Matriarchies Are Not Just a Reversal of Patriarchies: A Structural Analysis by Heide Goettner-Abendroth


Matriarchies are not just a reversal of patriarchies, with women ruling over men – as the usual misinterpretation would have it. Matriarchies are mother-centered societies. They are based on maternal values: care-taking, nurturing, mothering. This holds for everybody: for mothers and those who are not mothers, for women and men alike.

Matriarchal societies are consciously built upon maternal values and motherly work, and this is why they are much more realistic than patriarchies. They are, on principle, need-oriented. They aim to meet everyone’s needs with the greatest benefit. So, in matriarchies, mothering – which originates as a biological fact – is transformed into a cultural model. This model is much more appropriate to the human condition than the patriarchal conception of motherhood which is used to make women, and especially mothers, into slaves.

Within matriarchal cultures, equality means more than just a levelling of differences. Natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honoured, but they never serve to create hierarchies, as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations each have their own dignity, and through complementary areas of activity, they function in concert one other. More precisely, matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among generations, and between humans and nature. Maternal values as ethical principles pervade all areas of a matriarchal society. This creates an attitude of care-taking, nurturing, and peacemaking.

This can be observed on all levels of society: the economic, the social, the political, and the spiritual-cultural.

At the social level, matriarchal societies are based on the clan, and on the “symbolic order of the mother,” Maternal values are spiritual principles and derive from nature. Mother Nature cares for all beings, however different they may be. The same applies to human mothers: a good mother cares for all her children, embracing their diversity.

This holds true for men as well. If a man in a matriarchal society desires to acquire status among his peers, or even become a representative of the clan to the outside word, then he must be like a “good mother,”

In matriarchies, you don’t have to be a biological mother in order to be acknowledged as a woman, because matriarchies practice the common motherhood of a group of sisters. Each individual sister does not necessarily have to have children, but together they are all “mothers” of any children that any of them have. This motherhood is founded on the freedom of women to decide on their own about whether or not to have biological children.

This is possible because matriarchal people live together in large kinship groups, formed according to the principle of matrilineality. The clan’s name, and all social status and political titles, are passed on through the mother’s line. Such a matri-clan consists of at least three generations of women, along with their brothers, nephews and maternal uncles. In classic cases, the matri-clan lives in one big clan-house. This is called matrilocality. Their spouses or lovers stay only over-night, in a pattern called “visiting-marriage,” These principles of matrilineality and matrilocality put mothers at the center; in this way women guide their clans without ruling.

In order to achieve social cohesion among the clans of a village or city, complex marriage conventions have been developed in some matriarchal groups that link clans in mutually beneficial ways. The intended effect is that all inhabitants of a village or city are related to each other by birth or by marriage. This shapes a society that sees itself as a big clan, where everybody is “mother” or “sister” or “brother” to everybody else. Thus matriarchies can be defined at the social level as non-hierarchical, horizontal societies of matrilineal kinship.

This social order based on motherhood includes far reaching consequences for the economic level: matriarchal economy is a subsistence economy. There is no such thing as private property, and there are no territorial claims. The people simply have usage rights on the soil they till, or the pastures their animals graze, for Mother Earth cannot be owned or cut up in pieces. She gives the fruits of the fields and the young animals to all people. Parcels of land and a certain number of animals are given to each matri-clan, and work is shared communally.

Most importantly, women have the power of disposition over goods and clan houses, and especially over the sources of nourishment: fields, flocks and food. All the goods are put in the hands of the clan mother, the matriarch, and she, mother of all the clan members, distributes them equally among her children and grand-children. She is responsible for the sustenance and protection of all clan members.

In a matriarchal community, the clans enjoy perfect mutuality: every relative advantage, or disadvantage, in terms of acquiring goods is mediated by social guidelines. For example, at the seasonal festivals of the agricultural year, clans that are comparatively better off will invite all of their neighbors to be their guests. The members of such a clan organize the banquet, the rituals, and the music and dances of one of the annual festivals – and then give away their goods as a gift. By doing this, they gain nothing except honour. At the next festival in the cycle, another lucky clan will step up, outdoing itself by inviting everybody in the village or neighbourhood, entertaining them all, and dispensing presents.

Since this is the general attitude, matriarchal economy can be called a “gift economy”.  It is the economic manifestation of maternal values, which prevents development of an exchange economy and instead fully achieves a gift economy. Due to these features, matriarchies can be defined at the economical level as societies of balanced economic reciprocity, based on the circulation of gifts.

The patterns of the political level follow the principle of consensus, which means unanimity regarding each decision. To manifest a principle like this in practice, a society must be specifically organized to do so, and matrilinear kinship lines are, once again, the starting point.

