Relationships between Men and Women and Rise of Patriarchal Society

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Relationships between Men and Women and Rise of Patriarchal Society

Kyle Vesterdahl

HIS 233: World Civilizations I

November 22, 2013

The relationships between men and women have been the basis of tribes, societies, and civilizations since the first hunter and gatherer cultures. There was division of labor from the beginning, with men mostly hunting and women mostly gathering. Ancient tribes usually engaged in goddess worship, which leads historians to believe that women played at least an equal role in most of these groups. This relative dichotomy between men and women was continued as humans developed throughout the agricultural revolution. However, as civilizations were created and larger cities sprouted, women's roles were degraded almost universally. Each continuing culture had its own rules and morals regarding behavior towards women, and their treatment lends insight into that culture. The merger of Neolithic agricultural villages with nomadic and pastoral cultures may have greatly influenced the process of relegating women to a social position below that of men. When these two cultures clashed, "the men usually took over" (Reilly 2011, 35). The arrival of religions that worshipped sky gods instead of earth goddesses coincided with this development, which robbed women of much of their spiritual authority, as the "power of creation and of fertility is transferred from the goddess to the god" (Reilly 2011, 38). Patriarchal culture effectively claimed most of human civilization after the agricultural revolution, and subsequent civilizations are infused with patriarchal values.

In early hunter and gatherer societies, life was mostly egalitarian. Of course there are exceptions on either side of this rule, as the Inuit represent a male-dominated culture and the Agta of the Philippines have women going out to "hunt game animals, fish in the streams, and exchange goods with the lowland Fillipinos" (Reilly 2011, 13). One thing is certain, there was a division of labor where "every man is primarily a hunter of animals and every woman is mainly a gatherer of plants" (O'Neal 2006). Sometimes, as in the case of the San people, since "women provided most of the vegetable foods, they were responsible for the majority of the calories that were consumed" (O'Neal 2006). This life style was very communal and everything in the village was shared. According to Kathleen Gough, who is quoted in Reilly, one notable thing lacking in these hunting societies "is the kind of male possessiveness and exclusiveness regarding women that leads to such institutions as savage punishments or deaths for female adultery, the jealous guarding of female chastity and virginity, the denial of divorce to women, or the ban on women's remarriage after her husbands death" (Reilly 2011, 17). Again, there are exceptions to any norm, but hunter and gatherer societies must be considered egalitarian. Women, however, had a monopoly on the "most magical and mysterious of human experiences," giving life, and "the fertility goddess enshrined woman's magical labor and her regular daily work" (Reilly 2011, 15).

As hunting and gathering societies discovered the means of agriculture, they tended to settle into a more sedentary lifestyle required to raise crops. "Women probably discovered how to plant rather than merely gather seeds" and since agriculture is derived from that gathering, agriculture is considered to be woman's discovery (Mesa CC). In the images discovered in the Neolithic farming village of Catal Huyuk, there are many pictures associating women with "flower, grain, and plant patterns on the walls and with other symbols of fertility" (Reilly 2011, 29). The surplus of food created by agriculture led to the creation of specialized labor in villages, which then grew into cities. The new "specialized forms of knowledge were no longer sharable throughout the community, but instead became the property of special groups" and the "egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands was very difficult to maintain in these new circumstances" (Mesa CC). Another development of early agricultural villages was the idea of private property. It could be argued that there "may well have been a connection between the desires of fathers to build estates that could be passed on to legitimate heirs and the rise of laws and institutions that restricted women's rights and mobility" (Reilly 2011, 26).

Even if Neolithic agricultural villages had conditions that may have developed into patriarchal society, the evidence from these villages strongly supports a leading role for females. Early Japan was characterized by female Empresses and female fertility cults, and "the earliest Chinese account of Japan describes an unmarried queen Pimiko who was said to be a sorceress" (Reilly 2011, 32). The predominant activities in Neolithic villages was "women's work" and "men's role was often subordinate" (Reilly 2011, 34). The combination of cultures, where women's work became the main process for acquiring food and female fertility goddesses played a large role, must have created conditions favorable to women, in general, holding a certain power and prestige. The Iroquois confederation of Native Americans provides a cultural example because women "appointed men to positions of authority", "retained the right to veto the men's decisions" and "headed the family longhouse" (Reilly 2011, 33). Other cultural examples include the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent who worshipped a "mother goddess," while the "Chinese word for surname is composed of two parts, meaning woman and birth" (Reilly 2011, 30-31).

