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Matriarchal Society and the Gift Paradigm
Motherliness as an Ethical Principle

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, as members of society, is influenced by a worldview, and a sense of history, that are based to a large extent on male principles: an ideol- ogy of male dominance and universal patriarchy, the foundations of which are underpinned by structural and physical violence. The principles of matriarchal societies contradict this worldview.

The emerging subject of Modern Matriarchal Studies is the investigation and presentation of non-patriarchal societies, both past and present. Even today there are societies that exhibit matriarchal patterns in Asia, Africa, America, and Oceania. None of these societies are, however, a reversal of patriarchy, where women are perceived to rule over men—as it is often commonly believed. Instead, they are all egalitarian societies, without exception. This means that hierarchies, classes, and the domination of one gender by the other are unknown to them. This is what makes them so attractive to those looking for a new philosophy to create a just society. Nevertheless, while they are societies free of domination, they still have guidelines and codes of conduct that govern relationships and community.

Equality in matriarchal societies does not mean a mere levelling of differences. The natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honoured, but they never serve to create hierarchies as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations each have their own honour, and through complementary areas of activity, they are geared towards 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 genera- tions, and between humans and nature.

The differentiated patterns of existing matriarchal societies have been researched in detail. But history alone will not reveal 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 anthropology. Over the past few decades, my major work has been to research, describe, and present a wide range of matriarchal societies throughout the world. Based on cross-cultural examination of case after case, I have outlined in my work the structures and regulative mechanisms that function across all levels of matriarchal societies (see Goettner-Abendroth 1988, 1991, 1995, 2000).

I call all non-patriarchal societies “matriarchal” despite of the word’s various connotations. But I believe the term should be redefined. This redefinition would be a great advantage especially because, for women, reclaiming this term means to reclaim the knowledge about cultures that have been created by women.

Philosophical and scientific re-definitions of words mostly refer to well-known words or terminologies. After these words have been re-defined, scholars can work with these new interpretations, but the words do not lose contact with the popular language of the people. In the case of the term “matriarchy,” we are not obliged to follow the current, male-biased interpretation of this word as signifying “domination by the mothers.” The only reason to understand “matriarchy” in this way is that it seems to parallel our understanding of the word “patriarchy.” However, the Greek word archÈ has a double meaning. It means “beginning” as well as “domination.” Therefore, we can translate “matriarchy” accurately as “the mothers from the beginning,” while “patriarchy,” on the other hand, translates correctly as “domination by the fathers.”

The word “patriarchy” could also be translated as “the fathers from the beginning.” This nevertheless leads to its meaning as “domination by the fathers,” because not having any natural right to “beginning,” they have to enforce it through domi- nation! By the same token, since the mothers clearly are the beginning by their capacity to bring forth life, they have no need to enforce it by domination.

Defining “Matriarchal Society”

Up until recently, scientific research in the field of matriarchy has lacked clear criteria for defining matriarchal societies and a scientific methodology to prove their existence, despite several competent studies and an extensive data collec- tion.1 This absence of scientific rigour opens the door to the emotional and ideological entanglements that have been a burden to this research from the beginning. Patriarchy itself has not been considered critically and stereotypical views of women, as well as a neurotic fear of women’s alleged power, have often confused the issues.

The definition of matriarchal studies that I present below has has been derived from my cross-cultural studies of matriarchal societies that continue to exist worldwide. I will present the various criteria for matriarchal society on four dif- ferent levels: the economic level, the social level, the political level, and on the cultural level.

On 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 honour. Therefore, on the economic level they produce an economy of balance, and I thus call matriarchies societies of economic reciprocity.

On the social level, matriarchies are based on the union of an extended clan. People live together in big clans, which are formed according to the principle of matrilinearity, i.e., 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, her sons, and grandsons. Generally, the matri-clan lives in one big clan-house, which can hold anywhere from ten to more than 100 persons, depending on size and architectural style. The women live there permanently as 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 disposi- tion 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 distinctly “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. That is, a husband will visit his wife in the clan-house of her mother, where she lives, only in the evenings, leaving at dawn to return to his home, the clan-house of his own mother. 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.

On the political level, even the process of taking a 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 takes 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; i.e., the enforcement bodies that are necessary to establish domination are unknown to them.