The basis of each decision-making is the individual clan house. Matters that concern the clan house are decided upon by the women and men in a consensus process, of which the matriarch is the facilitator. Each person has only one vote – even the matriarch – and no member of the household is excluded.

The same applies to decisions concerning the whole village. The clan delegates meet together in the village council, but do not make decisions themselves; they simply communicate the decisions that have been made in their clan houses, and move back and forth, until a consensus decision is reached by the whole village. The same applies at the regional level. The delegates move between the local council and the regional council until consensus of all the villages is reached.

The origin of all politics is in the clan houses, where the people live, and in this way, a true “grass roots democracy” is put into practice. The result of these practices is that matriarchies are egalitarian societies of consensus. This clearly shows how maternal values also permeate political practice.

But such a societal system as matriarchy could not function as a whole without a deep, supporting and all-permeating spiritual attitude. At the spiritual and cultural level, matriarchal societies do not have hierarchical religions based on an omnipotent male God. In matriarchies, divinity is immanent, for the whole world is regarded as divine: as feminine divine. This is evident in the widely held concept of the universe as the Great Goddess who brought forth everything by birth, and of the earth as the Great Mother who created everything living. And everyone, and everything, is endowed with divinity by virtue of being a child of the Great Mother Nature.

In such a culture, everything is spiritual. In festivals, which follow the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life, everything is celebrated. There is no separation between sacred and secular, so the everyday tasks also have ritual significance. In this sense matriarchal societies are sacred ones.

The entire society is constructed in the image of the creative Mother Nature. This divine mother is reflected in every woman’s being, and in her abilities to create. Every social, economic and political action is informed by the principle of the world’s – and the universe’s – all-encompassing maternal attitude.

Therefore, on the spiritual level, matriarchies are sacred societies and cultures of the Divine Feminine or Goddess.

Also see: Matriarchal Politics

Read more in: Heide Goettner-Abendroth: Matriarchal Societies. Studies on Indigenous Cultures across the Globe

 

Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth is a mother and a grandmother. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the University of Munich where she taught for ten years (1973-1983). She has published extensively on philosophy of science, in addition to various books on matriarchal society and culture, and is a founder of Modern Matriarchal Studies.  Her magnum opus: Matriarchal Societies. Studies on Indigenous Cultures across the Globe, (Lang 2012, New York) defines the topic and provides a world tour of examples of contemporary matriarchal cultures. She has been visiting professor at the University of Montreal in Canada, and the University of Innsbruck in Austria. In 1986, she founded the International ACADEMY HAGIA for Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality in Germany is its director. In 2003, 2005 and 2011 she organized three World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies in Europe and the U.S.A. In 2005, she was elected by the international initiative “1000 Peace Women Across the Globe” as a nominee for the Nobel Peace.



Categories: Divine Feminine, Earth-based spirituality, Egalitarian Matriarchy, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Goddess, Matriarchy

Tags: , , , ,

36 replies

  1. Heide, your theory of the deep structure of matriarchy provided a firm footing for my intuitions and speculations about the social structure of ancient Crete, and gave me greater courage of my convictions. Thank you for your brave and pioneering work and welcome to FAR!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I discovered elements of a matriarchal system on other Greek islands – for example property was passed on from Mother to Daughter on the island of Karpathos. This was explained to me as a result of the Karpathian men all going away to work, sending money home and only returning when he had amassed enough to semi-retire. I think it goes back further than that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Janet
        I think you are right that it goes further back.
        I often encounter examples like this: scholars try to explain the important role of women by the absence of men. But this is a shaky argument, because: 1. the women remain just as the helpers of men in the background and the roles are traditional again, when the men return – then, it is no matriarchy, and 2. in true matriarchies women have a central role in any way, not because the men are absent. Men are perfectly included in the clans. The decisive criteria are that these societies ore organized in the motherline and have matrilocality, and that the women have the economy always in their hands, not only if the men are absent.

        Heide

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  2. Dear Heide, thank you for your works, which I cherish. Congratulations on being recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize! I remember with gladness meeting you at the Archaemythology conference organized by Joan Marler at Madouri in Greece. I think that was 1999! Bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s so good to see you writing here at FAR Heide! I have appreciated your work for a long time, and am so pleased to be able to share it further from here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This informative, evocative post makes me homesick for mothers, grandmothers, co-mothers and grandmothers, a world I never knew yet somehow remember. Thank you and welcome to FAR.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I read this stunning post all I could think of is how beautifully woven one aspect of Matriarchy is to the others. Synchrony and peace… I also felt so sad because THIS is the way through…How do we get these ideas out into a mainstream culture in which POWER dominates? I personally believe the need for power has become an addiction. Who was it that said there are no new ideas just old ones that we have forgotten? Matriarchy is such an idea. Thank you so much for this post and welcome!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thank you for your work, and for sharing it here. This is the kind of world I wish for!

