. The last we hear of Rebekah is when she persuades Isaac to send Jacob away to her brother Laban, to find himself a wife: manipulating and controlling to the last. She is buried, 20 chapters later in the story, alongside Isaac and her father-in-law, Abraham, in the cave bought for Sarah’s burial (the first Biblical mention of land ownership).

Another prominent woman of power who seems to have slipped past the patriarchal censors is Miriam, a prophetess, who is responsible for the survival of her brother Moses, described by Ostriker as “one of a set of powerful transgressive females . . . who may be seen as colluding across ethnic and class boundaries” to do this.

(Alicia Suskin Ostriker: Feminism Revision and the Bible, Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford, UK, 1993)

The near miraculous survival of Moses from his ordeal by water, the result of concerted action by the midwives, his mother, Miriam, and even Pharaoh’s daughter to overcome the death decreed by the male ruler, once again sidetracks the men of the time. It is Miriam who sings the ancient song of triumph (possibly the most ancient text in the Bible, making its female chanter all the more significant, historically) after the escape of the Jews from Egypt and the engulfing of Pharaoh’s army by the waters of the Red Sea:

“Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”

(Exodus 15:21)

The triumphant cry of struggle of Miriam’s great descendant, Mary (whose name was also actually Miriam), the mother of Jesus, echoes her ancestor’s song of victory after the passage through the Red Sea:

“He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

(Luke 2: 51-53)

If we are to regard the Bible as a patriarchal text which has suppressed the female role in early history, the amazing thing is how much of this “silencing of women” nevertheless places them in a central role. At the very beginning of the story, in the creation of Adam, God had to breathe his Holy Spirit into the man, but the creation of woman required no such action on his part: she was drawn out of Adam’s body with the Spirit in-born in her. (The alternative version in Genesis 1:27 merely confirms her equality with the man: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”) The description given to Eve, translated in the King James version as ‘help meet’, derives from the Hebrew âzar, meaning to surround, or protect: elsewhere the Bible almost invariably applies it to God, so the description of Eve as a helper is similar to Christ’s promise of another counsellor who would follow after him, namely the Holy Spirit.

There is a partiality in the curse pronounced upon the two on their expulsion from paradise: Adam’s labour is cursed, but Eve’s curse is indirect, as a result of her subjection to her husband (the end of matriarchy?). But it is through her seed (not Adam’s!) that the curse is to work itself out, for the text, “it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3: 15) is generally held to refer to Mary’s offspring, Jesus: the name of the second century Protevangelium speaks of it as the first preaching of the Gospel, or good news, of ultimate salvation for all.

The story of Sarah’s conception of her son, Isaac, in her old age, when it had “ceased to be with Sarah, after the manner of women” (ie after the menopause), is an example of divine intervention in the procreative process which finds its climax, not only in the partheno-genetic conception of Jesus, but in the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist, whose mother, Elisabeth, was also at an age past normal child-bearing when he was conceived and born. A 19th Century American Christian feminist, Clara Bewick Colby, pointed out that when Sarah is ruled by her husband, “in both instances . . . God had to interfere with a miracle to save them from the result of that obedience”, and that in contrast Abraham was ruled twice by his wife, once obeying her by direct command of God.

(The Woman’s Bible, originally published 1895,
reprinted by Polygon Books, Edinburgh, 1985, p. 37)

The male identity of God in the Old Testament is something of a stumbling block to many feminists, but this is only a metaphor, since, as Paul said, in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28). There are as many female attributes as male for God in the Bible. Wisdom, sometimes identified with the Holy Spirit, is given female gender:

“Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman.”

(Proverbs 7: 4)

When the dying Jacob blessed his son, Joseph, he used feminine imagery which is hard to square with the macho reputation of patriarchy:

“Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb . . .”

(Genesis 49: 25)

Isaiah reported God saying that “now will I cry like a travailing woman” (Isaiah 42:14), “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13), and, most startlingly, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isaiah 49: 15).

Ostriker suggests that all this is a relic of goddess worship, but if so the relics persisted into the Christian era: Jesus more than once identified himself with a mother bird when he lamented for Jerusalem, “how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings” (Luke 13: 34, see also Matthew 23: 37), echoing the lovely blessing pronounced upon Ruth by Boaz a thousand years earlier, “The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (Ruth 2: 12). In the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, the persistence of the belief in the feminine nature of the Holy Spirit in New Testament times is confirmed by the report of Christ saying: “Just now my mother the Holy Spirit took me by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great mountain Tabor”, in reference to the story of his temptation by the devil in the wilderness. Even if, as is likely, this gospel is spurious – though Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Epiphanius all make reference to an indigenous gospel written in Hebrew (the accepted, “synoptic” gospels were all written in Greek) – it nevertheless indicates that this belief was common currency in the years after the execution of Jesus.

The identification of God the father with God the mother persisted into the 1st or 2nd Century Odes of Solomon:

A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.
The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father.
And the Holy Spirit milked Him,
Because His breasts were full.
And it was necessary for Him that
His milk should be released.
And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk from the two breasts of the Father.
And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing.
And they who receive it in fullness are the ones on the right hand.

