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The Function of Alternatives in Early Greek Tradition and the Ancient Idea

of Matriarchy

WOMEN IN CHARGE: THE FUNCTION OF ALTERNATIVES


IN EARLY GREEK TRADITION AND THE ANCIENT IDEA
OF MATRIARCHY
By Simon Pembroke
over a century ago, a book appeared in Basle revealing to the world a
Just
stage of evolution through which all mankind had passed and of which

nothing had been known until then: Das Mutterrecht,by J. J. Bachofen.


Matriarchy, as the title came to be translated, was not a simple phenomenon.
It was an entire epoch, dominated and virtually contained by a feminine,
material principle, to which a whole series of cosmic and terrestrialrepresentations necessarily corresponded, and which the more spiritual period of
masculine ascendancy which succeeded it had to combat for every step in its
own advance.
At a less metaphysical level, matriarchy assumed one quite specific form.
It was generally assumed at the time that human society had developed out
of the patriarchal family, as it did in the Old Testament. Bachofen, however,
drawing his evidence almost exclusively from classical antiquity, succeeded in
demonstrating the existence of a form of family organization where the father
was not the head of the household and in which descent was traced on the
female side, not the male one; and he put forward the theory that the paternal
family had everywhere been preceded by a family of which the mother was
the head. The controversy which followed gave a new subject-matter to
anthropology. Families of a similar type were discovered in existing societies,
and for several decades the classification of these discoveries took a chronological form, backed in each case by a hypothetical system of evolution which
led up to the family of modern industrial Europe and thereby enabled the
various discoveriesto be dated to successivephasesin the prehistory of this family.
Few of these systems have survived to the present day. Modern anthropology is scrupulous in distinguishing between the two phenomena which
Bachofen saw as one, the tracing of descent through women, on the one hand,
and the power or influence of women on the other; and of these the second is
by no means necessarily correlated with the first, besides being a great deal
harder to locate objectively. It is no longer believed that the tracing of
descent through women was ever universal, or that it is essentially an older
phenomenon than that which is traced through males. Above all, it is no
longer thought that the factors governing social organization are so simple, or
so stable, that the entire history of the species can be reconstructed by inference; and inference, in these theories, provided not only mortar, but bricks.
Antiquity, however, remains a separate problem. Whatever is thought of
the methods of Bachofen, the sheer quantity of evidence he could assemble is
impressive enough. It covered a period extending from Homer to the
Gnostics; and this evidence cannot simply be forgotten along with his theories.
Classical studies have in fact taken two separate directions in the present
century, and the real problem has been by-passed on either side. On the one
hand, the theory of matriarchy is still being promulgated, but only by the
followers of Engels, who combined the findings of Bachofen with his own ideas
I

SIMON PEMBROKE

as to the origin of private property; and the work of his successors today,
amalgamating as it does phenomena of totally different kinds and reducing
them all into material for a history of social organization whose outline is
known in advance, cannot be described as a contribution to knowledge. The
phenomenological side of the problem, on the other hand, and the evidence of
mythology and religion, are now largely the province of isolated studies deriving
from analytical psychology and broadly unconcerned with questions of historical context and origin. But the main body of classical studies has abandoned not only the idea of matriarchy but the very extensive range of problems
connected with it, and these problems have not ceased to exist. A good many
of the connexions which were made in the last century are unacceptable, but
explicit distinctions must be set out in order to make it clear why this is so.
The first thing to be established is how antiquity itself saw the problem and
how close it came to making a category out of matriarchy. There is no lack
of evidence, and this needs to be organized within specific traditions and set
against a historical background before its significance can be assessed. The
present study is intended as a preliminary investigation of this material, and it
concentrates, for the main, on one area for which the Greek tradition is
particularly strong yet can at the same time be controlled by independent
evidence.* A strictly geographical basis, however, is not altogether satisfactory, and the assessment of this tradition involves an attempt to define its
place in ancient ethnology as a whole, to relate ethnology, in turn, to Greek
reconstructionsof their own past, and since it is not certain, in either case, how
far the simplest categories, such as past and present, Greek and non-Greek,
are effectively operative, to establish a method of confronting this uncertainty
in archaic tradition of all kinds.
I
About the middle of the sixth century B.c., when Cyrus had completed the
conquest of Lydia and was moving on to Assyria, the Persian general Harpagos
was given the task of subduing the South-West coast of Asia Minor. Herodotus,
recording the fact, gives a brief survey of its inhabitants-the Carians,
Caunians and Lycians. He has most to say about the last of them.
Their customs are partly Cretan, partly Carian. They have, however, one
singular custom in which they differ from every other nation in the world:
naming themselves by their mothers, not their fathers. Ask a Lycian who
he is and he answers by giving his own name, that of his mother and so
on in the female line. Moreover, if a free woman marries a slave, their
children are full citizens; but if a free man marries a foreign woman, or
lives with a concubine, even though he is the first person in the State,
the children forfeit all the rights of citizenship.1
A short passage-Herodotus hardly mentions the Lycians again-but one
which has been decisive in the formation of modern anthropology. In i86o
* The Greek colony of Locri Epizephyrii and its foundation
separate article.
1 Hdt. I, 173.

