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Matriarchy and/or Patriarchy: The Historical Record
Article ID: 14717
Age Group: Adult
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In modern Wicca and Neo-Pagan Goddess worship in general there is a big push to emphasize the idea that once upon a time all peoples were matriarchal and worshipped the divinity solely in female form. Then, at the dawn of the high civilizations, “Men” took control of the tribes and formed warlike cities, and they demonized the goddess and replaced her with an unloving Sky God. Patriarchy was instituted and the unwarlike goddess worshippers were either crushed or enslaved into a kind of early serfdom.
I am being exaggerative of course, but I must admit that everywhere I turn in Goddess based Neo-Paganism I am confronted with some form of this story as an explanation to why the world is the way it is today. But before I ever discovered Wicca and Neo-Paganism I was a natural-born student of history. I have always had a great mind for it, and the only thing that has ever rivaled my love of studying history is my love of mythology. I am hoping in this article to clear up some of the misunderstandings of history that have become so pervasive in modern Wicca.
First of all, I’d like to state that tracing one’s line of descent from the mother’s side does not make a society matriarchal nor does it necessarily have a reflection on their religious practices. For example, the Etruscans, the pre-Classical Greeks, and the pre-Republican Romans all traced their descent from the mother’s side, yet they were all warlike people with a mix of warlike and unwarlike gods and goddesses. In all three of these cultures ‘War’ personified was a goddess.
Amongst the early Romans there were three deities who were of utmost importance to them: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Juno and Minerva were both viewed as warrior goddesses by the Romans. So in this clearly patriarchal, warrior culture, where women had few rights, two of the three most important deities were goddesses. And it was the goddesses who embodied the arts of warfare, whereas Jupiter was viewed by the early Romans as mostly a rain god and the bestower of sovereignty to kings.
Now someone out there reading this is maybe thinking, ‘well of course the early Romans worshipped female divinities more than male ones; the early Romans were predominately a farming people, and the goddess is closer to the earth regardless of her aspects. It wasn’t till later that the Romans adopted a more patriarchal mythology from the goddess hating city-people in Greece.’
Ah yes, the city-people, I have heard quite a few Wiccan authors and spokespeople make the claim that people in the cities were patriarchal and goddess-hating, while in the country people clung onto matriarchy and the worship of female divinity alone. This shows a great lack of understanding of living conditions in ancient Greece. The cities were the hub of life and all surrounding villages were closely connected with the nearby cities and what went on there. Much of Greece is a narrow, mountainous land, and so villages couldn’t afford to be independent of the cities. Someone born in the country may often have traveled to the city or lived there, and vice versa. So political and religious ideas were very uniform within a given area, regardless if the people lived in the city or the countryside.
The idea that Patriarchs in Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and other civilizations suddenly decided to make war on the goddess and create a male-based religion is a theory that lacks strong proof. If this was true, then why didn’t the goddess cults die out (at least in the cities) and why did the mythologies and religious practices continue to honor a multitude of male and female divinities that all had relatively equal power?
The real answer to why there may have been a slight shift to a male focused religious system has likely more to do with the symbolism of the deities themselves.
To build and successfully maintain a city takes a lot of abstract thinking and city-life generates a lot of leisure time. Abstract thinking and having time to ponder the universe are traits traditionally associated with male deities. Female deities are often more associated with mundane tasks and living within nature. One view is not better than the other; they are a balance, as male and female are at balance. The ancients recognized this and so they blended the male and female myths to create a new harmony.
There was no attempt to ‘destroy’ the cult of the Goddess just because male divinities were suddenly given an equal part to play in the mythologies of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Claiming that ‘Men’ are at fault for the weakening of the goddess religion, and that somehow people in cities had something to do with it is just an over feministic bias that has nothing to do with Wicca or history. There is no one cause to an event, and certainly no simple causes at that.
