Sakti’s Revolution: Origins and Historiography of Indic Fierce Goddesses chronicles the historical evolution of Hindu and Buddhist fierce, Kali-like goddesses and their devotees, from the Indus Valley civilization, c. third millennium BCE, to the present. The author or documents and analyzes the undercurrents of misogyny, greed, and violence-the demonic forces against which Sakti wages warfare-that have formed the historiography of fierce goddesses in India.
Donna Jordan is an independent writer/researcher and organic gardener in Northern California. Despite her advanced academic degrees in religion, literature, and biomedical sciences [Ph D, Philosophy and Religion, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco; Masters (MA), English literature, University of California, Los Angeles; Masters (MPH), Public Health, University of California, Berkeley], she remains an open-minded free-thinker.
In the earliest times, humans everywhere were socially organized into hunter-gatherer tribes that survived by foraging, hunting, and horticulture. From the Mediterranean to the Ganges Valley, prehistoric material circumstances produced similar mythopoetic worldviews that became crystallized in the multicultural idiom of the Great Goddess of Life and Death, who gave birth to the gods, human beings, plants, animals, and minerals. This goddess cemplate originated among hunting tribes that rose to warrior status with the advent of warfare. Beginning with Paleolithic (c. 50,000-30,000 BCE) Magdalenian rock art in Europe, we find evidence of the Mistress of Wild Animals or Mountain Mother in the company of her intimate predator associates, the aurochs bull and the big cats.
When woman-centered horticulture (Latin: hortus, garden) was overtaken by male-dominated agriculture, including the plow, irrigation, and animal domestication, the Ice Age goddess of the hunt morphed into an agricultural deity, the spirit of Mother Earth, who surpassed the spirit of Father Sky. A Great Goddess was the Supreme Being in ancient Arabia, Persia, Sumeria, Babylonia, Akkadia, Phoenicia and Syria, Anatolia, pre-Hellenic Greece and Crete, Armenia, and Georgia long before the Abrahamic religions demonized and destroyed nearly all her manifold incarnations. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are therefore relative newcomers in the ancient Near East (from the Iranian Plateau east to the Mediterranean, and from the Black and Caspian Seas south through the Arabian Peninsula), one of the oldest and most thoroughly excavated areas of the world. In the march of history, this goddess template was defeated and defamed throughout the Near East and eastern Mediterranean, remaining active only in South Asia (India and northeastern Sri Lanka), and in Tamil emigrant communities scattered around the world, especially Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and in the Euro-North American Hindu diaspora.
Primal religions function to appease the forces of nature and to protect the people. The earliest myths and rituals represented an ethical ecological contract with Mother Earth: the goddess would cure illness or send fertility, sunshine, or rain as long as humans observed the rules and gratified her, and calamity may occur if she is not happy. She is thus the creator and the curer of disease and misfortune. In archaeological remains and surviving literature in the so-called cradle of civilization and South Asia, as well as among contemporary indigenous small-scale societies, all the incarnations of the Great Goddess possess the same essential qualities. This goddess represents the great womb and Creatrix of the universe, of the gods, and of all earthly life. She gives to her children not only life and good health, but also death and calamity. In a violent, testosterone-laden expression of the goddess’s destructive potential, the ancient mythologies of warlike peoples deify the spirit of war; the Great Mother became the personification of the blood lust of warriors, a magnificent battle queen who is gratified by the human sacrifice inherent in warfare. In doling out destruction, she can be fierce and terrifying, but as giver of life, health, and renewal, she is nurturing, gentle, and inspiring. Kali is a part of that ancient lineage and cosmological template; beyond the reach of the Hebrew prophets, she thrived in India prior to the third millennium BCE Indus Valley civilization.
In the first century of the Christian era, the fierce goddess all but vanished from the religio-cultural landscape of the Near East and the Mediterranean/Aegean region. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under the second successor after Constantine, Theodosius II (AD 378-98), pagan trappings were revalorized as “Christian” traditions. Only one Near Eastern female deity of the Great Goddess lineage, the Virgin Mary (a composite of many versions of the Great Goddess in the ancient world), has survived the Abrahamic coup and remained central to a major religion in the twenty-first century AD. Unlike Mary, the Indic deity (and her avataras) has retained to the present day her original identity as the fierce goddess whose domain subsumes fertility and war, birth, death, and rebirth, reflecting the archaic magico-religious stratum from which both Mary and Kali emerged. Kali has always been worshiped in India by women of all castes, elite and tribal warrior-priests, and the impoverished majority, who comprise today’s “muted” or “subaltern” low-caste groups-sudras, adivasis (scheduled tribals), and dalits (dalit is the collective term for the “untouchable” castes of India).
In her most archaic Indic form, closest to the roots of the human genetic tree, Kali manifests as non-Sanskritic village folk goddesses, often worshiped as trees, rocks, or rivers, representing a substratum of spirits of the Dravidians and autochthonous tribal peoples. The orgiastic nature of their worship reflects the religion of primal, or shamanic, cultures. The original conception of Mother Earth represents a pre-state consciousness of the interdependency of humans and the environment. Goddesses were non-anthropomorphized energies present in the ecosystem of the forest. They probably first morphed into humanized deities as rock art, shamanic effigies, and statues depicting female figures. Although their human forms dominate in contemporary temples, they continue to be worshiped as the natural world to this day not only in India, but also among indigenous peoples throughout the world, who see land and nature as one with the rest of life.
