Posts Tagged ‘prehistory’

Eeek! This definition of matriarchy can’t be anyone’s idea of utopia. (Source)

OK, so the title of this post is a bit of a trick question, because the answer depends on how you define “matriarchy.” (1)

In popular culture, talk of matriarchy almost always refers back to an alleged ancient woman-centered, goddess-worshiping culture that preceded most of our written historical records.  Waldorf folk sometimes repeat this idea, based in part on some of Steiner’s work, which does indeed mention women playing important roles in very ancient societies.  In the last few decades, though, there has been an enormous amount of ink spilled over whether this supposed prehistoric matriarchy ever really existed.  So what is the evidence for a paleolithic/neolithic matriarchy anyway?  And what does the debate have to do with Steiner’s views and how we as Waldorf teachers teach ancient history?

So…All aboard the matriarchy train!  First stop: backwards into prehistory.

The famous Venus of Willendorf statue (c. 25000 BCE) has become an icon of the supposed matriarchal, goddess-worshipping cultures of European prehistory. (Source)

The Myth of Prehistoric Matriarchy 

Let me preface this now by saying that others have debunked the story of a prehistoric matriarchy very thoroughly. (2)  I’m just going to summarize their work here.  And also, one other caveat: I’m not a hater.  Really.  I actually DO think that matriarchal societies exist, if we define matriarchy in the more limited way most contemporary anthropologists do.  I’ll get to that below, so if you’re a pro-matriarchy fan, hang in there.  I’m with you, sisters.

In a nutshell, the popular story about pre-historic matriarchies can generally be characterized in the following way:  since the dawn of time, humans lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative groups (some settled, some wandering).  People worshipped goddesses (or the Great Goddess), and women were seen as embodying the Goddess’ miraculous powers of birth, fertility, and regeneration.  Bloodlines were traced through the mother, and women held high positions in society as priestesses and possibly even political chiefs.  Most decisions were made by consensus, and warfare was practically unknown.  Men worked alongside women and sometimes formed hunting parties, but left major community decisions up to their better halves.   This idyllic life came to a shattering halt sometime around 5000 BCE, when patriarchal, war-like Indo-European invaders rushed in from the Russian steppes and conquered the pacific, woman-centered earlier cultures, who lacked the means to defend themselves.  The conquerors imposed their patriarchal male gods and social forms on the matriarchs, and the rest is history (and God) as we know it. (3)

“Venus” with breasts or phallic “baton”? You decide. (Source)

But, much as the foregoing account would make a wonderful movie (and indeed, there has been at least one novel written using this storyline), there are a number of problems with the narrative.  First, and perhaps most importantly, most scholars in the field of pre- and proto-Indo-European studies do not support it.  Based on lots of archeological evidence (some of it relatively recent, and therefore not available to the scholar who first forwarded the invasion theory), it’s become clear that there’s not much to support the idea that women were power-holders in pacifist paleolithic societies, much less that they were overthrown in a violent tussle with nasty, patriarchal Russians.  I won’t go over all of it here, but suffice it to say, for example, that they have unearthed mass graves with bodies containing in spear points that pre-date the alleged Indo-European invasion by several thousand years.  And a number of examples of what were originally described as “female” figures have turned out to be equivocally gendered, or perhaps even male.  (For example, some that were originally positioned upright and described as a “Venus” or “neck and breasts,” look remarkably like male genitalia when held horizontally.) (4)

And then there’s the whole goddess thing.  It is clear that many prehistoric cultures must have worshiped goddesses (though whether they ever worshiped a single Great Goddess is much more debatable).  But repeat after me: Goddesses are not women.  That is to say, just because a culture has powerful goddesses does not mean the women are in power.  This goddess/woman disconnect may seem obvious to anyone familiar with places like modern India (or for that matter, Ancient Greece, or the Roman Catholic church).  But popular ideas of matriarchy often seem to leap blithely from the prevalence of goddesses to the status of actual women.  You can find as many statues of plump, naked ladies as you want, but all that tells you is that a culture had a lot of plump, naked lady statues.   Depending on where you find them, you might be able to guess if they were temple images, household protector deities, or forms of paleo-porn; but often the exact position of the find is either unknown (in the case of many early excavations) or inconclusive (what does it mean if you find them in a garbage pit, for instance?).  And even if we know for sure that certain statues were goddesses, they don’t tell us anything about actual women in the community.  For that, we’d have to collect other types of evidence–DNA/skeleton analysis, examination of burial patterns, etc.  And so far, most of that material has favored interpretations that are much more nuanced in their descriptions of possible gender roles.

Whither Matriarchy?

