Is This How Patriarchy Began? by Carol P Christ

In my widely read blog and academic essay offering a new definition of patriarchy, I argued that patriarchy is a system of male dominance that arose at the intersection of the control of female sexuality, private property, and war. In it, bracketed the question of how patriarchy began. Today I want to share some thoughts provoked by a short paragraph in Harald Haarmann’s ground-breaking Roots of Ancient Greek Civilization. Haarmann briefly mentions (but does not discuss) the hypothesis that patriarchy arose among the steppe pastoralists as a result of conflicts over grazing lands. As these conflicts became increasingly violent, patriarchal warriors assumed clan leadership in order to protect animal herds, grazing lands, and the women and children of the clan.

On the recent Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, while we were driving through sparsely populated grazing land, my friend Cristina remarked that the shepherds on foot wearing traditional clothing that she had seen several decades earlier had been replaced by men in shirts and jeans, driving farm trucks. Her nostalgic reverie was interrupted by our young Cretan bus driver who said, “You would not want to be alone with one of those men, not now and certainly not then.”

This got me to thinking about my hypothesis about two different cultures in Crete. The first is the culture of the high mountains of western Crete. There, wild men like Zorba the Greek sing and dance with abandon, treat women as property, engage in violent vendettas over stolen sheep and stolen women, and shoot guns at weddings and baptisms. The second is epitomized by the kind and gentle men of eastern Crete like my dearly departed friend Mr. Nikos, who loved to help us descend into the Skoteino cave and who always told us that “man never created anything to compare with what Mother Nature created.”

The first and the only time I ever shot a gun was in the early morning hours of a Cretan wedding celebration in western Crete—after drinking too many shots of the local moonshine known as raki. Though others were shooting pistols over the wedding guests, I at least had the presence of mind to shoot the pistol placed in my hand in the opposite direction. A few years later, when our group was invited to a wedding in eastern Crete, I said to our bus driver that I supposed I needed to explain the Cretan custom of shooting guns at weddings. “No,” he replied, “that custom is followed only in western Crete.”

In the ensuing years I came to see that Crete can be divided down the middle. The violent patriarchy of guns and vendettas is to be found primarily in the high mountains of western Crete. In the east, in contrast, even the high mountains of Lasithi can be farmed. There women were fully involved in agricultural production, men were less wild, and though the culture was still patriarchal, women were more respected. In parts of eastern Crete, matrilocality is still practiced, with the man going to live with his wife’s family. This is not the case in western Crete.

Our new bus driver’s comment that no woman would want to be alone with one of those shepherds, not even the seemingly charming ones of yesteryear, got me to thinking about how patriarchy and patriarchal violence might have arisen in a pastoral culture like that of western Crete.

It has long been my belief that men in groups that exclude women can be dangerous bunch—whether in fraternities, in armies, or in priesthoods. It is perhaps not as well-known as it should be that rape is an ordinary part of war. If you question this, read the Iliad and the Hebrew Bible a little more closely. We are now learning that rape is common at fraternity parties and that child rape is prevalent in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

So let’s think again about traditional shepherds in western Crete. They are out in the fields with their sheep and goats night and day. They have very little contact with women. My friend Aristea from Anogeia in Crete said that she raised her children alone because her husband was too far away to come home often in the summer and in the winter took his sheep even farther away to warmer pastures. Shepherds slaughter sheep on a regular basis to feed themselves. They are known for stealing each other’s sheep and engaging in vendettas to get them back. They are willing to kill and not afraid to be killed.

Franz de Waal says that empathy is learned by humans and other mammals in the mother-infant relationship. He notes that females have empathetic connection doubly reinforced, first as infants, then as mothers. He observes that while both females and males sometimes resort to violence, males seem to be able to override their natural tendencies toward empathy more easily than females. If this is true, then it makes sense that violent cultures could more easily arise when males are separated from females.

It is beginning to make sense to me that patriarchal violence and male dominance might have arisen in pastoral cultures where men were away from women and children for long periods of time, with boundary disputes the catalyst. The homeland of the patriarchal, patrilineal, and warlike Indo-European speakers who invaded Europe starting in 4500 BCE and India and Persia somewhat later was in the steppes of Russia north of the Black and Caspian seas. This area was suitable for herding, but not for agriculture. It is exactly the kind of a context where male dominance enforced by violence could have and did develop.