The spiritual, the social and the material are all entwined, and everything is believed to connect with everything else…. The environment is a sacred realm. God or gods are not generally believed to take a human form, as they do in say Christianity or Hinduism, but inhabit the natural world itself. God is thought to be all around, living in the landscape, and the earth is revered like a parent.
In small-scale societies, the Great Mother is not anthropomorphized as a female form, but rather, she is the ecological system itself, the forest or jungle, the supernatural giver of life and death, as she is for contemporary Mbuti pygmies. The Mbuti’s primary goddess figure is the forest, the Mother, the enormous ecological whole that is predominantly nurturing. The Mbuti devote their lives to keeping the forest happy so she will provide them with all their social, material, and spiritual needs. When calamity strikes, they know that the forest has been sleeping and not protecting her children, so they awaken her with joyous songs to reinstate ecological equilibrium. The diametrical opposite of the ancient warrior cultures, Mbuti pygmies are a sexually integrated, egalitarian, and basically unwarlike, non-hierarchical, cooperative, “immediate return” society whose rituals and cosmology bring into high relief the channeling of sacred organization, and power distribution. Their forest Mother stands in stark contrast to the fierce Indian Mother-goddess, who causes calamity not because she is asleep, but as an expression of her rage (often directed against authoritarian injustices), and who is placated by blood sacrifice and warfare rather than by song.
As the mother protectress of the tribe, the Great Mother in male dominant tribes became the protectress in battle, personified as a vailiant, triumphant warrior who could overcome any enemy. Because all soldiers morphed from hunters, the same Indian goddess, Korravai, Kali, or her more generic identity as Sakti, the active, hot, and self-perpetuating female energy of the cosmos, was worshiped by adivasis as well as elite Aryan and Dravidian warriors. She promotes fertility by both hunter-gatherer tribes and their conquerors. In her role as elite battle queen, she transgresses the gender boundaries of the male-dominated state by wandering unveiled outside her home. This act, because it violates her duties to veil her face and body in public and to spend the majority of her time sequestered within her home tending to her domestic duties, has been historically prohibited (with the exception of the princesses of Rajasthan) among elite Indian women. In an ironic role reversal, she assumes the most macho of male roles in a patriarchal society-the warrior.
The study of fierce goddesses evokes many historical and philosophical questions that are central to the lives of women, but goddesses are not entirely a female creation. The aspect of Kali-like goddesses that is a patently male construct of the hunt and war has been backed up for over five millennia by myths teeming with battle and carnage and framed in the patriarchal structural binary of what Mark Jurgenmeyser terms “cosmic war,” a battle between good and evil, to guarantee both abundant harvests and victory over specific historic enemies. The warrior cultures of the ancient Aryans, Iranians, Hebrews, and Tamils, as well as their modern descendants, are all underpinned by sacred warfare myths that govern their spiritual and political lives. Fierce goddesses as warriors par excellence represent the male attribution of sacrality to the slaughter of animal or enemies. Kali-like goddesses demand blood sacrifice, particularly bulls or humans, and especially their heads. In myth and ritual, the buffalo is a symbol of power that is, through sacrifice, transferred to the goddess and the agricultural fields.
This work, an elaboration of my PhD dissertation in philosophy and religion, grew out of my graduate studies in Indo-Tibetan languages (Sanskrit and Tibetan) and culture, with an emphasis on religious history, literature, and art. Prior graduate work at University of California (Los Angeles and Berkeley), culminating in Master’s degrees in both English literature and Public Health, gave me the vital tools of literary and intellectual criticism (research, historical context, and reasoning) that have helped me to decode and analyze religious symbols, ideas, and systems. I was initially drawn into the subject through my curiosity about ancient and medieval artistic and mythic motifs linking Kali and her Tibetan counterparts (Vajrayogini, Sipe Walmo) with sexual imagery, graveyards, warfare, and violent blood sacrifice while regarding her as a beneficent mother and a central inner yogic energy, Kula-kundalini Sakti. I spent several years under the tutelage of a Tibetan Bonpo lama and began to practice yogic techniques to disengage the conceptual mind. I could hardly avoid noticing the contradiction in the worship of a goddess of high religious status by a caste society in which women and the Indian majority have low secular status and have been historically devalued and disempowered. I wanted to understand how the cosmology and iconography of Kali and her avataras correspond to evolve social realities.
In its original form, my dissertation did not include warfare, but only ritual violence. When I began my revisions, I was initially drawn into the study of fertility and war goddess Korravai as the prototypical slayer of the buffalo demon, and the merging of Korravai with Durga-Kali in brahmanic texts. I found that Cankam literature articulates the brutal nature of the Tamil warrior monarchies of the Cankam age, and noted the irony that their social realities-human organization based on the dominator hierarchy model, violence against widows and tribals, social stratification legitimated by conceptions of purity/pollution and high/low birth, the Spartan concentration on warrior’s death and afterlife, and a population of laborers held in check by fear-were justified and mediated by cosmogonic warfare mythology, composed of bardic glorification and sacralization of war, that equates the battlefield with the agricultural field.
