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The word matriarchy derives from the Latin word mater meaning mother and the Greek word archein meaning to rule. There exists a different term for 'women's rule,' namely gynecocracy, sometimes referred to as gynocracy.
Matriarchy is distinct from matrilineality, where children are identified in terms of their mother rather than their father, and extended families and tribal alliances form along female blood-lines.
Matriarchy is also distinct from matrilocality, which some anthropologists use to describe societies where maternal authority is prominent in domestic relations, owing to the husband joining the wife's family, rather than the wife moving to the husband's village or tribe, such that she is supported by her extended family, and husbands tend to be more socially isolated.
Matriarchy is a combination of these factors, it includes matrilineality and matrilocality. But what is most important is the fact that women are in charge for the distribution of the goods for the clan, especially they are responsible for the sources of nourishment, fields and food. This characteristic feature every clan member depends on, besides matrilineality and matrilocality, grants women such a strong position that these societies are now called 'matriarchal'.
Some traditional matriarchal societies have been found to exist still today in every continent, except Antarctica. Several of them have been presented by scholars and indigenous speakers from still existing matriarchal societies at two World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies. The first one was held 2003 in Luxembourg/Europe, it was sponsored by the Minister of Women's Affairs of Luxembourg, Marie-Josée Jacobs, and organized and guided by Heide Goettner-Abendroth. The second one took place in 2005 in San Marcos, Texas/USA, it was sponsored by Genevieve Vaughan and again led by Heide Goettner-Abendroth.
Due to a lack of any clear and consistent definition of the word 'matriarchy', the discussion remains confusing: The Wemale culture of western Seram, studied by A.E. Jensen during the Frobenius Institute expedition of 1938, is often indicated as an example of matriarchy. See: Karl Kerenyi noted in passing (introduction to Eleusis : Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter 1967, p. xxxii). On the other hand, anthropologist Donald Brown's list of "human universals" (i.e. features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs (Brown 1991, p. 137). He refers the opinion of mainstream anthropology. Feminist Joan Bamberger notes that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated (Bamberger 1974), though there are many known matrilineal societies. The Trobriand Islands were considered a matriarchy by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski; the dispute this view has engendered is discussed at that entry. Peter N. Stearns and other historians have speculated as to whether or not agricultural Japan was a matriarchy prior to contact with patriarchal China. (Stearns 2000, p. 51). On the other hand, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to modern, matrilineal societies like the Minangkabau. This group lives in West Sumatra and numbers about four million; it is considered the largest and most stable matrilineal society in the modern world. Sanday argues that this society is a modern matriarchy defined not in polar opposition to patriarchy, but on unique terms. A clear and consistent definition has been given by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, who did cross-cultural research on all of the still existing matriarchal societies of today (in her major work on matriarchy). Her viewpoint is close to that of Sanday. One of her examples are the Mosuo people of Southwestern China. Furthermore, the Minicoy islanders are also considered to be one of the living matrilineal societies today.
Anthropologist R. L. Smith (2002) refers to 'matrifocality' as the kinship structure of a social system where the mother assumes structural prominence. Most anthropologists distinguish this from matriarchy.
The traditional Nair community in Kerala, South India is matrifocal by their definition of 'matrifocality'. (In today's modern world this system is rarely practised. The members of the Nair community now live in nuclear families). A traditional Nair matrifocal family is called as a Tarawad or Marumakkathayam family. A traditional Nair Tarwad consists of a mother and her children living together with their mother's surviving eldest brother or eldest surviving maternal uncle who is called as Karanavan. The Karnavan exercised full powers over the affairs of the family. The main significance of this system is that the heirs to the property were the women in the family and the men folk were only allowed to enjoy the benefits during their lifetime. The naming system of the Nair community had the prefix of their mother's 'family name' and they adopted the maternal uncle’s surname. The Marumakkathayam system of Kerala was a legal right which determined inheritance through the female line. Thus if a family property was to be partitioned all female members would receive one share and all male members who were direct offspring of the family name would receive one share. Thus a brother might receive only one share while his sister and her children (and grandchildren by her daughters would each receive a share). This right was removed by the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975.
Whether matriarchal societies might have existed at some time in the distant past is controversial. The controversy began in reaction to the book by Johann Jakob Bachofen Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World in 1861. Several generations of ethnologists were inspired by his pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following him and Jane Ellen Harrison, several generations of scholars, arguing usually from myths or oral traditions and neolithic female cult-figures, suggested that many ancient societies were matriarchal, or even that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures of which we are aware (see for example The White Goddess by Robert Graves).
More recent archaeologists like Marija Gimbutas have argued for a widespread matriarchal culture in pre-Indo-European Old Europe of the Neolithic.
Matriarchies in mythology
One area where written myths are available from an early period is the Aegean culture-zone, where the Minoan Great Goddess was worshipped in a society where women and men were apparently equals. Gender equality is a typical characteristic of matriarchy, according to the claims of modern Matriarchal Studies.
Modern 'Goddess women' are sometimes too quick to assume that any culture that worships a Mother Goddess must be matriarchal. But there are traces, under the insistently patriarchal Olympian mythology of classical Greece, of earlier matrilineal and matrifocal systems. See the entries for Alcimede or for Hyas for examples.
A famous legendary gynarchy (not matriarchy) on the edges of the Greek cultural horizon was Amazon society, which took shape in the imaginations of classical Greeks, based on reports of Scythian female status and even female warriors. However, extreme caution is called for in determining to what extent, if any, such myths or oral traditions reflected reality. About Amazons, Michael Grant claims that these female warriors were said to live at the boundaries of the world to which Greeks had travelled, making them kin to marvellous beings or monsters supposed to dwell in distant lands, like the Blemmyes or Cynocephali. In the meantime, there exists more and better research on Amazons which is not distorted though a male biased lens (see: Gerhard Pöllauer, Vicki Noble, Marguerite Rigoglioso).
