At the Beginning the Mothers

Heide Göttner-Abendroth is a philosopher and a researcher on culture and society. Her emphasis is on the matriarchal form of society. She is the founder and since 1986 the head of the autonomous educational facility, the “HAGIA, International Academy for Modern Matriarchate Research and Matriarchal Spirituality” in Germany.

Ms. Abendroth, in 2003 and 2005 you initiated the first two World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies. What is matriarchal politics?
It is based on modern matriarchal studies, and its goal is to create an egalitarian economy and a peaceful society. Matriarchal societies, whose patterns have existed for thousands of years, show us how this can be achieved. Their economy, politics, social organization, and spirituality are inseparably intertwined, with the aim of making a good life possible for all.
In economics, matriarchies teach us to develop a new subsistence economy based on local and regional units. This form of economy makes people independent and creates groups that follow the economy of gift-giving.
On the social level, we learn from matriarchies to create and to foster communities based on mental kinship. They arise on the basis of spiritual/philosophical commonality among the members, who regard themselves as kindred spirits. These people then form a symbolic matri-clan. I use the term “matri-clan” because they are initiated, created, and led by women. The decisive values thereby are the needs of women and children, who are the future of humanity. Men are integrated as equal partners. On the political level, the matriarchal principle of consensus is of the greatest importance for a truly egalitarian society. It is the basis for building new matriarchal communities. The symbolic matri-clans are here the actual decisionmaking bodies, and that is also true if the consensual principle is extended to the local and regional level.
On the cultural level, matriarchies teach us to leave behind us all hierarchical religions that make a claim to absolute truth. Instead, it is necessary to regard the world as holy, to love it, and to protect it. Because everything in the world is divine. Matriarchal spirituality encompasses matriarchal toleration: no one has to “believe” in anything; there are no dogmas. Instead, the point is participation in the continuing, diverse celebration of life and the visible world. In this way, we can create functioning “matriarchal models”, which are the components for a new, humane social order.

Wasn’t there any research in matriarchy that could be taken seriously until recently?
Matriarchal studies actually already have a long tradition in the German-speaking world. They began more than100 years ago with the famous work “Das Mutterrecht” (English title: Mother Right: Myth, Religion and Mother Right) by Johann Jakob Bachofen, published in1861. This discussion of “mother right” and “matriarchate” continued for more than a century, and philosophical schools and political parties used and abused a very broad range of aspects of the topic.
The reason for this is simple: If Bachofen’s findings and everything that later came to light had been taken seriously, it would have meant the collapse of the patriarchal ideology and the patriarchal worldview. For, from the beginning, matriarchate research means a new paradigm in understanding human history, which has a tremendous influence on our understanding of the world. That’s why it is too dangerous to fittingly present and acknowledge this research!

The institution you founded in 1986, the HAGIA, International Academy for Modern Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality, is funded privately, not by the state. Why?
Many women’s initiatives don’t wait until the state helps them. There are many examples, like women’s educational centers, where the state provides a little money, but after a few years shuts off the flow again and then there are no more funds. So it can’t be relied upon. In addition, the state supports what is patriarchally well-adjusted and doesn’t disturb this worldview in the least. And matriarchate research is disturbing and not adjusted at all. Matriarchate research is a deeply patriarchate-critical, and thus also state-critical, research. The system is not going to promote something like that. If one conducts truly critical and political Matriarchal Studies, there is no other choice but to carry out one’s work on one’s own.

