Imagine an era a long time ago when women were accorded social status and privileges equal to those bestowed upon men. Matrifocal societies from the Neolithic period, 6500-3500 BC in Eastern Europe and the Greek Isles, it has been posited, lived in relative equality with men as Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), the Lithuanian archaeologist and anthropologist, has highlighted in her distinguished career. Not matriarchal but social standing equal to that given to men. Naturally this would have been seen as blasphemous by the standing members of the patriarchal academic order over the last century, especially by members of society who like making war and money by invading other lands. The fact that women have had to struggle even to get the vote less than a century ago serves to underscore how the possible existence of such societies pose a serious threat to the existing model of how early societies formed.
Gimbutas listened to oral tradition and folklore at an early age. The stories she collected by the hundreds, predated Indo European cultures and were born of tales where men and women had an equal footing and where the natural world was held in awe. In the “Language of the Goddess” (1989), Gimbutas used the examples of female figurines and other artifacts to show that the burial sites of women were not different from those of men. Neither sex had privileged status. The Goddess represented fertility, birth and the ever-present renewal and cyclicity of nature. It was a different world to be sure than the one we have. But Gimbutas was not the only one to prescribe a different world order.
Already in 1861 Johann Jakob Bachofen, in his work “Das Mutterrecht” showed that many ancient societies held the mother as the dominant force. But in high contrast to Gimbutas, Bachofen saw the eventual rise of the patriarchal society as an evolutionary improvement over what had come before. In 1724 the French missionary Joseph-Francois Lafitau noted that among the Iroquois, power was shared equally between men and women. Lewis Morgan observed the same thing in the 19th century and was an influence on Karl Marx, no less. But it was Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th century suffragist, abolitionist and Native American rights activist who in honoring the Iroquois Confederacy noted that their practices could serve as an alternative to the dominant European patriarchal society still dominant today. In a time when women were denied the vote and largely considered second-class citizens. It was thanks to her voice and outspoken activism for the Native people of America that she was made an honorary member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation. Indeed, it was the Iroquois Confederation that influenced our very own Declaration of Independence when it mentioned the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” an energy and force we have desecrated at every turn since the founding of this country. Early feminists were indebted to the Iroquois for their knowledge and wisdom regarding women and men’s rights and humans as a whole relationship to nature.
So it should come as no surprise to see a certain representative named Liz Cheney having the time of her life fighting the views of a party she does not want to represent any more. In fighting against the former president she stands in a long line of matriarchs who counterbalance the largely male-dominated dogma of civilization as it is run today. The patriarchy now dominated by one force, one man in the Republican Party, stands in counter distinction to the larger world view Cheney exposes. Barring a full-fledged dissertation on feminist politics and spirituality and the mother goddesses that have influenced humanity since the time of the Venus of Willendorf 25,000 years ago, or the pagan, witch, and heathen energies that have challenged male “superiority” over the millennia, we have unraveling in Congress something of a battle for the future of America.
Do we need 1 trillion dollars spent on the military every year? Matrifocal cultures didn't wage war. It wasn’t until the Kurgan invaders from Central Asia that Europe started to absorb a warrior ethos. The peaceful agricultural societies were fast overwhelmed by the warrior invasions. The Goddess was a Giver, and Renewer of life. Women generally give life. Men take it. Cheney’s agenda is about speaking Truth to Power.
In the meantime, the world suffers. One denies science, one denies women’s rights, children their future and Nature the possibility to exist any longer as we have known it since the inception of the human species. All because one supports ne plus ultra of white males in the leadership position. The world falters over misplaced allegiance and loyalty. The world falters because industry triumphs over community. The world falters because the subjugation of the planet is more lucrative (for some) than the sustainability of human society across the globe. Cheney is probably branded as a Wiccan, an animist virago because she has seen through the flaming funeral pyre of party politics and seen America burning and she will have none of it.
In the same way that witches were burned for betraying the Church and honoring pagan ways, Cheney sees the former President as having betrayed America. But he has also betrayed the planet. The four years we had from 2016-2020 to make an about face before the climate crisis could have been enough to tip the balance in life’s favor. Now the Amazon under the rulership of another “patriarch” is emitting more carbon than it is capturing. Methane release worldwide could cause a climate bomb the likes of which we will never recover from.
From 4400 BC it seems daggers, lances, weapons of war were discovered all over Eastern Europe. The invaders were of course men who ransacked and pillaged and who cared little for nature. A few years later after 1944, it seems the patriarchal powers of our species, especially among the Americans and the Russians, continued in the same venue, but with weapons of mass destruction at their fingers.
As Riane Eisler demonstrated in her book “The Chalice and the Blade” (1987), the warlike patriarchal societies we have today were not always the norm. There was once another way. Drawing heavily from Gimbutas’ work, Eisler shows that many of the distorted and unhealthy values of modern society are due to the adoption of “masculine” values. Maybe it is time we listened to the matriarchs who offered another way forward. They who listened to the Earth and its restorative powers had no need for war. In the same way that Gimbutas is still shunned in many academic circles, so too are those mavericks who want to lead the way forward with their conscience, no matter the political fallout. While many scholars cannot prove or deny Gimbutas’ theories, it would be nice to acknowledge societies past that were not driven by violence and warfare and bigotry and the mere accumulation of wealth and power. Maybe it will remain fiction. A pipe dream. But at least there are some lawmakers, many women who will raise their voices before inequality, racism and outright injustice.
Gimbutas knew a thing or two about injustice such as the time when the Russians invaded her native Lithuania during WW2. With little more than her one-year-old daughter and a diploma in her arms, she knew she had to flee her homeland, and landed in Vienna. She ended up as the only female archaeologist at Harvard, often shunned because of her sex. In 1963 she accepted a post at UCLA. She contracted cancer in her last years and always maintained that to appreciate the Mother Goddess one had to be attuned to nature. Nature which is in ever shorter supply.
“I communicate with the trees,” she once said. In a few years scholars would come to accept her theories. In America, women have had the vote and made their presence felt for a few generations now. Some like Cheney want to battle delusion, a psychosis that many in her party still believe in, that the election was stolen. But she holds a mirror to a larger truth, that women have known for many thousands of years, that there is something inherently wrong with the way the patriarchy is holding the world captive and for ransom and for power. It isn’t nurturing. It isn’t fair and it isn’t funny anymore. Whether it is the oil magnates, Wall Street bosses or heads of the NRA, who can’t shoot straight when they aim a gun at an innocent elephant in the bush. What is at stake now is not just about the truth of an election and possibly the future of democracy in the U.S., but also the future of children, families, “minorities” and increasingly the future of all life on Earth in a conflagrating time. Which we can no longer take for granted anymore. It is called speaking truth to power. Once and for all.
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.