The Matricide Basic to Patriarchy’s Birth by Carol P. Christ


About 20 years ago I witnessed a performance of the 3 plays of the Oresteia (the Orestes plays) by Aeschylus. I was stunned. Watching them in sequence, I understood that the plays were one of patriarchy’s “just so stories” and that their continuing performance was part and parcel of patriarchy’s perpetuation and legitimation.

According to the myths, Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, ran off to Troy with its prince, Paris. In revenge for his lost honor, Menelaus called the Greeks to attack Troy and bring her back. Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus and king of Mycenae, assembled his ships, but the wind refused to fill their sails. He was told that his army would be allowed to depart only if he killed his daughter Iphigenia. He lured his daughter and her mother Clytemnestra to the place where his ships were waiting with the promise of marriage to Achilles. When they arrived, he killed his daughter and the ships sailed.

The myths do not tell us that in matrilineal and egalitarian matriarchal cultures the mother-daughter bond is the sacred because it represents the continuation of life.

The first play begins when Agamemnon arrives home from the war with the Trojan prophetess and princess Cassandra whom he captured and raped. In his absence, Clytemnestra is ruling with her consort Aegisthus. She lures Agamemnon to his bath where she kills him in order to avenge her daughter’s death. .

PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra

In the second play, Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father’s death.  In the third play, Orestes is pursued by three old women called Furies, whose duty is to avenge matricide. The Goddess Athena decides to hold a trial with a jury of 12 male citizens. Even though all those voting are men, the vote is tied. Athena breaks the tie, declaring that she was born from a father not a mother and stating that the mother is but the nurse, while the father is the true parent of the child.

The Wikepedia article on the Oresteia repeats the conventional wisdom that the “themes of the trilogy include the contrast between revenge and justice, as well as the transition from personal vendetta to organized litigation,” adding that the play depicts “the development of social order or a proper judicial system in Athenian society.

Students are taught that the “old order” represented by the Furies was based on revenge and blood lust rather justice. It may be mentioned in passing that the Furies stand for the mother line, while Orestes and Athena uphold the values of the father line. But as the mother line is associated with violence, it is expected that it will be obvious to all concerned that the values represented by the father line are the higher values.

In the play, the 12 men are divided on the question of Orestes’ guilt. This may reflect the fact that even in Greek times, the patriarchal order had not completely triumphed. If this is true, then the fact that a Goddess is called in to vindicate the patriarchal order can be seen as a brilliant sleight of hand. Even the Goddess, who once was the symbol of the mother line and maternal values, no longer believes in the honor due to mothers!

In the Oresteia, the bloody deed of Clytemnestra is the only one that is judged to be truly wrong. The murder of Iphigenia by her father in front of her mother is glossed over, as is the rape and abduction of Cassandra. Nor does anyone blame Menelaus and Agamemnon for deaths on the battlefield.

Why?

The answer is that this is not a story about revenge and vendetta versus a system of justice.

This is a story justifying the power of men in patriarchy.

Agamemnon had the right to kill his own daughter in pursuit of male honor. It may have been “tragic” for him to have to kill his own daughter in order to start a war. Cassandra’s capture and rape may also be “tragic,” from her perspective at least. The deaths of soldiers in battle can also be viewed as “tragic,” especially by their mothers. But all of this must be considered necessary in order to achieve a “higher” goal, which in this case, as in so many others, is to protect male honor.

In contrast, Clytemnestra, had no right to kill her husband. As a good wife, her duty was to obey her him and to support his decisions, no matter how horrible they might have seemed to her.

Orestes, on the other hand, was justified in killing his own mother because she dared to question the power of men in patriarchy. And even the Goddess agrees.

We might ask: why did anyone believe such a crock of lies?

The answer is power. The fathers controlled the legal system. They could punish anyone who disagreed with their decisions. They controlled the educational system. Anyone who disagreed with their views would be silenced. They also took control of the religious system (though this took longer), rewriting the myths and co-opting the Goddesses (as Aeschylus did in the Oresteia) to their new social order.

Moreover, as their just so stories were passed down from generation to generation, people came to believe that they were true.

Today with the emergence of modern matriarchal studies, we are able to re-imagine “the old order” that the Furies represented. In matrilineal egalitarian matriarchal societies such as those of the Mosuo and the Minangkabau, mothers are honored because they nurture life. The nurturing of life is the highest value—and both girls and boys are encouraged to embody maternal values. In such societies, there is no domination of one sex over the other. Both males and females are valued, because both are children of mothers.

In order for patriarchy to succeed, the maternal values that focus on nurturing life must be discredited. The idea that honor is due to mothers must be destroyed. Violence against women must be legitimized. And if need be, the mother herself must be eliminated. It is not coincidental that matricide is at the heart of the story told in the Oresteia. Breaking the bonds between mother and child is the point of the story.

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.



Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Matriarchy, Patriarchy

Tags: , , , , , ,

25 replies

  1. I recently saw Netflix’s version of “Troy” … which I thought was pretty good. I was struck at how Agamemnon whined about having to “kill” his daughter after the fact … like he was forced to do so. Typical abusive attitude … he made the choice to kill her & then acted like HE was the victim.

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    • I didn’t see the film, but it sounds like par for the course.