Personally I think that the rise patriarchy in the politics and living conditions amongst the ancients has multiple complicated sources to it, rather than the commonly held belief amongst most Wiccans today, which is that Indo-Europeans from the north and Semites from the south came in and violently conquered the earlier peaceful civilizations, and replaced them with the worship of a single Sky God. The claim that these people had a single Sky God is an odd one, seeing as how all these ancient peoples were polytheists and animists with male and female divinities. The Indo-European religion certainly isn’t patriarchal in its outlook. The sky father is equal to the earth mother and the sun, dawn, daylight, waters, and night are all goddesses. In Indo-European myths the goddesses often hold a place of equality with their male counterparts.
The commonly held belief that the Indo-European nomads were warrior ‘Men’ who treated women as property and came into ‘Old Europe’ and overthrew the female led civilization, and established a near paradise for war-loving men is an idea I can’t quite wrap my mind around. The Indo-Europeans spread out across all of Europe, Persia, and northern India, yet examples for viewing them as woman-enslaving patriarchs all come from the places where they mixed more readily with the preexisting native populations, such as Greece, Italy, Persia, and Anatolia. But if you look at Indo-European life-styles in areas where they either tried to avoid mixing with the conquered people or where there weren’t too many other people to mix with a different picture of them begins to develop.
The Celts are the best-known Indo-European culture to most modern Pagans, and it is known that they had powerful goddesses, were occasionally ruled by queens, and had women warriors. These are often interpreted as traits of pre-Indo-European influence, but the Celtic nobility, where these queens and women warriors were coming from, were very uptight about mixing with non-Celts. The druid priests likewise followed very strong Indo-European cultural norms. But the Celts are not the only ancient Indo-European group to grant women equality. It seems to have been a common feature amongst many of the strongly Indo-European based cultures.
The Germanic tribes held certain priestesses in the highest regard as prophetesses. Queens and noble women often held great political sway in court, and as the Romans found out to their surprise German women could fight as well as the men. Graves of female warriors have been found in England from the time of the Saxon invasions.
The Scythians, who were nomads that inhabited the original Indo-European homeland in southern Russia, had a very interesting rite of passage for their women. All girls were trained to fight, just as the boys were. A Scythian woman was not allowed to marry or have sex until she had slain at least three enemies in combat. Warfare certainly was a trait of the Indo-Europeans but it is difficult to say if that makes it a male trait for them or just simply a cultural pastime. And again their deity that was the embodiment of war was a goddess.
So if the Indo-Europeans who are often blamed as patriarchal, goddess haters aren’t what they seem to be at first glance then where did the dual patriarchal religious and political system that tried to do away with the Great Goddess come from? The Yahwehist cult of the ancient Hebrews seems to be the first place where this happens. The Hebrews were not originally monotheistic nor were they close-minded toward other religions. But at some point the priesthood that maintained the cult of their tribal protector, Yahweh, seems to have grown very influential in the political realm of the kingdoms of Israel and Judea. The priests of Yahweh created a new mythology based on Babylonian and Egyptian sources where their god was the sole creator and deity.
The Babylonian empire eventually conquered the Hebrews and many were taken from their homes. The Persians who conquered the Babylonian empire freed them. The Persians at the time followed a less strict monotheistic religion known as Zoroastrianism. The Hebrew priests picked up many of the concepts of Zoroastrianism and brought it back to Israel with them where they sought to unify their disheartened people with their new religious reforms. Thus a strict monotheism with an all-powerful god was set in place. No longer was Yahweh married to Asherah, the queen of heaven; no longer was Eve the goddess of the orchards. Worship of female deities was either abandoned or weakened.
Eventually Christianity and later Islam developed out of this idealism. The difference being that neither of them are tribal religions in the way Judaism was, so they readily spread their ideas across the western world. They took advantage of the dominant role of men in many cultures as a way to make male rulers feel even closer to divinity. And the goddesses were now demonized and women dehumanized.
I am not saying that we should blame Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for the dominance of patriarchy in religion and society, but I feel many have been pointing the accusing finger at people far too long gone to defend themselves or explain themselves. Perhaps instead we should look at the world around us to find the source of tyranny rather than at civilizations and people who maybe are far too different from us for us to fully understand.
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