Claudia Mazzilli motivates her choice of “non-motherhood” by deconstructing the stereotype of patriarchal motherhood, thus offering us a precious opportunity to explore the values of motherhood in ancient matriarchal societies and in those still existing and marginalized or oppressed, as marginalized and lessened were the scholars who have shed light on these models of society, which have so much to teach the male-dominated western societies.
Mother’s Day: the wishes that the lunàdigas do not receive. Not wanting children, being without children: the very grammatical structure of these statements is already constructed in a negative, exclusive or proprietary sense.
A hollow, not having children; an abyss; the black hole in whose bottomless hive society forces us to look. Down there is where the meaningless lives of childless women are to be found.
But, if we really have to reason with denials, what did we say NO to by choosing not to have children?
I personally said NO to motherhood of the patriarchal society, not to motherhood in its absolute sense. I said NO to the maternal role intended as a totalising and ennobling destiny of the mammalian female.
I said NO to the standardized hagiography that would transform me into a saint just because I gave birth, cared for my children and raised them despite everything else: whether or not I was a good wife/partner, a good worker, a reliable friend, a good daughter… whether or not I had a supportive and responsible husband/partner, a job, a house. Regardless of everything, by generating children I would rightfully earn nature’s approval as a real woman who has fulfilled her primary duty. All my other mistakes, vices, faults, limits, would be considered incidental and not substantial defects, which would be granted indulgence, understanding, redemption, and solution thanks to me being a mother.
I said NO to this easy sanctification, or at least normalization because, I will never tire of repeating it, being a mother is not like being a father, and the burden on mothers is more than just a duty. It is a martyrdom, in a world in which gender stereotypes are hard to die and, compared to the past decades, we are even witnessing a reversal and a regression, due to the so-called Pro-Life movements (it may sound trivial, but for me the protection of life is something else: it is not the claustrophobic single family model, it is not even the abolition of abortion, but it is inclusion in all forms, acceptance of different ways of life from my own, it is the welcoming of migrants, the protection of the environment…).
There is nothing natural and fatally biological about the role of mothers assigned to us. There is only one historically identifiable and determined deviance, which occurred when our societies became dominant societies, to the detriment of the values of care, gift, mutuality (4000-3000 BC). The patriarchate that replaced the matriarchate: a highly disputed word on which clarity must be made.
Matriarchal societies are not the specular reflection of patriarchal societies, because they are not hierarchical societies but gender-equal societies, founded on the values of peace and consensus: a misunderstanding that starts from Jacob Bachofen (Das Mutterrecht, first edition, Stuttgart, 1861) and that still today hinders research on matriarchal societies. The dominant patriarchal culture, in fact, has searched far and wide on the planet for traces of societies based on the “domination of mothers”, without finding any. They could not find them, because in matriarchal societies there is no domination. And being mothers in a matriarchate is not a social obligation, as much as it may seem an etymological paradox: the values of being maternal belong to both genders, male and female, who cooperate supporting each other.
The self-satisfied conclusion of the male scholars was this: matriarchal societies never existed and male domination is universal, natural, unquestionable. But “the Greek word “archè” does not just mean “rule”, but, in its oldest meaning, also “beginning”. The two concepts are distinct and cannot be confused. Even in Italian they are clearly different: you would never translate “archetype” with “ruler-type” and you would not understand what “archeology” means if it were translated as “ruler study”. […] Based on the oldest meaning of “archè”, matriarchy means “in the beginning the mothers”, thus alluding to both the biological fact that women generate the beginning of life through childbirth, and to the cultural aspect that the beginning of civilization was created by them.” (H. Goettner-Abendroth, p. 8).
On the opposite side, Matriarchal Studies (by definition interdisciplinary studies, which embrace Cultural Studies, archaeology, comparative study of myth, anthropology, social sciences, biology, paleolinguistics, history of religions…) have long shown that the history of human civilization is much older than the five or six thousand years of patriarchal culture. Matriarchal civilizations, on the other hand, have left traces in all continents in the history of marginal cultures, that is cultures that cannot be studied with approaches based on Eurocentric and arrogant colonial value judgments.
To confirm all this there are the biographies of scholars who, placing themselves outside the traditional paradigm of domination (that is, refusing to study the relationships between genders in matriarchal societies according to patriarchal models!), have had tormented careers or have abandoned official academic research to do independent research.