will be examined

in a

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

Lewis H. Morgan inaugurated a massive survey of kinship systems throughout


the world, an undertaking to which he had been brought by his study of the
American Iroquois, the emphasis which they laid on descent through the
mother, and the peculiar terms in which they described and addressed one
another. Ancient Greece, in this survey, was one of the societies whose
terminology was assembled by Morgan himself; but he did not regard it as
very significant. It added little, in his opinion, to what was already known
from other Indo-European societies, and the stage which these represented in
Man's progress from savagery to civilization was well advanced. The work of
Bachofen, however, which made Herodotus on Lycia its starting-point,
persuaded him otherwise; and he admitted, in his next book, that 'descent
was anciently in the female line in the Grecian and Latin gentes'.2 Throughout the controversy which followed, the case of Lycia epitomized this view.
Descent in the female line, it was believed, was an older phenomenon than
descent through males; societies of the various types encountered outside
Europe had also existed in antiquity; and the history of mankind could be
reconstructed simply by getting these societies in the proper order. Morgan's
Iroquois, however, had already been investigated by a Jesuit missionary,
more than a century before; and the connexion which he had made with
Lycia was of a different kind.
Quelques cofitumes caractdristiques des Peuples de la Lycie, compardes
avec celles des Iroquois & des Hurons, m'avoient d'abord persuadd que
je ne m'dcarterois pas de la verit6 en les faisant descendre les uns des
autres; et je croyois avoir trouv6 dans Hdrodote... de quoi assurer mes
conjectures.
For Lafitau, in fact, the Iroquois were the Lycians, driven from the ancient
world by a chain reaction which started with the Hebrew expulsion of the
Canaanites.3
In the traditions with which the present study is concerned, this same
passage from Herodotus occupies a unique position, and not simply by being
the first such statement to survive. The point is rather that it constitutes an
intersection between traditions of a different kind; and as this assertion must
be established in detail, or not at all, it will first be necessary to examine one
of the headings under which Herodotus presents the customs of a people-a
group of customs which he calls, straightforwardly enough, 'marriage and
intercourse'.

There are fourteen passages of this kind, if we discount three passing mentions; and for the present they can be discounted, since they make no pretence
2

AncientSociety,New York 1877, p. 343;


cf. Systemsof Consanguinity
and Affnity of the
HumanFamily, Smithsonian Contributions to
Knowledge, xvii, no. 218, Washington 1871,
pp. 29-31. That Morgan was familiar with
Herodotus's description of Lycia before
reading Bachofen is certain from his 'Laws
of Descent of the Iroquois', Proceedingsof the
American Associationfor the Advancementof

Science, xi, 1858, 132-48, p. 145; but he


did not attach the same importance to it at
this time, and in League of the Iroquois,
Rochester 1851, pp. 86-87, explained matriliny in functional terms.
3J. Lafitau, Matursdes sauvagesamericains,
compare'esaux maurs des premiers temps, i,
Paris I724, PP. 69, 89-92.

