Back in 2013 when I wrote the post Deep origins: language I had intended to follow with an examination of how patriarchy emerged within the societies that adopted the Indo-European language group. It is mind-boggling that so many languages from Iceland to Russia, to India, Iran and Mediterranean Europe speak languages evolved from the same source:
The exceptions in Europe are Basque, Estonian, Finnish and Magyar (Hungarian).
This posts gathers some thoughts towards that end, stimulated by the discussion on the Saturday salon 6/1 thread from about here.
There is no doubt that the societies within the Indo-European language group are predominantly patriarchal. Joan Marler writing in 2006 looks at the impressive work of Marija Gimbutas, saying:
- Some researchers prefer the idea that male dominance always existed or that patriarchal structures resulted from internal “evolution” out of more “primitive” social systems. Lithuanian/American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) posits that the earliest societies in Europe were neither male dominated nor primitive and that patriarchy became established as the result of a “collision of cultures” that triggered the spread of androcratic patterns. According to her Kurgan Theory, the progressive intrusion of nomadic pastoralists from north of the Black Sea disrupted the mature, matristic, horticultural societies of southeast Europe. Between the mid-fifth to the mid-third millennia BC, radical changes took place throughout Europe in language, social structure, and ideology. This paper investigates the beginnings of patriarchy in Europe in light of Gimbutas’ Kurgan Theory which has been at the center of scholarly debates for more than half a century.
On the other hand some claim that no matriarchal society has ever existed.
I’m going to come back to Gimbutas and the Kurgan Theory, but first take a detour through some related material which is meant to give us a better perspective.
The Wikipedia entry on Matriarchy starts with:
- Matriarchy is a social system in which females (most notably in mammals) hold the primary power positions in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of males – at least to a large degree.
The introductory paragraph, together with the section on Definitions, connotations, and etymology, gives a bewildering network of related ideas and concepts. I think in that direction lieth confusion, or an academic dissertation to sort out all that complexity, so I’ll try a few examples.
First, after the twin towers of the World Trade Centre went down in flames in what was known as ‘9/11’ I heard a nurse on local radio talking about her 10 years experience in the Middle East. She told of an Arab society on the Arabian Gulf where the men spent most of their time on boats trading up and down the Gulf. That society she said was matrilineal, that is the family lineage was traced through the maternal line, and the home and possessions passed on that way too. The story makes sense, but I have been unable to verify it.
A matrilineal society is not fully matriarchal. In this case I have no idea how the politics was organised. It sounds as though the nurse may have been referring to a group within a country, but she was emphatic that they were both Arab and Muslim.
Second, I recall some years ago hearing about the Musoa people in Western China, near Tibet, where each household, which may contain several related families, is headed by a woman. There is no formal marriage, but they do pair off in a walking marriage where the man turns up at bedtime, and leaves as soon as he gets up. Children are raised within their mother’s household with the male role in parenting performed by her male blood relatives who live within the same household.
However, politics within that society appears to be the domain of men.
Third, Ronald Wright in his book What is America? tells of a grouping of five native American ‘nations’ in a confederation in the north-east of the United States and Canada. The picture I got was that the women ran the local politics but 50 men were selected by the women to meet in a confederate assembly. If any did not perform to requirements they could be withdrawn by the women.
The Wikipedia article on Matriarchy has a section on Native Americans which identifies the Hopi and the Iroquois Confederacy or League, combining 5–6 nations or tribes under a constitution, oral from approximately 1000–1450 until written in about 1880. The League still exists.
Women were seen as sensitive to the rhythms of the Mother Earth and therefore the appropriate and natural custodians of the land.
A separate entry Iroquois explains:
- The Iroquois (/ˈɪrəkwɔɪ/ or /ˈɪrəkwɑː/) or Haudenosaunee (/ˈhoʊdənoʊˈʃoʊni/) are a historically powerful northeast Native American confederacy. They were known during the colonial years to the French as the “Iroquois League”, and later as the “Iroquois Confederacy”, and to the English as the “Five Nations” (before 1722), and later as the “Six Nations”, comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples.
