Modern Matriarchal Studies

Modern Matriarchal Studies Week at the Academy Hagia

by Joan Cichon

This past July I was privileged to attend a special week long seminar taught by Dr. Heide Gottner-Abendroth at her International Academy Hagia (www.hagia.de) in Bavaria, Germany.  Entitled “Modern Matriarchal Studies,” the seminar was attended by sixteen women from Africa, Europe and North and South America.  Among the participants were politicians, activists, scholars, academicians, and artists.

We came to Bavaria for Dr. Gottner-Abendroth’s first seminar in English on Modern Matriarchal Studies, a field which she originated.

For the past thirty years she has studied matriarchal societies both past and present.  As she has shown in her books, articles, and films, matriarchies are not a utopian dream, but conscious, cultural creations which have been present for most of human history.  Matriarchy is not the opposite of patriarchy—power over—but, rather, matriarchies are non-hierarchal, egalitarian societies based on economic reciprocity. Moreover, they are cultures of the Feminine Divine.

Dr. Gottner-Abendroth has developed a five-part definition of matriarchy which encompasses economics, society, politics, spirituality and culture.  (Please see her web site for a bibliography of her publications, as well as her biography: http://www.gottner-abendroth.de).  Below is a key-word summary of her very detailed definition which she provided for us that week:

Matriarchal economics (modes of production and distribution): balanced economy with perfect mutuality, based on subsistence production (independent production) and on gift giving distribution; no private property, no territorial claims, only usage rights on the soil which is worked; the basic goods and the distribution are in the hands of women (i.e. the matriarchs).

Matriarchal social order:  based on the clans; non-hierarchical, horizontal order of matrilineal kinship (matrilinearity); residence very often in a big clan-house of the mother (matrilocality); common motherhood of sisters; the result is that every woman is a “mother”; the brothers are the supporters of women, not the lovers or husbands; brothers are regarded as the closest relatives to the sisters’ children (“social fathers”); lovers and spouses either as guests over night (“walking/visiting marriage”) or during a short period, their home is their mothers’ houses; each generation has its own “honor/dignity” i.e. its own powers and tasks; children are regarded as reborn female and male ancestors.

Matriarchal politics:  decision-making by a complex system of councils (organized along the matrilineal kinship lines); clan councils, village councils, regional councils, and in some cases, inter-regional councils; all decisions are clan-based and are made by consensus throughout the system of councils; the result: egalitarian societies of consensus.

Matriarchal culture and worldview:  no organized, hierarchical religion with power centers, instead tradition-based spirituality (comes from “spirits”); spirituality is performed by a great variety of ceremonies and rituals, these are not static, but dynamic; no transcendence beyond the world, the world (Earth and Universe) is regarded as divine, i.e. divinity is immanent; the result is: all is divine, all beings are equal, no hierarchy among all what exists; “diversity is wealth”; everything/everybody is interconnected with all what exists; cyclical concept of time and life; ever-lasting cycles of life and death and rebirth; sacred societies/cultures, or cultures of the “Divine Feminine.”

Following a lovely welcome ritual on the land surrounding her home and the Academy Hagia (which she founded there), Dr. Gottner-Abendroth began the seminar with a discussion of the lifestyle of matriarchal women and men, and the matriarchal education of children and youth.  One of her comments during that lecture that made a strong impression on me was one about men in matriarchal societies:  they don’t need to prove anything because they have a place in the clan; and women, their mothers and their sisters, love them.

The next morning’s lecture was given by Genevieve Vaughan, author of For-giving: a Feminist Critique of Exchange. Her presentation dealt with her many years of research into and writing on an alternative economic model she has termed the “Gift Economy”—an economy based on maternal values and characterized by free-distribution, transitivity, giving and receiving, and satisfying needs.  (Please see her web site: www.gift-economy.com for a complete bibliography of her publications and a full explanation of her important opus.)   Genevieve Vaughan’s work dovetails perfectly with Modern Matriarchal Studies, for as Dr. Gottner-Abendroth said in the afternoon lecture on matriarchal economic patterns, the main principles of a matriarchal economy are gift-giving from abundance, satisfying needs, and free distribution.  Matriarchal economies are balanced economies with perfect mutuality, and like Mother Nature Herself, they give in abundance.

It was also during this session that Dr. Gottner-Abendroth made the point that for a society to be termed matriarchal, in her definition, it must possess at least two characteristics:  one is matrilineality; the other is that goods and their distribution are in the hands of women.

