Friday, 27 February 2009

Notes on the Origin of Patriarchy

First, assuming that there ever was a time when civilization was
non-patriarchal. This is far from proven, although there are some indications
that this may have been the case. How did the transition from non-patriarchal
to patriarchal culture take place?

The argument that because men are more aggressive and physically stronger than
women, naturally they win the competition over women for privilege in the

Much of feminist doctrine asserts that there is nothing that a man can do that a
woman cannot do. Women are entering the military -- even the infantry; they are
entering traditionally male sports like wrestling, even competing directly
against males. Women marathon runners are beginning to claim that they can
outrun men in very long-distance marathons, of fifty miles or more. It is
unlikely that women will ever be equal to men in physical strength, but the gap
is closing as more women enter sports competitions.

Feminist doctrine also asserts that aggression is not necessarily the only form
of human strength. We know that human solidarity, for example, must depend on
something more than aggression, and that humans in cooperation can accomplish
much more than individuals, no matter how aggressive those individuals may be.
Women's relational style tends to produce greater social solidarity than male
aggressive style. Therefore it seems likely in a "battle between the sexes"
that women could have an advantage over men.

Feminist doctrine denies that women are the "weaker sex," pointing out that
there are many forms of strength other than physical force and aggression.
Women can deploy many alternative forms of strength and solidarity more
effectively than men can.

It is assumed that because men receive the cultural benefit of patriarchy more
than women, that men therefore must have designed and implemented patriarchy.

The image of the male in early civilization that emerges from this model is very
impressive. He was able to imagine a new system of society that would benefit
him over the women around him. He was able to organize a conspiracy with the
other men in his society against half of his community. He was able to employ
his physical strength against the women's superior capacity for social
solidarity. He was able to invent a religious system to establish and preserve
his privileges against the countervailing force of women's perspective and
experience. He was strong, imaginative, brilliant, and well-organized. He was
also evil enough to want to oppress the women who bore him and his children. If
it weren't for his extreme evil, one might be tempted to conclude that
patriarchy is a good system, since it puts such an obviously superior creature
in charge of the culture. It seems that much of the ostensibly anti-patriarchal
theorizing about the origin of patriarchy is based on patriarchal assumptions.

Let us take two principles of feminist doctrine and hold them to be accurate:
First, that women are not the "weaker sex," and that patriarchy is an inherently
violent system which stands in the way of peace and wholeness for humankind. In
other words, equality and justice among the sexes is the origin and destiny of
our species. But somewhere along the line there was a "fall," and expulsion
from the "Garden of Eden."

But this fall could not have been perpetrated by one sex over against the other,
since one sex is not "weaker" than the other. There had to be some deception or
illusion that entered human culture to caused the two sexes to collaborate in
this failure of justice.

But why would women collaborate in their own oppression? We are at a point that
suggests "blaming the victim," an old ploy of oppressors to justify their
privileges. But this is not the only conclusion available. The origin of
patriarchy may be a case of a cultural crisis leading to the choice of a lesser
evil. A doctor will amputate an infected limb in order to save the life of the
patient. Is it not possible that the system of patriarchy emerges as a choice by
the whole culture -- men and women alike -- in order to avert a crisis that
could destroy the culture altogether? This hypothesis seems more consistent
with the feminist understanding of the essentially equal power of women in human
society. It is also more consistent with the archeological evidence.

The question of course is, what sort of crisis could possibly convince women to
surrender their social position and embrace a patriarchal system that cruelly
oppresses them?

We know that the origin of patriarchy seems to occur at a certain point in all
early agricultural civilizations. Wherever agriculture has emerged around the
world, it seems that patriarchy follows. The three primary example are the
ancient near east, ancient China, and mesoamerica. In each case, agriculture
emerged independent of outside influence; in each case, the original emergence
of agriculture seems to be followed by a period of worship of a fertility
goddess (with or without a male counterpart) and a society characterized by
approximate equality of the sexes; but this brief period of quasi-matriarchy is
followed by the emergence of a warlike, male-dominated culture.

