Exciting New Research on Matriarchal Societies By Carol P. Christ

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?

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

26 thoughts on “Exciting New Research on Matriarchal Societies By Carol P. Christ”

  1. Carol,

    So glad to learn of this blog and your participation. It seems that despite all the evidence in support of the fact of women-centered societies, embedded patriarchal worldviews dominate still.

    The work of Goettner-Abendroth and the other contributors to Societies of Peace clearly demonstrated the existence and timeless deep roots of matriarchal societies. I hope that the emerging field of Modern Matriarchal Studies pioneered by Goettner-Abendroth and others will have an impact on out-dated beliefs in the ubiquity of dominator societies throughout human existence.

    Ashe, Amen, Blessed Be,



  2. Carol,

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I am one who has avoided the word “matriarchy” for the very reasons you stated. I have not read the book Societies of Peace; your post has prompted me to order a copy. I find this very interesting and would like to be able to embrace “matriarchy;” perhaps this research will allow me to do so. Also, I think your questions are crucial and I appreciate that you posed them.


  3. Carol,
    This is such an intriguing topic, and I’m so happy that you laid out these ideas.

    I can’t help but wonder… if a matriarchy can exist in which men are not dominated by women, as is the case with the Masuo, is it possible that a form of patriarchy can exist in which women are not dominated by men? I have such a negative reaction to the term/idea patriarchy, that I can’t envision such a society. But I’m wondering if that visceral reaction is not logical, given the way this form of matriarchy is here described.


    1. Caroline,

      I think the thing is that when men hold power they hold it exclusively and heirarchicaly. When women hold power political and societal stratification flatten out, and women share power. Studies of Chimps (male dominated) and Bonobos (female dominated) have shown that the higher the position a male holds in the chimp group, the less he shares food, while the higher a female is in the Bonobo group the more she shares food. So, my guess is that it is probably not possibly AT THIS TIME to have a patriarchy in which “other” is not dominated.


  4. Caroline, actually, i think your response is logical. i didn’t get into it in the above post, but if patriarchy is based on the need for certainty about paternity, this means that women must be controlled — otherwise they might give birth to children who are not their husband’s. Another compelling book is Female Power and Male Dominance by Peggy Reeves Sanday who found that societies of female power are not female dominant, but societies of male power are male dominant. another thing i did not mention is that distorted forms of mother-love of the kind that make sons into lovers and kings (which by the way is common in traditional Greek families here) is not matriarchy. the women who love their sons so much are usually themselves “victims” of loveless arranged and sometimes violent marriages, they express all the love they don’t feel in their marriages to their sons and expect it back, this itself is not to my mind “normal” (being aware of course of complextity and so forth). but in addition, this love comes with control, the mother who is not in control of her own life and body in a sense “takes it out” on someone she can take it out on, her infant and finally adult son.


  5. I don’t think that the issue is the individuals or society would be forced to reconsider everything, I think there is also an issue just as significant with the psychology surrounding this assertion, which plays into a form of gendered discourse that many presumed structures of oppression are predicated on. Alot of protestant Christians believe that they are feminisits wholeheartedly within their own gendered discourse narrative and view of the world. Again, the issue that is raised is just how many of these supposedly matrifocal socities are there and are these small enclaves prevalent enough to make a scientific dent in the data stream? What may be great for personal empowerment and private inspiration does not necessairly give rise to a universal paradigm shift in science. I came across the myth of matriarchial prehistory by Cynthia Eller and loved it. It just so happens that it came along at a time in my life when I was working for Marriott International as a Spa Therapist and having to confront traditional power relationships in society that are often assigned an arbitrary gender, in a very solipsistic manner that screams bad mental health and a sketchy Freudian legacy all in the name of social psychology. I worked with them off and on for about ten years. Between being a neo pagan at the time (I am agnostic now) and working for a company who’s owners religion is branded a form of Christian hersey was a challenge when it came to dealing with Christian family and pagan associates.


    1. Heidi:

      I’m afraid I do not have any respect for Cynthia Eller, due to her astonishingly mocking (in some cases, outright vicious) and inaccurate characterization of many of the scholars and concepts she misrepresented in her book Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory. That one, I think, we’ll have to courteously agree to disagree on.