(The Christian Testament since the Bible, Part III, Penguin Books, London, 1986, p. 36

Is all this a relic of matriarchy, overthrown by men? The savage tale of how, in the epic of Gilgamesh, Marduk, central deity in the Babylonian pantheon, vanquishes the goddess Tiamat and tears her body into pieces for his creation could be a folk memory of such a traumatic event:

The lord trod on the legs of Tiamat,
With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull.
When the arteries of her blood he had severed,
The North Wind bore it to places undisclosed. . .
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:

(Seashells are common symbols in the sub-conscious for the female vulva, hence the symbolism of La Coquille et le Clergyman, Germaine Dulac’s surrealist film of 1927, from a script by Antonin Artaud.)

Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky . . .
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be,
I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name.
Verily, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease!

(Ancient Near East Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1955,
quoted in Sacred Texts of the World, edited by Ninian Smart & Richard D. Hecht, Macmillan, 1982, p. 7)

The complex and (to our minds) incestuous relationships between these warring gods – Marduk, the slayer of the goddess of water (and also of chaos and wisdom); Tiamat, who was descended from her – does not indicate a “contradiction of ancestral purity and unlawful incest”, as has been suggested by John Romer.

(Testament – the Bible and history, by John Romer, Michael O’Mara, London, 1988), p. 36)

According to the Marxist Hellenist, George Thomson, incest was a capital offence in tribal society because it was “a violation of the rules of exogamy” (marriage outside the clan).

(The Prehistoric Aegean – studies in ancient Greek Society, by George Thomson,

Lawrence & Wishart, 1978, p. 132)

But in an endogamous society such marriage within the clan was not only permitted, it was required, as is shown by the marriage of Abram and Sarai, which would have been forbidden at a later stage in the development of the Hebrew family. In what was clearly changing from a society based on endogamy to exogamy, the battle between gods who are sexual partners as well as children, parents, or siblings reflects that conflict. Romer is right, however, that “cultured Mesopotamians saw their civilisation as descending from a wild natural force that was changed into a sacred, civilising order by the mediation of Marduk”.

(Romer, ibid, p. 38 )

Tiamat was the goddess of chaos as well as ancient wisdom, and the story of her overthrow could be a retrospective rewriting of history by the victors in the patriarchal revolt against matriarchy.

It is clear from Genesis 6 that, contrary to the belief of many Christians, ridiculed so effectively by Clarence Darrow at the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925, the progeny of Adam, son of God, were not the only humans (or proto-humans) on earth. This puzzling passage may record the move from endogamy to exogamy, and also the overthrow of matriarchy:

“. . . the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

“ . . . when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”

(Genesis 6: 2, 4)

Engels locates the revolutionary setting of the goddess’s overthrow as the temple:

“The temple slaves of Anaitis in Armenia and of Aphrodite in Corinth, like the sacred dancing-girls attached to the temples of India, the so-called bayaderes (the word is a corruption of the Portuguese word bailadeira, meaning female dancer), were the first prostitutes. Originally the duty of every woman, this surrender was later performed by these priestesses alone as representatives of all other women. Among other peoples, hetaerism derives from the sexual freedom allowed to girls before marriage – again, therefore, a relic of group marriage, but handed down in a different way. With the rise of the inequality of property – already at the upper stage of barbarism, therefore – wage-labour appears sporadically side by side with slave labour, and at the same time, as its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women side by side with the forced surrender of the slave. Thus the heritage which group marriage has bequeathed to civilization is double-edged, just as everything civilization brings forth is double-edged, double-tongued, divided against itself, contradictory: here monogamy, there hetaerism, with its most extreme form, prostitution. For hetaerism is as much a social institution as any other; it continues the old sexual freedom – to the advantage of the men. Actually not merely tolerated, but gaily practiced, by the ruling classes particularly, it is condemned in words. But in reality this condemnation never falls on the men concerned, but only on the women; they are despised and outcast, in order that the unconditional supremacy of men over the female sex may be once more proclaimed as a fundamental law of society.”

(Engels, ibid)

Engels’ argument is persuasive, but falls on one ground: it ignores the fact that temple prostitutes were of both sexes; the whole homophobic tradition within contemporary Christianity is based on a misreading of Leviticus 20:13,

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.”

The word “abomination” (tow’ebah, an abhorrence; especially idolatry, according to Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldaic Dictionary; all 76 usages of the word in the Bible refer to religious practice) gives us the clue, since it is not same-sex sex that is under interdiction, but the exploitation of sex for (in Hebrew terms) idolatrous purposes. Hence the prohibition in Exodus of exogamous marriage outside the Hebrew nation,

“Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.”

(Exodus 34:15-16)

The Hebrew word mis-translated as Sodomite by the compilers of the King James’ Authorised Version of the Bible, qâdesh, is defined by Strong as “a (quasi) sacred person, i.e. (techn.) a (male) devotee (by prostitution) to licentious idolatry”; it has nothing at all to do with the homosexual rape attempted by the men of Sodom on Lot’s angelic house-guests (Genesis 19).

So if the existence of sacred prostitute women in temples “proves” the pre-existence of matriarchy, then what does the existence of their male counterparts prove, that there must have also been a pre-existing “gayarchy”? Clearly not, but into such convolutions we are likely to be led when we attempt to link the development of human society to black-and-white gender issues based on 20th and 21st Century obsessions.

However, in his study, Homosexuality: a history, Colin Spencer expresses the opinion that

“Where the women had the power . . . transvestism became common. Indeed, one can see the reasoning: if women are treated with respect and have power in society, why not pretend to be one?”