The Sakta classic Devi-mahatmya is a repetition of the central imagery of Korravai’s battlefield scenes of the third century BCE and much earlier. The source-myth for the ritual drama of buffalo sacrifice involving the goddess’s defeat of the asura Mahisa who had assumed the form of a buffalo was a well-known tale by the author of the second century AD Tamil masterpiece, Cilappatikaram (The Ankle Bracelet), which contains an account of the episode. Because this ritual was cognate with what I knew of Near Eastern and eastern Mediterranean seasonal sacrificial ritual dramas, I fleshed out this aspect of the Neolithic Great Goddess, along with the common agricultural ritual of hieros gamos (sacred marriage) followed by bull or king sacrifice. The archaic idea underpinning hieros gamos, according to Mircea Eliade, is that “‘death’ – ritual and therefore reversible-inevitably follows every act of creation or procreation.” This principle arises from observing the processes of the world of vegetative nature in which plants die back every year in order to return in spring. According to this perspective, death, manifested in ritual male sacrifice, produces life or rebirth and the continuity of the female principle. The similarities between the first civilizations of the Near East in Sumeria and the Dravidian culture do not stop at their common fierce fertility and martial goddesses astride a lion and the hieros gamos ritual between the goddess and the king, but also include the seasonal sacrifice of the bull/consort of the goddess (the enactment of the ritual drama of bloody death and resurrection of a god) and an institution of dancer-priestesses who also sacred prostitutes of the goddess with high social status.
I discovered that these goddesses and their mytho-ritual motifs were replicated in pre-Islamic Arabian religion. Although the goddesses and myths disappeared during Muhammad’s first jihad against his own tribe’s polytheistic Ka’bah in AD 630, many external pagan traditions were co-opted to insure easy conversion to Islam, and continue today as magico-religious rituals that serve to unite the Muslim faithful.
The nineteenth century notion of the diffusion of cultural traits by a pan-human psychic unity or Jungian “collective unconscious” is no longer viewed as an acceptable explanation for the commonalities among the goddess religions of these regions. By land or sea, the archaic traditions of the Great Goddess were transmitted through the well-known trade routes connecting ancient Sumerian, Dravidian lndian, and Arabian cultures. By what means or conduit did the agrarian goddess template self-replicate in such geographically diverse locations? Contemporary anthropologists and historians usually attribute the viral-like spread of religious cults to demographic changes resulting from trade, war, and migration patterns, coupled with gender roles; the distribution of power, education, goods, and services; agriculture and animal domestication; and the introduction of bourgeois economic systems. Another intriguing explanation of self-replicating goddess templates is that of evolutionist and cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett. In his evolutionary scenario, religious traditions emerged on the human stage as cultural memes that spread, like mystic viruses, through infection, natural selection, and socioeconomic forces. Although we cannot know with certainty why religious motifs are replicated across cultures, it is a “known known” that religious cosmologies underlie, channel, and mediate social reality. However, the same cultural symbols and myths can have immensely different meanings over time and geography, and should never be viewed as immutable.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, a fascinating psychobiological approach and a good introduction to the evolution of human violence and animal and human sacrifice, was my point of entry into the subject of blood sacrifice in religions. I had read convincing ideas about the motif of sacred “cosmic war” used as a blueprint for divinely sanctioned warrior behavior in Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God, Stan Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s Is Religion Killing Us? Fierce fertility and war goddess Korravai seemed to be, on one level, the embodiment of what Nelson-Pallmeyer refers to as “violence-of-God” religions that legitimate and justify contemporary violence and wars, a phenomenon he explores in the Abrahamic religious scriptures. Because I was making an inquiry into the relationship between the sacred symbology and social realities of India, I decided to pursue the elephant in the barrel, the linkage between the Great Goddess and warfare.
In contemporary times, fierce Kali-like goddesses play complex roles in the common arena of warfare and terrorism. My inclusion of some Muslim history and principles seemed to me to be a necessary element in the historiography of fierce goddesses. I do not discuss women under Islamic law. I confined my research on the Internet to primary Islamic texts, including three English translations of the Qur’an and A Dictionary of Islam, Thomas Patrick Hughes’ compilation from the Qur’an Hadith, Taurat, Injil, and other sources (in which the Comparative Index to Islam was particularly helpful). Among the secondary texts and histories I consulted, Samuel Noah Kramer’s Mythologies of the Ancient World was key in my understanding of the mythic undercurrent of Islam.
Authoritarianism and its organic emotional outcome, self-sacrifice or martyrdom, is a thread running through the history of fierce goddesses, one that conflates the spiritual and political planes of being. Reflected in bonds of dominance and submission, authoritarian ideologies underpin social injustice such as gender and caste oppression; androcentric mythologies of male god domination and female self-sacrifice that serve as social models; and the guru-disciple tradition, the most fundamental of Indian spiritual traditions of self-renunciation. John W. Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience opened up a new perspective on the intertwining dynamics of individual, religious, and political authoritarianism, particularly in the twenty-first century, when the nature of transnational political discourse has become increasingly confrontational, religiously framed, and self-righteous.