      According to some of the myths the Goddess Artemis made him do it. Daniel Cohen has the Goddess Artemis say: I never told you to kill your daughter. What I said was the ships will not sail unless you kill your daughter. The point being that this was a warning: war is horrible and the ships should never have been launched.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, thank you for stating this in such clear, unequivocal terms. I’ve never felt the reverence for Greek civilization we’re all supposed to feel, because of its ghastly patriarchal system.

    The sooner patriarchy is vanquished the better off we’ll all be. I’ve often wished there were a country ruled by women who live freely.

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    • Yet we are supposed to feel that, if we want to pass our humanities or western civ courses. I approached the Greek tragedies from the perspective of having lost a baby brother shortly after his birth. I thought they would reflect my experience back to me. They did not!!!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sorry to hear about your baby brother, Carol. I was four when my baby sister did not survive her birth. Our missing siblings leave a hole in our lives, I think. (Sometimes I wish I did believe in a heaven that would consist of an enormous family reunion, but I just can’t.)

        My daughter has done much to fill that gap. My little sister would have been named Carol, so now my daughter bears that name. We’re very close.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Yup. Patriarchy is based on murder. As a literature and theater major in college and graduate school, I studied Greek tragedy, which is said to be the basis of the growth of theater for 2500 years. What you write about the Oresteia is accepted as academic–and universal– truth. Kill the mother and the daughters so that the fathers may have all the power.

    It’s that power that’s murdering our whole world today. Violence against mothers and children? Just look at what the Abuser-in-Chief has caused to become the norm at the borders around the U.S. Look at the traditions of the Middle East. Look around. So sad.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I do not remember everything I read in college, but I do remember the Oresteia because a young, male graduate student teaching assistant gave a passionate lecture in which he, too, made it clear that the plays were not about justice triumphing over vengeance but about matricide at every level, as you say so eloquently in your title and in this post. I wonder if he got in trouble with the upholders of the traditional patriarchal view? Thank you for this succinct exposition.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Freidrich Engels called THE ORESTEIA “the world-historical defeat of the female sex”! I think it is extremely significant that the jury in the final play is tied and that it is Athena—the daughter with no mother—who deals the final blow. Pretty brilliant plotting on Aeschylus’s part, and pretty devastating for the rest of us.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I forgot that Engels commented on the Oresteia. He got a lot of his information from Lewis Morgan who studied the Iroquois. However, he had a flawed understanding of the societies that preceded patriarchy so he didn’t know what was defeated.

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  5. Good exegesis, Carol! The only thing that is missing is the legitimization of “bride theft,” the abduction and rape of a woman, who then becomes a patriarchal wife. We find that in the Demeter/Persephone myth, not in the Oresteia.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Oh Carol, this essay is brilliant and so magnificently penned.
    As always I am struck by the power of mythology to contain truth.
    I wonder if this is why mythology is so routinely dismissed by this patriarchal culture?
    I just finished an essay on trees. I was struck by the criticism by reductionistic scientists who dismiss the possibility that trees have knowledge to share – equating this idea with mythology’s fictional storytelling.
    Patriarchy has little use for mythology for the obvious reasons… we can get to the truth by paying attention to story.
    Thank you so much for this essay.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Dear Carol,

    Once again you have written a mistressful article regarding the patriarchal impetus that has coopted many civilizations and cultures. It has inspired me to write all day today. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Spot on, Carol! That’s why I’ve always disliked the Oresteia and the Iliad. They just glorify patriarchy, as does most of the Bible. I’ve just started leading a class for my Bible study group on women in the Bible, and I’m using Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror to examine stories of violence against women in the Bible. Of course these aren’t stories that usually get taught or preached on, at least in my denomination, so some of the women will be shocked when they read them. We are going to take a long hard look at patriarchy and its impact on us.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Thsi was really interesting, Carol, thank you. I am always interested to see what preceded the Greek shaping of patriarchal “truth”.

    Interestingly, in the cult into which I was born, a very intense effort was made from birth to break the bond between mother and child. They did a pretty good job of it with my mother, though they didn’t get her to completely relinquish her bond to me, thank goodness. I just find it so interesting to read about breaking those maternal bonds, and know what happened to me. Perhaps a re-enactment of ancient patriarchal rites carried down through “dark” traditions. Goodness knows, the cult was completely patriarchal. Women and children subject to the men at all times.

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  10. I was born and “bread” in a country (Iceland) where woman don’t take the man’s last name. When I married an American who assumed I would it turned into an unexpected lesson about patriarchy. Responding to his argument that only by taking his name would our children share our last name. (Well, actually his last name.) I said he had made the case that he should take my last name and make it easier for people to recognize Us as from the same clan. Compromised with them taking both of our last names. A little lesson can go a long way. Nice post.

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  11. Just today I was reminded of the truth of this post. My daughter upheld the idea that children obey male authority more “naturally” than women, even the woman who birthed them. I wanted to scream but that won’t get change done. She has regressed because it makes her feel safer, not understanding the false bargain.

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  12. Ugh, it’s just everywhere, isn’t it? Patriarchy infects everything – science, art, politics, literature, and of course mythologies. Mythologies are so important, and archetypal depictions of healthy non-coercive, liberative power really can help heal the culture.

    Like

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