The term “matriarchy” has, since J. J. Bachofen (Das Mutterrecht, 1861), been used to denote a quite hypothetical and now long discredited phase in the history of human societies when property was transmitted and descent traced through females, not males. There has from the outset been a persistent tendency to confuse the specific phenomenon of matrilineal descent, on the one hand—a system widely attested among contemporary peoples worldwide—with female supremacy in a more general and altogether less clearly defined sense, on the other. The system of descent is stated by Herodotus (1.173) to have been operative as a going concern among the non-Greek people of Lycia in his own time, but this assertion is flatly contradicted by the conventional family structure reflected in their funeral inscriptions, including well over 150 in the Lycian language itself, many of which go back to the 4th century bce.
The statement of Aristotle (fr. 547 Rose; cited by Polyb. 12.5–6) that the people of Locri Epizephyrii in southern Italy derived all their ancestral honours from women, not from men, has long been viewed as indicating a similar descent system, but in fact refers to the first generation only. It reflects the ancient tradition that the city was founded by runaway slaves who (unlike the accompanying women) necessarily and by definition lacked full civic status, from which alone honours of any kind could be derived. Crucial to the correct interpretation of Aristotle's statement (even as summarized: the verb is lacking) is the distinction between the first and second preposition, which on a casual reading it is only too easy, but mistaken, to assimilate: “among them all ancestral distinction (is derived) from the women, not from the men…” (πάντα τὰ διὰ προγόνων ἕνδοξα παρ᾽ αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τῶν γυναικῶν, οὐκ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνδρῶν…).
The Greek term “gynaecocracy” (“women in control”), used much more widely, denotes not a specific set of institutions, or descent system, but a disturbing threat to, and reversal of, the state of masculine supremacy on all fronts, the normality (and desirability) of which is effectively taken for granted by ancient sources, which are throughout antiquity hardly notable for even an incipient feminism. Mythical all-female societies such as the Amazons or the women of Lemnos appear to reflect projected male anxiety on this score rather than any sort of recollection (itself a highly questionable notion) of prehistoric data. Equally, ancient speculations as to what preceded the institution of marriage (the invention of Cecrops: Varro in August. De civ. D. 18.9, cf. Just. Epit. 2.6.7 and the Suda entry for Prometheus) are simply imaginative reconstructions for which no real historical foundation was necessary. They were, however, enthusiastically taken up and even generalized in the second half of the 19th century, which saw a plethora of universal evolutionary schemas along “matriarchal” lines and speculative reconstruction on a breathtaking scale. (A conspicuous feature of these theories is the constant resort to such dubious (because uncontrollable) hypothetical props as the doctrine of “survivals.”) These were, or should have been, definitively scotched by anthropological fieldwork at the beginning of the present century (e.g. B. Malinowski, The Family among the Australian Aborigines, 1913; and see anthropology and the classics); regrettably, the theories themselves, though not impossible to disprove, have continued to exercise such an attraction in some quarters as to guarantee them a kind of extended though strictly unhistorical half-life.
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