The anthropology of religion held some explanations for me, and I familiarized myself with the conceptual framework of symbolic anthropology and the study of gender role, since, as Fiona Bowie has pointed out, “[i] ntellectual trends in recent decades have made it increasingly difficult to ignore gender as a practical and interpretative issue.” One of the most salient, insightful, and critical aspects of contemporary symbolic anthropology is the study of the ways in which cosmologies underpin ecosystems, societies, and gender and power roles. Anthropologists Peggy Reeves Sanday, Clifford Geertz, Fiona Bowie, and Mary Douglas relate the symbolic systems and governing cosmologies of small-scale indigenous societies to the relative power and equality of men and women on the ground. Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures argues that cultures set up symbolic templates or blueprints that define and guide behavior. Peggy Reeves Sanday uses the term sex-role paln to describe sacred symbols of creative power that help orient men and women as male and female to one another and the environment, and provide a commonly accepted mold that shapes worldviews. In her study of patterns of female power and male domination in over one hundred fifty tribal societies, ranging from the sixth century BCE to the present, Sanday discovered that secular power role are channeled and mediated by sacred symbolism. Sanday’s preliminary data analysis indicated that “sacred symbols are not, as I had originally supposed, an epiphenomena [sic] of secular power roles. In fact, it became clear that the reverse was more likely: Secular power roles are derived from ancient concepts of sacred power.” The fierce Indian goddesses in their full mythic sense function as such a template in India, comprising the mythic domains of gender and caste oppression and institutionalized violence; their meaning has never remained static, but has evolved over time, accumulating layers of folk myth and elite didacticism, with the mode of production and dominant class ideology. This approach, which theoretically subsumes some of the ways that religions promote warfare and justify and implement violence against women and the underclass, addresses the nexus between sacred symbols, violence, healing, social structure and upheaval, gender roles, and divine and secular power.
Much of India’s past survives in the present, and at all times in prehistory and history, fierce goddesses have steadfastly remained a bedazzling Indian idiom. As Kosambi has written, “the country has one tremendous advantage that was not utilized till recently by the historians: the survival within different social layers of many forms that allow the reconstruction of totally diverse earlier stages.” I have attempted to weave together the complex origins and the long evolution, historiography, and mythologies of fierce goddesses as they have interpenetrated the power structures and social realities on the ground. Because this book is based on library and Internet research, I cover material that has been elaborated by previous writers; however, I have deliberately transgressed traditional Western epistemological boundaries by attempting to flesh out ideas, interdisciplinary connections, and political equations that are crystallized in the origins and historiography of Indic fierce goddesses.
My research has been guided by my conviction that religion is a ubiquitous natural bio-cultural phenomenon commensurate with music, art, dance, poetry, and even disease and warfare; as such, religions should be the subject of comparative analysis and intellectual criticism. Religious traditions can be placed under a microscope and understood scientifically, through cultural studies in history, economics, anthropology, archaeology, and-especially given Dennett’s hypothesis of the natural history of religions-biology. I agree with Danial Dennett:
It is high time that we subject religion as a global phenomenon to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster, calling on the best minds on the planet. Why? Because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about. It affects not just our social, political, and economic conflicts, but the very meanings we find in our lives. For many people, probably a majority of the people on Earth, nothing matters more than religion. For this very reason, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it.
Unfortunately, professional backbiting, low prestige, and dubious findings have made such a multidisciplinary approach to religions a thankless, at times even punitive, tasks. Even at esteemed American universities, intellectual criticism is often replaced by multiculturalism and cultural relativism, wrapped up in political correctness and a postmodern worldview that precludes historical and cultural analysis. Professors are often active participants in the religion about which they teach and write, academic gurus whose lectures functionally proselytize and result in student converts. Moreover, there exists a tacit taboo against serious non-biased investigations of religion, a subject considered by many to be a spiritual issue privately owned by the faithful, and any neutral inquiry is viewed as disrespectful, intrusive, and sacrilegious, if not impossible.
It is just about impossible to be neutral in your approach to religion, because many people view neutrality in itself as hostile. If you’re not for us, you’re against us. And so, since religion so clearly matters so much to so many people, researchers have almost never even attempted to be neutral; they have tended to err on the side of deference, putting on the kid gloves. It is either that or open hostility. For this reason, there has been an unfortunate pattern in the work that has been done. People who want to study religion usually have an ax to grind. They either want to defend their favorite religion from its critics or want to demonstrate the irrationality and futility of religion, and this tends to infect their methods with bias.
No researcher can delve into the historical evolution of Indic fierce goddesses without stumbling upon the goddesses enthusiastically involved in horribly gruesome blood-and-guts rituals, including warfare, and various gory myths and narratives, that mimic and reflect the violent exploits of the cultures from which they emerged. In my efforts to present dominant symbolic themes, I have been obliged to include grisly human practices such as the head-taking motif that runs through Indian religions and history. Chronicling scenarios of macho violence and exploitation has been personally wrenching for me, a peace-loving vegetarian. However, I am well aware that keeping baser aspects of human behavior submerged below consciousness for the sake of political or religious correctness produces a distorted, even a delusional picture of the whole. (I believe Dr Freud had something to say about this.)