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  7. Thank you for this.

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  8. Finely argued. I read at least one of your books in the olden days when I was first coming to the Goddess.

    I like the idea that if a man wants to acquire status in the clan or represent the clan in the outer world, he must become a “good mother.” We are in desperate need of such men today in governments not only here in the U.S. but clear around the world.

    I hope you’ll write more for FAR and our community of readers.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you for this marvelous summation of your work. Your book, along with Gift Economy (and its many varied essays), have been pivotal in providing touchstones to the foundation of the village(s) I envision/create in my contemporary novel series. Within that imaginary world, I try to follow matriarchal and gift economy tenets to solve the conflicts that arise … imperfectly resolved since the web of sister villages reside in a capitalist patriarchy (and I was raised within that system as well) but I’m fascinated by the process of imagining how a community might approach living and transforming the problems that arise through a different paradigm. Thank you SO much!!!!

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  10. In the past, I thought a matriarchy would be the best system to heal our world. Now that I have seen the women’s movement become weaponized and men punished for alleged sexual abuse before there is any trial or court ruling, I’m not so sure.

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    • You didn’t read the article.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The reason the women’s movement has become weaponized is probably because it is hierarchically-structured, modelling patriarchy, not matriarchy. I don’t necessarily think it’s deliberate, I think most just don’t know any better; Western society is deeply entrenched with the notion that to be a ‘successful’ or ’empowered’ woman one must act like a man. Internalized misogyny runs deep, and sometimes women are our own worst enemies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I believe that LynB’s point, and the original article, are valid. The problems currently found with ‘Feminism’ in the post-Modern world, and particularly the West, are products of using a male-centered model adapted to women’s leadership. But that is not what our distant ancestors probably did. I strongly believe that there is good evidence for matriarchies in Paleolithic, and Chalcolithic societies- even to the third millennium after the domestication of grains and legumes, and possibly even the small herd animals (sheep, goats, and pigs). It looks like patriarchy becomes the cultural trend only after about 6,000 BCE, along with the domestication of the larger, more dangerous herd animals- particularly aurochs/cattle, and equus/the horse. I think that the intentional breeding of animals for weight and later for strength and speed, led Pastoralist peoples’ male leaders to begin seeing even human reproduction as a comodity, as with ever other form of Labor. In this way, I believe that the pre-conditions for capitalism were laid-down even in ancient times.

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    • Dear Janet

      Matriarchal societies which I researched for a long time have nothing to do with Western “weaponized” women. Matriarchies are not – as I said again and again – a reversal of patriarchy.

      But you are right to some extent with “women’s movement weaponized and hierarchized”.
      The question is: which part of the women’s movement? This is the result of the equality feminism, where no other model of society is known than the patriarchal one and were women are eager to do all what men do, with the result to double patriarchy just with a female face. I really do not deny what equality feminism has achieved, but it remains reformist (in the best case), patriarchally stricken (in the worse case).
      But if we take seriously the matriarchal model as a human possibility, it transgresses the patriarchal system. It is my opinion that this is the only way to find a better future.

      Heide

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Grûss dich, Heide!! Willkommen hier an FAR. As many have remarked already, I hope you have more to share with us about matriarchies, perhaps deeper descriptions of a particular living matriarchy (Mosua, Mininangkabau…). Because we need the hope that such societies keep in front of our eyes. We all know that it doesn’t have to be the way we live today here in the West. But understanding that in the here and now there are cultures that are organized in life-affirming ways makes that hope burn brighter..

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  12. This echoes very much with what I’ve understood of the state of Kerala in India. Your article connects up the concepts well.

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  13. Rosemary Ruether pointed this out in Sexism and God-Talk in the early 80s I believe. Among the various approaches to feminist transformation of community, the challenge has been to get enough leverage to create these models.

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  14. Amazing work Heidi! You inspired me a lot! I would love to get in contact with you!

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  15. What a beautifully-written article and summation of matriarchal society. This is how my ancestors lived in North America before colonization. One 17th century colonist disparagingly called our tribal government style “petticoat rulership.” It is very exciting to see a return to this thought process coming from a different part of the globe. Maybe the world is now ready to receive this wisdom. Mvto/thank you for your words.