The Iroquois have absorbed many other peoples into their cultures as a result of warfare, adoption of captives, and by offering shelter to displaced peoples.
Under the subsection Women in society it is made very clear that the Iroquois women ran the show and if a husband was shiftless or otherwise unsatisfactory a woman was simply able to ask him to roll his swag, as it were, and leave the dwelling.
Women chose the ‘chiefs’ with the power of recall if they did not perform. Women also had the final call on whether the group went to war.
That may be as good as it gets.
It turns out that Friedrich Engels work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in German in 1884 and translated into English by Ernest Untermann in 1902, was based on the American Lewis H. Morgan’s thesis as outlined in his major book, Ancient Society. Morgan championed the land rights of Native Americans and became adopted as an honorary member of the Seneca Iroquois tribe.
This one example of the Iroquois, then, seems responsible for the primacy and universality given to matriarchy in Engels’ work. However according to Cynthia Eller writing the book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory in 2000 (review by Natalie Angier here) the myth originally stemmed from another German, Johann Jakob Bachofen, in his seminal work Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World in 1861.
It seems Bachofen inspired Morgan, Engels and quite a few other thinkers and writers.
Eller writing six years before the Marler piece unpicks the myth built up based on the work of Gimbutas:
- In the latter half of her book, Eller carefully clips every thread from which this matriarchal myth is woven. The goddess imagery of which feminist matriarchalists are so proud? Look at the ancient Greeks: Hera, Athena and other goddesses aplenty, and yet women were virtual slaves in their houses.
Gimbutas died in 1994, and Eller and Marler were both writing before the appearance of David Anthony’s book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How the Bronze-age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (review here) in 2007, which was a serious remaking of the Kurgan hypothesis. Wikipedia gives a detailed outline of what might be called the “Revised Steppe Theory”.
Like Gimbutas, Anthony bridges both linguistic and archeological evidence but unlike her Anthony also had access to a vast amount of work done by Russian or Soviet archeologists which has come to light since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Anthony is able to locate the original proto Indo-European (PIE) language more precisely to the Yamna culture, which was strongly patriarchal with a single male sky god and had well-defined cultural horizons. Anthony, however, does not buy into the Gimbutas binary between “nomadic pastoralists from north of the Black Sea” and “mature, matristic, horticultural societies of southeast Europe.”
For starters it was old European farmers expanding east around the mouths of the Danube and Dneister rivers who introduced animal herding to the early foragers of the Eurasian steppes.
Secondly, as I said in Deep origins: Language:
- Evidence from graves and rubbish dumps shows that goats, sheep, cattle, horses, dogs and pigs were domesticated. Everything but chooks. Certainly, carnivorous feasts were popular, but barley, millet, peas and at least four varieties of wheat were also grown.
The relevant skills of metal-work, pottery, spinning, weaving, felt and leather work proliferated and developed. Minerals were available in the mountains. Use of the plough, the wheel and dairying became extensive in the period 3500 to 3000 BCE.
So a complex, sophisticated society developed which supported specialist skills. The domestication of the horse, not as such by the Yamana but available to them, made herding more efficient and enhanced the capacity to form armies and strike at a distance. The development later of chariot fighting on the steppes, millennia before it appeared in Rome, bespeaks a standing army, as the skills required cannot be mastered by part-timers.
The horse and the wagon allowed them to move around the plains away from the rivers.
Anthony suggests that the steppe-dwellers were in fact more rich and powerful than the societies built up in cities in the Fertile Crescent, although the Caucasus Mountains kept them apart.
Anthony says that the real success of the cultural spread which resulted the spread of the language lies in the ‘patron-client’ relationship, where:
- The chief provides protection, allowing the food producers to get on with their work. More than that, feasts and other social/cultural/religious events and ceremonies led or sponsored by the patron enriched the lives of all and contributed to social cohesion. He points out that when a new chief moved in at the top of a social structure and bettered the lives of the people further down in the hierarchy, then the lower strata readily adopted the language of the chiefs. He cites historical examples of where this has happened in Uganda.