Certain scholars, such as Gerda Lerner, Marija Gimbutas, and Rianne Eisler have
tried to explain the emergence of patriarchy as the result of an invasion by
warlike patriarchal cultures with superior iron-age weapons into the peaceful
agrarian community. But this hypothesis fails to address two important issues:
one, how did the iron-age invaders become patriarchal? And two, how can this
explain the emergence of patriarchy in Mesoamerica, where civilization had
barely advanced beyond the stone age?

So what might the crisis have been? Now we must rely on speculation, since we
have no documents and few artifacts to help us. But the first clue, or rather
the guiding principle for our speculation, comes from René Girard's mimetic
theory. I don't need to summarize Girard's theory here; it's only necessary to
point out that Girard's theory can suggest a solution to the nature of the
crisis which is resolved by patriarchy: the mimetic crisis. If Girard is right,
the greatest challenge to human survival has little to do with a lack of
calories. Our greatest challenge is how to manage our own violence. I would
propose that the rise of patriarchy in early agricultural societies is a
response to some new and dangerous form of the mimetic crisis which is produced
in agricultural societies.

Agriculture itself probably originated in the mimetic crisis. The planting and
harvesting of crops was originally a religious enterprise, which only gradually
became primarily concerned with material production to meet nutritional needs.
During this process of transition from religious to material, or perhaps
aftwards, agrarian culture becomes patriarchal.

We know that early agrarian cultures worship fertility, primarily (but not
exclusively) in the form of a fertility goddess who is depicted with her
procreative organs greatly exaggerated. This is true in mesoamerica as well as
in the middle east. The fertility of the earth is associated with sacrifice,
probably because it is viewed as producing food which is a kind of substitute
for cannibalism, a sacred grain which extends the religious benefit of the
sacrifice. Given that the fetishes of the mother goddess are the primary
anthropomorphic manifestations of this principle of fertility, it seems likely
that the sacrificial victims preferred for the fertility ritual may have been
women. Their bodies are associated with the production of life and peace, so to
sacrifice a woman and bury her so that her body may give rise to a harvest of
peace seems a natural deduction from the standpoint of sympathetic magic.

Next, again through a religious deduction, woman as birth-giver is associated
with woman as sacrificial victim. The penetration of the woman to impregnate
her becomes associated with the plowing of the ground to create fertility, and
especially as the penetration of the body of the (female) sacrificial victim
with the sacrificial blade. The male acquires the role of priest or sacred
executioner/hero. The act of sex becomes a ritual of sacrifice.

These developments occur in response to the religious/mimetic crisis which
afflicts all human cultures. But the crisis takes on new dangers in response to
the heavily gendered nature of the new religion. The culture sees that all
life, peace, harmony, fertility, etc. are emerging from the female principle.
This tends to disturb the careful balance between male and female principles in
the culture. The female threatens to overwhelm the culture, generating a new
mimetic crisis.

What I mean by the "female principle" is precisely the characteristics of
feminity which are celebrated in feminist anthropology -- affection, nurture,
intimacy, mothering, empathy, and so on. While these characteristics are
essential to human growth and life, by themselves they constitute a cultural
threat -- the threat of undifferentiation. These "feminine" qualities tend to
erase boundaries and differences. As Girard has shown, when difference begins
to disappear, a mimetic crisis develops which devolves into random violence.
The random violence can completely destroy the community. The "medicine"
against this mimetic crisis is the maintenance of difference through carefully
managed and targeted sacrificial violence -- with the feminine herself as the
sacrificed victim.

The "feminine" principle therefore has to be balanced with an artificially
exaggerated masculine principle -- aggression and differentiation -- in order to
avert the mimetic crisis. Patriarchy becomes the means for the culture to

As we examine the founding myths of these early patriarchal cultures, we find
what may be a reflection of this very process. Marduk, the Babylonian
patriarchal god/sacred executioner/hero, murders his mother Tiamat and forms the
cosmos from her body; similarly, Tlaloc, the patriarchal rain god of the Aztecs,
begins the foundation of the world by murdering his mother as soon as he is born
from her body.

-- Britt Johnston


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