SIMON PEMBROKE

at a complete description of the society's workings or of how marriage was


organized within it. Thus the information that girls in Lydia earn their
dowries by prostitution is given not for its own sake, but to explain how a
scheme of a quite different kind, the building of a particular tomb, was
financed.4 Even in concentrating on these fourteen passages, however, we
will not get a different custom for each society. In fact it is very nearly true to
say that with the exception of the Asiatic Empires, Herodotus produces
nothing but variations on a single theme, so the exception may be considered
first.
For Herodotus there are three continents-Europe, Asia and Libya; and
despite a remarkable attempt to liberate himself from this position and show
how arbitrary the names were,5 the first two, at least, remain powerful
categories of thought throughout his work. Asia stands for slavery, Darius
and Xerxes for the attempt to extend it into Europe. Something of these
categories can be felt in the background when Herodotus comes to describe
the treatment of women in Persia and Babylon. For the tendency of these
descriptions, which can to some extent be isolated from their factual content,
for which there is independent evidence, is to represent the highest condition
to which a woman can aspire as inferior to that of a free woman in Greece.
A Persian, according to Herodotus, not content with any number of concubines, could lawfully be married to any number of wives as well." Is
this to be believed? Achaemenid Persia has left no code of laws to match
those of its predecessors; but the practice revealed by cuneiform texts, from
their Sumerian beginnings down to the latest Babylonian period, is wholly
consistent. One woman is distinguished as dam,wife-the Sumerian word is
itself used ideographically by Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites alike7from every other status of women a man could live with, and there is no
reason to think that Persia was an exception.
What Herodotus is saying, therefore, could almost be rephrased as follows:
what the Persians call marriage is in fact concubinage. The same tendency
can be seen in his statement that at least once in a lifetime, every woman in
Babylon-not just a particular class of them, though this is what the
Babylonian texts indicates--has to undergo prostitution in a temple;9 or
8 The various classes of prostitutes in
Babylon and Assyria are distinguished in E.
im Alten Orient,Leipzig
6
Ebeling, Liebeszauber
U
phEv xoupLOtac 1925, P- 5, and B. Meissner, Babylonienund
cxazro otcrOav7on&
yOptouol
yuva'ix, unlike e.g. 5, 5. No particular em- Assyrien,ii, Heidelberg 1925, pp. 68-71, cf.
phasis is given to Thracian polygamy: at 435-6. Hierodules of a certain rank were
5, 5 it is only mentioned to explain a funeral permitted not only to marry but to veil themselves when they did so, whereas the Assyrian
custom, at 5, I6, 2 in connexion with houseconstruction.
Laws prescribe heavy penalties for any street
SCf. R. Labat, Manuel d'epigraphie ak- prostitute (harimtu)who veiled herself under
kadienne,3Paris I959, p. 231, no. 557; G. R. any circumstances, Driver and Miles, The
Driver and J. C. Miles, Kt., The Babylonian AssyrianLaws, Oxford 1935, PP. 126-34, 406Laws, ii, Oxford 1955, PP. 46b, 57; 340 col. 411 (??40-4I). Thus the tendency of State
iii, I6ff.; J. Friedrich, Die hethitischeGesetze, control was not to lower the status of free
Leiden 1959, p. 140, and for Persia see the women but to raise that of the prostitution
which it sanctioned.
distinction made in Dinon, FGrHist 690F27
Athen. 13, 3, P. 556B.
9 Hdt. I,
I99.

4 Hdt. I, 93, 4; cf. below, nn. 6 and 67.


5

Hdt. 4, 45.
Hdt. I, I35. The language is emphatic,

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

again, more clearly still, when he says that the Babylonians sell their daughtersas wives, not concubines; this time the distinction is made explicit-by annual
public auction.10 In this case there is a mass of evidence from Babylon to
prove that they did nothing of the kind; but it can almost be shown from the
text of Herodotus himself. When Cyrus received a message from the Spartans
ordering him not to interfere with any Greek city, he expressed his contempt
for them by saying 'I have never yet been afraid of any men who have a set
place in the middle of their city where they come together to cheat each other
and forswear themselves'; and Herodotus, having put the words into his
mouth, goes on to explain that unlike the Greeks, who buy and sell in marketplaces, the Persians do not conduct business in this way and in fact do not
have such things as market-places at all.1 A century of excavations has shown
that this is perfectly true, for Persia and Babylon alike; and the fact has farreaching implications for our understanding of their economies, which is still
very far from complete.12 Yet marriage in Babylon, as Herodotus describes it,
does seem to require a market-place. Even so, he cannot bring himself to set
the scene in one; he has the girls rather vaguely 'collected together in one
place' instead.13 On his own showing, the institutions needed to make the
practice feasible were Greek.
Herodotus's account of marriage in Asia, then, shows a consistent tendency
to exaggerate the subjection of women; and the Lydians are no exceptions,
since Strabo, the writer to whom our knowledge of prostitution in this country
is chiefly due, while admitting that the hierodules of Akisilene were by no
means all drawn from the lower classes, and that a girl who had served her
time in this temple was not thought any the less eligible at the end of it-a
state of things which does much to align Lydia with Babylon-explicitly
refuses to go so far as Herodotus and represent every woman in Lydia as a
prostitute.4