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Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

Join Carol  on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available on the fall tour. Early bird special extended until June 30.



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.

24 thoughts on “Is This How Patriarchy Began? by Carol P Christ”

  1. As usual, brava! Thanks for posting a thoughtful essay that shows that some men still respect the Goddess.


  2. Thanks Carol, very interesting post. The following quote is from Wikipedia’s article on “patriarchy” —

    “Through this simple basis, ‘the existence of a sexual division of labor in primitive societies is a starting point as much for purely social accounts of the origins of patriarchy as for biological. Hence, the rise of patriarchy is recognized through this apparent ‘sexual division.'”

    citation from: Richard Lewontin (1984). Not in Our Genes. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 132–163


    1. I would say that the sexual division of labor is not sufficient to account for the origins of patriarchy insofar as sexual division of labor also occurs in egalitarian matriarchies.


  3. Thanks, Carol. You’ve written an interesting speculation of patriarchy’s beginnings.The shephards in the steppes were nomadic. The people moved with the herds, so I always assumed that the time away from family would be shorter, if it existed at all. In Crete you have established homes from which the male shepherds have to roam. So it might be a different situation.


    1. Good point Nancy, I am pretty much thinking out loud here.

      It does seem to be being proved by DNA that the IE patriarchal, patrilineal, and warlike invaders or infiltrators of Europe and India and I presume Persia, came in male groups without families. How and why these groups migrated without families is a question to be answered.


      1. Thinking about Kathy Jones’ comment below in relation to yours Nancy, I wonder if the question we must ask is: what were the conditions in which the men of the steppes separated from their families for long periods of time?


  4. This is incredibly intriguing and inspires me to learn more. Living in a college town with a very active Greek presence, I know all too well about the happenings at fraternities. The trend among all-male organizations is alarming.


  5. I hate to speak without my citation close at hand, but I believe it may be John Keegan in “A History of Warfare” — Dr. Keegan wrote also about the steppe pastoralists. He wrote about what they learned about herding animals from horseback. They learned that they could also apply these techniques to herd and control *people.* I was blessed to see the Willendorf Goddess in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna. She was at the doorway, and the room unfolded with the artifacts of her people. Case after case showed beautiful tools and jewelry. Then, abruptly, the artifacts of the horse riders broke in to the historical record. Weapons and horse gear predominated, and the fine work on jewelry and tools disappeared. It was stunning to be able to literally walk through that journey. How we understand this story is of immense importance. Thank you, Carol, for continuing to bring understanding. — Dawn

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Interesting insights! It reminds me how the population I feel most wary of is the pickup-driving, confederate flag waving, gun-rack-in-the-back-window “farmer” type of caucasian man who is commonly seen in my part of the world (midwestern US). However, I also remember a story my friend told (one of the same friends in my recent “making our stand” essay here at FAR) about crashing while canoeing on the river and having to drag her stuff up into a random field and thinking to herself: “when in trouble, look for a cowboy. They can always help.” Sure enough…she looked across the field and there was a “cowboy” (the same type of man who raises my “fear” flag) and he did, in fact, help her.

    Anyway, just came to mind as I was reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A couple of months ago I read part of the book “Sapiens”–it was a planned as a present so did not finish it. The author contends that the ancient hunter/gatherer societies were much more egalitarian than any subsequent societies. He also mentions one current one, the Bushmen. People spend much less time “working” in such societies and everyone has to contribute to survive. The author views the beginning of classes, especially the working poor, as occurring with the beginning of agriculture, where a few work long hours to grow crops sufficient to feed everyone else. He goes into much more detailed and complicated explanations and examples which tie the beginning of agriculture to modern divisions of labor and status for both men and women, e.g. patriarchy where a few wealthy men control everyone and everything else either directly or indirectly.


    1. Yes it is a popular theory that agriculture is the beginning of the end of equality. Following Gimbutas and others, I believe that the four or five thousand years of agriculture in the Neolithic were a time when women had high status as the inventors of agriculture and the keepers of the secrets of planting and harvesting. It is interesting that the theory that agriculture is the end for women is yet another way of denying women’s cultural inventions and status. Think about it: 3000-4000 years! Longer than the time between us and classical Greece, much longer than the time between us and the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.


