dedication and organization

opening words


the program

literature of the lecturers






press releases

1st World Congress on Matriarchal Studies
Luxembourg 2003
Selected Papers


Center for the Study of the Gift Economy

International Academy Hagia

Heide Goettner-Abendroth

Modern Matriarchal Studies.
Definitions, Scope and Topicality


Questions of women's rights are questions of human rights: they are not fringe issues, but are at the core of a society's character. The extent of a society's development is most clearly reflected in the freedom women enjoy, and in the extent to which they are able to express their creativity. The way we live today, both as scientists and as members of society, is influenced by a world view – and a sense of history – based, to a large extent, on male principles. This foundation is maintained by structural and mental violence. It is the ideology of universal male dominance and universal patriarchy.

The research findings of Modern Matriarchal Studies contradict this world view. The subject of Modern Matriarchal Studies is the investigation and presentation of non-patriarchal societies, those that existed in the past and those that still, to some degree, are still with us now. Even today there are peoples with matriarchal patterns in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania. None of these is a mere reversal of patriarchy, where women somehow rule over men – as it is often commonly misinterpreted – instead, they are, without exception, egalitarian societies,. This means that hierarchies, classes and the domination of one gender by the other are all unknown to them. They are societies that are free of domination, but they still have their guidelines and codes. And this is what makes them so attractive to those looking for a new philosophy to support the creation of a just society.

Equality does not mean a mere levelling of differences. The natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honoured in matriarchies, but they never serve to create hierarchies, as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations each have their own value and dignity, and through complementary areas of activity they depend on each other.

This can be observed at all levels of society: the economic level, the social level, the political level, and in the areas of their worldviews and faiths. More precisely, matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among generations, and between humans and nature.

Matriarchal Studies started as early as 140 years ago with the pioneering work of Johann Jakob Bachofen's "The Mother Right" (1861), but it did not meet with an appreciative reception [1].
Over the past few decades Matriarchal Studies have been undergirded with a scientific foundation; thus making way for Modern Matriarchal Studies. This enterprise differs in several ways from the previous matriarchal studies:
  1. it articulates a specific definition of terms,
  2. it uses an explicit methodology,
  3. it presents a systematic criticism of the ideological patriarchal bias that characterizes existing social and cultural sciences.
In this way a new socio-cultural science has been created, one that represents a new paradigm. The central tenet of this paradigm is that women have not only created society and culture over long periods of human history, but that all subsequent cultural developments originated there.

A new paradigm emerges when the old one has lost its credibility and starts to decay. The new approach can be used to clarify many open questions that the old paradigm could not satisfactorily solve. And it has political relevance as well: it must not stay confined to academia because, as a new worldview, it affects society and the individuals within it. It is not dependent on one particular individual; rather, it ëerupts' simultaneously in many different ways and at many different places because the time is ripe for it. It comes into being out of a spiritual and political need, one which no one planned and no one ordered. Several scholars, working independently of each other, are now expressing it for the first time, while maintaining their own specific emphases and perspectives. And in this we see the exciting part of the emergence of a new paradigm, the aspect that confirms its power.

At this Congress, many different scholars with diverse standpoints have met together to present the main features and scope of the new paradigm of matriarchal studies. They have reached their conclusions independently of each other. However, the results of their research largely complement each other, and are the building blocks of a new, non-patriarchal worldview. This attests to the usefulness and relevance of this new socio-cultural science – which developed freely, unhampered by any particular school of thought. Some of these scholars hold differing perspectives, and some of their results are contradictory. However, this does not weaken the new paradigm. On the contrary, as with every young science, they actually advance the process of developing new knowledge. The scholars involved in this process have one subject in common: a radical new perception, one that replaces the traditional worldview.

Using the term "Matriarchal Studies" implies understanding matriarchal societies' organization as not simply the reversal of the patriarchal form of society, but as a system with its own rules. This latter view has gained credence in the German-speaking countries, but less so in the Anglo-American countries. This situation is partly due to the incorrect translation of Bachofen's Greek term "gynaikokratie," or "rule by women," a term which has been confused with the term "matriarchy." "Rule by women" has never existed in the patriarchal sense of "rule," but matriarchies have existed, in various forms, over very long periods of human history.