I have gained from writing this book the ability to face a hard truth. Although difficult, it is important to ever keep in mind that we humans, with the most evolved brains of all animals, have cleverly designed weapons that can kill anything, particularly one another, at a distance. Because the armed human has dramatically altered the environment and contributed to the extinction of a number of species, he has been described as the ultimate super-predator, or apex predator, on the planet. It follows, therefore, that many of our myths and rituals justify and legitimate predatory behavior. From Bronze age seasonal regicides, to medieval head offerings and smasana rituals, to contemporary functions of Kali in wartime, Indic fierce goddesses on one level are heroines of myths that justify, glorify, and mystify warfare and other human predatory rites, even as they defend us, slay our true enemies, and establish order. At the same time, we have the ability to transcend our base predatory nature, eschew violence, harvest the riches of the Earth, heal illness, and generate love and psychic resurrection. At once the antithesis and the cure of violence and warfare, the aspects of Kali and her avataras that incorporate the archaic healing tools of shamanic folk medicine have interpenetrated her divine warrior persona for over five thousand years.
Nineteenth century evolutionary theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor, and Sir James Frazer claimed that all the incarnations of the Great Goddess were underpinned by a unilinear evolutionary process, and that these goddesses constituted an essential unity. The early evolutionists, according to Fiona Bowie, shared three overarching articles of faith: (1) the notion of progress; (2) the theory of pan-human psychic unity; and (3) a belief in the unfailing efficacy of the comparative method. A pan-human psychic archetype or model, along with the diffusion of cultural traits, accounted for the replication of the Great Goddess across cultures and time, according to evolutionary theorists. “If left alone, all human communities would pass through the same stages of social evolution. The supposition was that eventually all societies would reach the same peak of rational, civilized thought and behavior that characterized Victorian Britain.” Convinced that matriarchies preceded patriarchies as an evolutionary principle, evolutionary theorists presumed that the Great Goddess in her various archaeological images and mythological forms was an a priori signifier of matriarchal societies.
Contemporary feminists have revived the nineteenth century matriarchy theory, which until recently has been denigrated by anthropologists and historians. According to the argument initiated by German romantic idealist Johann Jakob Bachofen and anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, ancient cultures at the beginning of pan-human cultural evolution were ruled by women. In this Eurocentric, androcentric paradigm, savage and barbarian societies are viewed as the low point of origin of a unilinear evolutionary process. As humans progress, advance, and become civilized, they claimed, patriarchy, the pinnacle of creation, becomes the norm. Bachofen based his theory on the prevalence of powerful goddesses and queens in archaeological remains and mythology. Morgan’s proposal was centered on his study of the Iroquois nation, in which the economic domination by women, the tradition of matrilineal descent, and the authoritative role of women in ritual and political activities provided evidence of a functioning matriarchy.
As explanatory devices, all of these theories failed: “they were based on armchair speculations and were heavily burdened with biases about human nature,” writes James J. Preston. According to Carolyn Fleuhr-Lobban, there are three false assumptions in the evolutionists’ argument for a matriarchate:
First, there is the assumption that the presence of female deities and female figures in ancient myth and symbol is evidence for a historical epoch of mother-rule, or matriarchy. Bachofen originated the idea, and Engels utilized it in his formulations. Second, there is the assumption that matrilineal societies are survivals of a prior matriarchal era. Morgan arrived at this conclusion, and Engels did not take a different view. Third, there is the assumption of a natural and necessary relationship between matrilineality and matriarchy. All these assumptions are unwarranted.
This evolutionary interpretation of prehistory came into disfavor among academics and scholars in the late twentieth century. Modern anthropologists reject the idea that civilization or history progresses in “stages” because the data now available from societies all around the world fails to support it. Joan Bamberger reasons that myths of matriarchy, found in relative abundance in patriarchal societies, function as social charters that rationalize, justify, and legitimate male power. In societies in which woman is elevated to a deity in the pantheon but demoted to childlike chattel in law codes, Bamberger claims that matriarchal myths are a male tool to keep her “in her place.” Sanday echoes Bemberger’s thesis:
Generally, myths of former female power are found in societies in which there is both male dominance and female power…. Myths of former female power provide men with a rationale for segregating themselves from women and a reason for dominating ‘tyrannical’ women. Wherever men perceive women in such terms, it is likely that women have considerable informal power. Thus, myths of former female power mirror the paradoxical relationship between the sexes that actually exists.
Gerda Lerner notes that most ethnographic evidence points not to a predominance in the ancient and Neolithic worlds of matriarchal societies, but rather to matrilineal and matrilocal social systems in which many or most of the economic and family decisions are made by male relatives, while women have participatory power. Christine Fielder and Chris King have shown that Mitochondrial mtDNA and Y-chromosome DNA studies provide genetic evidence that suggests that human emergence, like that of ape societies, is dominated by female exogamous migration amid a moderately polygynous system, an indication that matrilocal societies probably did not predominate on a population basis during the Paleolithic.
Because they have discovered no society in which women are the primary leaders, many anthropologists have concluded that male dominance is universal. However, as Sanday points out, “[t] here is a certain bias to this point of view, a bias that is understandable given the Western equation of dominance with public leadership. By defining dominance differently, one can show that in many societies male leadership is balanced by female authority.” Among Ashanti, Iroquois, and Dahomeans, for example, women are not foregrounded in public life, but they possess veto power against male actions, suggesting “a bipartite system of checks and balances in which neither sex dominated the other.” Iroquois women had the power to make political appointments or replacements and to veto warfare.
