Matristic versus Matriarchal

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William Irwin Thompson:

"Recently in Phoebe Eaton’s article on Courtney Ross and the Ross School in the April, 2007 issue of The New York Magazine, Harvard’s Professor of Education, Howard Gardner, was quoted as criticizing the curriculum that I had designed for the school by saying ‘that there is no historical evidence that a prehistoric matriarchal culture ever existed’. Matriarchal, certainly never; but matristic, most certainly. Matriarchy is a fearful male projection and is simply the mirror-image of a patriarchal, military state with a nightmarish image of an Amazon woman at its head. A matristic culture is a culture of symbolic authority, not military power, with a council of O’Mas at its head. We see this sort of culture still surviving in contemporary sub-saharan Africa. The arm of defence is the mother’s brother and not the father. We see can detect this archaic formation present in Plutarch’s retelling of the myth of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus. This myth is all about the shift from the mother’s brother to the father and the emergence of paternal dynastic succession. But the problem comes from the fact that behavioural scientists like Howard Gardner and Steven Mithen are not poets with an understanding of the mythopoeic mentality.

For example, Professor Mithen, in After the Ice (2006), claims that there is no evidence of the imagery of the Goddess at Göbelki Tepe. This is an outright falsification, for on one of the stone plinths there is an engraving of the Goddess spreading her legs in an act of urination that produces the rivers. James Joyce would have understood instantly what this image means, for he uses the image of the Goddess in micturation as the emblem of his Great Goddess, Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake. ‘Great-Bladdered Emer’ is a kenning in ancient Irish literature and, as well, in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. When Mithen goes on to discuss the religious imagery of Çatal Hüyük, he actually freaks out, and most unscientifically, calls it ‘a neolithic hell’, and projects his personal hang-ups on us and gives us a cultural historical narrative that is biased against women. James Mellaart and Marija Gimbutas were Mithen’s opposite; they were imaginative and knew how to read images (Mellaart, 1967; Gimbutas, 1989). Mellaart was quick and intuitive, and saw in the Twin Goddess of Matron and Maid at Çatal Hüyük, the neolithic prototype for the Greek Demeter and Persephone. Todd and Hoddart have spent two generations at work on Çatal Hüyük since Mellaart, but they are more conservative in making generalizations and merely report on artifact X and stratum level V; they seem to fear the archaeologists’ disease of Schlieman’s Syndrome — named after the wildly imaginative and amateur businessman who dug up ancient Troy — and refuse in their self-inflicted aphasia ever to make a generalization.

There is plenty of evidence for a prehistoric matristic culture, but you have to know how to read poetry and myth. I suspect that Howard Gardner probably had lunch once in the Harvard Faculty Club with Harvard’s reductionist evolutionary psychologist, E.O. Wilson. Wilson probably dismissed my book, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light and its criticism of him with the words, ‘Thompson’s a romantic’— as he did so later in print. The sneering use of the word ‘romantic’ is a behavioural scientist’s dismissal of the poet and his ability to read literature. If the word ‘romantic’ was meant by Wilson to lump me in the company of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Goethe and Beethoven, then I would be honoured. But I think the final word about me in the old boy’s club of Harvard was that I was not to be taken seriously, but was ‘New Age’. However, if one cares to read the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Horus, Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Plato’s Timaeus, one will find ample evidence of the presence of a prehistoric matristic society.


Closer to the Palaeolithic side of this transformation, we are confronted with a mythological reconstruction of human sexuality. The shift from oestrus to menstruation is emphasized with a mythological system of ‘the wound that heals itself’, and the colour red, is highlighted first with menstrual blood, then symbolically with red ochre. The menstrual cycle — and the likely menstrual synchrony in which all of the women of the band express menstruation together, probably with menstruation at the dark of the moon, and ovulation at the new moon — sets down the foundation of matristic authority. A mythological system is imagined in which the female is the symbol of enduring time — the classicist Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the prehistoric Goddess — and the male, with the shorter time of the rise and fall of the penis — is reconstructed as the phallus. Since crescent sickles were used by women for gathering wild grains in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, the association of the lunar crescent, ovulation, and the mysteries of childbirth and food-production would have been further energized. The androgynous figure that can exist in the gap of the contradiction between red vulva and the phallus is constructed as the shaman, ‘the wounded healer’ who holds in his magical nature both bleeding wound and phallus. It is at this point we enter the full culture of shamanism, with its transformation of the Sense of Presence of the chimps and bonobos to the personification of Presences in the spiritual culture of Animism. This is the world’s first universal religion, the religion of the Great Mother, and its artifacts are wide-spread from Iberia to Siberia."


The Shift from Matristic to Patriarchal Societies

William Irwin Thompson:

The shift from matristic to patriarchal is also expressed in the Rig Veda and the Ramayana (Thompson, 1996/ 1998). By the time of the Axial Period of the Upanishads, we have truly passed over into the culture of the sadhu and monk — which is archetypally expressed in the life of the Buddha. On McLuhan’s terms, we have also passed from the oral folklore of the O’Mas to the power of the written text in the hands of monks, and the portability of the new sutras helps to transform Buddhism into a new universal religion, spread along the silk road from northern India and Tibet to China, and then on to Korea and Japan."