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Ancient Matriarchies

"Meanings of Matriarchy"
by Margot Adler
From The Politics of Women's Spirituality, edited by Charlene Spretnak, New York: Anchor Press, 1982.

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: September 7, 1993
Present: Colleen M., Kalisa, Karen M., Gina B., Robin Z., Grace S. and Cathleen M

Margot Adler's essay looks at the political and spiritual significance of matriarchies asserting that "Goddess worship was widespread in many ancient societies." Despite academic and religious skepticism, most women at this month's session shared an abiding ecofeminist belief that power was once held primarily by women.

A few of us, though, were reluctant to use the term matriarchy. It is too associated with the word patriarchy which entails hierarchies and rule over, be it rule over women, over people of color, over nature, over property-less people, and so on. Rule by women is believed to have been qualitatively different and not simply a female version of patriarchy, i.e., women doing the "lording it over" instead of men.

For years patriarchy has programmed us to embrace myths such as "man" is basically greedy or survival of the fittest, as if these anti-social values are innate to our species. We then view pre-history through this tinted/tainted lens and assume women-rule likewise involved dominating dynamics. This formidable bias makes it difficult to conceive of a world where power once was—and still can be—exercised equitably, peacefully, and in harmony with all peoples and nature.

Another concern with using the word matriarchy to describe the era before males came to power pertains to its literal meaning: "rule by the mother." Some of us preferred the word matristic, but it, too, implies that women's power is based on our capacity to procreate and breed.

The real question is: Were ancient societies mother-identified or women-identified? One woman noted that matriarchy is not even our word. It was designated by 19th century male social scientists in their analyses of "primitive" matrilocal and matrilineal societies. Nowadays it is reductionist to attribute women's power chiefly to an ability to give birth.

Several of us responded that women's reproductive powers were highly revered by early peoples and form the core of cosmology stories of virtually every earth-based culture throughout the world. It was only 20,000 years ago or so (some contend with the introduction of animal husbandry) that humans began to have an inkling males co-participated in the creation of life.

It was long thought that the wind or other forces of nature made women pregnant. Women were held in awe because we could create life from our bodies as if by magic. We produced food from our breasts. We bled monthly, yet did not die. No wonder female imagery was worshipped and women were accorded exceptional deference and respect.

One woman remarked that all mothers are women, but not all women are mothers. She felt that gynocracy (gyn = woman) is a more inclusive word and better characterizes those millennia when woman-rule prevailed. The quandary today is that we want to honor motherhood and menstruation, yet not be discriminated against because of our biological differences.

So what on Earth happened? How did women lose power, status, and respect? Of the numerous theories proffered, we discussed the pioneering work of archeologist Marija Gimbutas. She asserts that approximately 5,000 years ago waves of aggressive, sun-worshipping Aryan warriors from the northern Russian steppes swooped down on horseback and overran communal, egalitarian, goddess-worshipping, settle-ments throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Several women expressed frustration that Gimbutas and other scholars never fully explain how other non-Western cultures or even the Aryans themselves became patriarchal. One woman speculated that, given the barren frigid climate, frequent hunting of animals and an excessive carnivorous diet may have made the Aryans unusually dominating and bellicose. Besides Gimbutas' foreign invader theory, there is also evidence that internal changes were affecting Indo-European peoples.

Although we may never know how or why male rule actually displaced female rule, it is notable that the transition to patriarchy coincided with such new phenomena as men learning to rape, women becoming the first slaves, and the forceful overthrow of goddess worship in favor of male authoritarian godheads.

Some women disputed the notion that men were the bad guys while women were absolved of all responsibility. They thought women may have begun to abuse their influence or even colluded opportunistically in the creation of patriarchy. Other women were convinced that the period was marked by violent physical and spiritual coercion, the repercussions of which continue to dictate our lives today.

One woman maintained that she feels very liberated, especially compared to the 1950's. Other women countered that gains in patriarchy only seem emancipating because of the erasure of ancient memory. If society were to acknowledge thousands of centuries of profound gynocentric presence, the inferiority of women's modern status would be glaring. For a reality check, men own 98% of the world's resources while women perform 2/3 of the world's labor.

If we are to forge a just and balanced world, men and women alike must look to the full spectrum of history for clues, to a time when gender equality and a oneness with nature may well have existed. Many ecofeminists advocate a more open-minded examination of prepatriarchal history, not to replicate ancient gynocracies or to assign blame, but to fuel our imaginations as we explore new, life-affirming possibilities for the future of our species.

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