Carol P. Christ’s Legacy: Is This How Patriarchy Began?

This was originally post on June 19, 2017

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Cristina remarked that the shepherds on foot wearing traditional clothing that she had seen several decades earlier had been replaced by men in shirts and jeans, driving farm trucks.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.

BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.

“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.”  — Carol P. Christ 

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.

2 thoughts on “Carol P. Christ’s Legacy: Is This How Patriarchy Began?”

  1. Bravo Carol – as usual…”It has long been my belief that men in groups that exclude women can be dangerous bunch”.

    That empathy does not come as naturally to men as it does to SOME women is patently obvious – empathy must be taught by someone who possesses the ability – or it may be a result of being very sensitive? – I make the last statement because I did learn empathy but surely not at my mother’s knee – I learned it by loving my little brother – from time spent with my grandmother – from animals – the men I respect deeply are those that are able to be emotionally present for others – so many men aren’t but it is the same for patriarchal women – so this is a complex issue is it not? and one with no simple answer.


  2. Gee, has the U.S. (and maybe much of the world) turned into a society of ancient Cretan shepherds? Politicians about whom we might say with your bus driver, “You would not want to be alone with one of those men, not now and certainly not then”? Pay even scant attention to the news and you hear about guys with guns shooting up restaurants, grocery stores, schools, just about any place ordinary people hang out.

    Carol, wherever you are, thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us. You’re right about patriarchy, and it’s smeared itself all over the world now. How sad. Bright blessings!


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