Not all the scholars gathered here call this form of society by the same name; it is variously referred to as "matrifocal, matristic, matricentric or gylanic" society. However, they do agree to the same concept: a form of society which does not have patriarchal patterns and demonstrates a high degree of equilibrium – a society in balance.

1. Definition of "matriarchal society"

Up until recently, scientific research in the field of matriarchy has lacked a clear definition and a scientific methodology, in spite of the existence of several competent studies and extensive data collection. This absence of scientific rigor opens up the door to the emotional and ideological entanglements that have been a burden for this science from the beginning. Patriarchy itself has not been critically considered in the treatment of this subject, while stereotypical views of women – and a neurotic fear of women's alleged power – has often confused the issues.

The differentiated patterns of existing matriarchal societies have been investigated in detail. History alone will not explain how matriarchal people thought and felt, how they conducted their politics and how they lived out their faith. To be able to observe this is an advantage of the anthropological perspective. Over the past few decades, my major work has been to research, describe and present a wide range of matriarchal societies throughout the world. From these exhausive studies, and through a careful, inductive process, I have reached the conclusions from which I derive my arguments. Based on cross-cultural examination of case after case, I have outlined the structures and regulative mechanisms that function across all levels of matriarchal societies.

Some of these still existing societies are the Mosuo, Yao, Miao and Tan peoples in China, the Chiang people of Tibet, the Minangkabau of Sumatra, the Ainu of Japan, the Trobrianders of Melanesia in the Pacific, the Khasi, Garo and Nayar of India, the Bantu, Akan and Ashanti peoples in Africa, the Berbers and Tuareg of North Africa, the Arawak peoples of South America, the Cuna and Juchitanians of Central America, the Hopi and Pueblo peoples as well as the Iroquois peoples of North America, just to name the main ones. All of them are in danger nowadays of losing their traditional cultures – or have already lost them. I have portrayed them in their socio-cultural and historical context, according to the anthropological evidence available, in my major work called Matriarchy and, additionally, have published a monography Matriarchy in Southern China. All the sources I have used are given in these books.[2]

Now I will present the various criteria, at four different levels, for a definition of matriarchal societies: the economic level, the level of social patterns, the level of political decision making, and the cultural level.

At the economic level, matriarchies are most often agricultural societies, but not exclusively so. Goods are distributed according to a system that is identical with the lines of kinship and the patterns of marriage. This system prevents goods from being accumulated by one special person or one special group. Thus, the principles of equality are consciously kept up, and the society is egalitarian and non-accumulating. From a political point of view, matriarchies are societies with perfect mutuality. Every advantage or disadvantage concerning the acquisition of goods is mediated by social rules. For example, at the village festivals, wealthy clans are obliged to invite all inhabitants. They organize the banquet, at which they distribute their wealth to gain honor. Therefore, on the economic level they produce a balanced economy, and so I call matriarchies societies of economic reciprocity.

At the social level, matriarchies are based on a union of the extended clan. The people live together in big clans, which are formed according to the principle of matrilineality; that is, kinship is acknowledged exclusively in the female line. The clan's name, and all social positions and political titles, are passed on through the mother's line. Such a matri-clan consists at least of three generations of women: the clan-mother, her daughters, her granddaughters, and the directly related men: the brothers of the mother, and her sons and grandsons. Generally, the matri-clan lives in one big clan-house, which holds anywhere from 10 to more than 100 persons, depending on size and architectural style. The women live there permanently, because daughters and granddaughters never leave the clan-house of their mother when they marry. This is called matrilocality.

What is most important is the fact that women have the power of disposition over the goods of the clan, especially the power to control the sources of nourishment: fields and food. This characteristic feature, besides matrilinearity and matrilocality, grants women such a strong position that these societies are "matriarchal." (Anthropologists do not make a distinction between merely matrilineal, and clearly matriarchal societies. This continues to produce great confusion.)

The clans are connected to each other by the patterns of marriage, especially the system of mutual marriage between two clans. Mutual marriage between two clans is not marriage between individuals, but rather a communal marriage. The married people do not leave the houses of their mothers, but practice visiting marriage. Due to additional patterns of marriage between all clans, everyone in a matriarchal village or a matriarchal town is eventually related to everyone else by birth or by marriage. Therefore, I call matriarchies non-hierarchical, horizontal societies of matrilineal kinship.