Regardless of actual historical fact, many cultures have myths about a time when women were dominant. Bamberger (1974) examines several of these myths from South American cultures, and concludes that, by portraying the women from this period as evil, they often serve to keep women under control.
Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that there is no necessary correlation between the worship of female deities and relative levels of social or legal egalitarianism between the sexes. He has pointed out that within European history, in seventeenth century Spain there were many religious institutions staffed exclusively by women. A female quasi-deity was a conspicuous part of public religious veneration, and cult images of female supernatural beings were frequently encountered. Spain can be compared to the seventeenth century Netherlands, where the worship of female quasi-deities was emphatically rejected and female clergy did not exist. Yet, the social and legal status of women was much higher in the Netherlands than in Spain during this period. In the Netherlands, women were freer to move about unwatched, and could own businesses of their own and separate property. In Spain, their public roles, and their rights under both law and unwritten custom, were sharply circumscribed. But these examples are all from the epoch of full patriarchal history.
Origins of the unclear concept
The unclear concept of matriarchy, and of its replacement by "patriarchy" can be linked to the historical "inevitabilities" which the nineteenth century's concept of progress through cultural evolution introduced into anthropology. Friedrich Engels, among others, formed the notion that some primitive peoples did not grasp the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. They therefore had no clear notion of paternity, according to this hypothesis; women produced children mysteriously, without necessary links to the man or men they had sex with. When men discovered paternity, according to the hypothesis, they acted to claim power to monopolize women and claim children as their own offspring. The move from primitive matriarchy to patriarchy was a step forward for human knowledge.
This belief system was the result of errors in early ethnography, which in return was the result of unsophisticated methods of field work. When strangers arrive and start asking where babies come from, the urge to respond imaginatively is hard to resist, as Margaret Mead discovered in Samoa. In fact, while prior to the discovery of egg cells and genetics there have been many different explanations of the mechanics of pregnancy and the relative contributions of either sex, no human group, however primitive, is unaware of the link between intercourse and pregnancy. The fact that each child has one unique father has come more recently, however; Greek and Roman writers thought that the seed of two men might both contribute to the character of the child. By the time these mistakes were corrected in anthropology, however, the idea that a matriarchy had once existed had been picked up on in comparative religion and archaeology, and was used as the basis of new hypotheses that were unrelated to the postulated ignorance of primitive people about paternity.
In the late nineteenth century, belief in primitive matriarchies was also allied with Max Müller's hypothesis that an ethnically distinct Aryan race had invaded and displaced or dominated earlier populations in prehistoric Europe. Their conquests, according to Müller, were responsible for the spread of the Indo-European languages; they would have also replaced an earlier language and culture in the invaded areas where Indo-European languages are now spoken. This theory, and the corresponding hypothesis for India, the Aryan invasion theory, are controversial. Marija Gimbutas has advocated the strongest form of the hypothesis, that of military conquest and forced cultural displacement, in recent decades, and given a lot of evidence.
Matriarchies in literature
The idea of peaceful matriarchal civilizations being put to the torch by patriarchal, nomadic barbarian invaders has lived on as a powerful literary trope. The Nazi ideology of a master race of Aryan patriarchal conquerors was based in part on Müller's hypothesis about conquering Aryans being the founders of the European 'race.'
More recent uses of the theme share essentially the same narrative. Goddess worship is one motif referred to by James Joyce in his novels such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In addition to Robert Graves, poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound made use of the theme.
Mary Renault's historical novels about Greek mythology and history such as The King Must Die combine motifs of political conflict between goddess and god worshippers with The Golden Bough's hypothesis about dying and reviving gods. The patriarchal conquest of matriarchy motif is found in literally dozens of fantasy novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley's historical revisions of Arthurian romance and the Trojan War to works of pure fantasy such as Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne. Gender roles and the conflict of patriarch vs. matriarchy is a major theme in the Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan (fantasy).
In Lord of the Rings,Gollum grew up in a mariachal protohobbit village which was ruled by his grandmother.
- Patriarchs (Bible)
- Matriarchs (Bible)
- The First Sex
- Bamberger, Joan. (1974). '"The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society," in Women, Culture, and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, pp. 263-280. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
- Brown, Donald. (1991). Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
- Czaplicka, Marie Antoinette. (1914). Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford. Clarendon press.
- Eller, Cynthia (2001). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. ISBN 0807067938
- Gimbutas, Marija (1991). "The Language of the Goddess".
- Goldberg, Steven (1993) Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance, rev. ed. ISBN 0812692373
- Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles ISBN 0631189467
- Lapatin, Kenneth (2002). Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. ISBN 0306813289
- Sanday, Peggy Reeves. (2004). Woman at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801489067
- Stearns, Peter N. (2000). Gender in World History. New York Routledge. ISBN 0415223105
- Smith R.T. (2002) Matrifocality, in International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (eds) Smelser & Baltes, vol 14, pp 9416.
- Matriarchy.Info: about ancient and today's matriarchal societies
- Woman Thou Art God: Prose and facts on matriarchy, spirituality, female superiority and the feminine divine. Non-profit.
- Cattle ownership makes it a man's world New Scientist (1. October 2003): A new study claims to demonstrate that early female-dominated societies lost their power to men when they started herding cattle.
- The Domain of Patriarchy: Robert Sheaffer's sceptical site discusses matriarchies, Goddess mythology, and claims of non-patriarchal societies.
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