I am currently working on my part for the fourth Time Maps book called “Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture”. Therefore, my research will play a considerable role in my blog narrative for a while. I will start with an often misused word: “The Matrix”.
The root “matri” denotes the womb, so words such as matriarchal and matrilineal refer to social structures where women have major roles. The word “matrix” is also from the same root, and denotes an all-encompassing context, or a source of generation – again like a womb. So let’s look at some words with “matri” in it:
Matriarchy is government by women, also called gynocracy. A matrilineal society is one in which descent is defined through the female line. In ancient times matriarchal and matrilineal societies were much more common than they are now. This usually relates to rights of inheritance and definitions of clans or extended families, but one can also find traces of it in ancient Egypt, where for long periods the right to the throne was through the female line. It makes sense really, since one usually knows who a baby came out of, but one cannot always be sure who put it in there. A matrifocal society is one in which the culture and social structures are centered on the roles of the women. This is a more nebulous concept than matriarchy and matrilineality, and difficult to define precisely – but let’s look at a contemporary example.
Almost all newspaper and television reportage these days are about the activities of men, with emphasis on wars, business, and various forms of political and commercial debates. Because many of our cultures are mainly patrifocal, even patriarchal, these things are considered important. However, we could just as easily have matrifocal cultures, in which matters of childraising and care for future generations, education, family welfare, and other matters of interest and concern to women are given major media coverage. Men’s issues, such as war and football, could be relegated to a special page at the back of newspapers and magazines with a title like “For Him”, or “The Men’s Page”. There could even be special television programs for men, in which one could see the latest trends in warfare from those creative people in Washington, or frivolous technological fashions from Japan. So being matrifocal or patrifocal reflects what the culture considers to be important.
Matriarchy lasted for more than 30,000 years, declined over a period of five thousand years and became extinct about a thousand years ago. Chinese writings refer to the existence of a matriarchal empire in Tibet in the sixth and seventh centuries of the Common Era, during the rise of the Tang Dynasty in China.
As early as the Eleventh Dynasty of Egypt, royal succession became fixed in the female line. The child of a royal princess could reign as pharaoh by right of descent even if her husband was a commoner. The children of a prince with a commoner were excluded from the succession completely. Diodorus states that queens in Egypt were shown greater respect and possessed more power than kings, and in all of the monuments and paintings, only queens wear the triple crown, signifying ecclesiastical, judicial and sovereign power.
Another type of society is partitioned on gender lines. There is a lot of gender partitioning in all cultures as it is a major part of how we tell the difference between girls and boys – but the structures of some societies are defined by it. It is more easily seen in smaller societies such as the tribes and bands of hunter-gatherers in Australia and New Guinea, and it was a key feature of the pre-invasion cultures of North America and Oceania. In this kind of society the roles and responsibilities of men and women are different, and the social rules that apply to them also are different – not one being better or freer than the other, just different. For example in Australia the men went hunting but the women ruled the camp and were responsible for family welfare, for most trade, and for matters of social or group organization. In traditional Polynesia the women did the housework and looked after the small children but the men did the cooking.
In places where gender partitioning is strong, a person may refuse to do a certain type of work because it is traditionally done by the other gender. This does not involve any value judgment, for example that the work is beneath them, but simply that the person would be stepping out of his or her place in society to do so. They would be trespassing on the domain of the other gender. This could be discourteous or it could be seen as an insult. Gender partitioning, when properly done, has advantages. Where the roles are clear and equitably balanced, so that the genders can feel self-respect in their functions, any attempt to suppress women would not only be unthinkable, it would be laughable, since to do so would require that the whole structure of the society be subverted. It is when the roles become weak, unbalanced or confused that a gender can be suppressed by the other.
In more recent times, the Federation of Six Nations is the best documented example of a society in which women had key political power. The Six Nations achieved one of the highest forms of government in the history of the world, and it included strong powers and big responsibilities for women. It is an easy habit of speech to say that it “gave” strong powers to the women, but that would be incorrect – the women already had those powers in their own nations, and the constitution of the Six Nations simply continued and formalized them.
In the Six Nations descent was matrilineal, and this was the basis for deciding matters of clan and totem membership. Women’s property rights also were well protected – if a marriage broke up then the woman had the full right to all of the property she had brought into the marriage. A woman’s bond to her children was also respected – when a marriage failed the children almost invariably went with the mother. A Council of Women had a major, and often decisive, role in settling all social disputes and questions of tradition within each tribe and nation. It was the men who went to war but in many areas, after the men had decided for war, they had to get the approval of the Women’s Council, which was not always given. If the women did not agree then the men could not go to war. So in this case the women had a strategic policy role, while the men were concerned with tactical matters. Peace treaties, also, have been preserved that were signed by the “Sachems (chiefs) and Principal Women of the Six Nations”.
These women were certainly not second class citizens in any sense, but they did not have complete control either. The Six Nations was not a matriarchy but it had a much more balanced partitioning of gender roles than most modern societies have. There were variations between the Nations – in some the Council of Women had almost complete legislative authority while in others it was less – but in all cases the women had a prominent role in government. This could also be said of many others among the nations and tribes of North America. So the idea that men “must” have controlled the key political positions, because it is “natural” that the warriors be in charge, is a load of nonsense.
“Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture” is coming soon. Meanwhile, other volumes of “Time Maps” can be found through this link