Even the process of making a political decision is organized along the lines of matriarchal kinship. In the clan-house, women and men meet in a council where domestic matters are discussed. No member of the household is excluded. After thorough discussion, each decision is taken by consensus. The same is true for the entire village: if matters concerning the whole village have to be discussed, delegates from every clan-house meet in the village council. These delegates can be the oldest women of the clans (the matriarchs), or the brothers and sons they have chosen to represent the clan. No decision concerning the whole village may be taken without the consensus of all clan-houses. This means that the delegates who are discussing the matter are not the ones who make the decision. It is not in this council that the policy of the village is made, because the delegates function only as bearers of communication. If the council notices that some clan-houses are of a different opinion, the delegates return to the clan-houses to discuss matters further. In this way, consensus is reached in the whole village, step by step.

A population living in the region makes decisions in the same way: delegates from all villages meet to discuss the decisions of their communities. Again, the delegates function only as bearers of communication. In such cases, it is usually men who are elected by their villages. In contrast to the frequent ethnological mistakes made about these men, they are not the "chiefs" and do not, in fact, decide. Every village, and in every village every clan-house, is involved in the process of making the decision, until consensus is reached on the regional level. Therefore, from the political point of view, I call matriarchies egalitarian societies of consensus. These political patterns do not allow the accumulation of political power. In exactly this sense, they are free from domination: They have no class of rulers and no class of suppressed people; that is, the enforcement bodies that are necessary to establish domination are unknown to them.

On the cultural level, matriarchal societies do not have the concept of religious transcendence in terms of an unseen, untouchable, and incomprehensible all-powerful God, in contrast to whom the world is devalued as dead matter. In matriarchy, divinity is immanent, for the whole world is regarded as divine. This is evident in the concept of the universe as a goddess who created everything, and of Mother Earth, who brings forth everything living. And everything is endowed with divinity – the smallest pebble and the biggest star, each woman and man, each blade of grass and each mountain.

In such a culture, everything is spiritual. In their festivals, following the rhythms of the seasons, everything is celebrated: nature in its manifold expressions, the different clans with their different abilities and tasks, the different genders and the different generations, following the principle of "wealth in diversity." There is no separation between sacred and secular; so everyday tasks such as planting and harvesting, cooking and weaving are, at the same time, meaningful rituals. On the spiritual level, I define matriarchies as sacred societies and cultures of the Goddess.

2. The scope of Modern Matriarchal Studies

Following the argument of my main work, Matriarchy, which is in the process of being published in several consecutive volumes, I briefly want to present my theory of matriarchal society. It shows the scope of modern research on matriarchy. Important research that has already been done on this topic has been, and will continue to be, included in this framework.

In the first step of developing this theory I give an overview of the previous research in matriarchy. I follow the course the research has taken, using examples of the scientific as well as of the political discussion. What becomes obvious is the lack of a clear and complete definition of "matriarchy." Furthermore, in this book I properly frame the method of ideological criticism. This method is necessary to this area of study, because most of the early and contemporary writings about the topic are heavily tainted by patriarchal ideology [3].

In the second step of the development of this theory I therefore formulate the complete structural definition of "matriarchy," a definition we urgently need. It specifies the necessary and adequate characteristics of this form of society. It is not formulated abstractly, but arrived at by investigating the immense amount of ethnological material.
The systematic step of my anthropological research becomes visible now. I have dedicated the past ten years to this research, because we cannot get a complete definition of "matriarchy" from cultural history alone. There we are only dealing with the remains and fragments of former societies. That is not sufficient for an overall picture. It remains undisputed that these may well be very numerous fragments, and that they may well be extremely important; still they can give us only scattered information. Through historical research alone we cannot know how matriarchal people thought or felt, how they organized their social patterns or political events; in other words, how their society was structured as a whole. In order to gain this knowledge and – as a consequence – to develop a complete definition of "matriarchy," we have to examine the still living examples of this form of society. Fortunately, they still exist on all continents except Europe (see 2).

In the third step of the development of my theory I use the complete definition of "matriarchy," which I have now extracted, as a scientific tool for a revision of the cultural history of humankind. This history is much longer than the four to five thousand years of patriarchal history. In its longest periods, non-patriarchal societies were developed in which women created culture and embodied the integral center of society. Extant matriarchal societies are the last examples.

Fortunately, in this field excellent research is already available, for example, the outstanding work of Marija Gimbutas [4]. It has been extended recently. What is still lacking, however, is the systematic framework, that is, the overall picture of the long history of matriarchy.

