Ancient Europe had no gods. The Great Goddess was regarded as immortal,
changeless, and omnipotent; and the concept of fatherhood had not been
introduced into religious thought … Men feared, adored, and obeyed the
matriarch; the hearth which she tended in a cave or hut being their earliest
social centre, and motherhood their prime mystery.
—Robert Graves, from his introduction to The Greek Myths
Author Hanna Rosin believes our world has entered an era spelling The End of Men and the Rise of Women, a postindustrial society open more to the professional success of women than of men. The information economy prizes skills attributed to women: “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus.”
Meanwhile in the reproductive sweepstakes, mothers around the world from America to China now prefer having girls to boys, viewing daughters as future monuments of maternal glory. Rosin hails a dawning “worldwide role reversal” in which “the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success.” American women outnumber and outperform men in university and hold more than half of managerial positions, leading the “broad, striving middle class” that feeds the economy. Granted, Rosin admits “women account for only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.” Women may “hold the cards,” but men own the casino. Still it’s only a matter of time before we correct perhaps the most repugnant feature of human history: “Man has been the dominant sex since, well, since the dawn of mankind.”
Maybe he hasn’t. Though written off today by academe, some nineteenth and twentieth century writers enjoyed a brief surge of interest in their theory of the existence of prehistoric matriarchies. Some of their arguments remain compelling. In Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903), classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison illustrates how certain myths are aetiological and “mirror the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy” that must have taken place in a preliterate past. She quotes St. Augustine, who, in City of God, recounts the myth of the quarrel between Athene and Poseidon over who controlled Athens. When Athenians voted in favour of the goddess, Poseidon threw a fit and punished all female citizens, “who were to lose the vote, their children were no longer to be called by their mother’s name and they themselves were no longer to be called after their goddess, Athenians.”
In Harrison’s view, the triple punishment reveals how the new patriarchal order, sacralised in Poseidon, demolishes the old matriarchal one, borne as it was by the Great Goddess, who bore herself too in the three phases of Sun and Moon: Maiden, Mother, Crone. She ruled both the world and the afterworld, giving life or death as she pleased. Thus prehistoric men feared and obeyed her mortal avatars, the tribal queens; that is, until Cecrops, mythical ‘first king of Athens’, converts Poseidon’s edict into law, instituting patriarchal marriage. Now descent is traced through the father, the goddess and her queens stripped of their former moral, religious and political authority. The conflict between Athene and Poseidon “mirrors surely some shift in the social organisation of Athens … a necessary outcome” of the death of women’s dominion. In The Greek Myths (1955), Robert Graves claims that men conquered women only after “the patriarchal Hellenes invaded Greece and Asia Minor early in the second millennium BC.”
Harrison thinks we must have taken ages to outgrow the superstition that women were incarnations of an ur-Mother, only to conjure up a new one that “the physical was a sacrament of the spiritual.” In other words, over time man’s superior physical strength came to be seen as symbolic of his stronger soul; then gods and kings seized power. While she builds a persuasive argument, Harrison admits that social and religious development through prehistory is “always a mystery, the outcome of manifold causes of which we have lost count.”
In Mothers and Amazons (1965), historian Helen Diner shares Harrison’s caution, though trusts that matriarchies were widespread, even the dominant primitive social order. Drawing on the work of anthropologist J.J. Bachofen, Diner concludes that during the Neolithic era, in regions as diverse as Palestine, Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, India, and among Native tribes in pre-contact North America, women reigned over men. Descent was traced through the mother; tribal queens delegated to males roles such as fisherman and hunter, and “deputized them in time of war.” Only mothers owned property and passed them on to daughters, while sons inherited nothing, leaving the “uterine clan” to marry into another. Hence the term ‘matrimony’.
Similarly, in The Golden Bough (1890), anthropologist James Frazer affirms that early agricultural societies established female ownership of land because women “were the first to farm it.” They believed only women knew “how to make the seed bring forth.” Men lacked the divine skill to grow and so adored their maternal masters.
Robert Graves imagines a prehistoric age oblivious to men’s role in reproduction. Plumbing the aetiology of Greek myth, he muses about what might have happened on certain nights in a Neolithic past when women were thought to be impregnated by winds and rivers. At the end of summer, the Moon exuding her moist, dark light, a tribal queen and her priestesses would decapitate a ceremonial king, praying for the blood spraying from his neck to “fructify trees, crops and flocks.”
Then they raped his headless body and tore his flesh and ate it, all to appease Mother Earth, the ‘Lady of the Wild Things’.