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  16. Thank you Heide, this is beautiful and inspiring.
    In my new novel, The Swan-Bone Flute, I recreate the time when matriarchal ways still existed in England’s fen country. Patriarchy /feudalism is groping and grabbing its way into their lives. The women resist by telling stories, listening to each other linking arms – plus some magic mist and trickery. The Anglo-Saxon colonisers have to learn to trust the wisdom of their indigenous Celtic slaves – dark goddess and all.
    I’m telling you about it because I hope you’ll like it! (Heide, and friends :) ) Please let me know what you think and feel when you read it.
    https://racheloleary.co.uk

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  17. She’s just describing a rebranded form of Marxism. And we all know how well those turn out…

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    • Hello Tim

      I would like to elaborate a bit more my short answer below on your comment.

      It is not at all a “rebranded form of Marxism”, just the other way around: Marxist author Engels learned about matriarchies from the research on the Iroquois and used or misused it for his communist ideas and his unilineal theory of history.

      I am glad that I was able to liberate modern Matriarchal Studies from Marxism.
      But this was done not by theoretical assumptions, but by intensive research in still extant matriarchal societies whose patterns I had the priviledge to study. Their way of life is thousands of years older than Marxism, and Marxist Engels draw a lot from the beginning research on those societies in the 19th century. This is imoportant to know so that we would not turn the matter upside down.

      Heide

      Liked by 2 people

  18. I really love this (thank you Heide), but for me to share this I would feel compelled to replace all instances of “gender” with “sex” (3rd paragraph), as I’m pretty sure that is what is meant. If “gender” remains it allows men who self-ID as women to hijack it for their own misuse, which is already common, with trans-identified men demanding they be “centered” in any women’s social interactions or women’s movements (under the rubric that they are ‘the most oppressed of all women’), which just proves they are coming from a patriarchal and hierarchical disposition/perspective of domination. My refusing to use “gender” here does not preclude acknowledging that matriarchal societies are still accepting of ‘feminine-men’, even within cultures that accept two-spiritism as a concept (they are considered two-spirit precisely because they are recognized as not-women, the same way transwomen are not-women). And I highly doubt any matriarchal society – past or present – ever actually believed that ‘feminine-men’ were actually women, or that they would be OK with feminine-men becoming the dominant ‘matriarchs’. It simply wouldn’t happen. I’d like to know what Heide (and others) thinks about all this though. I realize it might just seem pedantic, especially in countries where “sex” and “gender” really are used interchangeably (are understood to mean the same thing), but here in Canada the move to legally replace “sex” with “gender” (which our government explicitly acknowledges are two different concepts) is having disastrous consequences for women.

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    • Dear Lyn

      It is very important to use “sex” in my text as you suggest. I will consider it seriously.

      Here is what I think from the perspective of Matriarchal Studies to the topic of transgender and the split in the feminist movement. I wrote this answer to a friend and, possibly, it is also interesting for you.

      Dear E.
      You asked how the split in the feminist movement in regard to transgenderism could be overcome from the perspective of matriarchal studies. I try to answer to this difficult question as short as possible.
      As you know from the research on Juchitàn, this is not a problem for a matriarchal society. Although they are balanced societies in regard to the fenale and male half of humankind and keep this balance, they easily include transgender persons and respect their individual choice. A boy can grow up in the female sphere of action, a girl can do the same in the male sphere of action.
      I think, the point that might be very interesting is that they regard these transgenders not simply as “female” or “male”, but give them special names, for ex. “muxe” for a transgender into the female sphere and “machalilla” for a transgender into the male sphere (which is pretty rare with them). This means, they regard them as a kind of third or fourth sex, although they are fully integrated into one of the two spheres. The transgenders accept this situation and would never claim to be “real women”.

      In my opinion, this can give us a key: Feminists could respect transgenders, if they see themselves as third or fourth sex and respect women in the same way as they want to be respected (some of them do so.) But this tolerance ends, if transgenders claim to be real “women” and invade women’s spaces by violence. This is patriarchal male behaviour and has nothing to do with their transgender feelings. In fact, they can never become biological “women” because in every cell of their bodies the DNA is male. Thus claiming that they are “women” is fake, this might be the reason why they try to force it upon other people by laws and violence.

      I think, the feminist split could be overcome if feminists accept transgenders as third or fourth sex and don’t exclude them, but under the condition that they do not claim to be women and to take over women’s spaces. Thne they can be invited. This acceptance might include the one feminist trend who is pro-genders.
      But if transgenders claim to be real women and push women aside, then it cannot be accepted and must be dismissed, a clear attitude of the other feminist trend. This is what
      I adopted from matriarchal societies in regard to this question: they easily tolerate transgenders, but those would never claim to be real women (or real men). In most of these societies transgenders have a special sphere of action and a special handicraft, which clearly shows that they are not regarded as real women or men, but an additional sex variant (3., 4. etc.) In that way, matriarchies solve this problem in peace.

