Inspired by the Goddess

Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

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Matriarchy: New Definition


For me the word “matriarchy” expresses the certainty that “another world” can exist—a world not based in domination and hierarchy or violence and war. 

The word “matriarchy” makes people’s hair stand on end as they imagine the mirror-image of patriarchy: societies in which women dominate men, beat men, rape men, hold men as slaves, and demand obedience from men.  Some who do not protest very loudly or at all against patriarchy are horrified by the very idea of matriarchy. To be fair, most feminists have also been schooled not to use the “m” word.

Early in my academic career, I read “The Myth of Matriarchy” by Joan Bamberger and learned that the idea of matriarchy gone wrong has been used by men to justify patriarchy. From other academics I learned that in matrilineal societies, uncles have a great deal of power—so therefore there never was a matriarchy.  I was also aware that Jungian and other proponents of a “matriarchal stage” in the development of culture have argued that matriarchy had to be succeeded by patriarchy in order for societies to evolve to a “higher” stage. Unlike many of my colleagues I stubbornly held onto the belief that there must have been “a better way” prior to patriarchy.


But I also learned that to use the “m” word was equivalent to committing academic suicide. So I choose my words carefully and spoke of “pre-patriarchal” societies where women were honored, people lived in harmony with each other and nature, and there was no war. Or like Marija Gimbutas, I spoke of societies that were “matrilineal and matrilocal” and worshipped the Goddess as the symbol of the cycles birth, death, and regeneration in all things.

I didn’t have a clear picture of how such societies might be organized until I read Societies of Peace by Heide Goettner-Abendroth. Through her work and that of a growing cohort of indigenous people who have come forth to speak about their own societies, matriarchy has been given a new and more precise definition.

Mosuo woman farmer

Mosuo woman farmer

Goettner-Abendroth rejects the common definition of matriarchy as “mother-rule” with the connotation of “female domination.”  Instead she argues that matriarchies are societies that honor mothers and consider care and generosity–values they associate with motherhood–to be the highest values.  In affirming values associated with motherhood, matriarchal societies are not essentialist. They do not affirm that only women can be nurturers of life. Quite the opposite, they assert that the highest role for anyone–male or female or other–is to nurture life.  This is so far from the way we think, that it will be easy to misconstrue what is being said.

Matriarchal societies are generally in the early stages of agriculture (small scale or before the plow), they are egalitarian, they are matrilineal (tracing descent through the motherline), and they are usually matrilocal (with women and sometimes men staying in the mother clan).

In matriarchal societies, men are not dominated, and as anthropologists have long understood, men do hold power as brothers and uncles.  However, men do not dominate, because mothers and grandmothers also hold power. Together great-uncles and grandmothers create an egalitarian system where everyone’s voice can be heard. The power to dominate is not held to be the highest value.

In matriarchal societies sex and love really are free because they are not tied up with providing for a family or caring for children. The matriarchal clan remains at the center of life; children are brought up by the maternal clan, including mothers, aunts and grandmothers, brothers and uncles. Lovers are free to come together and to part.

Cretan feast

Cretan feast

Land is held by the female clans and inequalities are erased by a wide-spread practice of gift-giving.  Those who have more hold parties and feasts where what they have is shared rather than hoarded.  In matriarchal societies the earth is generally understood to be a Great and Giving Mother and her generous gift of Life is celebrated in rituals that celebrate her as the Source of Life.

In some parts of the world matriarchies have been superseded by patriarchy, but not everywhere. Matriarchal societies still exist today in the Himalayas and in parts of Indonesia, as well as in areas in Africa and the Americas.

When I first read Societies of Peace a few years ago, I found it to be the “rosetta stone” that made sense of a series of individual insights I had about the ancient culture of Crete.  Among those are the following.

Over years of visiting museums, I realized that a large number of the artifacts from ancient Crete were pouring vessels. As most of these were found in ritual contexts, it made sense to think of them as having been used to pour libations of liquid onto altars and the earth, returning the gifts that had been given to human beings to Mother Earth.

Over the years I have been struck many times by the generosity of the Cretan people, especially those who live in rural areas.  Could it be, I wondered, that the idea that the earth is a Great and Giving Mother is connected to the “teaching” still alive today in Crete that nothing is more important than to give and to receive in the circle of life?

It seemed to me that the spirit of great generosity I experienced in Crete was not rooted in the idea of giving as self-denial that I had been taught in Sunday school. Although I experienced great generosity in my childhood—especially from my grandmother who fed us all on Sunday afternoons—I was also taught that “giving to others” is a duty and that it should be done “selflessly” with no expectation of return, and perhaps “joylessly” as well.

In Crete I learned a different lesson. I met people who love to give and who consider giving to others on a daily basis to be a part of life.  The people I met also enjoyed receiving.  For them life is a circle that includes self and other. Self-denial was not a part of it.  To give is to live. But so is to receive. Recognizing the two together is, I believe, the essence of the matriarchal worldview.

Recently, I have begun to use the words “matriarchy” and “matriarchal” even though recognizing that they may be misunderstood. For me the word matriarchy expresses the certainty that “another world” can exist—a world not based in domination and hierarchy or violence and war.  I have experienced matriarchal values in Crete and learned about them from the work of Heidi Goettner-Abendroth and her colleagues, but these values were also passed on to me by my grandmother.

I proudly use the “m” word in honor of her and of all of those who have taught me that “another way” is possible.

(However I intend to use the word precisely. Worshipping the Goddess or Goddesses does not make a society matriarchal.)