An interesting example where the people did not change their language was the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
This still leaves open the possibility that Old Europe could have been matriarchal until their societies were taken over by the patriarchal bronze-age riders from the steppes. Anthony subscribes to the notion that societies became patriarchal, if they were not so already, when there were substantial possessions to defend and pass on to the next generation. This coincides with the development of herding and/or farming.
Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday gives us a schema which allows us to think about how this happened.
Diamond adopts Ellman Service’s classification of human societies into four categories of increasing population size, political centralisation and social stratification – band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Diamond stresses that the boundaries of these concepts are not neat, they blend into each other. Importantly, each is unique according to its circumstances and above all its culture.
Nevertheless the four Service categories are handy labels to enable a basic understanding, while acknowledging that the categories are not clean and separated at the edges. Specialists who want to go into more detail and make finer distinctions may use more categories.
Bands are small collections of one or several extended families, a few dozen in number; most are nomadic hunter gatherers, with some gardeners living in low population densities. As a species, humans mostly lived that way.
I recall Ronald Wright making a similar comment, but with slightly larger numbers, 30-40 adults, with humans spending around 98% or more of their history that way.
Diamond is adamant that such societies were overwhelmingly egalitarian.
Yet women in particular were traded, as in marriage dowries and when a girl was paid for to provide a partner to an older male. At times, Diamond says that hostilities we might call ‘war’ erupted at times if a girl who had been paid for was not delivered, or if the band wanted to reverse the trade because they did not get one who performed to the expected standard in cooking, gardening, gathering wood etc.
Tribes, according to Diamond, started to appear around 13,000 years ago, and were usually associated with increased population density made possible through herding and farming. Numbers were in the hundreds, too many for a whole group to sit down at a meeting He doesn’t mention it, but Dunbar’s number (given our brain size, human beings can only maintain 150 stable relationships) might be important.
Here we have the “big man” emerging as a weak leader (“weak” is Diamond’s term) who leads by virtue of his persuasion and personality rather than by formal authority. The “big man” only retains his position while he is seen to be delivering for the whole group.
If the numbers reach into the thousands, we start to see chiefdom’s emerge. Diamond is a bit hazy about the date, but definitely not before 9000 BC, and definitely from about 5500 BC. Chiefdoms require rules, and a monopoly of force that can be used internally to enforce them. They also require a small but significant proportion of the population to carry out specialised functions, for example non-specialised all-purpose officials, proto-bureaucrats, if you like, as well as warriors, priests and craftsmen.
With this social form comes layering or castes, where status is passed down the generations. He cites one example in Hawaii that had eight layers between the chief and his family on the top, and commoners or slaves at the bottom.
States, Diamond says, emerged around 3400 BC with often ethnically diverse populations, specialised spheres and layers of bureaucrats, standing armies, greater economic specialisation, urban centres and so on.
There has been a tendency to see the change from band to state as ‘development’ and ‘progress’, so patriarchy is seen as virtuous and the natural order of things. Religion, at least in Christianity and probably elsewhere, gave absolute authority to this view. Joanna Bourke’s book What it Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the present suggests that status was ordered according to the Great Chain of Being, with a male god at the peak and then after the angelic beings, a European male king who ruled with Divine Right. Women, slaves and coloured races were somewhere close to the higher animals.
Bourke starts her book by quoting an actual anonymous letter to the editor of The Times in London in April 1872 from ‘An Earnest Englishwoman’. Her plea was that whenever the word “animal” occurred in law it should be made clear that the word included women, because in law animals had more rights than women. At the time the regulations prohibiting cruelty against dogs, horses and cattle were significantly more punitive than laws against cruelty towards women.
So the Earnest Englishwoman’s modest proposal was for women to aspire to the status of animals under the law.
In my view women had become commoditised in their role of producing and raising the next generation, as well as providing sustenance and pleasure to men. The image Bourke uses on her cover is the painting The Three Graces by Peter-Paul Rubens:
That is how it appears on the spine, but on the front cover it looks like this:
Celebrating and valuing women within society does not mean equality.
