op-ed

The Idea Of A Prehistoric ‘Matriarchy’ Is A CRACKPOT Fable Started By An Obscure Swiss Dude

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Nirmal Dass Researcher with a PhD in translation theory

Fables are fundamental to ideologies. Marxism has the means of production. Liberalism has medieval superstition. Naturalism has religion. And feminism has patriarchy.

Take, for example, feminism’s claim that in prehistory society was matriarchal. Prehistory means a time without writing. There are only artifacts, like those statuettes of obese, naked females (a few inches in size), which date from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic periods. Feminism has had a field day with these artifacts — because they are presented as “proof” of the worldwide worship of the “great mother goddess.” About 140 of them have been found so far, mostly in Europe.

This “mother goddess” then backs up a bigger claim: that the entire world was once matriarchal, when women controlled the levers of social political, and religious power. Men were peripheral, useful only for occasional “seminal” contributions. During this time, men thought women were magical goddesses who produced babies on their own and so they had to be worshipped.

Then, a bunch of nomads (the vile Indo-Europeans) burst into Eden, with their sky-father god and their warrior ethos, and woke men up, who took control of the means of reproduction, and demoted women from goddess to housewife.

But that was not all. The men came up with ways to keep women in their place, by controlling their sexuality. Out came the regulations: virginity before marriage, religious prohibitions concerning sex, monogamy, arranged marriage, tons of babies to keep women busy. And — worst of all — men replaced the mother goddess with the sky-father god. This is how patriarchy kicked humans out of a matriarchal Eden.

However, history tells a different story.

Those little statues of fat women are just that: very ancient figurines of fat women. They are not goddesses. (The most famous is called the “Venus of Willendorf.” The term “Venus” is a joke used by Paul Hurault when he found the first of such statues in 1864). They are likely dolls, or even humorous pieces to pass around and have a laugh. Calling them “goddesses” is feminist wishful thinking. Nor is there any evidence that human beings worshipped some mother goddess. That is a serious misunderstanding of polytheism and pantheism.

As for universal matriarchy in prehistory, again, no evidence at all. (There is no proof of patriarchy either, in fact). Nor did humans ever separate themselves along a sexual divide. Why would they? And the story about men discovering where babies come from is simply nineteenth-century prudishness or naiveté, or both. As well, very few societies recognized familial descent through the female line. And, descent is not gynocracy.

So, what remains? If feminism has no basis in ancient history, where did it come from? The term “matriarchy” first appears in English in 1885, and derives from the German, Mutterrecht (badly translated as, “Mother Right,” for it really means, “maternal law”).

In 1861, Johann Bachofen, a Swiss philologist, published, Das Mutterrecht: eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur (which translates as, “Maternal Law: An investigation of gynocracy in the ancient world according to its religious and judicial nature”).

In this book, Bachofen is the first to claim that matriarchy ruled prehistory, and thus he should be recognized as the father of feminism. His crackpot views form the bedrock of feminist understanding of what happened long ago. And, irony of ironies, feminism has a father. Actually, it has several.

Inspired by Bachofen, the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan published his hefty volume, Ancient Society (1877), in which matriarchy was again promoted. Morgan too was wrong and likely made up or misunderstood things. For example, he famously stated that the Iroquois were matriarchal – they were not. They were a warrior culture who may have had familial descent through the female line (but that is highly disputed).

Feminism greatly benefits from such discredited notions. In fact, there’s much that is fuzzy in feminism. For example, it has yet to properly define what it means by “patriarchy” (the literal meaning of the term is, “father-power”).

Next, feminism gains its political agenda from the work of one more man, Friedrich Engels, who systematized what women must do, in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

Engels, who wasn’t an original thinker, cobbled this book together from notes of his smarter accomplice, Karl Marx, which makes Marx the fourth father of feminism. Here’s his famous passage from The Communist Manifesto (1848): “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production…He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.” Sound familiar?

Feminism has nothing to do with ancient history; rather, it was formulated, by men, in the nineteenth-century, and then emerged in the twentieth, as a protest movement of discontent. This makes feminism an emotional response to modernity. Given its dubious beginnings, feminism must finally explain why it should continue to exist.

Nirmal Dass is a former university professor specializing in the Early and High Middle Ages. His areas of research are philosophy, history and ancient languages. He has written several books and is actively engaged in literary translation.


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