On the cultural level, matriarchal societies do not know religious transcend- ence 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— a feminine divine. This is evident in the concept of the universe as a goddess who created everything, and as Mother Earth who brings forth every living thing. And everything is endowed with divinity—the smallest pebble and the biggest star, each woman and man, each blade of grass, 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 and the different clans with their different abilities and tasks, the different genders and the different generations, believing in the principle of “wealth in diversity.” There is no separation between sacred and secular; therefore all tasks, such as sowing and harvesting, cooking and weaving are at the same time meaningful rituals. On the spiritual level, I thus define matriarchies as sacred societies as cultures of the Goddess.

The Relationship between Matriarchal Societies and the Gift Paradigm

In order to explore the relationship between matriarchal societies and the gift paradigm, we need first to examine the guidelines and codes of conduct that govern relationships and communities in matriarchal societies.

There is no private property and there are no territorial claims. The people simply have usage rights on the soil they till, or the pastures their animals graze, for “Mother Earth” cannot be owned or cut up in pieces. She gives the fruits of the fields and the animals to all people, and therefore the harvest and the flocks cannot be privately owned; instead they are shared equally.

The women, and specifically the oldest women of the clan, the matriarchs, hold the most important goods in their hands, for they are responsible for the sustenance and the protection of all clan members. The women either work the land themselves or organize the work on the land and the fruits of the fields, and the milk of the flocks are given to them to hold and distribute equitably among the community.

Matriarchal women are managers and administrators, who organize the economy not according to the profit principle, where an individual or a small group of people benefits; rather, the motivation behind their action is motherliness. The profit principle is an ego-centred principle, where individuals or a small minority take advantage of the majority of people. The principle of motherliness is the opposite, where altruism reigns and the well-being of all is at the centre. It is at the same time a spiritual principle, which humans take from nature. Mother Nature cares for all beings however different they may be. The same applies to the principle of motherliness: a good mother cares for all her children in spite of their diversity. Motherliness as an ethical principle pervades all areas of a matriarchal society, and this holds true for men as well. For example, among the Minangkabau in Sumatra, if a man desires to acquire status among his peers, or even to become a representative of the clan to the outside word, the criterion is: “he must be like a good mother.”

This is not a romantic idea of motherliness, as it has often been portrayed by the patriarchy, which has has lead to the concept of motherliness being devalued as a merely sentimental clichÈ. This is the way in which patriarchy systematically obscures the caring and nurturing work done most often by mothers, by women. Without this work of daily care, there would be no help for the sick, no aid in crisis situations of any kind, no assistance for the elderly. In particular, there would be no children, which means any society would cease to exist in a short while. Motherly work is the most important work of all; it is work for life itself, work for our future. It is because of its great importance, that this work is intentionally made invisible by patriarchy.

Matriarchies consciously build their existence on this work, which is why they are much more realistic than patriarchies, not to mention the fact that they have much more vitality. They are, on principle, need-oriented. The guidelines on which their societies are based aim to meet the needs of each with the greatest benefit for all.

Gift giving is, therefore, not a coincidental, arbitrary act in matriarchal societies, something confined to the private sphere. On the contrary, it is the central feature of their society. In matriarchal societies, goods, nurturing, care, cultural creativity in ritual events, all circulate as gifts. These gift are manifest in the festivals which are at the core of these cultures and which drive their economies. Matriarchal societies celebrate the festivals of the agricultural year, along with the lifecycle festivals of the individual clans, festivals that are also celebrated together with the whole village or town. During these festivals the goods and food, nurturing and care, and cultural presentations are “moved around”: not in the sense of exchange with the expectation of something in return, but as an unconditional gift. For example, a clan that has had a bumper crop and is able to collect a great harvest will give this fortune away at the first opportunity. At the next festival, this lucky clan will overextend itself by inviting everybody in the village or town or district, will lavishly care for their well-being, feed them and give them cultural presents like music, dancing, processions, rituals, which everybody participates in accord- ing to their religious traditions. The clan hosting the festival will not hold back anything. In a patriarchal society, this would be considered suicidal behaviour and would ruin the giving clan. But in matriarchal societies these festivals work according the maxim: “those who have shall give.”At the next big festival another clan, one that is by comparison better off than the rest of the community, will take on this role. Now the others are invited and gifts are lavished upon them. Round and round it goes in the community, and it is always the well-off clans who have the responsibility for the festivals.