(Fourth Estate, London, 1995, p. 25)

But not all involved in ritualised sodomy play the woman’s part, as Spencer himself acknowledges:

“It has been argued that ritual pederasty goes back to the paleolithic, fusing the reverence for semen with the eating of brain tissue and the brain marrow within the spinal cord, so that head-hunting and cannibalism would become an inevitable part of the same belief. Here were stored all the manly virtues of courage, fortitude, bravery and skill in hunting and warfare. Pederasty imparted the same qualities through the semen to the next generation.”

(Ibid, p. 22)

It is somewhat surprising to read such gender-specific typecasting in a work presumably intended to counter homophobic folklore, yet he returns to the theme in his explanation of the move from matriarchy:

“Domestic settlement within river valleys and at the head of estuaries, where there are both fresh water and the richest food supplies, has its drawbacks. To settle is to make oneself vulnerable; buildings and fertile land have to be fortified and protected, a settlement needs defenders to ensure that greedy neighbours will not steal, pillage and finally conquer what is rightfully yours. Because part of the life of women is giving birth and nurturing offspring, the defenders become an army of strong, young males. Once an army exists, the settlement might just as well use it, not only to defend but to wage war, to capture trade routes, precious raw materials and a labour-force of slaves to till the fields, build the temples and serve at tables. Before long, the army takes over and becomes the settlement’s first priority. Thus the women lost the power they once had, becoming subject to laws which men were free from. Male sexuality was given the utmost freedom, while women’s was oppressed. So materialism, possessions and property all strengthen male dominance and aggression, leading to women’s subjugation.”

(Ibid, p. 28)

I would maintain, however, that the phenomena he describes are the results of male domination, not its cause, for in the foraging society which preceded the sort of domestic settlement he describes, these archetypal masculine characteristics are not always displayed. In her valuable study, Women in Prehistory, Margaret Ehrenberg derives a completely different picture of pre-patriarchal society from the Hobbesian bellum contra omnes:

“The sharing of food between mother and offspring would necessarily have continued for longer in early hominids than in other primates, and it is argued that when a mammal too large to be consumed by the hunters alone was killed, the males would have shared it with those who had shared with them in their youth, that is their mothers and sisters, rather than with their sexual partners. . . in this situation the female would choose to mate with a male who was particularly sociable and willing to share food with his partner while she was looking after a very young infant. As well as preferring those most willing to share, females would choose those males who appeared to be most friendly. Not surprisingly, female chimpanzees will not mate with males who are aggressive towards them. The more friendly‑looking males would probably have been smaller, or nearer in size to the female, and would have had less pronounced teeth, and therefore have been less aggressive looking. Over thousands of years this female sexual preference would have led to gradual evolutionary changes in favour of smaller, less aggressive, males.

“The stronger tie between mother and offspring caused by the longer period of time during which human infants need to be cared for would have resulted in closer social bonds than are found in other species. The primary bond between mother and offspring would be supplemented by sibling ties between sisters and brothers growing up together. Older offspring would be encouraged or socialised to contribute towards the care of younger siblings, including grooming, sharing food, playing and helping to protect them. The natural focus of such a group would clearly be the mother rather than, as is so often supposed, any male figure. Moreover, this group behaviour would lead to increased sociability in the male as well as in the species in general. The role of the female, both in fostering this increased sociability in the species and as the primary teacher of technological innovations during this long period of caring, must be recognised.”

(British Museum Press, London, 1995, pp. 48-49)

In The Ghost Dance – the origins of religion (George Allen & Unwin, 1972), Professor Weston La Barre observes:

“Among ancestral African hominids, evidently only males hunted. For otherwise females would show same adaptations that males do. On the contrary, however, hominid females specialized in the opposite direction towards femaleness, and thus provided the conditions in which human infants could specialize in prolonged infancy as well. For the conditions of domestication to operate, whether in animals or in humans, three criteria must be met: protection from natural wild enemies, a provided food supply, and sexual selection. All three criteria are precisely met in the human situation. . .

“. . . Insofar as the human female – within the protection, food supply, and sexual selection provided by the male – is now freed for adaptation to other humanly desirable traits, she is the direct and literal ‘domesticate’ of the human male. And not only for ‘feminine’ traits sexually selected by the male, but also, in the differential survival of her offspring, for female traits that advantage her young protectively, in the kinds of human beings that can be born, and the kinds that survive.

“Physiologically, the human female is adapted to the expenditure of energy at a lower rate but for a longer period than the human male. Both sexes have different fatigue patterns, and both respond with marked contrast to environmental heat conditions. By contrast with males, human females have more subcutaneous fat, and more fat reserves in general, a smaller stature, smaller bones and lungs and muscles-and, more significantly, permanent breasts . . . and a wider pelvis (even though they are shorter-legged) than the males. Female specializations are evidently for the production and long care of the dependent young. The pregnant human female, heavy and short-legged and wide-hipped, is not very effective as a hunter of wild animals, certainly not of swift ones – and, biologically, should not be, of dangerous ones – and certainly not with rude weapons under primitive conditions. Indeed, she could not have specialized in maternity, as she manifestly has, had she had to hunt. But so long as she does not need to, it does not matter at all, adaptively. Instead of going out to hunt and kill wild animals, through her own special adaptations she does something perhaps more important biologically, the nurturing of the longer-dependent, increasingly neotenous,

(Neoteny: “The retention of juvenile characteristics in a (sexually) mature organism. . . Exhibiting neoteny; of, relating to, or resulting from neoteny.” OED)

“and increasingly big-brained human animal.

