The Male Here and the Female There

Christina von Braun is a German cultural scientist, gender theorist, writer and filmmaker. She has been professor of cultural studies at Humboldt University, Berlin since 1994 and writes, makes films and researches into the links between intellectual history and gender roles, as well as on media, religion, modernity and the history of anti-Semitism.

In Verschleierte Wirklichkeit1 you wrote about the links between various issues including sacrifice, money, gender, body and symbols. Does the book describe the evolution and function of the patriarchal world order?
Not really. It would be truer to say that the book describes some of the shared features, but also the differences between the three great western, monotheist religions that developed around the Mediterranean. These have one thing in common – that is, a single god who is unique and tolerates no other gods beside him. But there are many differences as well: in Christianity, this god became visible in his son Jesus Christ, who came into the world and took on the body of a man. That is an idea which is completely unthinkable for the two other monotheist religions, Judaism and Islam. It would almost represent a sacrilege against the faith of the believer.
The book deals with the common features and the differences on very many levels. Among them is the order of the sexes, but it also looks at the handling of money or asks what scientific systems evolve from such constructions.
It is not a matter of patriarchy as such, but a specific form of patriarchy and its different

So the subject of your book is a patriarchy associated with the monotheist religions?
One could say that everything we experience today as the order of the secular world and gender was given already in the three monotheist religions. However, the historical process is extremely important because, particularly in Islam, it is often forgotten that there are a great many rules considered as a matter of course in Moslem society today, although they have very little to do with Islam. They are a product of political Islam and its usage. They include a specific notion of how the relations should be between the sexes.

Is a patriarchal family structure the foundation of monotheism?
No, especially as there are quite different forms of family structure. In the Jewish religion and Islam – and of course I am simplifying this considerably to make the differences clear – there is strict differentiation of the sexes: the male here and the female there. These two spheres are not permitted to overlap. In the Christian religion, however, the ideal is one of symbiosis: the male and the female merging together. Christianity is the only religion in the world that proclaims the indissoluble character of marriage. And so one can say that in Judaism and Islam, the female body is granted a sacred status. It is strictly protected and observed. In the Christian religion, however, it is marriage that enjoys sacred status. These represent completely different ideas concerning relations between the sexes and in their turn, these different ideas are closely connected with the religion. In the Jewish religion there is a border between God and man that can never be crossed; it is practised repeatedly in ritual. Almost all the rules of the Jewish religion relate to the body of the believer, making it clear again and again to man that he is a human being and will never achieve the infinity of God. In Islam this is similar, although the ritual laws are different, reminding man of his corporeal nature in a different way.
In the Christian religion, by contrast, God became man and the border between God and man was abolished in this way. If one assumes that the order of the sexes is always a reflection of the way people imagine the relation between God and man, in the Christian religion – corresponding to the belief that God became man – there is the ideal of the symbiosis of the sexes. But in the other two religions there is strict segregation of the sexes.

Does emancipation consist in abolishing the negative consequences of patriarchy?
I don’t like to use the word patriarchy, because it implies that there was a moment in history when men took power. Historically that is complete nonsense.

Might the word “elite” be seen as an alternative?
Even an elite could consist of both men and women. Why, at particular moments in history, are men equated with a particular way of understanding maleness and women with a particular way of conceiving the female? If one starts out with this question, one arrives at the conclusion that the notion is linked to the development of the alphabetical system of writing. Because this was what led to the idea that the male body represented the written word and the female body the spoken word, the oral transmission of knowledge. It was only from that moment onwards, when the male body was equated with writing but also with intellectuality, claims to eternity, abstraction and the rational as a result, and the female body was regarded as something representing the material, the matrix and the mother, that a defining power of the male emerged in opposition to the material as symbolised by the female body.

Is the patriarchal social order a precondition to the development of capitalism?
It is the other way around. The patriarchal social order – that is, modern capitalism – is inconceivable without what happened in Greece at that time. The alphabet was introduced in Greece around 800, and 100 years later the first symbolic money developed, in the sense that the actual value of a coin was no longer very important. There was no need for much valuable metal in it; only the symbol on the coin was important. Capitalist society is a product of the increasing abstraction of money: in other words, the fact that money only functions now as a system of symbols or signs. While a specific notion of male- and femaleness was developing at the same time as the alphabet in Greece, therefore, this system of money was also evolving. One is very closely connected to the other.

This question refers to your book Mythen des Blutes2. Why is blood such an important component of every religion’s rituals?
Firstly, blood is the symbol of life in all religions. When blood is shed, it may be from a wound, but it can also be a sacrifice. Naturally, it is also a woman’s blood, which signifies fertility and the ability to reproduce. There is also a third meaning, when blood becomes a symbol of community. In the case of such a community of blood, one could almost say that blood is a symbol of the language that connects a community, of all its rituals and sacred matters. That is of course a highly symbolic level of blood. In addition, there is the fact that the Christian and Jewish religions have almost opposite ideas about ways to treat blood. In the Jewish religion, blood is reserved for the Creator. As a symbol of life, only the Creator may decide what happens to blood. If blood is shed, it must be buried in order to give it back to him. Blood may be dripped onto the altar in the process of sacrificial rituals, but only as an offering to God himself. Otherwise, all those rules apply: it is not permitted to consume blood, so meat has to be kosher. A man is not allowed to sleep with his wife when she is menstruating etc.
By contrast, in the Christian religion and in our churches as well, things are positively awash with blood. The sacrifice of Christ is what Christianity offers as a gift from God. When I drink from the chalice in the service of Holy Communion, I am drinking the blood of Christ and participate in his immortality, in his resurrection. In the Christian religion, therefore, blood is associated with martyrdom, with suffering, with the body, which hopes to achieve this sacred status. Two types of blood have developed from these ideas in the Christian religion: on the one hand, there is the blood of the martyrs, the saints, the blood sacrificed on the Cross. On the other hand, there is the blood of mortal man; menstrual blood, for example, but also the blood of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, which is sometimes referred to as the sickness of bad blood. And so in Christianity you have the pure blood, the good blood that offers immortality, and on the other hand there is the bad blood belonging to the human, mortal body.

In 1982 you made the film Die Macht des Drachen3, a documentary about the symbolism of dragons and snakes in the Occident. Is the snake an ancient matriarchal symbol?
It is an ancient symbol of the cyclic nature of time. The cyclic concept of time implies that decline and decay is a prerequisite to rebirth. The snake plays a very important part in this concept of time and female divinities are often the ones shown holding snakes. But I wouldn’t use the word matriarchy here, either, because it implies the practise of power by mothers; and this has never been the case.

  1. Christina von Braun und Bettina Mathes, Verschleierte Wirklichkeit. Die Frau, der Islam und der Westen, Berlin 2007
  2. Christina von Braun und Christoph Wulf (Hg.), Mythen des Blutes, Frankfurt a. M. 2007
  3. Christina von Braun, Die Macht des Drachen, Wandlungen des Symbols Drachen und Schlange im Abendland, ZDF, 1982, 60 Min.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Any Day Now, pages 52-57