It is apparent that in this system an accumulation of material or cultural goods, with a view to personal gain and enrichment, is not possible. Matriarchal societ- ies are not based on accumulation, as are patriarchal societies. The opposite is the case: the economic and cultural actions are geared towards a levelling of the differences in living standards, and to the joy of everybody participating together in the cultural performances.

A generous clan never gains any claim to material or cultural goods from the other clans; rather, it wins honour. “Honour” in matriarchy means that the altruism and pro-social action of this clan gains great admiration from the other clans, and that this act verifies and strengthens the relationships between the clans. Honour means priceless and invaluable human contact and cooperation. It sets free the most honourable human feelings such as unreserved giving, true devotion, benevolence, and friendship. It enables love to grow. Such a clan will always be supported by the other clans should it have need of anything or even fall on hard times. This reciprocity is also a question of honour.

The Matriarchal Model as Guiding Principle for the Future

It should be clear from this outline of matriarchies that these cultures demonstrate knowledge of non-patriarchal, egalitarian patterns of society that are urgently needed in this late phase of globally destructive patriarchy. During their very long history, as well as in the societies that continue to exist today, matriarchies have maintained and sustained themselves without domination, without hierarchies, and without wars. It is particularly important to stress that the violence against women and children that characterizes patriarchal societies all over the world is, in these matriarchal societies, completely unknown

I have begun to consider that knowledge of the matriarchal model can have enor- mous significance for present and future society. Indeed, compared to philosophically constructed futures that could never be implemented, matriarchal societies are not abstract utopias built on ideas. These societies have been developed over long historical periods, embody practical experience and thought gained over millennia, and belong indispensably to the cultural store of knowledge of all of humankind. Their precepts show how life can be organized in such a way that it is based on needs: peaceful, non-violent, and simply human.

Together we can glimpse what this matriarchal model could mean for the situ- ation our present day world is in.

On the economic level it has become impossible to further increase industrial production—and so-called living standards—without risking the total destruction of the of the planet’s biosphere. An alternative to this kind of destructive growth are the communities that use a subsistence perspective as an economic strategy for smaller units of organization, such as at the regional level. These communities work frugally and self-sufficiently, stressing the quality of life over the quantity of production. On a worldwide scale, it is urgent that we strengthen and enlarge the still-existing subsistence societies, where production and trade are usually overseen by women. We must not, under any circumstances, let them be sacrificed to the process of globalization. Establishing regionalism in which the economy is guided by women is a matriarchal principle.

On the social level the task is to prevent a further fragmentation of society, which drives people deeper and deeper into solitary living and loneliness, becoming increas- ingly ill and destructive. In the end, this is the matrix in which war and violence grow. To counteract this, the goal is the formation of diverse communities. They might be intentional communities or networks or neighbourhoods. Elective affinity does not come about by merely shared interest; interest groups come and go very quickly. Elective affinity only comes into being if there is a spiritual-intellectual common ground. On this basis, a symbolic clan comes into being that is more committed than any interest group. The matriarchal principle here is that these clans are usually initiated, carried, and led by women. The measuring stick is the needs of women and children who are the future of humankind, and not the power or potency wished for by men that has led to patriarchal extended families, such as the big political, economic, and religious men’s clubs, which have suppressed and excluded women. These new matri-clans will integrate men totally, but with a value system based on mutual care and love instead of power.

On the political level, the matriarchal consensus process for making decisions is indispensable for an egalitarian society. This is the most important principle for matriarchal community formation as it prevents the establishment of domination by individuals or groups in newly organized symbolic clans of various designs. A consensus decision-making process establishes the balance between men and women, but also between the generations, because both older and younger people have their say. Furthermore, it honours the promises formal democracy makes but never keeps.

According to matriarchal principles, well-ordered groups of the new matri-clans are the supporting social unit and the actual decision-makers at the regional level. Flourishing self-sufficient regions based on susbsistence economies are the aim, not nation states, nation-alliances or super-powers that grant more and more power to the ruling classes and in which human beings are reduced to numbers and have become merely human “resources.”