“. . . males, necessarily larger and stronger owing to the selective pressures of hunting, may prefer and hence sexually select for more docile and feminine females whom they may dominate without further ado – but whom they must protect from the sexual aggression of other males if their own individual traits are to be significant in selective breeding. Reciprocally, to the degree that they could, hominid females may have sexually selected for such protective traits in the males with whom they bred. Thus males selected for docility, females for aggressiveness, in the other sex.”

Ignoring, for a moment, the gender-specific terminology – “femaleness”, “feminine”, “nurturing”, “docility” – and, remember, his book was published nearly half a century ago, in 1972 – , La Barre is hypothesizing gender dimorphism quite different from any kind of mirror image of patriarchal society. No, maternal power in the proto-human family was exercised without being in fact the sort of male control familiar in human society since the establishment of patriarchy at the time of Abram/Abraham (3314 – 3489 BC), right up to the present day. Even then, the role of Abraham’s half-sister wife, the powerful Sarai/Sarah, demonstrated the survival of endogamous marriage within the clan which assured women a leading role in the Hebrew family. (The more orthodox Jews cleave to endogamous marriage to this day, and Jews are generally matrilineal, reckoning their descent through the female line.)

La Barre’s hypothesis suggests that matriarchy could have functioned, not by societal control, but by “domesticating” the male hunters, providing the way in which their collective humanity could develop. But it also created the environment in which males unfit for the hunt could make unique contributions to the development of the proto-human primitive family:

“. . . human neoteny not only provides conditions or learning both of group culture and individual character, but also forms the experiential matrix for magic and religion, and indeed for the scientific world-view as well.

“Male hunting and sharing of the meat kill changes the survival conditions not only of morphologically feminized females and infantilized infants, but also of other members of the hominid group, the disabled and he post-mature. We must not expect that under archaic conditions this ecological burden could have been very great. Nevertheless, the maintenance, by hunters, at the home focus, of males disabled through hunting or otherwise unfitted for hunting, would greatly change the conditions of survival and genetic fate of home males. And not only that. The activities of home males could at times change the ‘cultural environment’ of the whole society, including that of male hunters.

“If all males were hunters, and if hunters had time only to hunt and to breed, not much change in a hunting culture could be expected to occur. But if ‘biological leisure’ from hunting permitted, say, a hunt-crippled male to stay behind and invent a fire-hardened point on a long wooden spear to replace a thrown or hand-wielded club or rock; and then to invent sharpened stone point for the spear; and then, say, a myopic or short-sighted male to improve the fineness of a stone point necessary for a newly invented arrow and bow (such as occurred in the African Aurignacian or Capsian period) – all usable by the hunter at greater stalking distances limited by his comparative speed in running, or at progressively greater protective distances from dangerous prey – then the hunting success and even the survival of the hunter would be enhanced, and hence the survival potential of the whole group. The fact is that the very myopia of the male that disadvantaged him for the hunt would be precisely the trait that enabled him to make finer weapon points. Genetically, then there would be a ‘balanced polymorphism’ among myopic males and keen-sighted hunters in the group. . . The first division of labour was by sex, probably of male hunters and female gatherers. But variety is the life of evolution, and further specialization would advantage the survival of the group.”

Thus, at this pre-patriarchal stage, women laid the basis for human society, and of the later development of religion, and even of science, not only providing “conditions or learning both of group culture and individual character, but also forms the experiential matrix for magic and religion, and indeed for the scientific world-view as well.”

It is significant that writers like Ardrey tend to use the word “man” where today we would prefer the non-gender-specific “humanity, eg: “Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon.”

(African Genesis, 1961, p. 316)

But this is more than a mere change in semantic fashions. It is because Ardrey, Dawkins and the rest have a specifically male-oriented approach to human history, ignoring the preceding evidence which might question their whole philosophy.

Ardrey’s philosophy (which was the basis for the opening sequences of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 Space Odyssey) is not now so fashionable as once it was. As a customer of the Amazon website wrote:

“So much has been learned and written, both in formal and popular science circles, since this book was first published in 1961, the arguments Ardrey puts forth are not quite as true to the mark as they once appeared to be, but more importantly (2) Ardrey’s style of writing is much less suited to today’s readership than it must have been 40 years ago. He ceaselessly anthropomorphosizes his animal characters far past where it’s proper. This tends to detract from his overall arguments in today’s more savvy readership.”

Nevertheless, Ardrey’s philosophy still accords with the era of globalised capitalism, and its “might is right” new world order:

“Man had emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer. Long ago, perhaps many millions of years ago, a line of killer apes branched off from the non-aggressive primate background. For reasons of environmental necessity, the line adopted the predatory way. For reasons of predatory necessity the line advanced. We learned to stand erect in the first place as a necessity of the hunting life. We learned to run in our pursuit of game across the yellowing African savannah. Our hands freed for the mauling and the hauling, we had no further use for a snout; and so it retreated. And lacking fighting teeth or claws, we took recourse by necessity to the weapon.

“A rock, a stick, a heavy bone-to our ancestral killer ape it meant the margin of survival. But the use of the weapon meant new and multiplying demands on the nervous system for the co-ordination of muscle and touch and sight. And so at last came the enlarged brain; so at last came man.”

(Ibid, p.29)

Imagine substituting “woman” for “man” in the above quotation! It would seem to be, and indeed would be, nonsense.