Marija Gimbutas (Vilnius 1921 – Los Angeles 1994), through an interdisciplinary approach that she called archaeomythology, unearthed, classified and interpreted over two thousand artifacts which helped to demonstrate that the veneration of the Great Goddess lasted approximately 40,000 years, in peaceful societies extended throughout Ancient Europe. These societies were later forced into Indo-European and patriarchal models, that is destroyed from the outside, with the invasions of men on horseback, carriers of the culture of war, coming from the Russian steppes. The figurines of the Goddess create bridges with the Middle East and with cultures of other continents: traces of another possible world, of a possible gender balance. An example, closer to us, are the Sardinian figurines, from those with rounder and more abundant volumes to the most abstract ones with perforated plaque. I was truly fascinated when I first admired them at the Archaeological Museum of Cagliari: the stylized breasts of the hieratic figurines seem to exalt the values of social motherhood rather than those of biological motherhood (woman and nurturing goddess, rather than breeder), as the archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu pointed out in his numerous studies.
Wherever these figurines have been found (I insist: not just an eager, submissive mother, but a cosmic creator, who presides over the cycles of birth, death and rebirth), the language of the Great Goddess shows hieroglyphics similar to pubic triangles (V, M, X), ornithomorphic and ophidic features, zig-zags that symbolize the serpentine course of water or amniotic liquid, circles or spirals or meanders to remind us of the periodic rhythms of nature. This language speaks to us of a world in which the human species participated in the processes of nature and the living feature was perceived in the woman as well as in the stone, in a snake, or in an aquatic bird that connects sky, water and earth, without separation between these three kingdoms, as it happens instead in the later mythologies or in the epistemology of the current sciences, which find it hard to dialogue with different knowledge, and only recently tried to get rid of an extreme and narrow-minded segmentation.(M. Gimbutas, XXIII).
The Great Goddess is much more than the Greek Athena, Era, Artemis, Hecate, the Roman Juno, Minerva or Diana, much more than Aphrodite or Venus, much more than the Baltic Laima and Ragana or the Russian Baba Yaga. She is not limited to fertility or prosperity, on the contrary, death. “These life-givers and death-wielders are “queens” or “ladies” and as such they remained in individual creeds for a very long time in spite of their official dethronement, militarization and hybridization with the Indo-European heavenly brides and wives”. (M. Gimbutas, p. XIX)
Marija Gimbutas’ approach, on the other hand, is free from stereotypes due to the specificities of her culture of origin, having been born in Vilnius, Lithuania, in a fervent family context: her parents, both doctors, were engaged in the defence of Lithuanian myths and traditions oppressed by the dominant culture of the Russian Tsars. Lithuanian culture also expresses a holistic view of nature. In Lithuania, Christianity (and its patriarchal heritage) was officially introduced in 1387 but in reality not before the end of the 16th century, therefore it is clear that Indo-Europen mythologies and folklore are mixed with pre-Indo-European elements (M. Gimbutas, p. XVIII). In 1939 Lithuania underwent the German and then the Soviet invasion: soon mass deportations began to Siberia. Twenty-five members of Marija’s family disappeared, joining the resistance and the political struggle and in 1945 she was forced to flee to Austria, later taking refuge in the USA in 1949, where she continued her research, not without obstacles (cf. E. Isgrò in Women’s Encyclopedia).
To undermine Marija Gimbutas’ studies, in fact, unfortunately Colin Renfrew (Archaeology and Language, Jonathan Cape 1987) built a counter-theory that moves the Indo-Europeanization of Europe back thousands of years, tracing it back to the first Anatolian farmers who migrated to southwestern Europe, for the sole purpose of strengthening the patriarchy as an ancient, universal, eternal model. Even the figurines of the Great Goddess have been interpreted as children’s toys or figurines stimulating male self-heroism. Even history books in use in schools fail to mention this illustrious scholar. A more accurate (and honest) study of prehistory is necessary to eradicate the distortions of the male-dominant thought still widespread, helping to relativize it, historicise it, deconstruct it, instead of making it an absolute paradigm, often unconscious, internalized by children, making women prey as slaves and prisoners in wars of conquest.
