Did a peaceful matriarchy once rule the earth?

January 11, 2008

Dear Cecil:

I've got a friend I'm concerned about: she seems to have gone insane, spouting something about a peaceful, goddess-worshipping matriarchy that ruled the earth for 25,000 years until Evil Patriarchal Religion rose up and conquered the planet. Was there ever such a matriarchal culture, or have men always been in charge?

Dear Stephen:

For a while now sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and others have wrestled with a tricky question: If there's no built-in inequality between the sexes, as I'd hope most of us believe, why is it that in nearly all the societies on record the men seem to have been running things? In the ensuing effort to show that male domination of women isn't inevitable, many have looked hard for counterexamples, often coming up with results whether or not the available data complied.

J.J. Bachofen, a Swiss jurist turned classicist, kick-started the ancient matriarchy theory with his influential 1861 volume Das Mutterrecht ("Mother-Right"). Based on his reading of mythology, he hypothesized that a peaceful, female-led agrarian culture had once prevailed in Europe and the Near East until the rise of militarism opened the door to a male takeover. This struck a chord with the era's intellectuals: soon American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was writing of a pre-Christian "matriarchate," while Friedrich Engels suggested that matriarchal culture was brought down by the capitalist evils of private property and slavery.

As the discipline of anthropology grew up, Bachofen's methods and assumptions were largely discredited and the matriarchy idea was abandoned by many mainstream thinkers. But that didn't stop certain enthusiastic proponents. In 1971, for instance, librarian Elizabeth Gould Davis published The First Sex, wherein she mused about an enlightened female-dominated culture in ancient Antarctica. (It was a lot warmer then, she explained.) Subsequent advocates have elevated the notion into a kind of new age religion, looking back to a time when women ruled nations of happy folk living in harmony with nature, free from war and sexual violence, and focused on intellectual and artistic pursuits. Clearly a setup many could get behind, and possibly the kind of thing your friend's been reading about.

But is there evidence that any of this existed? The female statuettes known as Venus figurines, created 20 to 30 millennia ago and found throughout Europe, are often held up as a sign of goddess worship and a female-oriented culture, and it's true that contemporary depictions of males are much rarer. Many prehistoric excavations — notably at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, but also in Crete, Malta, and elsewhere — include burial sites that seem to honor older women of high social stature, and prehistoric artwork is full of curves and whorls that can easily be interpreted as vulvas, breasts, the moon, etc. The respected archeologist Marija Gimbutas, for one, has argued that a matriarchal society flourished from about 8000 to 3000 BC in southeastern Europe and Turkey; it ended, she postulates, with the invasion of the Kurgan warrior band from eastern Ukraine.

Needless to say, other experts have some real problems with such conclusions. First, it's impossible to say with much reliability what the artifacts meant to their creators — it's a pretty big jump from female figurines to goddess worship. Beyond that, historian Gerda Lerner points out in The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), symbolic idolatry of women and male-dominated society are far from mutually exclusive — think, e.g., of the omnipresent images of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe. No surviving relics or writings refer directly to the matriarchy Gimbutas describes; in fact, the oldest writings from the region indicate that goddess worship was common but also that women were second-class citizens.

Lerner, like numerous others, sees no evidence for there having been a culture in which women truly dominated and men were subordinate. She believes that early hunter-gatherer societies were essentially egalitarian, with men and women fulfilling distinct, complementary roles of equal perceived value and worshipping goddesses as representative of women's reproductive power. With the shift to agriculture seemingly came increased male control over the public sphere and ultimately the subordination of female deities: typically they were recast as the consorts or mothers of male gods, then absorbed into a coed but male-controlled pantheon.

The larger point, of course, is that if you're looking to demonstrate that a nonpatriarchal society is possible, digging for examples of past matriarchies is something of a sucker's game, and not just because they may not be there. Making matriarchy the hoped-for standard, Lerner argues, only reinforces the notion that one sex is bound to oppress the other, which, she reminds us, is exactly what we're trying to get past. Though the last 10,000 years haven't been an unqualified success for H. sapiens, certainly we've made some progress as a species. In working toward a more egalitarian future, shouldn't we be setting our sights higher than the Stone Age?

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