What Ardrey does not appear to have recognised, so obvious to Engels, is that such a non-co-operative being as this killer ape, could hardly have survived in the hostile environment in which protohumans developed:

“. . . our simian ancestors were gregarious; it is obviously impossible to seek the derivation of man, the most social of all animals, from non-gregarious immediate ancestors. Mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labour, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown properties in natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another.”

(Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,

In comparison with this reasoned analysis, Ardrey finds the rise of fascism a consequence of in-born instincts, rather than the crisis in capitalism:

“One recollected the ease with which Adolf Hitler had brought about in a generation of German youth his education for death. Had he in truth induced a learned response? Or had he simply released an instinct? Which was the genetic cultural affinity that like a desert river could vanish for season after season, then in a flick of a thunderstorm come ripping and raging out of the inscrutable earth? Was it man’s adoration of books and bridges? Or his adoration of things that go bang?”

(Ardrey, ibid, p.203)

It is interesting that two men give diametrically opposed views about human origins. One accords with the prevailing ethos of the robber barons of globalisation; the other questions its assumptions (they are nothing more, since there is little empirical evidence, either way).

‘Goddess’ figurines

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One of the most persuasive arguments in favour of the matriarchal hypothesis has been the discovery by archaeologists across Europe of numerous female figurines, often with the buttocks and breasts emphasised. Indeed, it was these figurines which convinced Bachofen of a matriarchal stage in the development of human society.

A fascinating (though, unfortunately, anonymous) analysis of a number of these figurines was made in article which originally appeared in Beyond Art, published by the Californian Academy of Science, San Francisco, in 1997 (viewable on the Internet at The author points out one significant fallacy, the presumption that such artefacts served similar functions in cultures widely separated in geography as well as time:

“I do not consider it acceptable to treat all of Upper Paleolithic female imagery as if it were a coherent whole. It is not! . . . In particular, the term ‘Venus’, which is interpretive rather than descriptive, has been used in such an all encompassing way as to give the illusion that the repertoire of female images in the Magdalenian is simply a continuation of that of the Gravettian. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

She (we do not know the sex of the author) also noted the prevalence of figurines where the body detail was accompanied by a total lack of the facial:

“It is also worth noting that the several cases of blank visages are very explicit; that is, faces are not simply absent, empty faces are very carefully constructed.”

I will return to the significance of this omission of facial detail in due course, because if these figures are truly meant to be female deities, they lack any individual identity.

Eight of twelve unbroken figurines from one site appeared to have been suspended in some way, possibly as types of charm.

“The Grimaldi sculptures, which are small and designed for suspension, fit the ethnographic pattern of amulets or fetishes. However, the majority of human figurines made by living circumpolar peoples are significantly different from the Grimaldi figurines in gender ratio, a much higher frequency of facial and extremity detail, and a much lower incidence of genital and abdominal prominence. Since the circumpolar ethnographic record is clear that recent human sculptures were used to promote fertility, . . . it is most likely that the characteristics of the Grimaldi figurines refer to a reproductive context, and that this context was childbirth itself.

“. . . Childbirth is both an emotionally charged and potentially dangerous event. It is predictable in its general timing (ie the average length of gestation), but unpredictable as to the timing of the onset of labour, the sex of the offspring, and the survival of the mother and/or child. We hypothesize that the Grimaldi figurines are best interpreted as individually owned amulets meant to ensure the safe completion of pregnancy.”

She concedes the likelihood of a significance indicating a special status for women in the society that produced them:

“This scenario . . . does not require the figurines to represent a generalized concept of womanhood, but instead recognizes that they may be produced by and for individual women, with no necessary inclusive or monolithic meaning that derives from gender alone. Individual production probably accounts for the great variability of the figurines. Our interpretation also does not imply the subordination or commoditization of women as do the fertility goddess (Gimbutas 1989), paleopornography (Guthrie 1979), and mating alliance (Gamble 1982) scenarios. Instead, we recognize the importance of women in themselves, not just as sources of babies, since we suspect the motivation behind these amulets was the survival of the mother rather than the baby. From this perspective, women are envisioned as taking active control of an important part of their lives using magical means that would have been entirely rational within their cultural context.”

This likelihood receives confirmation from a Twentieth Century custom among the South African Valenge women noted by George Thomson:

“Early in spring the local chief issues a proclamation summoning all the girls who have reached puberty during the year to be initiated. The ceremonies that follow last a month. They are superintended by a woman called the nyambutsi, who has inherited the office from her mother, and with it the initiatory symbols, which have been handed down in a special basket from mother to daughter for generations. They consist of a drum, a horn, models of the genitalia of both sexes, and male and female wooden dolls, all painted with red ochre. On the first day, when the candidates have assembled, a band of initiated women, led by the nyambutsi, perform a nude dance to the beating of the drum, which is a symbol of the womb. Meanwhile, as they watch, the novices are sobbing bitterly, overcome with terror. In the evening, when the dance is over, each girl submits in turn to an operation in which the hymeneal membrane is pierced with the sacred horn. On the succeeding days they receive methodical instruction in the facts of sexual life. It is for this purpose that the dolls are produced from the basket. Together with the genital images they serve as working models of the sexual act. They are treated with great veneration, because they are supposed to be vehicles for the activity of ancestral spirits. During this time the novices are taught a secret language, and are encouraged to steal from one another, which they may do with impunity. On the last morning of the month the dance of the first day is repeated, all the performers being now covered in red ochre. But this time the girls do not weep. They beg the nyambutsi to open her basket for the last time, and when she complies they dance round the dolls in delight, clapping their hands and singing:

“Babies elect, babies elect,
Babies, we greet you because you are beautiful!

