Matriarchal Values: Our Pre-Colonial Heritage

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By Pegi Eyers

The rise of the ecological self in recent years has been spectacular, and there is much to celebrate!

The rise of the ecological self in recent years has been spectacular, and there is much to celebrate!  Patriarchal Empire-building in the Americas has created a toxic system of ecocide and alienation, and yet ecofeminism, deep ecology, and nature-based movements continue to resist this hegemony in thought and action.  The economic model of unlimited growth on a finite planet isn’t working, and in the face of potential climate disaster we have been busy creating resilient communities and finding our kindred spirits in the process.  At this point with the stakes so high, we are fulfilling the directive to shift the paradigm, and replace it with more ethical and sustainable ways of being.   

Resistance to Empire has been a cumulative process over the centuries, and movements such as “abolitionism, pacifism, anarchism, anti-colonialism and environmentalism describe different manifestations of the same androcratic monster as the totality of the problem, yet they fail to address the fact that at its heart lies a dominator, female-dominated model of the human species”[1]. This is extremely important to recognize, as feminists and change agents everywhere confront and deconstruct the masculinist hegemony that is ingrained in our industrial growth society.  The ruling elite that initiated Empire-building in the Americas were driven by patriarchal values such as manifest destiny, Christian conversion and capitalism. The antidote to monotheistic religions is animism – the worldview that permeates pre-colonial and contemporary matriarchal, matrifocal and Indigenous Clan Mother societies worldwide, including those in Old Europe. The work of Riane Eisler is key to deconstructing patriarchy, as her methodology compares the dominator model of patriarchy with the relationship model of matriarchy[2] – values observed by Eisler over a long timeline.

Matriarchies are societies that place the highest value on the aspects of nurture, care and generosity usually associated with motherhood.

To describe a “matriarchy” more precisely, it is not the simplistic reverse of a patriarchy, with women dominating or abusing men through some kind of “mother-rule”, nor is it the Jungian notion of an early and necessary “stage” in the evolutionary development toward a higher culture (i.e. patriarchy).  A definitive text on the subject, Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, and Future by Heide Goettner-Abendroth[3], is a collection of essays by feminists, scholars, activists and Indigenous women who identify the elements of historic and present-day matriarchies all over the world.  Goettner-Abendroth argues that matriarchies are societies that place the highest value on the aspects of nurture, care and generosity usually associated with motherhood. It is hard to imagine, but in matriarchal societies men do hold power as brothers and uncles, yet in collaboration with mothers and grandmothers through an egalitarian process whereby all voices are heard, and there is no value placed on the ability to dominate. Based on matriarchal partnership models, creating an alternative, life-affirming society today is a logical response to the oppression we have endured from the military industrial complex, and the “civilizing force” revolving around the dominator “Big Man”. The contemporary explosion of women’s empowerment, advancements in women’s rights, and the rise of the Divine Feminine in our spiritual life are essential components of the Great Turning. 

However, feminism and the undoing of patriarch are not just “women’s issues”, and men such as activist Jackson Katz are taking up the fight by openly declaring that “one of the key characteristics of power and privilege is that dominant groups maintain and reproduce themselves, and are rarely challenged to think about their dominance. Men have the ability to lack introspection, to go unexamined, and to be rendered invisible in the discourse. In fact, men are largely erased in the conversation about a subject that is centrally about them”[4]. For both men and women, our imperative must be to challenge the centrality and “power over” of the patriarchal Empire, which has used reductionist science, race theory and other toxic ideologies to suppress egalitarian societies based on interconnectivity, such as women’s wisdom and Indigenous knowledge(s).  The good news is that monumental cracks are appearing in the patriarchal façade, finally liberating the human spirit from the parochial tyrannies based on gender and racial divisions that have haunted us for centuries.

Tolerance for diversity in peaceful co-existence is not a complicated approach, and is key to our mutual decolonization project.

Tolerance for diversity in peaceful co-existence is not a complicated approach, and is key to our mutual decolonization project.  As we draw on ancient models of tribal and village life in our collective liberation, from eras that pre-date colonization both in Europe and here on Turtle Island, how much do we truly remember?   Perhaps there is a hidden code that gets activated in a community, the further away from Empire that we stray, both metaphorically and in the immediacy of our lives.  And this arc must surely change and grow as we cycle through our own passages and personal mythology.  The revival of ancestral wisdom cannot be repressed (even in a world of “me-me-me” hyperindividualism) and, like the perennial green fuse, will continue to rise again.         

Finding guidelines for lasting change, or the “decolonization of our psyches”, can be a challenge.  Still holding negative conditioning and dysfunctional behavior from a childhood in white cookie-cutter suburbia, being raised in the Americas presents us with a unique set of cultural habits that are hard to shake, even as we are “building the new” and embodying alternatives to the dominant society.  Surrounded by narcissism and other forms of infantilization, and trained to embrace the “cult of the individual” over the needs of the collective, overcoming these patterns can be a life-long process.  Relinquishing western thinking and learning to put the “we” ahead of “me” is at the heart of collaborative community, and wisdom from pre-colonial cultures worldwide – including those in Old Europe – hold elements of ancestral mind that may benefit us today.  Copying these societies verbatim may fall under the rubric of cultural appropriation, yet being informed by the timeless values of earth-emergent knowledge is not.  At one time we all lived in tribal groups that acknowledged the sacred in every activity, and emphasized the bonds of the community over the needs of the individual.   