It is not the subjection of women, however, that comes to the fore once
Herodotus is off Asiatic ground. The peoples in question all belong to the
more or less remote areas of Libya and Northern Europe; and what he has to
say about them centres-with one exception, which will be considered lateron two things. Either they have intercoursein public, or they are systematically
promiscuous. Both of these apply to the Massagetai, who also practise
monogamy; it is one another's wives with whom they are promiscuous.'5 The
Nasamones of Libya are polygamous, as well as promiscuous, although they
do not go in for the same kind of publicity and when having intercourse make
the fact known less directly, by leaving a stick outside the woman's house. At
a wedding, the bride is had by all the guests; hence the wedding-presents.'"
Hdt. I, I96.
by a Hova prince. 'Chez nous, ajouta-t-il, la
prostitution est encouragfe, honoree m~me,
11Hdt. I, 153.
et les filles des premieres familles du pays
12 Cf. K. Polanyi and Conrad Arensberg,
TradeandMarketin theEarlyEmpires,Glencoe font ce que nous appelons karamou(marchC)
de leurs charmes, et n'ont aucune honte de
(Illinois) 1957.
vendre leurs faveurs au premier venu', B.-F.
13 ESV Xeptov, Hdt. I, 196, I.
14 Str. I I, 14, 16, p. 532, cf. 12, 3, 36, p.
Legu~vel de Lacombe, Voyage & Madagascar
559, and for Corinth 8, 6, 20, p. 378. A very et aux iles Comores,i, Paris I840, p. 145.
similar account was given to a traveller in
15 Hdt. I, 216, cf. I, 203.
1 HIdt. 4, 172.
Madagascar early in the nineteenth century
10

SIMON PEMBROKE

The Agathyrsi, on the other hand, have no formal restrictions whatsoever;


they are simply promiscuous, and this means that, in Herodotus's words, 'they
are all one another's kindred and relatives, and neither envy nor hate one
another'."7 Not like the Ausees of Libya: these do not even co-habit, but
simply have intercourse like cattle. Two months after any child is born, the
men assemble and it is assigned a father on the basis of physical likeness.18
Finally, among their neighbours the Gindanes, the women put a ring round
one ankle for every man they have slept with, and the woman with the most
rings is highest in the general rating.1"
Such, in outline, is Herodotus's conspectus of the sexual behaviour of
foreigners. The details may seem sparse, the distinctions hazy, but they can
by no means all be written off as pure invention. Nothing in the weddingceremony of the Nasamones is essentially different in kind from those at which
the guests all kiss the bride, although in our own society, the kiss neither
requires a precedent, nor creates one. As for the Gindanes, a very similar
custom, which if anything goes a stage further, was reported by Marco Polo
for the Tibetan province of Caimul. In this country, he was informed, no girl
could get married before she had had at least twenty lovers, and collected a
token from each of them.20 In a less rigidly prescriptiveform, the same attitude
was already being encountered in various parts of the world by seventeenthand eighteenth-century travellers. Ulloa found the Quito Indians of South
America not merely indifferent to, but positively suspicious of, any girl who
had failed to have liaisons by a certain age; and Des Marchais, who met with a
similar phenomenon in the Kingdom ofJuda, attempted to correlate it with
the premium that its inhabitants placed on knowing that a woman was fertile.21
The degree of emphasis varies, but the state of things described is no more than
an extension of tendencies which at some level exist in all societies, whether
they are formally enacted or not; and the exception is not classical Greece,
but the Atarantes, a people which later in antiquity was represented as
valuing women for the length of time they had preserved their virginity, and
nothing else.22
It might appear, therefore, that the most productive method of dealing
with Herodotus's descriptions is also the simplest and most straightforward
one: to isolate the factual content from the distortion which it has undergone,
concentrating attention on the former and treating the latter as more or less
arbitrary. Despite this, however, there is much to be said for transposing the
priorities, and giving pride of place to the distortion. The distorting factor, it
can be argued, is a constant, whereas in many of these cases it is impossible to
17 Hdt. 4, 104.