This kind of regionalism does not mean people are limited to connecting spiritually and culturally within just the one region, because this would lead to the narrow mind of provincialism. The regions will have symbolic connections with each other as sister-regions, and these connections will be realized through cultural exchange in the celebration of joint festivals. In this way a free, horizontal network comes into being between the regions. This network-based paradigm is completely different from a centralized, hierarchical state control. In the age of the Internet, this network is not limited to neighbouring regions, but can span the globe. Why should a matriarchal region in Europe not have sister-regions in India, Africa, the Americas, and yet another one in Polynesia? Such connections are limitless, but they are totally different from the global structures and hierarchies of exploitation that patriarchal states have with each other.

On the spiritual-cultural level, we will bid farewell to the various fundamental- isms that are associated with hierarchical patriarchal religions and their claims to absolute truth. With their claims to moral superiority they have debased and vili- fied the earth, humankind, and especially the half of humankind who are women. Now we have the opportunity for a new sanctification of the world in accordance with the matriarchal imagination: the whole world, and everything in it, is divine. This gives rise to celebrating and honouring all life on the planet—creatively and freely: nature with her multitude of beings and phenomena, and her great diversity of peoples, each with their own special capabilities. All this diversity is celebrated to the full. In this way, matriarchal spirituality permeates everything and once again becomes a central and integral part of everyday living.

It is evident that destruction of nature, sexism, and racism are not possible in a future matriarchal culture. According to the matriarchal principle, diversity is the true wealth of the earth, humankind, and culture. The values of the matriarchal ethos are: balance, reciprocity on all levels, and the loving connection with all living beings and phenomena of nature.

In all of this matriarchal spirituality is central. Matriarchal societies have always been sacred societies. Their entire structure has been developed in accordance with their spiritual beliefs. For this reason, establishing new matriarchal patterns in our societies is not possible without an all-permeating matriarchal ethos.

To sum up, this new research called “Modern Matriarchal Studies” has presented us with a rich spectrum of knowledge and practice that can be useful in our work toward the development of a just and peaceful future based on a matriarchal model. The gift economy/gift paradigm as presented by Genevieve Vaughan (1997) also offers us a vision of what is possible, and demonstrates how, every day and everywhere in patriarchal society, gift giving is practiced, and is, in fact, what these matriachal societies are based on. Matriarchal societies demonstrate that gift giving indeed embodies the highest value and the practical reality of whole societies, past and present. We need not invent an abstract utopia to find social structures that embody motherliness as an ethical principle and that practice gift giving, because they have existed over the longest eras of human history, and they still exist today worldwide. The social organization of matriarchal, gift giving societies can inspire us, and teach us how to develop a future based on a matriarchal model that will result in just, well-balanced, and peaceful societies, in which women do not rule, but in which motherliness as an ethical principle provides the foundation for life, for living, and for giving to satisfy the needs of each for the benefit of all.

Heide Goettner-Abendroth was born in 1941 and is the mother of three children. She has published various books on matriarchal society and culture and has become the founding mother of Modern Matriarchal Studies. In 1980 she was visiting professor at the University of Montreal (Canada) and, in 1992, at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). In 1986, she founded the International Academy HAGIA: Academy for Modern Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality in Germany. The results of her research have been the basis for further studies and projects in many different countries. She is one of the 1,000 “Peace Women” all over the world who have been nominated by the Swiss Peace Initiative. Visit her website: www.goettner-abendroth.de.


For an extensive bibliography, see Goettner-Abendroth 1988, 1991, 1995, 2000.


Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 1988. das Matriarchat I. Geschichte Seiner Erforschung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer-Verlag.

Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 1991. das Matriarchat II,1. Stammesgesellschaften in Ostasien, Indonesien, Ozeanien. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer-Verlag.

Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 1995. The Goddess and Her Heros: Matriarchal Religion in Mythology, Fairy-Tales and Literature. Trans. Lillian Friedberg. Stow, MA: Anthony Publishing Company.

Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 2000. das Matriarchat II,2. Stammesgesellschaften in Amerika, Indien, Afrika. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer-Verlag.

Vaughan, Genevieve. 1997. For-Giving. A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Austin, TX: Plainview/Anomaly Press.

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