“All is now over. The nyambutsi packs up her treasures, the girls go home and take off their ornaments, which their mothers stow lovingly away in some secret corner of the hut.”

(Thomson, ibid, pp. 239-240)

Thomson was drawing on E.D. Earthy’s Valenge Women (London, 1933), pp. 111-124.

Note that the Valenge were not a matriarchy when this account was written; the women were called together by the male chief to perform their womanly duties.

So, while it cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt that patriarchy was preceded by a matriarchal stage, certainly this hypothesis cannot be discounted, if only because the logical progression from a society where all the older males were called father, and all the females mother, would be to one where only the identity of the mother was known with any certainty, thus giving the woman heightened status vis-a-vis the male. But it does not follow that women would be in charge in much the same way as men were later to seize a position of power. Indeed, it would be illogical to assume this: for such a female-dominated society would be as difficult to overthrow as have been the male power structures inherited from and built upon the relics of patriarchy – unless, of course, matriarchy were something more than a mirror-image predecessor of the male oppression which succeeded it, with similar though opposite oppressive structures, societal, religious, and gender-specific.

Pre-patriarchal foragers

Ehrenburg cites contemporary enthnographical studies to indicate an alternative picture of a pre-patriarchal society of foragers:

“. . . the status of women is regularly higher in forager groups than in any other type, but . . . these societies are far from being a mirror image of patriarchy. Their social organisation is based on equality between individuals and between the sexes. Everyone has equal opportunity to put forward suggestions and have them listened to, and every individual has the right to make her or his own decision about what to do in any particular instance. . .

“. . . One key to this equality is the lack of private property or possessions within the society, and the impossibility for a nomadic forager band of storing food. One person cannot therefore own more than another, nor can dependence or debt to another build up in a way which makes oppression and submission a likely outcome.

“Although in forager societies the differences between female and male tasks are not fixed or binding in the same way as they have been in the Western world until very recently, and there is quite a high degree of overlap, there does seem, on the whole, to be a fairly fixed division between the sexes in subsistence tasks and especially the provision of food. This, as we have seen, is probably related to the demands of childbirth and childbearing. The key factor seems to be that women provide as much if not more food than men, and as a result of searching for it, they have equal knowledge of their territory and contact with other people; the importance of women’s role as producers of the next generation in societies whose populations are small and could fall below a critical point is also appreciated. Women are therefore seen to be as important members of the community as men, and their tasks, though different, are rated as highly as the male skills of hunting.”

(Women in Prehistory, by Margaret Ehrenburg, British Museum Press, 1995, pp. 65-66)

In such a society, the concept of individual deities, and of religion, would not be present. We are dealing with a period of animism, of magic, rather than religion, itself a product of a later period, when the appropriation of surplus food laid the economic basis for male domination.

It is surprising that the Marx’s colleague, Engels, who showed that religion was part of the superstructure of a society, which changed as its economic basis changed, sought in the temple for the cause of what must surely have been an economic struggle, (and, of course, in a society where temples were certainly unknown).

He himself wrote, in his Supplement to volume 3 of Marx’s Capital:

“. . . at the beginning of society, products are consumed by the producers themselves, and . . . these producers are spontaneously organized in more or less communistic communities; . . . the exchange of the surplus of these products with strangers, which ushers in the conversion of products into commodities, is of a later date; . . . it takes place at first only between individual communities of different tribes, but later also prevails within the community, and contributes considerably to the latter’s dissolution into bigger or smaller family groups. But even after this dissolution, the exchanging family heads remain working peasants, who produce almost all they require with the aid of their families on their own farmsteads, and get only a slight portion of the required necessities from the outside in exchange for surplus products of their own. The family is engaged not only in agriculture and livestock-raising; it also works their products up into finished articles of consumption; now and then it even does its own milling with the hand-mill; it bakes bread, spins, dyes, weaves flax and wool, tans leather, builds and repairs wooden buildings, makes tools and utensils, and not infrequently does joinery and blacksmithing; so that the family, or family group, is in the main self-sufficient.”

In The Origin of the Family, he describes this process in more detail:

“Here the domestication of animals and the breeding of herds had developed a hitherto unsuspected source of wealth and created entirely new social relations. Up to the lower stage of barbarism, permanent wealth had consisted almost solely of house, clothing, crude ornaments and the tools for obtaining and preparing food – boat, weapons, and domestic utensils of the simplest kind. Food had to be won afresh day by day. Now, with their herds of horses, camels, asses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, the advancing pastoral peoples – the Semites on the Euphrates and the Tigris, and the Aryans in the Indian country of the Five Streams (Punjab), in the Ganges region, and in the steppes then much more abundantly watered of the Oxus and the Jaxartes – had acquired property which only needed supervision and the rudest care to reproduce itself in steadily increasing quantities and to supply the most abundant food in the form of milk and meat. All former means of procuring food now receded into the background; hunting, formerly a necessity, now became a luxury.

