The following is a guest post written by Carol Christ, Ph.D., a pioneer and founding mother of the Goddess, women’s spirituality, and feminist theology movements, and director of the Ariadne Institute. She is also the author of multiple books including Rebirth of the Goddess.
Although there are some of us who disagree, the “party line” in the fields of Religious Studies and Archaeology—even among feminists– is that there never were any matriarchies and that claims about peaceful, matrifocal, sedentary, agricultural, Goddess-worshipping societies in Old Europe or elsewhere have been manufactured out of utopian longing.
I myself and most other English-speaking scholars defending Marija Gimbutas’s theories about Old Europe have studiously avoided the word “matriarchy” (speaking rather of “matrifocal, matrilineal, and matrilocal” societies) because the very word “matriarchy” conjures up the image of female-dominated societies where women ruled, waged wars, held men as slaves, and raped and abused men and boys. In fact, this fantasy tells us far more about patriarchy than about it does about matriarchy.
A recent book, Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, and Future (2009) defines the term “matriarchy” differently. Its editor Heide Goettner-Abendroth identifies the deep structure of matriarchies using four markers:
1) economic: these societies are usually agricultural and achieve relative economic equality through gift-giving as a social custom;
2) social: these societies are egalitarian, matrilineal, and matrilocal with land being held in the maternal clan and both men and women remaining in their maternal clan;
3) political: these societies are egalitarian and have well-developed democratic systems of consensus;
4) culture, spirituality: these societies tend to view Earth as a Great and Giving Mother. Most importantly and permeating everything, these societies honor principles of care, love, and generosity which they associate with motherhood.
In the cultures of the Masuo people on Lugu Lake in the Himalayas matriarchy in this sense has been preserved up to the present day. In Masuo clans a woman considers all of her sisters’ children to be her children, and her mother and her mothers’ sisters to be their grandmothers. Women choose their sexual partners, and men leave their clan homes at night to sleep with their lovers; sexual relationships end when the partners no longer want to sleep together. Biological paternity is generally known, but not considered important. Rather, brothers are uncles to all their sisters’ children and great- uncles to all of their sisters’ grandchildren. Men work the land or otherwise contribute economically to their mother clans, and as there is a democratic social organization, they are not dominated by women.
If the only the Masuo still followed these customs, and there is ample evidence in Societies of Peace that they do, then theories of the universality of patriarchy are shown to be false, and those of us who speculate that woman-honoring societies of peace have existed can no longer be accused of indulging only in fantasy. In fact Societies of Peace provides evidence that the Masuo are not the only people still following matriarchal customs, in whole or in part.
Why is there such resistance to the idea that matriarchies could and still do exist? Could it be that accepting this idea would force us to reconsider absolutely everything?