It is obvious that such an immense task is impossible without a complete definition of "matriarchy." After it has been formulated in the anthropological part of my theory, we now have, for the very first time, the chance to begin to adequately write the complete history of humankind, and to do so without the distortions of patriarchal prejudices. This new interpretation of history is urgently necessary today, because the patriarchal interpretation of history more and more turns out to be wrong and out-dated.

In the fourth step of the development of this theory I write about the problem of the rise of patriarchy. Two important questions have to be answered: 1. How could patriarchal patterns develop in the first place? 2. How could they spread all over the world? The latter is by no means obvious.

In my opinion neither question has been sufficiently answered yet. Instead, a lot of pseudo-explanations have been offered. If we want to explain the development of patriarchy we first of all need clear knowledge about the form of society which existed previously – and that was matriarchy. At present, this knowledge is in the process of being developed. It is the absolute precondition for explaining the development of patriarchy. Otherwise, we begin with false assumptions.

Secondly, a theory about the development of patriarchy has to explain why patriarchal patterns emerged in different places, on different continents, at different times and under different conditions. The answers will be very different for the different regions of the world. This task has not yet been done at all [5].

In the fifth step of the development of this theory, I write about the analysis and history of patriarchy. Until now, the history of patriarchy has been written down as a history of domination, as a history "from the top." But there is also the perspective of the history "from the bottom," which shows a completely different picture. It is the history of women, of the oppressed classes, of the colonized, the marginalized and the subcultures. It shows that patriarchy did not succeed in destroying the ancient and long matriarchal traditions on all continents. In the end, it is still parasitically living on these traditions.

The task is to show that these traditions (oral traditions, customs, myths, rites, folklore, etc.) have their roots in the preceding traditions, matriarchy [6]. But we can recognize this only with the help of the complete definition of matriarchy. If we can manage to follow the traces backwards through the history of patriarchy and to connect them, this means nothing less than regaining our heritage.

3. Political relevance of Modern Matriarchal Studies

From this outline of modern matriarchal studies it has become clear, that it deals with knowledge held by non-patriarchal, basically egalitarian, social, political and cultural patterns; this knowledge is urgently needed in this late phase of globally destructive patriarchy. Matriarchies – during their long historical epochs and in the still existing societies – have managed to exist without domination, hierarchies, and wars as organized killing. In particular they do not practice violence against women and children – in stark contrast to the patriarchal societies of the world, which are plagued by it.

Thus it is becoming increasingly clear that matriarchal patterns have great significance for both present and future societies. Matriarchal societies are not merely abstract utopias, constructed according to philosophical constructs that can never be implemented. On the contrary, matriarchal societies have existed throughout long historical periods. They embody practical experience and intellectual creativity, and belong indispensably to humankind's cultural store of knowledge. Their precepts show how life can be organized in such a way that it is based on needs, and is peaceful, non-violent and simply human.

This is the reason why it is important to recognize the political significance of matriarchal patterns as a way of solving current problems. Even more: matriarchal patterns can show us the path to an egalitarian society that combines spirituality with politics to create another kind of economy and another society. Their economics, politics, social organization and spirituality are inseparably interconnected, and the purpose of all of it is to provide a good life for everybody; this common good is assured through their organizational structures and conventions. Of course, we can not go back and simply transfer historical patterns to the present. For example, the blood-relatedness of the clans, or the sole dependence on agriculture, are not necessarily appropriate today. History and its accompanying social changes cannot be turned backwards. But for our own path into the new egalitarian society, we can gain much stimulation and great insights from these patterns, which have been tried and tested over millennia.

Economically, we have arrived at a position where it is no longer possible to further increase the amount of large scale industrial growth, and further inflate the Western standard of living, without running the risk of totally annihilating the biosphere of the earth. A way out of this – one that has been discussed by others – is subsistence economy, based on local and regional units. These communities work frugally and self-sufficiently, and the resulting quality of life is more important to them than producing a great quantity of goods. It is important to support the still existing subsistence societies the world over. Women are the mainstays of these economic structures and the societies that are based on them. They need to be supported and helped to expand, so that they are not sacrificed to the global market. This regionalization, in which women guide the economy, is a matriarchal principle.