“But to whom did this new wealth belong? Originally to the gens,”

[extended family]

“without a doubt. Private property in herds must have already started at an early period, however. It is difficult to say whether the author of the so-called first book of Moses regarded the patriarch Abraham as the owner of his herds in his own right as head of a family community or by right of his position as actual hereditary head of a gens. What is certain is that we must not think of him as a property-owner in the modern sense of the word. And it is also certain that at the threshold of authentic history we already find the herds everywhere separately owned by heads of families, as are the artistic products of barbarism – metal implements, luxury articles and, finally, the human cattle – the slaves.

“For now slavery had also been invented. To the barbarian of the lower stage, a slave was valueless. Hence the treatment of defeated enemies by the American Indians was quite different from that at a higher stage. The men were killed or adopted as brothers into the tribe of the victors; the women were taken as wives or otherwise adopted with their surviving children. At this stage human labour-power still does not produce any considerable surplus over and above its maintenance costs. That was no longer the case after the introduction of cattle-breeding, metalworking, weaving and, lastly, agriculture. Just as the wives whom it had formerly been so easy to obtain had now acquired an exchange value and were bought, so also with the forces of labour, particularly since the herds had definitely become family possessions. The family did not multiply so rapidly as the cattle. More people were needed to look after them; for this purpose use could be made of the enemies captured in war, who could also be bred just as easily as the cattle themselves.

“Once it had passed into the private possession of families and there rapidly begun to augment, this wealth dealt a severe blow to the society founded on pairing marriage and the matriarchal gens. Pairing marriage had brought a new element into the family. By the side of the natural mother of the child it placed its natural and attested father, with a better warrant of paternity, probably, than that of many a ‘father’ today. According to the division of labour within the family at that time, it was the man’s part to obtain food and the instruments of labour necessary for the purpose. He therefore also owned the instruments of labour, and in the event of husband and wife separating, he took them with him, just as she retained her household goods. Therefore, according to the social custom of the time, the man was also the owner of the new source of subsistence, the cattle, and later of the new instruments of labour, the slaves. But according to the custom of the same society, his children could not inherit from him. For as regards inheritance, the position was as follows:

“At first, according to mother-right – so long, therefore, as descent was reckoned only in the female line – and according to the original custom of inheritance within the gens, the gentile relatives inherited from a deceased fellow member of their gens. His property had to remain within the gens. His effects being insignificant, they probably always passed in practice to his nearest gentile relations – that is, to his blood relations on the mother’s side. The children of the dead man, however, did not belong to his gens, but to that of their mother; it was from her that they inherited, at first conjointly with her other blood relations, later perhaps with rights of priority; they could not inherit from their father, because they did not belong to his gens, within which his property had to remain. When the owner of the herds died, therefore, his herds would go first to his brothers and sisters and to his sister’s children, or to the issue of his mother’s sisters. But his own children were disinherited.

“Thus, on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased, it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother-right. Mother-right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was. This was by no means so difficult as it looks to us today. For this revolution – one of the most decisive ever experienced by humanity – could take place without disturbing a single one of the living members of a gens. All could remain as they were. A simple decree sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens, but that of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of their father. The reckoning of descent in the female line and the matriarchal law of inheritance were thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them.”

(Origin of the Family, II-The Family; 3. The Pairing Family:

Agriculture and ritual

Clearly, agriculture could never have been part of matriarchy, which if it ever existed would most likely have been the social structure of foraging communities. So, as we have seen from Tacitus, Stubbes and other observers, in such a ritual the central role would be played not by a woman, but by a man. (This is borne out by the testimony of most of the trials cited by Margaret Murray.)

The focus of the ritual could well have been upon some sort of female deity, but the absence of individual identity in the so-called goddess figurines (if that be what they are), is indicative of male-controlled gender stereotyping: to borrow Ostriker’s striking image, these woman were nothing but wombs, as idealised in their tits, ass and cunt as a Playboy centrefold, faceless, armless, legless (and we know that paleolithic artists were quite capable of totally anthropomorphic representation, as well as striking modelling of legs of beasts of prey, and so on).

Ehrenberg believes it is likely that the change in social relations between men and women probably took place during the Neolithic period (eg about eight thousand years ago).

She goes on:

“. . . at the end of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, women enjoyed equality with men. They probably collected as much, if not more, of the food eaten by the community and derived equal status from their contribution. But by about four thousand years ago, in the Bronze Age, many of the gender roles and behaviour typical of the Western world today had probably been established. The implication is that the crucial changes must have taken place during the Neolithic period.

“The chief characteristic of the Neolithic was the establishment of agriculture in south‑west Asia and south‑east Europe, perhaps around the seventh millennium BC or earlier. The innovation progressively spread across Europe, until it became established in Britain by the fourth millennium BC. Numerous other inventions and adaptations in lifestyle seem to have occurred more or less at the same time. These include the change from a nomadic to a sedentary settlement pattern, the invention of pottery and the use of polished stone tools. It is likely that important social changes followed from these developments.”

(Ehrenberg, ibid., p. 77)

Ehrenberg draws a distinction between horticulture and agriculture, based on current ethnography:

“In societies where plough agriculture is practised and animals are kept on a significant scale, most of the agricultural work is done by men, with women playing no direct part, or only a very subsidiary role. On the other hand, in horticultural societies, in which hoes or digging sticks are used for making holes or drills in which to plant roots or seeds, women are usually almost wholly responsible for agricultural production. . .

(Ehrenberg, ibid., p.81)

“As women are responsible for plant food gathering in virtually all foraging societies about which we have information, and are responsible for growing plants in horticultural societies today, it can be argued that it is very likely that they would also have been responsible for these tasks in the past. It also follows that women would have been in a position to hit upon the various stages towards the cultivation of plants, as well as all the vital concomitant inventions associated with it, such as the hoe, and storage and preparation procedures.”