Many pre-contact North American Indian tribes such as the Cherokee were true matriarchies, both matrilocal and matrilineal, that functioned as societies ruled by women. According to to N.N. Bhattacharyya, D.D. Kosambi, and numerous other historians and anthropologists, many of the aboriginal peoples of India were similarly organized as full-fledged matriarchies.
Inheritance and descendants came through the matrilineal line in many Native American tribes, and the matriarch, as an integral part of tribal life, gave women power and control over the decision-making processes of their society. The Cherokee nation (Tsalagi) was a full-fledged matriarchy (termed “petticoat-government” by eighteenth century Scottish trader James Adair), both matrilineal and matrilocal; women owned as their birthright the means of production (the land) and therefore controlled tribal economies. Women and men had equal claim to plan privileges, but it was acknowledged by all that women were the source of the clan; the matriarch gave women power and control over the decision-making processes of their society. Each town had a female judiciary that enforced regulations. Women “had more of a proprietary interest in men than men had in women,” and married women, according to Adair, were adulteresses who “plant their brows with horns as often as they please;” unlike women of “all civilized or savage nations,” Cherokee women did so “without fear of punishment.” Female infidelity rarely fazed men, but male infidelity ended in a bloody battle between the two women and the termination of the marriage.
Perceiving the gender parity and sexual autonomy of the native people through their European lens, the early observers labeled women “slaves” because they did most of the labor, and “harlots” because of their sexual freedom. “Perhaps,” writes Theda Perdue, “women willingly performed most of the work in Cherokee society because they also controlled the fruits of their labor, the crops; the means of production, the land; and ultimately, the result of production, the children.” As Sarah Hill explains, the autonomy of Cherokee women was a product of their social and economic security, and the rights of women and children were protected and enhanced by marriage customs, residence patterns, and social structures.
As long as women retained control of their resources and lived in female-centered households, they could support their descendants. When marriage partners separated, wrote Timberlake, ‘the children go with, and are provided for, by the mother.’ Women’s ability to support their children and themselves emerged from a densely woven social fabric. Matrilineal ownership of land gave women access to foods, whether grown or gathered, served or sold. Matrilocal residence patterns facilitated sharing of responsibilities and resources. Nucleated settlements maintained and reinforced household connections. It is little wonder Alexander Longe thought ‘the women Rules the Roost and weres the briches.’ They appeared to be little dependent on their husbands.
Indian Adivasi Matriarchy
One of the prominent strands of D.D. Kosambi’s exegesis of Indian historiography is related to his belief that Indic tribal societies were originally matriarchal. This view echoes the ideas of S.B. Dasgupta and N.N. Bhattacharyya. Most of the aboriginal tribes the brahmanas sought to assimilate, Kosambi maintained, had retained a mother-kin social organization since prehistoric times, and their religions likewise were dominated by a belief in and worship of the Supreme Being as Mother Earth.
There are many clues of matriarchal or matrilineal customs in ancient India. In ancient women-oriented societies, brother-sister marriages were common among both gods (Cronus and Rhea, Zeus and Hera, Baal and Anat, Osiris and Isis) and kings, who married their sisters “to insure their own title to the throne under a rule of female kinship which treated women and not men as the channel in which the blood royal flowed.” This matriarchal social custom survives in some parts of south India, cognate with brother-sister marriage referred to in the Baudhayana Dharmasutra and in the Tantravarttika of Kumarila, viz., the custom that a man marries the daughter of his maternal uncle. We learn in the Mahabharata that among the Arattas and Vahikas, the nephews inherit the property rather than the sons. Brother-sister marriage was also practiced in India by the Sakyas, according to the Ambatthasutta and the Mahavastu; by Sita, who, in the Dasaratha Jataka, is the sister as well as the wife of Rama, and is described in Buddhist stories of sister marriage.
The Mahabharata refers to the Madra country, a land governed by seemingly matriarchal laws: in the marriage of Pandu to a Madra princess, the dowry was taken by the kinsmen of the bride as a brideprice. It was against the law to associate with the Madrakas, who are described as outcastes who assembled in free sexual union that is reminiscent, as Bhattacharyya emphasizes, of agricultural rites. We learn in a conversation between Pandu and Kunti that formerly, women were unfaithful to their husbands, yet were not considered sinful according to the moral precepts of the time. Patrilocal marriage was introduced by Svetaketu, son of Uddalaka.
Although there have been few field studies of Indian adivasis, evidence collected by A.A.D. Luiz, Edgar Thurston, Wilbur Theodore Elmore, and others highlights the prevalence of Kali-like goddesses among tribal peoples in South Asia, and Luiz asserts that “very definitely mother right (Marumakkathayam, matrilineal) was the rule among primitive aborigines of Kerala.” Many scholars argue that most Indian tribes were primordial matriarchies and many remained matriarchal until the advent of Aryan hegemony. The present-day distribution of temples to the Sixty-four Yoginis lies within the tribal belt of eastern Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Moreover, the names of local goddesses in these areas are often feminine inflections of tribal names: Matangi is the goddess of the Matanga tribe, Candali of the Candala tribe, and so on. The principles of Sankhya, magical fertility rites, and Saktism are actively found today in the matriarchal tribes of the northeastern region, which, in the medieval period, encompassed the Brahmaputra valley, Kamarupa (which included, according to the Puranas, nearly all of the old province of Eastern Bengal, Assam, and Bhutan), andPragjyotisa. When the process of brahmanic hegemony brought the cult of the Hindu divinities to the many hill tribes of the northeast, the least influenced by the brahmanic tradition were the Mizos, Nagas, and Khasis. “Most tribals were greater recipients of the Sakta-Tantric ideas” because vamacara and kaulacara rites were grounded in primal magico-religious equations familiar to them.