You know a subject has hit the big time when it has it’s own Samuel Jackson meme.  (Source)

So, if we can’t definitively locate matriarchy in the distant, idyllic past, has there ever been a matriarchal culture?  The answer seems to be “yes,” though we need to nuance our definitions of matriarchy a bit.  To my mind, one of the most helpful discussions of the issue is found in the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who spent a number of years studying the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia. (5) The Minangkabau are matrilineal (with land and property handed down through the mother), though political decision-making is the province of men, and the official religion is Islam.  Most importantly for us, they (even the men) refer to themselves as “matriarchal” (matriarchaat).  At first, Sanday was puzzled by this designation, because it was clear that though women controlled property and many religious rites, men still retained important positions of political and community authority.  However, after studying the Minangkabau for many years, Sanday came to believe that it was her own notion of power that prevented her from viewing the Minangkabau as matriarchal.

Behind the Matriarchy: Power as a Shared Life-Force

Traditional Indonesian concepts of power are very different than Western, post-enlightenment views of it.  We generally think about power as something you have (and wield).  There’s someone “with” power, and someone “without” power.  There’s a finite amount of it, and somebody’s gotta be on top.  At best, we imagine a type of power-sharing in which this limited supply of power is doled out equally.  (It’s called communism, and one reason it makes so many people nervous is the assumption that there’s only a limited amount of power available, so giving you more means that I have less.)

For many people in many places and times (including galaxies long ago and far away), power has been less something you “have” and more something you tap into.

However, many other cultures (including, perhaps, the pre-Enlightenment West) see power not as something to be possessed, but as an energetic force that is manifest in both animate and inanimate objects.  Think, perhaps, of Chinese ideas about “chi” (as in chi-gong or tai-chi).  Or for you Steiner-folk, the etheric body: a life force that flows through everything.  If we switch caps and think about power as a life energy that’s available for everyone to tap into, then a couple things become clear:

1. Wherever “life” is, power is too.  That means that the people/places we as 21st century Westerners might look to as wielding the greatest power (e.g. the male political realm) might not be the people/places that another society feels teem with the greatest life-force.  For example, there may be other things or beings–natural features (rocks, streams, etc.), certain ceremonial locations, ritual words and phrases, or human bodies themselves–that are felt to be particularly potent bearers of life-power.

2. Since life is abundant and ever-present, there’s not a finite amount of power that I have to hoard for myself.  We can all tap into it, albeit perhaps, in different spheres or roles.  Nature can provide us with useful metaphors here–a web or a tree being two of the most-often used.  Each person, place, or thing in the web depends on the other parts for support.  This does not mean that we are all equal in the sense of all being the same; but it means that without each person’s role, the whole web of power (or, to use another image, tree of life) would fall apart. (6)

After considering this very different understanding of power, Sanday decided that she wasn’t finding women “in power” because she was looking in the wrong place for the wrong type of power.  Instead of defining matriarchy as “the control of political power by women,” she decided, we should look for “partnership cultures” in which there is an emphasis on “the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance.” (7)  In other words, we should think of matriarchy as a culture where authority is shared between women and men, and where imagery of motherhood and nurture gives meaning to the society’s overarching structure.

Anthropologists tell us that this is not really an accurate depiction of matriarchy.

In the case of the Minangkabau, their proverb “Growth in nature is our teacher” provides the foundational reference point for all their social interactions.  Whether speaking of new life in agriculture and animal husbandry or relations among human beings, maternal nurture, not “power over” is the dominant model.  So, for instance, they believe the community as a whole needs to be tended as a mother tends her child; so do animals, plant life, the relations between the community and the Indonesian state, and the relationship between the community and the spirit world.  (The Minangkabau are Muslim, but also believe in maintaining good ties with certain ancestral spirits.) Not surprisingly, given their emphasis on motherhood, they see their practice of matriliny (tracing property and land rights through the mother’s side) as the best way to nurture families and the community as a whole.

But (and this is an important but) Minangkabau women are actually NOT “in charge” in a modern, Western sense.  They have certain areas of influence and responsibility (mostly religious and domestic), but the political realm remains the domain of the men.  (Interestingly, the men themselves are perceived as themselves having a “maternal” nurturing role with regard to community politics.)  So, if we set out to look for a culture in which women were the political leaders, the Minangkabau would fail the “matriarchy” test.  However, as Sanday defines it, in a true matriarchy, power is actually shared between the sexes, who are each perceived as taking on nurturing roles in their different spheres of influence. (8)  This is consistent with the concept of power we discussed above–in which power flows through everything, and is available to be tapped into by anyone.  Women tap into it (and even foster its growth) in ceremony and domestic matters; men tap into it (and foster its growth) in the political sphere.  The two are equally important nodes in the web of life, but the dominant imagery used is one of maternal nurture.

