Myth, Religion, & Mother Right

Spend any time rooting around the dustbin of feminist theory and you’ll stub your toe on Bachofen and his late nineteenth century work, Mutterrecht und Urreligion. Bachofen was a Swiss legal scholar whose interest in antiquity led him down an untraveled path to discover the original matriarchy that ruled the world. Because how could women NOT have been in control at some point, really? He dives into mythology and picks up the shards and strands of what’s left to us (remember that the patriarchy has had thousands of years to bury evidence of earlier Mother Right: e.g. Sappho’s works burned by the Christians in 380 A.D. among other examples).
Bachofen is not a feminist in the least, but he does present some interesting ideas about earlier matriarchy. Using examples from Lycia, Athens, Lemnos, Egypt, and India, he presents his case that the ancient ancient world was ruled by women, and they were slowly stripped of all their rights. He cites as example the change in fashion between the short, less-restrictive Dorian robes (with their clasps that hacked away at the lone soldier who returned from war) to the full length hard-to-move-in robes of the Ionians, as noted in Herodotus 5.88. From naming conventions of the Lycians (taking names from mother’s line), to notions of the “motherland” far deeper in culture than “fatherland”, and seeing the clash between cultures in Aeschylus’s Eumenides where Clytaemnestra is unpunished for killing her husband but her son kills her to avenge his father. The Amazons and those deemed Amazonian were examples of extreme female power, where all the men were killed. Bachofen claims that the turning point for matriarchy was on Lemnos, where Amazonian-esque women included Hypsipyle who had Jason of Argonaut’s children and who “marks the transition from mother right to father right” by naming her children after Jason.

Raising her young, the woman learns earlier than the man to extend her loving care beyond the limits of the ego to another creature, and to direct whatever gift of invention she possesses to the preservation and improvement of this other’s existence. Woman at this stage is the repository of all culture, of all benevolence, of all devotion, of all concern for the living and grief for the dead.

What has become of the heroines whose praises were sung by Hesiod, poet of the matriarchy?… The matriarchal age, with its figures, deeds, upheavals, is beyond the poetry of cultivated but enfeebled times. Let us never forget that when the power to perform high deeds flags, the flight of the spirit falters also, and incipient rot permeates all spheres of life at once.

Every change in the relation between the sexes is attended by bloody events; peaceful and gradual change is far less frequent than violent upheaval. Carried to the extreme, every principle leads to the victory of its opposite; even abuse becomes a lever of progress; supreme triumph is the beginning of defeat… Although the struggle of matriarchy against other forms is revealed by diverse phenomena, the underlying principle of development is clear. Matriarchy is followed by patriarchy and preceded by unregulated hetaerism.

In speaking of the Amazon Omphale, Clearchus remarks that wherever such an intensification of feminine power occurs, it presupposes a previous degradation of woman and must be explained by the necessary succession of extremes… Everywhere it is an assault on woman’s rights which provokes her resistance, which inspires self-defense followed by bloody vengeance. In accordance with this law grounded in human and particularly in feminine nature, hetaerism must necessarily lead to Amazonism. Degraded by man’s abuse, it is woman who first years for a more secure position and a purer life. The sense of degradation and fury of despair spur her on to armed resistance, exalting her to that warlike grandeur which, though it seems to exceed the bounds of womanhood, is rooted simply in her need for a higher life.

To be sure, this transition from nomadism to domestic settlement is a necessary part of human development, but it is particularly in keeping with the feminine nature and occurs most quickly where the influence of women is paramount. The observation of still living peoples has shown that human societies are impelled toward agriculture chiefly by the efforts of women, while the men tend to resist this change. Countless ancient traditions support this same historical fact: women put an end to the nomadic life by burning the ships; women gave most cities their names, and, as in Rome or in Elis, women inaugurated the first apportionment of the land.

In considering the Lydian matriarchy, Clearchus writes: “The rule of women is always the consequence of a violent revolt of the female sex against the humiliation of an earlier day; among the Lydians it was Omphale who first practiced such vengeance and subjected the men to matriarchy.”

By and large the decline in women’s virtue sets in when the men begin to look down on them, when with advancing civilization the males develop a foppishness for which our own cultivated times have coined so many euphemistic terms. The progress of civilization is not favorable to woman. She is at her best in the so-called barbaric periods; later epochs destroy her hegemony, curtain her physical beauty, reduce her from the lofty position she enjoyed among the Dorian tribes to the bejeweled servitude taht was her lot in Ionia and Attica, and ultimately compel her to regain through hetaerism the influence of which she has been deprived in marital relations.