The few wild hill tribes that escaped brahmanization for nearly a millennium survive as resources of study for anthropologists and cultural historians. We learn from Bhattacharyya that their emphasis on blood sacrifice is parallel to that of left-hand Tantra, their goddesses are the creators and destroyers of the universe, and their priestesses deputize men to assist them in sacrifices to the goddesses:
In all religious ceremonies sacrifices are essential. The spirits are to be propitiated with sacrifices. The sacrifice centers round the altar. Among the Garos, the victims are generally fowls or goats. In special sacrifices, the victim is a bull which is to be cut with a single stroke of blade….In olden days the practice of human sacrifice was in vogue among the Dimasa-Kacharis….[In] the rituals of Khasis, …[b]efore partaking of a meal one has to put something out of the dish as a libation to the gods uttering words of thanksgiving. In such ceremonies they appease the goddess and other deities by raising an altar on which they smear the blood of a sacrificial animal or some pieces of its entrails. The powers of sickness and death are all females. The protectors of the household are also goddesses. Priestesses assist at all sacrifices and the male officials are only their deputies.
Baron Omar Rolf Ehrenfels’ mid-twentieth century research on the matriarchal tribes and castes of India provides specific evidence that goddesses are central to the lives of tribal groups whose agricultural economies are controlled by women. The massive efforts to break the resistance of matriarchy and establish male supremacy through child-marriage, hypergamy, and sati, which Ehrenfels charactrzies as almost uparalleled aggression against women, did not succeed; matriarchal elements were eternally rootd in the lives of the low caste, adivasis, and dalits. As Bhattacharyya stresses, “The special vigour to overthrow mother-right must have been enjoying in India since the pre-Vedic age.”
Debiprasad Chattopadhyay argues that since a matriarchal social structure and worldview tend to dominate in undeveloped agricultural economies, and since the great majority of Indian muted groups remained primarily agricultural, it follows that to convert them to a subordinate existence in a patriarchal, authoritarian system would have required extreme measures. Matriarchal cultural elements, reasons Chattopadhyaya, would naturally survive in underclass groups that work the land.
In 1940,Ehrenfels found more than one hundred such Indian tribes and castes, with the primary matriarchal zones located in Assam, parts of Baluchistan, parts of Andhra Pradesh and Madras, Mysore, and Kerala. These matriarchal social groups are allied with a Mother-goddess who is frequently depicted as their tribal ancestress. The religions of the Khasis of Assam and the Garos show markedly matriarchal traces, for example, and the matriarchal Pulayans or Cherumans worship Bhagavati as a kind of caste goddess or ancestress. The Kadirs of Kerala, also a matriarchal people, worship the goddess Kali; the matriarchal Nayars, to whom the Great Ucharal feast is dedicated, propitiate the Earth Goddess, Bhumi Devi; the matriarchal Parayanas or Malas of the far south worship their tribal mother Athal, as well as three categories of Divine Mothers. The mythology of the Gowri tribes of Madhya Pradesh depicts ancestors who were all husbands to the one great ancestress, and the same region is home to matriarchal castes such as Bhunjias, Dumals, Gonds, Kamars, Kawars, Khangars, etc., all of which are ancestress-worshipers.
While the aboriginal Kerala tribes were originally matriarchal and matrilineal, only the Kurichchians, Kanikkars, Kundu Vadians, and Malayalars have preserved Marumakkathayam (matrilineal descent). All other tribal groups are now patrilineal. “The ancient rule made it imperative that the estate of the deceased devolved on the person who performed the obsequies and observed pollution,” observes Luiz:
Most of the tribes have no clear rule regarding succession because there is nothing to be inherited especially among those who are still in their hunting, food-picking, or nomadic stage of civilization. Some groups that have given up Marumakkathayam (matriarchal rule), divide the assets equally among sons and nephews. This is a mixture of matriarchy and patriarchy. The assets of the wife pass to the husband at marriage, and after his death to his heirs. If divorce takes place at the instance of the husband the assets of the wife have to be returned. Adoption is popular, and the adopted has a legal and social status…. Among most groups the woman has a status at par with man. They hunt, work and cultivate together. The wife and children are treated as assets, for the wife and sons contribute free labour, and the daughters can be sold.
Because of a former deficiency of Western technology and economic development, India’s economy has remained largely agricultural and rural, thus affording a strong survival of tribal elements and matriarchal traditions within the domain of the rural majority. A prominent theme of Kosambi’s works is that much of India’s past survives in the present. For him, this rich mine of prehistory made up for the absence of reliable historical records. Although many older matriarchal tribal groups have managed to survive, they are close to extinction today. After two thousand years of cultivation, almost all of the land is overgrazed and overfarmed, and “yield per acre is abysmally low because the methods are primitive and holdings too small to be economic.” Since agriculture remained undeveloped until the invasion by globalist corporatocracy and agribusiness, the mother-right elements that survived in India have been stronger in both degree and extent than anywhere else in the world, according to Kosambi.