Back to Prehistory

A sampling of “Venus” figurines from Eastern Europe. (Source)

So what does this redefinition of matriarchy tell us about pre-history?  Well, to be honest, nothing definite.  We still are faced with all the problems of data interpretation that bedevil the popular ideas of goddess-centered matriarchy.  However, it does give us a new way to imagine what might have been the case in some of the societies we’ve unearthed.  For instance, we might take another look at the figurines associated with a specific time and place, and see if we can discern any patterns that might lead us to believe that maternal imagery and motifs of growth and nurture predominate.  If so, we might take another, closer look at the physical evidence for matriliny–for instance, if families tend to be buried with maternal relatives or not.  If we were then able to see that a culture apparently practiced both matriliny AND overwhelmingly used images of maternity and nurture in their art and physical culture, then we might be able to conjecture that such a group showed signs of being matriarchal in Sanday’s more narrowly defined way.

Of course, that’s not something that I, a lowly blogger, can do.  That work rests with archaeological specialists and paleo-anthropologists.  But looking at contemporary matriarchal cultures can give us a vivid image of what may have been the case in some prehistoric settlements, and in the end, it may not look so different from what some of the milder prehistoric matriarchy proponents have been saying all along–shared power, emphasis on maternal imagery, matrilineal property lines.  But we’ll probably have to jettison the idea that any such culture was a radical feminist Garden of Eden, or that such narrowly defined matriarchal societies were in place for thousands of years across wide swaths of the paleolithic world (as opposed to being specific to certain cultures/sites and not others).

Steiner and Prehistoric Women

Here’s one idea of prehistoric women that we can probably dismiss. (Source)

Circling back to Steiner’s thoughts on women in prehistoric times, I find it interesting what he does and doesn’t say about women’s roles.  It’s not exactly clear what sources lie behind his depiction of long-ago cultures: certainly some of it draws on his contemporaries’ ideas about what geological formations might have looked like in the distant past (including land bridges and the positions of earlier continental systems).  And, given Steiner’s voracious intellect, we can probably assume that he knew of the seminal work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the Swiss scholar whose 1861 book Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World was the first to put forward the idea that there had been a matriarchal, goddess-centered ur-religion that held sway in prehistoric times.

Given these two probable influences on Steiner’s thought, I actually think it’s interesting what Steiner didn’t say.  For instance, he doesn’t talk about women as political leaders and he also doesn’t mention anything about goddesses.  Rather, he talks about how women took the lead in religious ceremonies and helped “order and arrange the little groups” (of nomadic clans)–something that sounds, perhaps, like matriliny.  He also speaks of the power of nature that flowed in and through the consciousness of both men and women, and how women took the lead in interpreting the “voices” that seemed to speak to them from the natural elements.  The men’s leadership, he postulates, came about as a result of the work the women did in the religious/natural sphere.  All of which, to me, sounds remarkably like the type of society Sanday describes in her work.  While we can’t be sure what prehistoric societies actually looked like (or how well they correlate with Steiner’s picture), I do think it’s interesting that he doesn’t give an image that goes whole-hog into the matriarchal ur-myth espoused by either Bachofen or 20th century pre-historic matriarchy enthusiasts.

How to Teach Matriarchy

So, to get back to the title of the post: to the question, “Matriarchy–fact or fiction?”,  we can give the unequivocal answer “Yes!”  It is both/and–a fabulously successful (but untrue) fiction, and a less well-known, more narrowly defined, but ultimately (at least to me) more satisfying fact.  But how to teach something this complex to high school students?

The debates on prehistoric matriarchy offer us a fabulous chance to stretch our students’ imaginations regarding the limits of patriarchy and matriarchy, and to teach them the ways in which raw data can lead to multiple interpretations.   I like the idea, for instance, of presenting the students with some of the relatively raw archeological data–figurine images, a few archeological site maps (found in the Goodison and Morris book cited in note 2), perhaps a little bit of info regarding evidence for hunting/gathering vs. sedentary agriculture at a given site over time.  Then, with that data, conduct a small-group exercise that has them try to make sense of the information they have–how were the communities structured?  who led the groups? what gods did they worship?  what led to the community’s demise?  Then finally (perhaps in the next session) after the kids report back briefly their group’s theories, present 2-3 interpretations of the same data by different scholars.  (9)  Then sit back and watch the opinions fly about “Matriarchy: fact or fiction?”

See?  Our proto-Indo-European foremothers did have a far-reaching impact, even if it turns out they didn’t rule the world in quite the way we might have hoped.