Hdt. 4, I80.
Hdt. 4, I76.
20 Col. H. Yule, Marco Polo, 2, ii, London
1875, p. 35.
21 G. Juan and A. de Ulloa, Voyage
historique de l'Amirique miridionale, i, LeipzigAmsterdam 1752, p. 343; Labat [J. G.],
Voyagedu chevalierdes Marchais en Guinie (17251727),
ii, Paris I730, p. 222, quoted in
Theodor Waitz, Anthropologieder Naturv'lker, i,
18
19

Leipzig 1859, p. 354; cf. e.g. Lahontan,


Mimoires de l'Amirique septentrionale, The
Hague 1703, p. 132: 'les femmes sont sages
et leurs maris de m~me: les filles sont folles &
les garcons font assez souvent des folies avec
elles. II leur est permis de faire ce qu'elles
veulent: les PWres, mdres, freres, soeurs, &c.
n'ont rien Aredire sur leur conduite.'
22 Nic. Damasc. FGrHist 9oF Io3(u) =
Stob. Flor. 4, 2.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

be certain as to the identity of the peoples involved, or even whether they


really existed; and this means that the distortion is the most concrete datum
that can honestly be elicited from the material. Nicolas of Damascus, writing
in the first century B.c., said that it was the Libyrni, not the Ausees, who used
physical resemblance to determine fatherhood; and the Libyrni lived in the
North of Europe, not the Southern extremities of Libya."23 According to the
same writer, the people who held women in common and called everyone in
the society their kindred and relatives-parents, brothers, sisters and children-were the Galactophagi, not the Agathyrsi; the title, Milk-Drinkers,
is taken from Homer.24 For Strabo, writing about the same time, it was the
Massagetai, and even the Arabs, not the Nasamones, who left sticks outside
the houses of women they were visiting, though in this case he had simultaneously to cope with a variant tradition that the Massagetai had no women
at all.25
Scholars of the last century were inclined to treat this evidence as cumulative. The customs were taken at their face value, or even upgraded. They
were regarded as evidence for stages in the universal evolution of social
institutions; and if ancient testimony attributed the same custom to more than
one people, it was concluded that the custom had genuinely been practised by
two different peoples. But the form taken by these later descriptions, and the
detailed similarities between their language and that of Herodotus, cannot be
accounted for by co-incidence alone.26 In a large number of cases, at least, the
phenomenon is due to a process which can be termed localization; and the
nature of this process is most easily illustrated by an analogy.
In the HistoriaAnimalium,it is said that during the mating-season of horses,
any mares to which stallions are denied access may become impregnated by
the wind instead, and Aristotle mentions the precautions which were taken in
Crete to prevent this happening.27 The statement must be seen in a wider
setting, though it is not possible to make this a complete one. An association
between the wind and male sexuality was not uncommon in ancient Greece,
and might come out at a variety of levels. At Athens, those about to marry
made a sacrifice to a group of divinities called the Thrice Fathers, who were
also identified as the winds. This sacrifice was supposed to bring the couple
children.28 Again, there is a passage in the Mithraic liturgy describing the
vision of a tube which hangs from the disc of the sun, and this tube is 'the
source of the ministering wind'.29 And in common parlance, eggs laid by
hens which had not been impregnated were called wind-eggs.30 The analogy
of the farmyard, however, is not enough to explain the further connexion of
the wind with horses, there being no datum to correspond to the egg; and
something of this connexion might be found at Sparta, where a horse was
N1c. Damasc. FGrHist 90FIo3(d), ibid.
Damasc. FGrHist 90Fio4(3)
24Nic.
=
Stob. Flor. 3, I, 200oo.
25 Str. 7, 3, 4, PP. 296-7 (Massagetai);
16,
23

4, 25, p. 783 (Arabs).


26 Cf. M. Rostowzew, Skythien und der
Bosporus, i, Berlin 1931, pp. 4-12 and
where one area is fully documented. 76-I04,

Arist. HA 572a 13Demon


FGrHist
327F2,
cf. ibid.
325F6; J. and L. Robert, REG 68 (I955), p.
195, no. 30.
29 A. Dieterich, Fine Mithrasliturgie, Leipzig
1903, p. 6, 9f.
30 P1. Theaet. 151e; Arist. HA 559b2o;
27
28

Soph. fr. 436 TGF2 Nauck.