The arrival of pastoral and nomadic societies coincided with the domestication of animals. Since this domestication of animals was typically considered men's work, men played a predominant role in these cultures. Also, nomadic or pastoral people "moved around more frequently than the villagers; they had fewer permanent possessions; and their lives were usually harder and more violent" and in these bands "it was the women who were subordinate" Reilly 2011, (34). R.A. Giusepi wrote that the "nomadic, herding way of life has tended to produce independent and hardy peoples, well-versed in the military skills needed not only for their survival but also to challenge more heavily populated agrarian societies." Throughout history there have been countless clashes between farming based culture and pastoral culture and for the vast majority of history the pastoral and nomadic people have had the upper hand. The surplus food and wealth of agricultural villages and early cities may have attracted the nomads or perhaps they were led to find new lands due to an excess of population or lack of food. In any case, the clash between pastoral and agricultural cultures included the creation of new values and religions, which typically left women in degraded roles.

Mentioned earlier is the fact that ancient Indians worshipped a mother goddess, along with a horned fertility god. However, with the invasion of nomadic Aryan people, the culture became one dominated by Aryan ideals of class and religion. The gods of the Aryans were "chiefly connected with the sky and were predominantly male" (Reilly 2011, 31). This is a common theme in the clash between agricultural and pastoral cultures. The nomadic cultures tend to overrun the sedentary culture and then adopt this more advanced sedentary culture while imposing their own values and religious beliefs. The case of Sumerian civilization is a perfect example. Sumerian civilization was conquered time and time again by invading nomadic peoples, and the resulting religious ideals reflect these invasions. Originally, there was "Namu, the Sumerian mother goddess who was creator of the universe and mother of the gods in the third millennium B.C." who was "omitted in a list from the second millennium B.C." (Reilly 2011, 38-39) Reilly quotes Samuel Noah, who remarked, "her (Namu) powers were transferred to her son Enki to justify this bit of priestly piracy." The conquering pastoral peoples tended to simply change the religion of settled cities both by transferring "the power of creation and fertility...from the goddess to the god" and having "mother goddesses demoted to sisters, daughters, and specific vegetation goddesses who needed the help of male gods" (Reilly 2011, 38). Thus, the ideals of a patriarchy were imposed onto village life by the invaders, and were set in stone by adapting the religious beliefs of a people.

Religious values were not the only thing changed by the merger between pastoral and agricultural people. As quoted from Smitha, "The Sumerians put the domination of men over women into law. If a husband died, the widow came under the control of her former husband's father or brother, or if she had a grown son she was put under his control." Women in Sumer had power only within their own families, in the civic world they were relegated to second class status. Hammurabi's code, the most famous example of legislature in the ancient world, treated women "as if they were simply additions to men's property" (Reilly 2011, 35). Also involved in the dominating patriarchal ideas of the time were the customs that "husbands exchanged daughters…property was passed on to sons" and "a women's virginity at marriage and loyalty during marriage became important concerns" (Reilly 2011, 35). Finally, beyond the need for religion and legislature to represent men's domination, there was also the process of society becoming more militaristic. With the repeated invasions and the wealth of Sumerian cities, as well as the merger with more nomadic and violent people, men looked to other men to protect their interests. Again quoted from Smitha, "Physically stronger than women, men could rule by brute force, and in societies where men were the warriors it was they who got together and made decisions for their entire society."