      That being said, I will note one of the cultures mentioned in Gottner-Abendroth’s book are the Minangkabou, who are a SE Asian culture of over 4 million people. They were studied for approximately 20 years by Peggy Sanday Reeves, who discusses them in her fascinating book Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy.

      I do not consider 4 million people to be simply a “small enclave.” Further, I believe your word choices are quite fascinating, e.g. “supposedly matrifocal socities [sic]” and “small enclaves” to describe cultures you are self-admittedly not at all familiar with. May I suggest you actually read Gottner-Abendroth’s book before you come to a decision?


      1. Laughing collie, this comment is so old I hardly remember it. But I liked Cynthia Ellers book and I am familiar with the popular tales of matriarchy. I think academia is a hot bed of whores and that I have no futher interest in discussing a three month old or oder comment with a stranger.


      2. Laughing Collie, forgive me if I sounded short, I am having a challenging day. And to sit down now and slow down, I realize I jumped the gun on your comment. As I said, I don’t even recall this post or what it has to do with the book you mentioned. I am not focusing on Matriarchical societies as I have left Goddess worship many years ago but it still has value to me. I distrust academia. That comes from having a father who’s business of re-refining used oil was attacked by Auburn University in their quest to build contracts for their own bio fuels program and that law suit lasted six years. What respect I had for academia and those who live thier lives by it’s limited visions is non existent now. As I am working on a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies right now, I am having to rebuild my views from the ground up. Everything happens for a reason but I do apologize if my initial reply was coarse.


  6. Hi Carol :)

    I loved this book! Given the way Heide Goettner-Abendroth describes matriarchy, doesn’t she advocate that scholars in the field use this term in order to illuminate the fact that matriarchy is not a reversal of patriarchy? If so, could you please share your thoughts on that? See you in class soon.



  7. You certainly are right that there are a lot of issues involved in the debate–religious, psychological, power, etc.–that are often not acknowledged.

    Back to the point at issue, if even a few “matriarchal” or “prepatriarchal” societies can be shown to exist, theories of the universality of patriarchy cannot be said to be true. Whether or not this will be acknowledged by “authorities” in the relevant fields is another matter. Nor can it be alleged based on a hypothesis shown to be false that there never could have been other than patriarchal societies in the past.


  8. Yes, Vanessa, Goettner-Abendroth advocates using the term matriarchy and not allowing others to define its meaning. Since those of us who do not use the term matriarchy but rather prepatriarchal, etc. usually get accused of using it anyway, maybe we should just go ahead and use it. In The Myth of Matriarchy the author admitted that not all of the scholars she intended to criticize used the word matriarchy or defined it according to the “myth” she intended to criticize, but said that she was going to lump all the advocates of matriliny, matrifocality, prepatriarchy and so forth together anyway. I haven’t made up my mind yet if I will use the word in my scholarly work or not.

    Another point, most defenders of Gimbutas’s theories of Old Europe (6500-3500 BCE) are quite well aware that classical Greece (450-350 BCE) was patriarchal and that its Goddess myths were patriarchal. Yet critics cite the patriarchal Greek Goddesses as “proof” that prepatriarchy could never have existed. …


  9. Yes, we would have to reconsider everything and hopefully, this would lead to reconfiguring everything and this is the real reason for the lack of acceptance of the reality of matrifocal societies. The economic system which is now crashing around us and dragging everything into the vortex of the whirlpool with it was not set up by a matrifocal society. Those who are responsible aren’t planning to let go without a fight.


  10. I just saw the mentions of Eller’s book on this site. A very good critique of it was done by Kristy Coleman, in Religion (2001) 31, 247-263. I agree with Coleman’s criticism of Eller.


  11. Maybe we need to “own” the word “matriarchy” in the way pagans have “owned” the word “witch.” It’s time for women to decide what our words will mean.


  12. Yes Katharine that is exactly what Goettner-Abendroth advocates. In the year and a half since I wrote this blog, I have come around to her position, though I still think misconceptions will arise. However, they will probably arise no matter what term we use to describe societies that are not patriarchal and warlike,


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