The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A matriarchy is a tradition (and by extension a form of government) in which community power lies with the eldest mother of a community. The word matriarchy derives from the Latin words matri meaning mother and arch meaning chief or prime. It refers to the ancient tradition of mother-dominated societies and clans, though it is often confused as meaning woman-dominated.

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. Matriarchy is sometimes extended to refer to "government by women", although this is more technically termed gynocracy.


Extremely rare

In the present-day world, traditional matriarchal societies are rare, if not nonexistent. 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). Feminist Joan Bamberger notes that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated (Bamberger 1974), though there are many known matrilineal societies. The Trobriand Islands were considered a matriarchy by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski; the dispute this view has engendered is discussed at that entry. On the other hand, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to modern, matrilineal societies like the Minangkabau.


The Islamic Minangkabau of West Sumatra number about four million and are considered the largest and most stable matrilineal society in the modern world. Sanday argues that this society is a modern matriarchy defined not in polar opposition to patriarchy, but on in its own unique terms.


Peter N. Stearns and other historians have speculated as to whether or not agricultural Japan was a matriarchy prior to contact with patriarchal China. (Stearns 2000, p. 51).


Matrilineal families (Yak. ye-usa) have existed amongst Yakuts until modern time, where the female acted as the family head, living separately with her children and cattle. However, several such matrilineal units made up one patrilineal polygamic family (Yak. aga-usa), thus not a pure matrilineality.

Nair society

The traditional nair community in Kerala, South India is matriarchal by system. (In today's modern world this system is rarely practised. The members of the nair community now live in nuclear families). A nair matriarchal family is called as a Tarawad or Marumakkathayam family. A traditional nair Tarwad consists of a mother and her children living together with their mother's surviving eldest brother or eldest surviving maternal uncle who is called as Karanavan. In a Nair family, amongst all the women at home, the eldest mother would become the head of the family. However this does not imply that the decision making was in the woman's hand. The 'Karanavan' was responsible for making most decisions. The main significance of this system is that the heirs to the property were the women in the family and the men folk were only allowed to enjoy the benefits during their lifetime. The naming system of the nair community had the prefix of their mother's 'family name' and they adopted the mother's surname.

Archaeological hypotheses

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, arguing for a widespread matriarchal culture in pre-Indo-European Old Europe of the Neolithic, have made missteps while attempting to overcome skepticism in what has been until recently an overwhelmingly masculine field.

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 apparently equals. Modern self-described "Goddess women" are too quick to assume that any culture that worships a Mother Goddess must be a matriarchy, but there are traces, under the insistently patriarchal Olympian mythology of classical Greece, of earlier matrilineal systems. See the entries for Alcimede or for Hyas for examples.

Another famous legendary matriarchy (and gynarchy) 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 female status and even female warriors. Some professional historians, however, claim that the "evidence" in the form of myths or oral traditions is too murky to conclude anything from. About Amazons, Michael Grant notes that these female warriors were said to live at the boundaries of the world to which Greeks had travelled, making them kin to marvellous beings or monsters supposed to dwell in distant lands, like the Blemmyes or Cynocephali. Some people use this lack of solid evidence as a basis for believing that there has never been a matriarchal society. Critics point out that this type of argument is illogical, and appeals to the fallacy of negative proof.

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 modern-day 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.

Origins of the belief

Belief in a matriarchy, and 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 curious and rather racist notion that some primitive peoples did not grasp the link between Censored page 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. The move from primitive matriarchy to patriarchy was a step forward for human knowledge.

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 might have discovered in Samoa. In fact, while prior to 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. The Aryan invasion theory is no longer universally accepted in India. The corresponding hypothesis for Europe is also controversial; few scholars other than Marija Gimbutas have advocated the strongest form of the hypothesis, that of military conquest and forced cultural displacement, in recent decades.

Matriarchy is also distinct from matrilocality.

Matriarchies in literature

The turn of the century mythology about a peaceful matriarchal civilisation being put to the torch by patriarchal, nomadic barbarian invaders has lived on as a powerful literary trope long after archaeologists and anthropologists concluded that it went far beyond what the evidence allowed. The Nazi ideology of a master race of Aryan conquerors was based in part on Müller's hypothesis about conquering Aryans being the founders of the European "race."

More recent uses of the theme share essentially the same narrative, but root for the vanquished matriarchy. Goddess worship is one motif referred to by James Joyce in his novels such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In addition to Robert Graves, poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound made use of the theme; of course, when these writers were writing, the narrative of Aryan conquest commanded more scholarly respect than it did today.

Mary Renault's historical novels about Greek mythology and history such as The King Must Die combine motifs of political conflict between goddess and god worshippers with The Golden Bough's hypothesis about dying and reviving gods. The patriarchal conquest of matriarchy motif is found in literally dozens of fantasy novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley's historical revisions of Arthurian romance and the Trojan War; as well as in works of pure fantasy such as Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne . These literary treatments ensure that the Aryan myth lives on long after it has been rejected in science and politics.

See also


  • Bamberger, Joan. (1974). '"The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society," in Women, Culture, and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, pp. 263-280. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Brown, Robert. (1991). Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
  • Czaplicka, Marie Antoinette. (1914). Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford. Clarendon press.
  • Eller, Cynthia (2001). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. ISBN 0807067938
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1991). "The Language of the Goddess".
  • Goldberg, Steven (1993) Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance, rev. ed. ISBN 0812692373
  • Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles ISBN 0631189467
  • Lapatin, Kenneth (2002). Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. ISBN 0306813289
  • Sanday, Peggy Reeves . (2004). Woman at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801489067
  • Stearns, Peter N . (2000). Gender in World History. New York Routledge. ISBN 0415223105

External links

  • Matriarchy.Info : about ancient and todays matriarchal societies
  • "The archaeology of the Goddess" : a balanced skeptical assessment
  • Cattle ownership makes it a man's world New Scientist (1. October 2003): A new study claims to demonstrate that early female-dominated societies lost their power to men when they started herding cattle.
  • The Domain of Patriarchy : Robert Sheaffer 's sceptical site discusses matriarchies, Goddess mythology, and claims of non-patriarchal societies.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 01:41:11
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55