  8. Another perspective on men away from home : We stayed in a village in Turkey near Gobekli Tepe where an Englishwoman had married a local man and brought in the idea of Homestay in villages to help the local people earn money and visitors could experience the local culture. Before she began her venture the men of the village had always had to go away for 6 months of the year to work by the sea in cafes and bars and when they came home they were often violent and beat their wives. With Homestay the men could now stay at home and help with Homestay, and violence against women had decreased considerably. Men become uncivilised without women in their lives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting comparison. I think you last sentence may be true: ever wonder why armies have been all male affairs for most of their history? Military training teaches men to override their natural empathy with other human beings and there are no women around to be listened to who might say “wait a minute,” for a part of military training is degrading feelings and men who feel as sissy, girly, female, and women as less than “real” men, to be despised..

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I remember trawling through newspaper archives years ago and coming across a fascinating photo of two women dressed in overalls. Each one had a cigarette dangling from her lips. I love this photo. It would have been taken at a time when women didn’t smoke in public because it was unladylike and certainly wouldn’t have been wearing overalls or doing the sort of jobs that required them. I was looking at first wave feminists. Wow, I thought. How brave they were because there was no sisterhood of like minded people to lean on back then. I understood, respected and empathised with those women.
    I raised my sons to respect others and expect the same in return. That’s the secret. And they are raising their children (boys and girls) to do the same. They are brilliant fathers and have the most successful marriages of anyone I know. We are a two sex species, each with our own flaws and attributes. I think it’s time to recognise that and work things out together.


    1. Couldn’t agree with you more. In matriarchies, boys are taught to be as loving and kind as their mothers. Girls are taught the same. The uncles of the boys are their role models of kind and loving men.


  10. Because I studied and then worked with Marija Gimbutas from the late ’60s through my dissertation in 1978 (and beyond until her death), I truly have spent most of my life thinking about the questions of homeland and patriarchy. In “The roots of Indo-European Patriarchy,” my contribution to Cristina Biaggi’s edited anthology, The Rule of Mars: Readings on the Origins, History and Impact of Patriarchy (2005), I hypothesized that those who migrated out of the Indo-European homeland were young men, full of testosterone; in many parts of the world, it was often the young men who left a group or tribe, when there was overpopulation and attendant inability to provide for all members of the society. From the excavations of Jeannine Davis-Kimball, we know that there were women warriors and priestesses (as well as nurturers) in the Steppe homeland in the Classical era; this may have been the case in early Indo-European society as well. This full functionality of women in early Indo-European culture means that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were probably not as patriarchal as the Indo-Europeans became in the daughter cultures throughout the world. There is also evidence (DNA and otherwise) that these young men intermarried with the indigenous women wherever they went, probably often through violence (e.g. The Rape of the Sabine Women). So yes, the semi-nomadic (rather than nomadic) lifestyle of the Proto-Indo-Europeans was a patriarchal one, but I believe that the migrating young men brought an even more severe patriarchy to much of Eurasia.


    1. Miriam, the DNA evidence is surely supporting your hypothesis that the IE invaders were males who raped or married women already living in the areas the invaded. I think your hypothesis that the IE invaders were male is proved.

      That still leaves the question of how patriarchy, domination, and warlike behaviors evolved in their own culture. This is the question I was thinking about.

      If I remember correctly Haarmann also asks if the IE invaders were part of male trade groups who became jealous of the superior goods in OE cultures. Still we must ask, where did they get the idea of using violence to steal? Since different IE invader groups seemed to have been warlike, I don’t think we can assume that warlike behavior developed during the invasions.

      In addition, I don’t think we can assume that the invaders themselves developed the kurgan–big man/warrior–graves. If not then hierarchy and domination must have existed in their cultures.What do you think?


      1. My sense is that the Indo-Europeans were indeed hierarchical and patriarchal, and I think that your explanation of men spending large amounts of time in groups, without women (and thus without the influence of oxytocin!) makes so much sense as a causal factor for patriarchy (i.e. far too much testosterone!). Your thoughtful essays about patriarchy have been wonderful, Carol.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. But I don’t know if I answered your question. Yes, the Proto-Indo-Europeans in the Steppe homeland would have developed the kurgans, which would have been part of the cultural material those who migrated out would have brought with them as they migrated throughout Eurasia. And definitely, they would have been patriarchal to begin with.

        Liked by 1 person

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