When students at the HAGIA Academy complete their studies, they earn the qualifications Lecturer in Modern Matriarchal Studies, Trainer in Seasonal Ritual Festivals, and Priest/Priestess of “Matriarchal Mystery Festivals”. Why did you decide to connect the theoretical/scientific with the practical/religious?
The aim is not religion, but matriarchal spirituality. And I don’t speak about religion. One has to believe in a religion. Spirituality is concerned with life and with the earth; in it, one needn’t believe anything, because one always has life around and inside one.
Basically, matriarchal spirituality really refers to the celebration of the earth; it is respect for everything that lives. Matriarchal studies show that all matriarchal cultures are deeply spiritual. We see this in the Mosuo culture as well: they venerate their mountains, they venerate their lake.
I didn’t decide to connect the theoretical/scientific with the practical/religious; that emerged on its own. I have dealt with matriarchal cultures for decades, so it seems natural to not only think about, but also to personally enter into matriarchal spirituality. Because we can do more than analyze matriarchal societies in terms of their economy and social order. I saw no reason at all to tear these apart. One ought to ask, the other way around, why science and the spiritual should be torn apart! That is the question, and of course it is customary in the patriarchate, because there are hierarchies in science, there are hierarchies in art, there are hierarchies in religion, and everyone wants to rule in his own area. It is a patriarchal pattern to tear everything apart and to play one’s power games there. And since I don’t follow this pattern, for me the theoretical and the spiritual belong together, just as the human being is a wholeness.
What I initiated 24 years ago is a celebration of the seasons in 8 festivals that come from ancient matriarchal traditions from all over the world, including ancient Europe. We thereby celebrate the seasons, nature, and also human beings, animals, and plants. There are many women all over the world who do this. Above all, we thereby nourish respect for the earth, for nature, for what lives, and for goddesses—which is part of our historical heritage as women. A historical heritage that women are rediscovering for themselves.
The priestesses are women who have been involved for many years and who have developed the ability to celebrate these festivals with groups of women or men in their cities, where there are people interested in this. This isn’t carried out by an organization or a church, because the celebration of the earth and of nature can be done everywhere. I chose the word “priestess” because it is a title of honor for women. In ancient Greece, there were priestesses for the various goddesses; the priestesses were often highly educated culturally and philosophically; then came Christianity and no woman was ever a priestess thereafter. We are simply re-appropriating this dignity of women, so that we are priestesses and not merely leaders of the festivals.

How can one find these priestesses? I live in Berlin.
We are only beginning to train the people. You know, it is not easy to translate the matriarchal system and festivals into our present-day circumstances. I have studied matriarchal traditions and the festivals of matriarchal peoples for a long time, but it is difficult to translate them into our modern time. One can’t simply imitate it! In these festivals, we learn to deal attentively and lovingly with nature. And, as I said, this is nourishment for many women, because they seldom find themselves in loving contexts.

The term “feminism” fell out of favor in the 1980s. Many important themes of the Women’s Movement (feminist spirituality, matriarchate, the historical ignoring of important women, the liberation of female sexuality) became an academic discourse, and only a few still dared to call themselves “feminists”. Doesn’t the private funding of the HAGIA Academy also pose a similar danger, namely the development of an encapsulated world of its own with a small group of “experts”? A world of its own that is difficult for outsiders to comprehend and that may thereby also no longer be communicable and open to criticism?
I know that it is made difficult for the younger generation to come to topics like Matriarchal Studies and spirituality. This is because of the system. We live in a society that doesn’t want this to be disseminated at all! The topic of the matriarchate is not public because people don’t want to make it public. You wouldn’t believe the degree to which and the frequency with which our cause is met with silence and how the media, universities, and so forth discriminate against us. We carry it forward nonetheless, but very informally. We don’t advertise, so it is difficult for young people to find us.
But fortunately there is the Internet, which the state can no longer control. Here one can find what most of the media maintain silence about. In the 1980s, there was a backlash against feminists, and the attempt was made to separate the younger generation from the old generation of feminists.
Unfortunately, this attempt was very successful, because we have no power and little money, and we do not dominate any media. This is why there are many women who keep searching and who often start with the same ABC as did the emerging women’s movement 100 years ago. If they are lucky, they find something; if not, they remain stuck in their old patriarchal structures.
This experience isn’t limited to the women’s movement; all truly critical movements find that the media initially take positions against them. The feminist movement is not an academic movement. Gender issues are not necessarily women’s issues. Many people in Gender Studies are not feminists, but careerists. Where do they work for the advancement of women? You can recognize real feminists in that they work for the empowerment of women. Wherever and however. Some over-intellectual Gender students have no knowledge of feminism at all! Consider the World Conference on Women in Beijing, with 10,000 women; it was a feminist conference and not gender research. There were women from all areas there. For 20 years, we have been a public facility; anyone can come. The only reason we are privately funded is that the state doesn’t want to fund us. We organized two world conferences in recent years. They were so public that the media got excited about them!

