Women in Ancient Times: from Matriarchy to Patriarchy

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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 19th 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 hetairistic 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" 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-20th 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,...
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