SIMON PEMBROKE

sacrificed to the winds on Mount Taygetus,31 or even in the Homeric poems:


Xanthos and Balios, the divine horses of Achilles, were the offspring of the
West Wind.32
The background of Aristotle's statement, therefore, is at least partly
obscure. In later writers, however, the phenomenon becomes not a universal
fact of nature, but a purely local oddity. From Aristotle's hint that the
trouble was particularly common in Crete, we come to Varro, Columella,

Pliny and Solinus, all describing it as something which happened regularly,


but only in Lisbon-until finally, Augustine moved it back again, beyond the
Cretan end of the Mediterranean, and placed it in Cappadocia.33
Biology and ethnology are not altogether distinct fields in the tradition of
antiquity. One writer says that the Southernmost inhabitants of the world
were animals of a species outwardly indistinguishable from mankind; elsewhere, and with apparent seriousness, a corresponding incursion is made by
the description of a people called the Gorillas.34 And the first conclusion to
be drawn from the horse-wind syndrome is equally applicable to both fields.
The phenomenon reported by these various writers is not biologically possible,
but the reports themselves constitute a phenomenon of a different kind, and
this belongs to the study of popular tradition. There are excellent reasons for
attempting to analyse the phenomenon, and plotting its successive localizations on the map, and it may even be that these conform to a recognizable
pattern, but the pattern cannot be a biological one. Anthropology, in this
instance, is necessarily less certain of its facts than biology, and the anthropologist cannot assert with the same confidence that there is no genuine knowledge of foreign societies behind his material. But the knowledge actually
possessed by antiquity is seldom directly accessible through the literary
tradition. No one confronted with a series of fragmentary, and in some cases
much-travelled, descriptions of isolated customs, can begin to reconstruct the
various types of society compatible with each custom, without giving constant
attention to the place of each description in the literary tradition which has
preserved it. The biological equivalent of this evidence is not a fossil, but the
description of a fossil; and from the very beginning of the tradition, descriptions of this kind are likely to owe as much to preconceptions about the nature
of animals as they do to the nature of the object in question. As the tradition
developed, inaccuracy, and even plain invention, were facilitated by the fact
that there was never any need to produce material evidence, as there was with
the Piltdown skull. People of the type standardized by earlier writers could
simply be planted on the map, and reports of fresh anomalies assimilated to
the existent categories. The final description is often the same, in both cases,
which makes it impossible, without independent evidence, to say which route
the description has taken. The problems in an assessmentof ancient ethnology,
therefore, are at least as substantial as any which could arise from fossilhunters seeing purely inanimate configurations as living matter.
31Festus s.v. October equus, cf. for
Tarentum Hesych., s.v. &VEE
ATO,i. 169 no.
4886 Latte.
32 I1. 16, 149ff.
33Varro RR 2, I; Colum. 6, 27; Plin.

NH 8, 166; Solin. 23, 43; Aug. CD 21, 5.


34 Agatharchides in Diod. 3, 31, 4 (GGM
i, p. 152, ?60 Miller); Hanno ?18, GGM i,
PP. 13-14.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

That localizations of the same kind were made by ancient ethnologists is


not open to dispute. The practice of lamenting the birth of a child, and
celebrating deceases with a general merriment, which Herodotus records for
the Trausi, is later attributed to the Kausiani, to the Krobyzi, and even to one
city whose inhabitants were Greek.35 Even when the field is narrowed to
sexual behaviour, the accounts given by Herodotus, and the categories which
he employed, are found to have set a pattern to which nearly all the ethnological writings of later antiquity conformed, and the conformity is close
enough for such rare innovations as do appear, like incest, to stand out by
contrast.36 The combined evidence of these writings, which constitutes a
considerable bulk, was given a great deal of weight in the nineteenth century,
and anthropologists of this period laid particular emphasis on certain features
which could not be directly corroborated by accounts of contemporary
societies and which provided a unique authority for current reconstructions
of that state of nature with which the Garden of Eden had to be replaced. A
careful assessment, therefore, of the distance which lay between Herodotus and
the societies he described, is important for understanding the ethnology of the
last century as well as that of antiquity; and for this reason the remaining
passages must be examined in greater detail.
One custom which may draw immediate attention from anthropologists
is that of the Agathyrsi, all of whom are related to one another. It could
fairly be suggested that this description is based on the classificatory system of
kinship which, just over a hundred years ago, was found by Lewis H. Morgan
to prevail in a very large number of societies in different parts of the world,
and in which terms such as mother, father, brother, sister, son and daughter
are applied to categories of persons who are not physically related in this way.
Today it is generally accepted that these terms denote social relationships, not

physical ones, and that they are more or less metaphorical in form; Morgan,
however, believed that the terms had survived from an era when human
societies were systematically promiscuous-a state of things for which there
is no direct evidence and which is today generally regarded as an impossibility
for any society which is governed by human speech. It is quite possible,
therefore, that contact with a genuine classificatory system does lie somewhere behind Herodotus; but that his explanation of the phenomenon should
anticipate that of Morgan is no coincidence, since the latter was quite certainly
influenced, directly and perhaps crucially, by this description of the
Agathyrsi.37 And there is no reason to think that Herodotus knew the
Agathyrsi as well as Morgan did the Iroquois.