Defenders of today’s patriarchal, technological society and its repressive structures often argue that this is a necessary component of humanity’s cultural development from the Greeks through the Romans to modern science. Part of this viewpoint is that other societies must disappear. What can be said against this?
That story is told solely from the viewpoint of technology. Earlier societies are called primitive because they had a simpler technology. That’s very one-sided! If you ask about the delicacy of relationships, about the culture of love, about how people are networked… What do we profit from the great achievements if the social structures are one big chaos and many people are psychologically and physically ill? The psychological misery that exists in patriarchal societies is the purest barbarism. Cars, washing machines, and airplanes don’t make our lives better if the social fabric of relationships is destroyed? We rate material values higher than cultural and social values, and that is a tragedy.
But there are also matriarchal societies that develop with the times and nonetheless maintain their matriarchal pattern. The Minangkabau on Sumatra, Indonesia have not only villages, but also whole cities where women are entrepreneurs, drive cars, and nonetheless maintain their old values because they consider them much better and much more democratic than the surrounding patriarchate.

In your multi-volume series Das Matriarchat (Matriarchy), you write: “In all patriarchal societies, one sees two levels of culture: the culture of the ruling class, which is patriarchal, and the culture of the oppressed, lower class, which is different, because it preserves much older traditions.”1 The last century was strongly characterized by the idea of the revolution of the lower classes against the ruling classes. Could the reason Communism failed be because it kept the patriarchal structures?
Communism is patriarchal through and through. It is a vision and utopia made by men and realized in “actually existing socialism”. Supposedly, it also liberated women. But the women in the communist states had the same burden as bourgeois women. They were to work in an occupation, but the role of housewife and mother also fell to them, and the communist men behaved just as patriarchally as the bourgeois gentlemen. Communism was extremely hierarchical. Look at China, or North Korea: what voice do women have there? Politics is carried out from the top.
In Germany, too, we see that the Leftists who are communistically or socialistically oriented have intensely hierarchical structures and are often equally misogynist.

You visited the Mosuo, a small ethnic minority in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan in China. Do you think that the matriarchal societal pattern of the Mosuo culture has a chance of surviving in the face of unbridled Chinese capitalism and the region’s rapid opening up for tourists? If it does, is it possible to support this struggle?
Why the Mosuo survived in China is a completely different topic and has to do with the topic of ethnic and national minorities. The Mosuo were oppressed again and again in their history and they survived due to their tradition and their intelligence. That has nothing to do with the topic of women.
The Mosuo live in an agricultural society, they are farmers. Farming societies, whether they are matriarchal or not, are being destroyed by globalism all over the world today. Whether the Mosuo survive has to do with that. Many people’s land is being confiscated because (tourism) industry is being built.

How could matriarchal values and traditions take on more weight?
We are the only institution existing in the world that carries out Matriarchal Studies; but we have already had much effect. For those who really want to listen, the term “matriarchate” itself has already changed to a degree. For example, that one doesn’t understand matriarchate to mean the rule of women.
My books are now being translated into several languages. The effect of the world conferences was enormous; suddenly, people came who noted that, with this new definition of matriarchate, they could call their own research matriarchate
People from matriarchies that still exist today also attended. They networked among themselves and felt confirmed in preserving their cultures. There is so much more present in the way of matriarchal traditions and research than we think. Many people work on similar things but don’t know that these are actually matriarchal elements, and they are afraid to use the word because it is still subject to discrimination. But what I describe is already the beginning of a change of consciousness.

  1. Heide Göttner-Abendroth, Das Matriarchat II.2. Stammesgesellschaften in Amerika, Indien, Afrika, Stuttgart, 2000. (Matriarchy II.2. Matriarchal Societies in America, India, Africa.)

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: If It’s Me, It’s Not Me, pages 19-21