Slaves, of course, were also traded. Tom Holland’s book Millennium: The End of the World and the Emerging of Christendom relates how in the 10th century the Saracens repeatedly scoured Europe to capture slaves. The men were castrated, with losses through infection more than compensated by an increase in the value of the remaining stock.
Norman Davies book Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe in the chapter on Burgundy (a kingdom founded by a Germanic invaders from the north) tells of specific clauses in the legal code for stealing girls. It seems girls had a market price, but:
- If anyone shall steal a girl, let him be compelled to pay the price set for such a girl ninefold, and let him pay a fine to the amount of twelve solidi.
Seems, however, he did not have to give her back.
- If a girl who has been seized returns uncorrupted to her parents, let the abductor compound six times the wergeld of the girl; moreover let the fine be set at twelve solidi.
This gives an idea of the relative penalties:
- A dog killed, 1 solidus
- A stolen pig, sheep, goat or beehive, 3 solidi
- A woman raped, 12 solidi
- A woman whose hair is cut of without cause, 12 solidi
- A murdered slave, 30 solidi
- A murdered carpenter, 40 solidi
- A murdered blacksmith, 50 solidi
- A murdered silversmith, 100 solidi
- A murdered goldsmith, 200 solidi
Note: an acceptable cause for cutting off a woman’s hair was so that she could fight in battle as a man.
The code was written in Latin and signed off by the seals of a large number of counts. I think that was in the sixth century.
No doubt there was more, but it is conceivable that the situation of the Earnest Englishwoman in the 19th century had deteriorated to the point where her rights were largely unspecified, she was effectively a possession of her husband, who was under no obligation to treat her as well as he treated his animals.
These are but glimpses, filling in the detailed story of a rise of patriarchy would be a work of substantial scholarship, which may exist beyond my ken.
Diamond says that women in hunter-gather societies typically waited about three years between children, so for much of their adult lives they would either be pregnant or have a toddler in tow. Dying in childbirth was a real possibility. Diamond says that around 50% of children did not survive infancy and childhood. Then:
- With the transition to agriculture, the average daily number of work hours increased, nutrition deteriorated, infectious diseases and body wear increased, and lifespan shortened.
As male control of wealth increased it seems logical that a greater premium was put on the reproductive role of women. The concentrations of populations in cities and towns increased susceptibility to disease.
Roman plumbing was an exception, but public health was bad and I think generally worsened with the onset of the industrial revolution. Improvements in the water supply and sewerage, together with awareness of germs really date from the mid-19th century. Eric Hobsbawm in his collection of essays Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century tells of how from about 1870 onwards the notion that girls should have access to secondary education gradually emerged over the next 45 years.
Now women dying in childbirth is rare, more than 98% of First World babies make it to adulthood, women can control their own fertility and the modern supermarket offers almost as much variety in diet as was available to the Kalahari Bushmen.
Modern life has, of course, introduced a whole new range of stresses.
The above is meant to sketch an outline using the sources available to me. I am of course open to additional information and other interpretations.
Overall, however, unless there were special circumstances or a major values commitment to matriarchy, as with the Iroquois, patriarchy takes over with the appearance of property, and intensified with what has been thought of as ‘progress’ to more sophisticated societies.
I was struck by the gravestone messages on my great grandparents graves, which indicated that this life was basically a vale of tears in preparation for a better eternal life hereafter. Tony Judt’s book Post War: a History of Europe Since 1945 describes how the welfare state achieved, in advanced economies for the first time by about the 1960s, a society where no-one need go hungry, there was a car in every garage, people had two days off a week and ordinary people could afford to have a holiday away from home once a year. ‘The pill’ appeared from about 1960 which allowed women to control their fertility.
Although the social sediments of patriarchy developed over the last 10 millennia persist, the making of a truly egalitarian society along the dimension of gender should not be beyond us, as there are no longer any fundamental impediments. Egalitarianism along the dimensions of wealth, power and class may take longer.