35 Hdt. 5, 4; see the references in Jacoby


on FGrHist 90FI 17 [Dummler, K1. Schr. i,
212, 1], and add Herakleid. Pol. 20, FHG ii,
p. 221, ?20o = Arist. fr. 6 I, 60 Rose (Locri).
36 So first Eur. Andr. 1 7off., cf. below, n.
6i. Brother-sister marriage in Egypt, which
was not confined to a governing class, is
well-attested, but only in documents from the
Roman period, H. Thierfelder, Die Geschwisterehe im hellenistisch-riimischenAgypten,
Miinster 1960, pp. 90-96, and for Caria,

where the evidence is restricted to the ruling


family, cf. W. Judeich, Kleinasiatische Studien,
The case of
Marburg I892, PP. 248-55.
Persia, where a persistent tradition represents sons as marrying their mothers, is a
more complex one and will be studied elsewhere.
37J. H. McIlvaine, to whom Morgan
dedicated his magnum opus and whom he
acknowledges as having provided the clue on
which his own theory was based (Systems, p.

io

SIMON PEMBROKE

Later in antiquity, systems of the same kind are encountered in a different


role. They have become not survivals from an older order of things, but blueprints for a new one. Thus in the ideal Republic of Plato, all the members of
a generation are brothers and sisters to one another, children to all members
of the previous generation, and parents to all those of the succeeding one;
and although Aristotle was scornful of the dilution of human affection which
this scheme would involve, it was taken up again by the Stoics.38 This is not
to say, however, that the system had in the meantime disappeared from
ethnological reports. Nicolas of Damascus is found attributing the same type
of organization to the Thracian Galactophagi, centuries after Herodotus; he
is explicit that the terms in question are used to denote relationships between
members of age-groups, and adds the further information that the Galactophagi lived in a state of complete communism, holding not only women but
all other property in common.39 Whatever the immediate data of Herodotus,
therefore, the promiscuity with which they have been overlaid in the tradition
has transferredthem to the Golden Age; and this Age, to which the end product has belonged ever since, is not one from which historical facts can be
elicited.
The Agathyrsi were assured of posterity, but the situation of the Ausees
was a more precariousone. The assignation of children on the basis of physical
resemblance is also reported in Arabic tradition, and the story in question has
never, to my knowledge, been systematically aligned with the Herodotean one.
Al-Bukhiri described four types of marriage which had existed in the Time of
Uncertainty, before the coming of Mohammed, and which the Prophet
hastened to abolish. One of these involved a number of men consorting with a
single woman, apparently a prostitute, who had a flag over her door indicating
that she would turn no one down. When the woman became pregnant, and a
child was born, the men were all summoned, and an official physiognomist
was called in to decide which of them most resembled the child. The man in
question was formally declared the father, and had no choice but to acknowledge the child.40
In Islamic times, physiognomists were called in only in highly exceptional
circumstances, where the paternity of a child was being actively disputed; and
these arose when the mother was a slave, and had been sold by one man to
another recently enough for the former to be able to contest the paternity of
the latter.41 Other sources say that before Mohammed, it was possible for a
479, n. I), wrote him a letter in I864, part of
which is printed in Carl Resek, Lewis Henry
Morgan, AmericanScholar, Chicago 960, p. 94,
drawing his attention to passages from classical authors in which promiscuous societies
are mentioned. Prof. Leslie A. White (letter
of 3.vii.65) kindly informs me that the
omitted paragraph runs as follows: 'With
respect to the Agathyrsi Herodotus says,
"They have their wives in common, so that
they may be all brothers (kasignetoi) and
being all akin, may be free from envy &
mutual enmities." '
38 P1. Rep. 461B; Arist. Pol. I261 b24ff.;

Zeno and Chrysippus in D. Laert. 7, 131 =


SVF iii. 183 no. 728 Arnim.
39 Nic. Damasc. FGrHist 90FIo4 = Stob.
Flor. 3, I, 200oo.
iii, p. 565 =
40 O. Houdas (tr.), El-Bokhdrf,
ed. Krehl, ii, p. 427; known to me from G. A.
Wilken, Das Matriarchatbei den altenArabern,
Leipzig I884, pp. 25ff.
41E. Sachau, 'Muhammedanisches Recht
nach Schafiischer Lehre', Lehrbiicherdes
Seminarsfir OrientalischeSprachenzu Berlin
XVIII (1897), pp. 89-90; Th. Juynboll,
Handbuch des Islamischen Gesetzes nach der
LehrederSchdfi'itischen
Schule,Leipzig I910o, p.