      I hope, we as feminists can learn something from that.

      Heide

      Liked by 1 person

  19. It all sounds utopian……there are many different kinds of mothers, and some of them are incompetent, or selfish or cruel. The 6 nations of the Iriqious Confederacy did something similar. Females had their realm and males had a realm apart, as women are simply interested in nurturing mostly, but both were needed and respected. their democracy lasted for 500 years. Until 2 great plagues (back to back) and then Columbus….

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    • In a matriarchal system mothers were treated well from the beginning of their lives so are less likely to become mean and twisted because they were treated badly or are treated badly. Also there is not a nuclear family so if you or one of your cousins has problems other family members pitch in — in fact sisters and cousins raise their children together so no one person ever has the whole responsibility.

      Like

  20. I found your article while researching triple goddesses (from the female perspective) specifically Irish and I’m very glad, thank you. I model my participatory art projects on a matriarchal structure: non hierarchical, reciprocity and egalitarian. I will reference you for my Masters.

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  21. Do matriarchies exist? Or is it matriliny?

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    • I refer once again to your question: matriarchy or matriliny?
      For I think it is necessary here to clarify:

      In anthropology all matri-cultures are called “matrilineal”, this tern is accepted. However, there is a big difference between just matrilineal ones, in which you find the motherline, but the economy is in the hands of men, who use it to make themselves important – and matriarchal ones, where the economy is in the hands of women and used to the well.being of everybody in the clans and settlements. These are two different structures of society, but this difference is not reflected and respected in anthropolgy, because here the term “matriarchy” is taboo.

      I tried to elucidate this in a dialogue with anthropologists, but they were not open.

      Heide

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you for all your replies and comments, I am glad about your warm welcome to me on this forum.
    I am about to familiarize me with the technical details, and as soon as this will be finished, I will answer to your interesting posts.

    Heide

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  23. Dear All, it is difficult for me to answer to so many posts with such a great variety of thoughts. I was not in the situation to answer to you earlier, so it is now up to me to manage this difficulty.
    To “ideas” and “utopian”:
    Of course, in our ears this matriarchal way of life sounds utopian, because we are not accustomed to it. I wasn’t either, but the more I did researching, the more I learned from these societies. They exist in Asia: the Khasi (East India), Mosuo (China), Minangkabau (Sumatra), Nayar (Kerala); they exist in Africa: Akan peoples, Ashanti (West Africa), Tuareg, Berber (North Africa), in the Americas (Juchitàn in Mexico), Hopi (Arizona) Iroquois, traditional culture (North America) and others, which you can find in my book: “Matriarchal Societies”. I had thus enough to do to study them all and to find their common features inductively step by step, which I summarized in my article above.

    It is not at all a “rebranded form of Marxism”, just the other way around: Marxist author Engels learned about matriarchies from the research on the Iroquois and used or misused it for his communist ideas and his unilineal theory of history. I am glad that I was able to liberate modern Matriarchal Studies from Marxism.

    Minoan Crete:
    Yes, it can be shown that this culture was a highly developped matriarchal society. I did it in my new book: “History of matriarchal societies and rise of patriarchy. West Asia and Europe”. It came out in German last year and is now translated into English.
    Greek Islands:
    Yes. When I visited for ex. Chios, I found a lot of still living matriarchal elements there. Matriarchal elements (not full matriarchies) still exist in many manginalized communities in Europe and elsewhere.

    Matriarchy or matriliny?
    I know that in anthropology all matr-cultures are called “matrilineal”, this tern is accepted. However, there is a big difference between just matrilineal ones, in which you find the motherline, but the economy is in the hands of men, who use it to make themselves important – and matriarchal ones, where the economy is in the hands of women to the well.being of everybody. These are two different structures of society, but this difference is not reflected and respected in anthropolgy, because the term “matriarchy” is taboo.

    Last but not least: “women’s movement weaponized and hierarchized”.
    Oh yes, very true! This is the result of the equality feminism, where no other model of society is known than the patriarchal one and were women are eager to do all what men do, with the result to double patriarchy just with a female face. I really do not deny what equality feminism has achieved, but is remains reformist (in the best case), patriarchally stricken (in the worse case). But if we take seriously the matriarchal model as a human possibility, it transgresses the patriarchal system. It is my opinion that this is the only way to find a better future.

    Thanks for your patience, I will try to answer more often to your statements.

    Heide

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