Our third day was devoted to diverse traditional matriarchal political patterns, conflict solving in matriarchal societies, and patterns of resistance to patriarchal aggression.  As Dr. Gottner-Abendroth explained, in matriarchal societies decision making is done by a complex system of councils organized along matrilineal kinship lines.  Such councils are found all the way from the clan level up through the inter-regional level.

The conflicts of patriarchy do not occur in matriarchy because the political/economic/social/spiritual system of matriarchy is completely different from that of patriarchy.  When there is conflict between two people, as there will be given we are all human, it is solved at the clan level—everyone in the clan helps the two people involved to resolve the conflict.  In more difficult situations, for example, when a daughter wishes to live a different lifestyle from that of her mother, a new home (and thus the beginning of a new village) is built for her and her family.  Dr. Gottner-Abendroth has also come upon situations in which the conflict is even more difficult, as in the case of pressures developing within a matriarchal society from encroaching patriarchy.  In such cases, ritual is used to help solve the conflict.

One of the ideas most difficult for me to assimilate in this day’s presentation was the matriarchal understanding of consensus.  I have always thought of consensus as the decision of the majority.  But that is not the case in matriarchal societies.  There, decisions are not taken until everyone agrees.  As Dr. Gottner-Abendroth explained to me and the group, people in matriarchal societies are socialized to feel each other’s needs.  Because of this socialization, and the fact that ritual accompanies all meeting (thus adding a spiritual component to the proceedings), a very different atmosphere in which to reach consensus is created in matriarchal societies.

As for resistance to patriarchal aggression, the most common method, even into modern times, has been to move away from the aggressors.  The other common response has been to accept patriarchy outwardly.  The society of the Minangkabau of Indonesia,  four million strong, detailed in Peggy Reeves Sandy’s book Women at the Center, illustrates this method of dealing with patriarchal aggression.

On the final days of the seminar, Dr. Gottner-Abendroth turned her attention to the subjects of matriarchal spirituality, and the methodology of Modern Matriarchal Studies.  In matriarchal spirituality every being is divine, all beings in the cosmos are equal, and there is no transcendence beyond the world.  I found especially interesting Dr. Gottner-Abendroth’s comment that the word Goddess is only necessary when a god is present.  Pre-god, people didn’t use the word Goddess, but rather terms like Mistress of the Animals, Holy Woman, and Lady.

As regards the methodology of Modern Matriarchal Studies, like archaeomythology, it also uses comparative methods, is inter-disciplinary, and critical of patriarchal ideology.  With her definition of matriarchy, Dr. Gottner-Abendroth has provided the theoretical tool for the discipline of Modern Matriarchal Studies to move forward.  She believes the definition possesses a strong inner logical that allows explanations to come from a deep level.  Using her definition we can look at societies past and present and ask: are these matriarchal societies?  Are they “matriarchal societies in transition”? Or are they patriarchies?  During this lecture Dr. Gottner-Abendroth reiterated that for a society to be termed a matriarchy there must be matrilineality and the economy must be in the hands of women.  If these two components are not present, the society is patriarchal.  In this presentation she also emphasized that Modern Matriarchal Studies is not about women versus men.  It is about societies that are egalitarian and centered on maternal values.  She believes we must move the discourse from women versus men to social structures.

This is a brief summary of a very rich seven days.  I have been an admirer of Dr. Gottner-Abendroth’s work since I first heard her speak in Istanbul at the “Earth Shaped by Woman, Woman Shaped by Earth” conference in 1998, where she gave the keynote address.   It was truly a thrill for me to hear her so eloquently discuss her ground-breaking work during our seminar week.  Equally exciting were the discussions, and question and answer sessions that took place throughout the week: before, during, and after the lectures; at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sometimes late into the night.  I am looking forward with great anticipation to the Third Matriarchal Studies Conference that will be held in St Gallen, Switzerland May 12-15, 2011.  Entitled “The Time is Ripe . . . Insights from Matriarchal Studies, Perspectives on Matriarchal Politics,” information about the upcoming conference can be found on the web site for the conference:  http://kongress-matriarchatspolitik.ch/?lang=en.

Finally, I am happy to report that Dr. Gottner-Abendroth’s three volume opus, Matriarchal Societies, will be published in English in late 2011 by Peter Lang publishers.

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