Myths Reflect Patriarchal Coup
Consistent with the ideas of contemporary symbolic anthropologists and feminist theorists, Kosambi and Bhattacharyya perceive that the gradual shift from mother-right to father-right social structure is reflected in myths. As male domination, private property, and the caste system gradually encroached on tribal groups, many of their aboriginal goddesses were coupled with husbands in epico-Puranic mythology. Most of these goddesses were eventually assimilated along the fringe of the brahmanical Sakta pantheon as the Kali-like goddesses, the wild, terrifying, all-devouring, oral-aggressive, ugra (fierce) incarnations of Devi, whose rituals involved propitiation with blood sacrifice (preferably freshly decapitated human heads), meat, liquor, violence or self-multilation, and frenzied spirit possession performance.
Hunter-gatherer societies at the base of our genetic tree are characterized by a balance between the major food resource brought in by gathering women, who also do most of the childrearing, and the animal foods, prized for sexual favors, provided by male hunters. In these societies, the relative status of men and women is separate but equal, as opposed to a dominant matriarchy. The Great Goddess is an ironic deity of Life and Death. Because they are forced to succumb to the pressures of more competitive patrilineal societies whose technologies and economic system exploit women and the Earth, matriarchal, matrilineal, and matrilocal societies are a rapidly vanishing tiny minority in the contemporary world, as many cross-cultural studies have proven.
The Shift To Agriculture
The way we look at the development of human culture is so familiar by now that many of us have forgotten that the whole scheme…was itself never more than a model and, like most models, tells us more about its own time than that which it claims to describe. Formulated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the view of prehistory as a progressive series of stages is indebted to compte, to Darwin, and to what has been called the Whig Interpretation of History, the assumption that it was progress, upward development, which led to ‘that pinnacle of achievement,’ ourselves.
Sophisticated technological advances such as carbon-14 and thermo-luminescence dating have lent greater accuracy and reliability to late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries archaeological conclusions, propelling archaeology into the hard sciences and high technology. For this reason, recent finds are more highly valued than those using older methods or paradigms. Nevertheless, archaeology remains an interpretive field in which the standard is always in a state of flux. Like most fields of academic study, archaeology has obviously been dominated by Caucasian Christian men. Stylistic and philosophical shifts have occurred over the decades, and in some cases there is a return to older paradigms that had been discarded and later reconsidered. Archaeological hermeneutics generally echo the dominant paradigm of prehistory. Prehistorians have sought a new paradigm since the end of the twentieth century that would deliver them from th unilinear evolutionary notion of progress initiated by Childe, who also coined the phrase “Neolithic Revolution” to describe what many scholars characterize as the most important single event in human history: the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural mode of production. Childe’s “oasis” theory, proven to be incorrect, was that drought forced humans into restricted territories at the end of the Ice Age, and they began of necessity to domesticate wild animals and grains that were indigenous to these oases. While the Near East did experience drought, it was after the earliest farming villages had already been established.
The shift of agriculture, traditionally accepted as a Neolithic invention, probably began in Paleolithic times with the control of animals and plants, although the reason for the transition from nomadism to settled agricultural existence still remains an enigma. Modern archaeologists tend to avoid Childe’s term “Neolithic Revolution,” because they now view the changeover to plant and animal husbandry as more a gradual process of transition than a “revolution.” In the least half of the eighth millennium BCE, Neolithic farming villages sprang up in Anatolia, Palestine, Syria, and the Zagros mountains of Iran. Early signs of metal work, domesticated animals and complex grains, a pottery tradition, and advanced architectural and interior design were all present, suggesting that these people were “experienced settlers whose techniques had been perfected elsewhere.” Archaeological records of known earlier sites give us no clue to their direct ancestors or original settlements.
After two thousand years without further innovation, a second major wave of farming settlements was developed by formerly nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples in the outskirts of Iran, the plains of Mesopotamia, and into the West as far as the Balkan countries in the last half of the sixth millennium BCE. Neither wave of farming settlements appears to have been stimulated by any economic advantage of agriculture over hunting and gathering; in fact, “the economic base of the pre-Neolithic forest dwellers of southeast Europe, who may well have controlled edible resources of their own (red deer, pig, fish, and forest plants), was actually equal or superior in terms of both nutrition and reliability to the grain-sheep-goat-cattle complex that replaced it.”
A so-called Epi-Paleolithic or Mesolithic age in the Near East was a transition period from around 10,000 BCE until the eighth millennium. In this period we find the first rock art glorifying war and battle scenes between archers in the Spanish Levant, Transcaucasia, Palestine, and Syria around the last half of the ninth millennium BCE.
Between 9,000-6,000 BCE, the earliest permanent settlements arose, accompanied by the domestication of plants and animals. The sheep was domesticated by 9,000 BCE, and the dog had probably been domesticated in the Paleolithic. Goats, pigs, and cattle were all domesticated in the Near East by 5,500BCE. Catal Hoyuk remains strongly suggest the ancient origin of animal husbandry and the hieros gamos ritual. The first cities were built between 4,000-3,000BCE, theoretically as an effect of population growth, more complex trade patterns, and the organizational requirements of irrigation and warfare. Between 9,000BCE and the beginning of the Christian era, Western civilization came into being in Egypt and ancient Western Asia.
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