Women in Ancient Times: from Matriarchy to Patriarchy In addition to age, gender is one of the universal dimensions on which status differences are based. Unlike sex, which is a biological concept, gender is a social construct specifying the socially and culturally prescribed roles that men and women are to follow. Women have always had lower status than men, but the extent of the gap between the sexes varies across cultures and time. Images of women, mostly figurines of the same type as the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf , Lespugue and Laussel (old statuettes representing obese women, women whose wombs and hips are extremely exaggerated) all dating to the Paleolithic period, far outnumber images of men.
This has lead to speculation about the place of women in Stone Age society. Some have argued that these female figures denote the existence during this period of a prominent female deity identified usually as the Earth Mother or the Mother Goddess. On the basis of this assumption, it has been suggested that, unlike today, women played a considerably more important, if not dominant, role in Paleolithic society; that possibly a matriarchy existed and women ruled. That means men haven’t always been the leaders; it’s not an inborn quality (as a lot of them suggest)! Johann Bachofen was a 19 th Century Swiss archaeologist and classicist who was among the first to recognize the presence of an early matriarchal stage in proto-European cultural evolution. Bachofen used Greek myth to support his arguments. He felt that there were three cultural stages that the early European culture went through.
In his view the first stage was a barbaric or stage (from the Greek word hetero meaning both) where both or actually neither sex was really in control for there was no control. The strong took advantage of the weak, and there was wide-spread ‘wanton’s sexual activity, uncontrolled by values or morals. Bachofen thought that Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, was the chief deity of this time. The second stage was the matriarchal stage, where women banded together for their own defense.
Strong Greek hunter / warrior goddesses such as Artemis and Athena were thought by Bachofen to have come from ancient fragments of memory stemming from this time, as well as the mythic Amazons and Furies. This middle stage saw the development of agriculture, and the rise of early civilization in Bachofen ‘s view. The third or last stage saw the domination of women by men. Myths depicting the rise of power of Zeus over the Titans, his many sexual conquests, the rape of Persephone by Hades, the slaying of the Medusa by Perseus, and the slaying of the Sphinx by Oedipus were thought to be a mythic account of the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.
In the mid-20 th Century the British novelist, poet, and classicist Robert Graves lent much more credence to this theory of a primeval matriarchy in the Ancient World. Graves felt that there was much evidence to show that the earliest cultures universally worshipped an Earth Mother Goddess. Graves also based much of his beliefs on the analysis of ancient myths. He also felt that Goddess worship coincided with the time when calendars were primarily determined by the Moon, and noted the correspondence of the lunar and menstrual cycles, and that the Earth Mother was associated with the Moon Goddess. He also felt that the changeover to the patriarchy coincided largely with the changeover to the solar calendar and the worship of a solar deity. Extensive archaeological evidence was unearthed in the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s from the Near East and Europe to support his claim of a universal Earth Mother.
This work has shown that there was a close correspondence of Earth Goddess worship, lunar symbology and calendars and the cultivation of plants by sedentary tribes. Right from its beginnings, the theory of matriarchy, was very much argued and contradicted. It seems men had a very difficult time accepting this reality. But why is that, since, even today, in the less developed “primitive” societies, matriarchy still dominates. Good examples of such societies are the Trobriand’s, the Kirghiz, the Fijian, the Samoans, the Kuril, the Bhotiya and Sikkim (Tibet), and the Khoras san. In all these cultures the wife is dominant and the rules of “proper conduct” are quite shocking to the western culture.
Almost all these societies practice what Briffault calls “clandestine marriage”; the position of the husband is one of a stranger, guest, or surreptitious visitor within the group to which his wife belongs. One of the Japanese words for marriage is “home-i ri”, which may be interpreted as “to slip by night into the house”, and the expression accurately describes the mode of connubial intercourse among a large proportion of primitive peoples. The mother-in-law is treated with much circumspection and in some cases with even fear. The argument of the “primal matriarchy” was further articulated by, among others, Friedrich Engels in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State published in 1884. Engels argued that the transition from primate societies to the earliest human social structure was achieved “by granting to solidarity a supreme importance which transcended even sexual competitiveness and jealousy.” According to Engels, solidarity was achieved through ‘group marriage’ where whole groups of kin-related women were collectively ‘married’ to whole groups of men. Under these circumstances, only the mother of a child was known, so kinship tended to be traced through the female line, creating what Engels called a ‘matrilineal clan.’ Ancient Egypt, a very patriarchal society today, is an example of a “matrilineal clan.” Women in Egypt seem to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as men, a situation which the Greeks, writing about the Egyptians, found very strange.
Herodotus, writing in the 5 th century BC, and who had visited Egypt, lists among their contrary customs that ‘women buy and sell, the men abide at home and weave’. Diodorus of Sicily, who had visited Egypt some time between 60 and 56 BC, writes that the Egyptians had a law ‘permitting men to marry their sisters’ and adds that ‘it was ordained that the queen should have greater power and honor than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy authority over her husband’. Such notions have contributed to the so-called ‘heiress’ theory which argues that the right to the throne in Ancient Egypt was transmitted through the female line. A man, no matter what his status, the eldest son of the previous pharaoh or a commoner, became a pharaoh through his relationship to the queen. The ‘pharaoh ship’ was legitimized through marriage to the ‘heiress’ who was often the pharaoh’s sister or his half-sister.
It has been argued, therefore, that Ancient Egypt was a matrilineal society where power resided in the female line. There is evidence to show that the female line of inheritance was still intact in the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) and, though not as strong, matrilineal descent in Ancient Egypt persisted even through the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BCE), ending finally with the death of Queen Cleopatra VII. Another example of matrilineal societies are the Aegean Bronze Age cultures. Although suppressed by patriarchal societies much sooner than in Egypt, the power of the Greek matriarchal culture surfaces even today through such stories as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
This woman dominated society switched to a male dominated one as soon as invaders from Western Europ.