Matriarchy is a form of society in which power is with the women and especially with the mothers of a community. 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. For instance, in Jewish Halakhic tradition only a person born of a Jewish mother is automatically considered Jewish. Hence Jewish descent is passed on from the mother to the child.
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.
Some traditional matriarchal societies 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 in 2003 in Luxembourg, Europe; it was sponsored by the Minister of Women's Affairs of Luxembourg, Marie-Josee 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.
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.
J.F. del Giorgio in The Oldest Europeans has opened a new view in the same line, observing that there was a widespread fall in women's rights from East to West, in synchronicity with the Indo-European invasions. He argues strongly that colleges of priestesses were prosecuted and replaced by colleges of priests, based in archaeological and historical evidence and relating it to ancient myths. He insists on the existence of post-glacial female-structured tribes in Europe, observing that such characteristics were typical in Basques and quoting well-proven genetically evidence of an homogenous pre-Indo-European population whose genes were akin to Basques. He also points to recent linguistic studies carried mainly in Germany that corroborates that assumption. While he refrains from mentioning matriarchy, he quotes ancient authors who did, and he insists in at least a matrifocal, matrilocal, matrilineal Paleolithic society.
On the other hand, authors like Cynthia Eller, professor at Montclair State University, as well as Philip G. Davis, author of Goddess Unmasked, have come to increasingly call in doubt the factual accuracy of these hypotheses. According to Professor Eller, Marija Gimbuta had a large part in constructing a myth of historical matriarchy by examining Eastern Europe cultures that, by and large, never really bore any resemblance in character to the alleged universal matriarchality of Gimbutas and Graves. She demonstrates that in "actually documented primitive societies" paternity is never ignored and that the sacred status of feminine goddesses does not automatically increase female social status, affirming that utopian matriachy is simply an inversion of antifeminism and in fact paralleling the denigrating exaltations of an idealized motherhood found in contemporary organized religion.
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 allegedly 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 some mentioned author believe 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 and Sarmatian 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 marvelous beings or monsters supposed to dwell in distant lands, like the Blemmyes or Cynocephali. Others like Gerhard Pöllauer, Marguerite Rigoglioso and esoteric/neopagan author Vicki Noble disagree.
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.
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.
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.
Existing Matriarchal Societies