As modernists, let’s not be too hard on ourselves (!) as we have been steeped in a brew of over-rational, over-analytical linear thinking; dualism and the mistaken belief that we are separate from nature; restlessness and a constant attraction to “the new”; an eagerness to dominate and control, and a bias toward “the other” as a result of the patriarchy that surrounds us. These may be the aspects of western mind that we want to revise or discard! And even though we have ancient models to follow, with the shift to future/primitive ways of thinking we are entering new ground, and it is simplistic to suggest that we can renounce ourselves completely as modern people. To reject the patriarchy, we are moving both forward and back, and when we consider the beauty and timelessness of pre-colonial worldviews, we may find new modalities to encourage or embrace. 

Let’s look at a brief compilation of matriarchal wisdom, and the overarching values that can be found in Indigenous philosophies and pre-colonial heritage(s) worldwide:   

The Earth Our Mother

Art by Pegi Eyers

The world is a place of sacred mystery, and our relationship with the world is rooted in a profound respect for the land and all life.  Humans are not above creation but part of it, and we flourish within the boundaries of the Sacred Circle. Our culture arises or is informed by the land and our bond to a particular landscape, and in this animist universe we are connected to the plants, creatures, elements and earth spirits that dwell there.  The love of the land and our community is the only true wealth we have – we are part of the Earth and the Earth is part of us.

The Natural World as Blessing, and Portal to the Sacred Circle

Leaving the “buzz” of civilization behind and immersing ourselves in nature easily and effortlessly brings us into the intuitive knowing of Ancestral Mind.  Opening to the natural world and stilling our inner dialogue enables the mysterious unfolding of our hearts.  Simply from being in nature we see the world through the lens of love, and come to know that the Great Heart is the connective force in all creation. Filtered through this harmonious and beautiful space, our thoughts become allied with Earth Community.  Clarity replaces confusion, and our thinking becomes a joyful series of inspirations in service to furthering the goals of Gaia, which are to flourish and thrive.  Instead of identifying with the separatist and mechanistic worldview of industrial growth society, we find that we are at home again in the Sacred Circle of the heart.   And in fact, we have never left. 

Patterns of Ancestral Mind

By reclaiming our place within (not above) Earth Community we organically find ourselves practicing a cyclical thinking that is based on spirit connectivity, natural processes, creativity and peace, rather than singularity, ownership or dominance. When we are physically grounded and embodied our restless mind fades, and we find ourselves vibrant and present in a field of mindfulness and awareness.  We begin to perceive time as a spiral, and are more connected and empathic with others. Our learning is purely experiential, as we are empowered to acquire knowledge at our own pace in our own way, and our overall self-identity is based on our own experience and self-reflection.  Being a part of an earth-emergent community allows us to hold an “everyday” sense of mystery, wonder and awe, and all of our intelligences are combined to fulfill our holistic potential as a “true human being”.  With an ecocentric mind as the foundation, the entire collective is able to integrate self-discovery, wisdom and responsibility.

Reciprocity with the Land and Each Other

Art by Pegi Eyers

Our existence is sustained by expressions of gratitude, as we unconditionally give thanks for all life and the elements that make life possible.  We are in a symbiotic relationship with the Earth, as everything we need to live a Good Life comes from the land, and our activities are intertwined with the cycles of nature. When we embody these principles and have respect for all beings through ceremony and prayer, the cosmic balance is upheld and restored, and the survival of the community ongoing. The reciprocity of maintaining good relationships with each other and all beings is a shared collective value, and our mentors teach us and model to us the virtues of wisdom, bravery, generosity and selflessness that guide us in these interactions.  It is our responsibility to hold the role of our teachers in the highest regard, and to ensure that the generations following also become Wise Elders, and continue to pass on our collective values, history and wisdom. 

By rejecting the patriarchy in principle, thought and deed, we can protect and sustain the sacred ground of Earth Community for the generations yet to come.

It may be hard work to remember and practice ancient ways of knowing, or to reclaim earth-rooted identity after being told that life in urban America is the only way to go, or that we cannot exist without the benefits and amenities of the dominant society. But we owe it to ourselves and our kinship group to join the worldwide circle of ecological community, and move through great change and turmoil to a time of “unity in diversity” as we align with a holistic paradigm once again.  The love, respect and care we hold, means that we are incapable of using or abusing nature past the carrying capacity of the land, and in the end, these are the mindful qualities that will translate into sustainable societies and well-being for all.  Regaining our humanity as whole human beings living in an animistic universe may be challenging, but the outcome is clear that by rejecting the patriarchy in principle, thought and deed, we can protect and sustain the sacred ground of Earth Community for the generations yet to come.

References

[1] Eisler, Riane. (1988) The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, HarperCollins.
[2] Ibid
[3] Goettner-Abendroth, Heide, Ed.(2009). Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, and Future, Inanna Publications.
[4] Katz, Jackson. Violence Against Women – It’s A Men’s Issue. Violence & Silence: at TEDxFiDiWomen, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTvSfeCRxe8


Pegi Eyers is the author of the award-winning book Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community, a survey on social justice, decolonization, nature spirituality, earth-emergent healing and the holistic principles of sustainable living.  Pegi self-identifies as a Celtic Animist, and is an advocate for the recovery of authentic ancestral wisdom and traditions for all people.  She lives in the countryside on the outskirts of Nogojiwanong in Michi Saagiig Nishhaabeg territory (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada), on a hilltop with views reaching for miles in all directions.  www.stonecirclepress.com 

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