See “Matriarchy” by Peggy Reeves Sanday and my “Exciting New Research on Matriarchal Societies.”

Carol P. Christ created a newly released new website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.  Early bird special for the spring pilgrimage extended.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

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Carol P. Christ is a author of the much-loved books Rebirth of the Goddess, She Who Changes, Weaving the Visions, and Womanspirit Rising, and forthcoming in 2016. Goddess and God in the World and A Serpentine Path. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall.


  • Christina Beard-Moose
    Christina Beard-Moose Monday, 17 February 2014

    Well said, Carol. I have immediately ordered Societies of Peace. I have struggled with these same academic problems for 20+ years and I am more than thankful to have the conversation out in the greater world. When I did my diss fieldwork for feminist anthropology with the Cherokee of North Carolina, I continually found what you did in Crete. A people who will literally give all they have to someone who needs it. A reverence for all that the earth supplies and an enduring matrifocal/matrilocal lifestyle. Clans are still important and in the more remote parts of the Boundary grandma and great uncle knows best. I look forward to reading the book. Thank-you!!!

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Monday, 17 February 2014

    Another great book is Make a Beautiful Way by Barbara Mann, on Native American matriarchy, written by Native women scholars.

  • Jennifer Cox
    Jennifer Cox Monday, 17 February 2014

    As a psychology major, Geert Hofstede is a world renowned cross cultural statistician and also from the same country as Carl Jung (Denmark) has done huge studies on masculine a feminine cultures defined EXACTLY as you have with Patriarchal and Matriarchal and often uses masculine/patriarchal and feminine/matriarchal inner changeable so this concept still continues on to this day. Synergy is working

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    Thanks for that info Jennifer. Just a detail. Jung was Swiss.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    The "M" word. The "P" word. Almost every discussion raises disharmony between men and women.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    Not sure what you are meaning to say Greybeard. In the Mosuo culture and other matriarchal cultures there is not disharmony between men and women because both learn that nurturing life is the highest value. Where there is disharmony between men and women I would say this is a product of inequality. It is natural to resent being kept subordinate, and while it is not natural to be dominant, it is understandable that some resent being told that the dominance they were told was their right is not right. Thinking about and creting alternatives to patriarchy is in my view the best way to inspire harmony between women and men. Sweeping the problem under the rug will not make it go away.

  • Candise
    Candise Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    this is wonderful, thank you for this.

  • Paola Suarez
    Paola Suarez Thursday, 20 February 2014

    I loved reading this on and doubley love to see it here! Thank you Carol for explaining so clearly what I've tried to do in conversations with others. Matriarchy always tends to be thrown in my face when I talk to others about patriarchy and the healing possibilities of the Goddess as spirituality or archetype. I will be sharing your writing with as many people as I can. Many blessings to you and yours!

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Thursday, 20 February 2014

    thanks Paola.

  • Jennifer Cox
    Jennifer Cox Thursday, 20 February 2014

    I stand corrected! Geert Hofstede is Dutch; however double checking resources both Sweden and the Netherlands rated very low on Hofstede's MAS (masculinity) index. Hofstede's studies also reveal that countries that are low on the MAS index have never had the historical influences of patriarchal/masculine/ego dominate cultures of Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Muslim) or other highly masculine cultures such as the Roman Empire which conquered former highly feminine/matriarchal cultures such as Britain. Thus, indoctrination continued as Britain adopted masculine/patriarchal influences later indoctrinating Ireland and the United States in a domino-effect. Source: Hofstede, G., Arrindell, W. A., Best, D. L., De Mooij, M., Hoppe, M. H., Van de Vliert, E., . . . Williams. (1998). Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures. Thousand Oaks, California , United States: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:ISBN 0-7619-1029-8 (pbk)

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Friday, 21 February 2014

    So glad you said this. Women, and men need to be educated on this term and understanding what it means. Martriarchy does NOT mean women dominating men. There are no examples of societies that do that. But there are example of societies that are egaliterian. I am just reading, "Switching to Goddess" by Studebaker. Great book, fun read. Thanks again.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Saturday, 22 February 2014

    For examples of Matriarchies where women dominate men some would point to Sweden or India. Some would include numerous other places. Your mileage may vary.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Sunday, 23 February 2014

    There are powerful Goddesses in India, but India is so far from being a matriarchy that your comment does not make sense. Gang rape of women is unfortunately considered "acceptable" even by public authorities in India; abortion of females is rampant because people want sons not daughters; girls are given in marriage before they even reach puberty; widows may be abandoned even by their sons; and so on and on...

  • Amy A Patterson
    Amy A Patterson Saturday, 28 June 2014

    I also frequently run into the misconception that matriarchy is a mirror image of patriarchy. I think it is because both words seem to imply heiarchy in our subconscious minds, due to years of association-- and since men are valued over women (in both power and value heiarchies) within patriarchies, it is assumed that the opposite hierarchy must be true in matriarchy.

    I have found that it is easier to discuss this topic using the term "matrifocal" instead of "matriarchal," because it removes the implied hierarchy, and all the associations that are paired with a ridged heiarchical society (which most patriarchies are, because heiarchy is one of the key components of a patriarchical structure).

  • wayne bates
    wayne bates Friday, 29 August 2014

    if we remove the gender part of these words and change them to arseholearchy and pleasantarchy perhaps that would help . I am not been flippant here . I just think using seemingly gender orientated terms does create misconception . The people who created and perpetuate the men are better than women crap are not Men , they are arseholes who just happen to belong to that gender

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