The civilizations following the original ancient civilizations typically displayed strong aspects of patriarchy. In the Greek world, the role of women can be summed up in the quote "mistresses we keep for pleasure, concubines for daily attendance upon our persons, and wives to bear us legitimate children and be our housekeepers" (Reilly 2011, 161). However, the philosophy of the day was more morally viable, as "the commitment of a man and a woman to each other in the sexual union of marriage is intrinsically good and reasonable, and is incompatible with sexual relations outside of marriage" (Houston). The Romans, who adopted much of Greek culture, place women in charge of their households. Also, Roman women had freedom, unlike Greek women, to socialize and leave their homes. Reilly is quoted, on the topic of love and affairs in ancient Rome, that "love had nothing to do with one's own wife, but everyone else's wife was fair and exciting game" while "the smart women played the game just as eagerly as the men" (Reilly 2011, 173). Epictetus, a Roman Greek, counseling for a more moral society, espouses patriarchal views in his "The Enchiridion." He writes that society should value a woman for more than her looks, and to "fix our attention on making them sensible that they are valued for the appearance of decent, modest, and discreet behavior"(135). These ancient civilizations, even Empires, were strongly patriarchal, and influenced European civilization to modern times.

Finally, a look forward to medieval Europe and feudal Japan shows a continued patriarchal culture, but in some cases, more reverence for women. Medieval Europe was a culture that typically was dominated by males, but there were exceptions. The residents of southern France were in a "rural world in which women were able to inherit property and hold fiefs of land" while also being "effective rulers of a lord's vassals, serfs, and tenants when the lord was away" (Reilly 2011, 277). During the crusades many noblemen and householders went away to fight, leaving the women in charge, which proved their abilities to manage affairs. The tradition of courtly love also glorified women, with men believing that there was a perfect unattainable lady, and that she was "means and inspiration for knights aspiring to court" while also "service to the lady was both method and metaphor for the knight's elevation" (Reilly 2011, 278). However, in medieval society the notions of chivalry were often in contrast with the patriarchal structure of society. Feudal Japan had a culture that "did not disparage sexuality" but "rather it disparaged lack of tastes" (Reilly 2011, 292). This culture, which arose from a Neolithic culture that included empresses and fertility rituals, was patriarchal in nature, but had evolved a "code of polygamous sexuality without chivalry and almost without passion" (Reilly 2011, 289). Both of these cultures showed that women could become more than simple property, that in the European world a lady could be a life's aspiration and a worthy cause, while in Japan courting a woman included intricate rituals and poetry writing.

In conclusion, the relationship of men and women changed drastically after the agricultural revolution. However, it was not the agricultural revolution that changed this relationship as much as it was the merger of agricultural cultures with pastoral or nomadic cultures. The surplus of food and the prosperity of agricultural villages attracted invaders who not only brought violence, but their own pantheons of gods and their legislative ideals. Subsequent civilizations followed the ideas laid down by these early cities and empires, as military might and prowess was considered necessary and violence was typically a man's domain. Ancient Greek civilization, as advanced as it was in philosophical ideas, legislative ideas, and engineering, was backwards when it came to relationships. They "created a society of two types of women: the sexless wives and virginal daughters of men of substance, and the women who were trained to satisfy men's pleasures" (Reilly 2011, 161). Since many of the ensuing cultures of the world imitated and took values from Greek and Roman civilization and from Chinese and Indian civilization, the morals and values of patriarchy have since become almost universal. However, the beginning of the patriarchal world appears to have begun with the invasions of agricultural societies by pastoral ones, the influx of new religious beliefs, and the need for military might or defense against others.


Epictetus. The Enchiridion. Accessed November 20, 2013. .

Guisepi, R. A. "The Origins of Civilizations: The Agrarian Revolution and the Birth of Civilization," History World International, Accessed November 20, 2013.

Houston, Larry. "Homosexuality in Ancient Greece Section 2," Homosexuality in History, Accessed November 20, 2013.

Mesa Community College. "Technology Necessary for Agriculture," Lifeways, Accessed November 20, 2013.

O'Neal, Dennis. "Foraging," Patterns of Subsistence, last modified October 30, 2006.

Reilly, Kevin. The West and the World: A History of Civilization from the Ancient World to 1700. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2011.

Smitha, Frank. "Class, Power, and War among the Sumerians," Macrohistory and World Timeline, Accessed November 20, 2013.

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