(Ehrenberg, ibid., p.83)

V. Gordon Child agrees:

“The plough being still unattested”

[among Neolithic peoples]

“it is assumed that the tillage of garden plots and the tendance of the crop fell to the women of the community. As the chief providers of the community’s food, the females would therefore claim economic influence . . .”

(Child, 1958, p. 38)

He also notes that the Starcevo culture of the Balkans of a slightly later period “combined shifting cultivation with the breeding of kine, sheep, goats and pigs, and with hunting and fishing”. Though he accepts that the presence of female statuettes represented a Mother Goddess, he continues: “But in Starcevo villages neither she nor any other deity was worshipped in a durable temple nor served by a professional priesthood. On the contrary ‘cult rooms’ have been reported from ordinary farmhouses.”

(Child, ibid, p. 46)

In other words, magic rather than religion. The distinction is important: the magician may worship a force of nature, for instance, the thunderbolt; the religious priest leads the community in worship of the wielder of the thunderbolt, eg Zeus or Yahweh. Women might indeed have been the shamans or practitioners of magic (especially, as we have seen, away from the Hellenic strand of development), but the development of a priest-controlled religious system would be the creation of men, who would have come into the ascendancy with the invention of plough-based agriculture. This is borne out by a skyphos drinking cup found at Eleusis, in which Demeter, representing the earth, and Kore, the maiden, hand a sheaf of corn to a naked man with a plough. As Plutarch observed: “. . . men shear to earth Demeter’s limbs”.

Ehrenberg, again:

“There is a very strong ethnographic correlation between male-dominated farming and patrilineal descent and patrilocal residence. A male farmer will teach his sons the necessary skills and expect them to tend his land and animals. In a matrilineal system his sister’s sons, rather than his own sons, inherit these herds, land and equipment on his death. This is not in the male interest if men are the main agriculturalists. When women were involved in the land‑based tasks, they would have learnt the basic skills from their mothers, so it would have been more obvious for them also to inherit their land and equipment. However, it also seems that individual land ownership is less common amongst hoe agriculturalists,” [ie horticulturalists] “and, by definition, less equipment is used. Therefore, at least in terms of material goods, far less is typically at stake in matrilineal than in patrilineal systems.”

(Ehrenberg, ibid, p. 106)

This was precisely why Sarai insisted that Abram get his servant/slave Hagar pregnant when she was barren: otherwise his property would be lost to her family, and he was “very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Genesis 13:2).

In her brilliant Prolegomena (or introduction) to the study of Greek religion, Jane Harrison reports on the possible transition from matriarchy in Greek society:

“S. Augustine, telling the story of the rivalry between Athene and Poseidon, says that the contest was decided by the vote of the citizens, both men and women, for it was the custom then for women to take part in public affairs. The men voted for Poseidon, the women for Athene ; the women exceeded the men by one and Athene prevailed. To appease the wrath of Poseidon the men inflicted on the women a triple punishment, ‘they were to lose their vote, their children were no longer to be called by their mother’s name and they themselves were no longer to be called after their goddess, Athenians.’ (‘ut nulls, ulterius ferrent suffragia, ut nullus nascentium maternum nomen acciperet, ut ne quis eas Athenaeas vocaret.’)

“The myth is aetiological”

(From post-classical Latin aetiologicus and its etymon Hellenistic Greek αἰτιολογικός, inquiring into causes, off or relating to aetiology; assigning or tending to assign a cause or reason – OED)

“and it mirrors surely some shift in the social organization of Athens. The citizens were summoned by Cecrops, and it is noticeable that with his name universal tradition associates the introduction of the patriarchal form of marriage. Athenaeus quoting from Clearchos, the pupil of Aristotle, says,

‘At Athens Cecrops was the first to join one woman to one man: before connections had taken place at random and marriages were in common – hence, as some think, Cecrops was called “Twy-formed” since before his day people did not know who their fathers were, on account of the number (of possible parents).’

“A society that had passed to patriarchy naturally misjudged the marriage-laws of matriarchy and regarded it as a mere state of promiscuity. Cecrops, tradition said, was the first to call Zeus the Highest,”

(“. . . then began men to call upon the name of the Lord”)

“and with the worship of Zeus the Father it is possible that he introduced the social conditions of patriarchy. Apollo, the son of Zeus, was worshipped at Athens as Patroos.”

(Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion, by Jane Harrison, 1907 (Merlin Press reprint, 1962), pp. 261-262)

So we see that religion was a product of the move from horticulture (possibly matriarchal) to agriculture (certainly patriarchal), based on the appropriation of surplus value accumulated during more efficient plough-based methods of cultivation. A woman might well have been at the centre of such a religion, since it would have evolved from the earlier magical practices, but it was a male creation, as the myth of the birth of Athene from the brow of Zeus indicates. As Harrison states:

“The outrageous myth of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus is but the religious representation, the emphasis, and over-emphasis, of a patrilinear social structure. . . for patrilinear purposes [Athena] is turned into a diagram of motherless birth”.

(Themis, a study of the social origins of Greek Religion, by Jane Harrison, 1911, Merlin Press reprint, 1963, p. 500)

It is interesting to consider that a later religion was to adopt Mary as the epitome of fatherless birth and the reassertion of female autonomy!


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