(1)  Before we even start, we need some sort of brief “disambiguation” (to use a wiki-word) of the word “matriarchy” itself, since the whole issue can be very confusing.  Very quickly: matriarchy refers to a society where women rule.  Different people have different ideas about what “ruling” means–control of political structures, control of food production and how it’s distributed, etc.  Popularly, though, “matriarchy” is usually used to mean a situation where women are in positions of authority and dominance, with men taking the back seat (sort of the flip-side of patriarchy, which we all know too well).   Matriliny, on the other hand, means a society where descent (or sometimes property) passes through the mother’s line.  But please beware:  cultures can be matrilineal while still being patriarchal.  Just because you trace bloodlines, or even property, through women does not mean that women rule the roost.  Case in point:  the American South imposed a matrilineal system on slaves so that children born of female slaves would also be unfree.  However, despite the ambitions of Scarlet O’Hara, at no time was the South in any sense a “matriarchy.”    For a great discussion of this whole matriliny vs. matriarchy issue, see the Jonathan Jarrett’s blog entry on this topic.

Interpreting paleolithic images is difficult–is this a goddess, an early pornographic image, or both (or neither)? (Source)

(2) The best, most readable resource on matriarchal pre-history myths is Cynthia Eller’s book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.  You can read the first chapter online here, and access a book review that contains an excellent summary of the whole debate here.  If you’re specifically interested in the issue of interpreting so-called “Goddess” figurines, then there is an excellent essay by Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey entitled, “Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the ‘Goddess’ and Popular Culture.”  in Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, eds.  Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. pp 22-45.

(3) Eller covers all of this in great detail in her book.  I should mention, though, that even the theory of an armed invasion by chariot-driving Indo-Europeans is just that–a theory (that was most forcefully put forward by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the “mother” of the contemporary matriarchy movement).  No one denies that Indo-Europeans had chariots (or arms), but there are several different scholarly opinions about how that technology made its way to the different corners of the world.  Other theories involve the spread of farming and the transmission of technological advances (like chariots) through non-military means.  Also, even folks who do support the armed invasion theory do not necessarily believe that the displaced societies were pacifist matriarchies.  There seems to be a good deal of evidence that armed conflict existed way before the supposed Indo-European invasion.  But again, if you want more detail, read Eller’s book or the first two chapters of Goodison and Morris (see note 2 for full references).

A neolithic figurine with hermaphrodite forms. (Source)

(4)  Another important point made by Tringham and Conkey (see note 2) is that these statues don’t even tell us, for instance, if the societies thought of gender in the same way we did.  For instance, there are a number of sites where non-gendered statues far outnumber both male and females statues, or (in at least several instances) where there are statues of a third sex.  In other words, we don’t even know whether these cultures thought of gender as binary or not, much less what they thought of women.

(5) Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

(6)  Sanday, 231-235.  Her work on power draws heavily on ideas put forth by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who also studies Indonesia (albeit the island of Java).

(7) Sanday describes matriarchies as belonging to one of three possible  types of “partnership societies” (i.e. cultures that are relatively non-hierarchical): egalitarian (in which gender differences are not symbolically marked), diarchic (which have a “pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms”), and matriarchic (which are based on a maternal model).  In other words, you can have power-sharing societies without matriarchy per se–an interesting point to consider when we think about paleolithic/neolithic cultures. While this idea of “power as life-force” may be common to many cultures, it does not, in and of itself, mean that women are necessarily dominant, or even particularly valued.  There are plenty of indigenous and/or non-Western cultures all over the world which think of power along these lines but still have social structures that oppress women.  I’m thinking, for instance, of the Amazonian Mundurucú tribe or certain Australian aboriginal groups, both of which have customary laws that punish women by beating or gang rape if they overstep “female” bounds.

(8) Also, I should note that there are other anthropologists out there studying equally interesting matrilineal modern cultures, some of which may fit Sanday’s more narrow definition of a matriarchy.  Some interesting societies to check out are the Mosuo/Na people of Western China, the Khasi of Northeastern India, and the Qiang of the Tibetan plateau.  There is an organization that studies modern matriarchies, but in my personal opinion, they seem too interested in making sweeping generalizations.  However, they are an interesting source of material as long as you double-check their facts against more scholarly resources.

(9) To my knowledge, there are no lesson plans available online that cover prehistoric matriarchy.  There are, however, some very good resources for prehistory in general.  Using them, plus the ideas contained here, one could probably put together a good 2-4 day portion of a main lesson that would cover paleolithic/neolithic times.

Here are some of the better prehistory lesson plans available online:

  • Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has an excellent site about North American prehistory.  It’s activities are really hands-on and perfect for a Waldorf classroom–many can be adapted to prehistory of any kind, not just North America.
  • A second resource is the NY Times lesson plan on recent archeological discoveries in Africa (covering early hominids).
  • Then there’s also the NIH lesson plans about paleolithic cave art that could provide a great complement to a lesson on prehistory.

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