On the social level, it is important to stop the increasing 'atomisation' of society. It drives people deeper and deeper into desperation and loneliness, making them ill and destructive, providing fertile ground for violence and war. What is necessary is the creation and support of affinity groups, intentional communities of different kinds: they can be neighbourhood associations or regional networks, they may be traditional existing communities, or alternative new ones. These groups are not just interest groups – interest groups are quickly created, but just as easily disbanded. The affinity groups, rather, are formed on the basis of a spiritual-philosophical rapport between the members. This is the basis for creating a symbolic clan as a group of siblings by choice. Here there is far more commitment than there is in a mere interest group.

As a matriarchal principle, such affinity groups, which can form affinity clans as siblings by choice, are initiated, directed and kept going by women. Right now women can instigate such groups, and many have already done so. The decisive factors are the needs of women – and especially of children, who are the future of humanity. The focus here is not men's desires for power and dominion, which have led to patriarchal, extended families and political men's clubs and associations that exclude and oppress women. The symbolic matri-clans, based on siblings by choice, do integrate men fully, but do so according to a different set of values, based on mutual care and love instead of power. Men have a better life in this kind of society than they do under patriarchy. It would be a political aim to support the creation of such communities in every possible way.

On the level of political decision making, the matriarchal consensus principle is of utmost importance for a truly egalitarian society. This can be practised in the here and now, anywhere and everywhere. The consensus principle is the foundation for building new matriarchal communities. At the same time, it prevents splinter-groups, cliques or individuals from dominating the group. It brings about a balance between the genders and also the generations, for adolescents and older people have the same standing as everybody else. Furthermore, consensus is the genuine democratic principle, for it provides what formal democracy promises, but never delivers.

Following this principle, the small units of these new matri-clans are the true decision-makers, but this can only be practised up to the regional level. According to the subsistence perspective, flourishing and self-sufficient regions are the political aim – not the big nation states, state unions and super powers which are merely serving to increase the power of the powerful and reduce individuals to "human resources."

On the spiritual-cultural level, we are bound to bid farewell to all hierarchical religions with a transcendent view of the divine and a claim to the total truth. This has led to the vilification of creation, the environment, and humankind itself – particularly of its women. Instead of this, the aim is a re-enchantment and sanctification of the world as a whole. For according to matriarchal vision, everything in the world is divine. This leads to everything being honoured and celebrated in a free and creative way – nature in her manifold appearances and various beings, as well as the mulitplicity of the human community. This happens by celebrating the women at one time, at another the men, another the young people, and another the older people. Celebrating them and honouring their special skills and abilities and their "dignities." Every step we take towards this aim of creating a new egalitarian society is worthy of a celebration. For each one of these steps is an act in the creation of a new history, which could provide an example of how all of humanity could live a happier life.

In this way, matriarchal spirituality can once again infuse everything, thereby becoming a normal part of everyday life. At the same time, what again becomes apparent is matriarchal tolerance, for nobody has to "believe" anything. There is no dogma and no teaching; instead there is the continuous, manifold celebration of life and the visible world.

In this sense, the path to egalitarian society can only be holistic, without being vague. It has to be concrete, without getting lost in disconnected details. The egalitarian society could also be called "the matriarchal model," which sets out a clear vision and practical guidelines to a better future for all of us.

(Translation by Jutta Ried and Karen P. Smith)


1 Bachofen, Johann, Jakob: Das Mutterrecht, Stuttgart 1861, English: Myth, Religion and Mother Right.

2 Goettner-Abendroth, Heide: Das Matriarchat II,1. Stammesgesellschaften in Ostasien,   Indonesien, Ozeanien, Verlag Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1991/1999.
  ----: Das Matriarchat II,2. Stammesgesellschaften in Amerika,   Indien, Afrika, Verlag Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2000.
  ----: Matriarchat in S¸dchina, Verlag Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1998.

3 Goettner-Abendroth, Heide: Das Matriarchat I. Geschichte seiner Erforschung, Verlag Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1988-1995.

4 Gimbutas, Marija: The Civilization of the Goddess, Harper&Row, San Francisco 1991.

5 Goettner-Abenroth, Heide: "Notes on the Origin of Patriarchy" (first published in German language 1998), now in: C. Biaggia (ed.) The Rule of Mars. The History and Impact of Patriarchy, KIT 2005.

6 Goettner-Abendroth, Heide: The Goddess and her Heros, in German: Frauenoffensive, M¸nchen 1980-1997, in English: Anthony Publishing Company, Stow MA 1995.