It is therefore time to make these discoveries known – acquired for many decades now – and not tell in schools and to the general public only of the rat of Proserpine and of Zeus serially chasing the nymphs (or of the woman sweeping and dusting the cave while the man goes hunting). The feminine as a subject, not as an object; a multi-species responsibility in contrast to the predatory man of nature; the freedom of life choices. In prehistory, there is a hidden treasure that owns the potential of a revolution of collective consciousness, which could reconnect the pre-patriarchate and the post-patriarchate, after millennia of oblivion and the absolutisation of a single model.
A characteristic of the philosophy of traditional science (i.e. patriarchal) is to operate for abstractions and closed systems, often reasoning in a normative function. In the approach towards ancient or contemporary indigenous cultures, the prevailing prejudice is that they have never created “high” cultures (where by “high culture” we mean the State or the patriarchal empire with its hierarchical structures of domination, without realizing that equally complex political systems existed before and can still exist despite not being a State in the classic interpretation of the term). Furthermore, unilinear evolutionary theories are applied (from Henry Lewis Morgan to Claude Lévi-Strauss to later scholars). For example, the prevailing dogma dates the start of civilization with the possession of private property and with monogamy: a projection, back in time, of the late-bourgeois mono-nuclear family of the Christian religion, born much later.
This is explicitly denounced by Heide Goettner-Abendroth (Langewiesen, 1941), who left her university career to found the “HAGIA International Academy for Modern Matriarchal Studies” in order to study matriarchal societies in indigenous societies still existing around the world. Her method of study is exactly the opposite of the patriarchal one, which Heide Goettner-Abendroth blames. The scholar does not start from a predefined paradigm, but first observes and explores the organizational models of the communities and then, only after researching, she defines their structure formulating all the interrelations between the economic, social, cultural and political levels, thus returning a coherent whole. All the chapters of her immense work (Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 2013, eng. Translation) rigorous and yet usable even by those who are not experts in the field, conclude in fact with an “open” paragraph, a working hypothesis more than a rigid conclusion, entitled To understand the structure of matriarchal societies (continued), in which brief traits are identified allowing an agile comparison between constants in societies even very distant from each other, because they are located in different continents.
Thus, for example, you learn that to be matriarchal, a society doesn’t just have to be matrilineal and matrilocal. From the Khasi of northeastern India to the Newar (Nepal) and the ancient kingdoms of Tibetan queens, to the Moso of southwestern China, to the Ainu and matriarchal cultures of the Ryukyu Islands (Japan), to the Minangkabau of Indonesia and to the societies of the Trobriand Islands and the Pacific Ocean, to the Hopi of North America, to the Cuna and Aruachi of south-central America, up to the Bantu, Akan and Tuareg of the African continent, matriarchal societies are those in which:
– usufruct rights prevail over private property law, because in the “gift economy” goods are for the benefit of all and the market has a very different function from that of capitalist markets aimed at maximising profits;
– buildings, shrines, cults and symbolic systems educate to the harmonious coexistence with nature;
– the cult of ancestors and ancestors is fundamental, through female shamanism, which has also survived in patriarchal societies as a legacy of earlier eras (think of the female initiatory circles of Greece); it should not be reduced to primitive practice, but should be understood as a form of knowledge other than the ratio and logos which, in their technocratic exasperations, contributed to the colonial robbery and the current ecological crisis (cf. A. Tonelli, pp. 12-13 and note 3 and G. Galzio, pp. 31-55);
– essential is the role of the woman’s brother, the most important male figure in the care and education of offspring. The uncle plays the role of social father and in this way the woman is guaranteed greater sexual freedom and an affective life not conditioned by family management (love stories are free and socially irrelevant because they do not affect the brother-sister relationship, the supporting structure for the care of the offspring) but, even where biological fatherhood corresponds to actual social fatherhood, the matriarchal father collaborates with the mother and does not exercise male domination over the family and children;
– in many cases polyandry (a woman with several husbands) results in having fewer children and responds to ecological principles, unlike the polygyny of patriarchal cultures (many wives for one man);
– for the most part, it is the woman who courts the man; the woman is free to decide whether or not the meetings will result in marriage (an institution, moreover, absent in some matriarchal societies or different from how we understand it);
– there is no cult veneration of motherhood in a merely reproductive sense, a patriarchal stereotype in which women are reduced to the generative function, to the detriment of their aspirations and potential; in a matriarchate motherhood is not only a biological act, but also an act that creates culture;
– sexuality is a positive value, because it is considered a source of health, peace and culture;
– the leaders of the clan have a non-authoritarian power: they do not command by force, they do not have warriors and police chiefs to protect them; their role is to give advice and play a mediating role that ensures the cohesion, well-being and harmony of the community;
– the matriarchal structures have almost always been modified from the outside due to the aggressiveness of patriarchal societies (this also applies to the most recent eras compared to those studied by the Gimbutas for the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Eneolithic). Think of the actions of the great monotheistic religions, the expansion of Islam, colonialism, the genocides, Christian preaching etc. (thinking instead that the matriarchal societies have changed from the inside responds to a patriarchal evolutionary pseudo-theory).
Also worthy of mention is Riane Eisler, a scholar and social activist, born in Vienna in 1931, but soon forced to take refuge, due to Nazi persecution, in Cuba and later in the USA. Riane Eisler is also engaged in the investigation of the past in search of “Gilanic” cultural models, that is, based on the cooperation between woman-gyné and man-anér (the model of partnership in opposition to the dominant model) aimed at breaking down the fundamentalisms and barbarism of our time. I borrow her words for Mother’s Day wishes, which I sincerely address to all, mothers and non-mothers, sons and daughters, fathers and non-fathers:
“The changes in woman-man relations from the present high degree of suspicion and recrimination to more openness and trust will be reflected in our families and communities. There will also be positive repercussions in our national and international policies. Gradually we will see a decrease in the seemingly endless array of everyday problems that afflict us, such as mental illness, suicide, divorce, violence to wife and children, vandalism, murder and international terrorism.
Gradually we will see a decrease in the seemingly endless array of day-to-day problems that now plague us, ranging from mental illness, suicide, and divorce to wife and child battering, vandalism, murder, and international terrorism. […] these types of problems in large part derive from the high degree of interpersonal tension inherent in a male-dominated social organization and from dominator child-rearing styles heavily based on force. […] As the consciousness of our linking with one another and our environment firmly takes hold, […] rather than more uniformity and conformity, which is the logical projection from the dinator system viewpoint, there will be more individuality and diversity.” (R. Eisler, pp. 357-358)
So here’s what I said NO by renouncing to have children: I said NO to a bigot and constrictive family idea (any reference to the Pillon bill is not accidental).
I said NO to the individualistic utilitarianism of the Western man, to the competitive exceptionalism of the anthropos, seen as the culmination of creation in the image and likeness of the god of heaven, or understood as the highest step of evolution to the detriment of other species (both in the religious and secular sense, therefore).
I have chosen to have the last word on whether or not a new life should be born. Since access to abortion falters in many parts of the world and is applied unevenly even on the national territory; since I am witnessing the continuous perpetrating of violence against women near and far; since I have seen a lack of male emancipation on these issues and, very often, an even lower sensitivity in the institutional figures in charge of promoting empowering actions, I, in a preventive, constant and obstinate way, have exercised my right to have the last word about having children through a daily practice of resistance to procreation and mutiny to the bitter end, with respect to the construction of a family and the unbalanced duties that derive from it. Because sexual and reproductive freedom is the most powerful means of opposing patriarchy, and more and more women have understood it and will continue to do so.
by Claudia Mazzilli
- Eisler: R. Eisler, The Chalice and the Sword. The Civilization of the Great Goddess from the Neolithic to the Present, Forum 2011 [original title: The Chalice and the Blade. Our History, our Future, HarperCollins 1989]
- Galzio: G. Galzio, Ritorno alla Dea, Agorà & CO., 2022
- Gimbutas: M. Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, Venexia 2008 [original title: The Language of Goddess, HarperCollins 1989]
- Goettner-Abendroth: H. Goettner-Abendroth, Le società matriarcali. Studies on the world’s indigenous cultures, Venexia 2013 [original title: Matriarchal Societies. Studies on Indigenous Cultures across the Globe, Kohlhammer Verlag, 1988-2000]
- Isgrò in Women’s Encyclopedia: http://www.enciclopediadelledonne.it/biografie/marija-gimbutas/
- Tonelli: A. Tonelli, In the luminous abysses. Shamanism, trance and ecstasy in ancient Greece, Feltrinelli 2021
OTHER READINGS (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!):
- Bompiani, The Other Half of God, Feltrinelli 2022
- Longoni, Mother nature. The Goddess, the conflicts and epidemics of the Greek world, Women’s Encyclopedia 2021
- Renda, The Matriarchate. Originally mothers? A journey from the Paleolithic to contemporary societies, Asterios 2020