THE ANCIENT

IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

II

man to acknowledge, or to reject, the child of a prostitutejust as he pleased;42


and whether al-Bukhari was exaggerating in representing paternity as compulsory, or whether he had genuine access to an earlier tradition, and
misunderstood the situation in representing the woman as a prostitute,43
his story must contain substantial elements of imaginative reconstruction.
That Herodotus had heard something similar is not impossible, and the art of
physiognomics is certainly much older than this. But the only situation in
which it can arbitrate in this way is one where men outnumber women; and
it is here that the most important implication of al-Bukhari's story must lie.
Because if a situation of this kind were extrapolated to take in a whole society,
that society would be formally polyandrous;"44 and this raises the further
possibility that Herodotus deliberately underplayed this aspect of the data
with which he was confronted. Physical resemblance is an idea which occupied
a definite place in purely Greek tradition, and this will be returned to later.
In the meantime, something of the same possibility may be discerned behind
the two remaining customs which Herodotus describes.
Promiscuity is not formally compatible with monogamy, and his account
of the Massagetae cannot be dealt with on its own. But there are more details
for the Nasamones, and of these one in particular stands out with a special
clarity: the practice of leaving sticks outside women's houses. Furthermore
there is no reason why this custom should not be a genuine one; and something very similar is reported by Marco Polo. Throughout the province of
Caindu, he was told, men would allow their guests free access to their own
womenfolk. The guest could stay three or four days, 'enjoying himself with
the fellow's wife or daughter or sister, or whatsoever woman it best likes him';
and for the indication of this preference there was an established code.
As long as he abides there he leaves his hat or some other token hanging
at the door, to let the master of the house know that he is still there. As
long as the wretched fellow sees that token, he must not go in.45
Hospitality of this kind is well attested in many parts of the world, and Sir
Henry Yule was able to quote one very striking parallel in his edition of
Marco Polo almost a century ago. Earlier in the century, a traveller visiting
the Hazaras of Abyssinia was told that there were parts of the country in which
husbands would lend their wives to the embraces of their guests, and that 'if a
188, n. I, quoted in D. B. MacDonald, art.
'Kiyafa', Encyclopedia of Islam, ii (1927), p.
I048.
42 H. A. Schultens, Meidanii Proverbiorum
Arabicorum Pars, Leiden 1795, p. 50. AlShahrastinI's Religious andPhilosophicalSchools
(p. 442 Cureton -= Th. Haarbrucker (tr.), ii,
Halle 1851, p. 351) has a lacuna at this
is due to Dr.
point.
Acknowledgment
A. I. Sabra for his assistance with this
passage.
43 Another case of polyandry being mistaken by a Mohammedan
observer for

prostitution is noted in Montesquieu, De


L'Esprit des Lois, Book XVI, ch. 4, where the
reference is probably to Anciennes relations des
Indes et de la Chine de deux VoyageursMahome'tans, qui y allerent dans le neuvidmesikcle [ed.
Eusbe Renaudot], Paris 1718, pp. 56-58.
I am indebted to Dr. R. Walzer for this
identification (Abu Zaid al-Hasan as-Sirafi).
44 So already Christoph Meiners, Untersuchungen ueber die Verschiedenheitender Menschennaturen,ii, Ttibingen 1813, p. 26, n. 1.
45 H. Yule (ed.), Ser Marco Polo, ii, p.
45-

12

SIMON PEMBROKE

husband of that part of the country finds a pair of slippers at his wife's door,
he immediately withdraws'."4
Guests are not regular members of the societies they are visiting; and in this
sense the analogy is not wholly satisfactory, since Herodotus, rightly or
wrongly, represents the promiscuity of the Nasamones as a purely internal
affair. It may therefore be worth citing two cases in which a similar use of
tokens is confined to members of the same society as the women in question.
There are, however, important further qualifications in each case, although
the first one, an explorer's description of the Ladrone Islands, which is again
taken from Yule, was written over four hundred years ago.
In these ilands there is one the strangest costume that euer hath bin
heard of or seene in all the whole world, which is, that vnto the young men
there is a time limited for them to marrie in (according vnto their costume),
in all which time they may freely enter into the houses of such as are
married, and be there with their wiues, without being punished for the
same, although their proper husbands should see them: they doo carrie in
their handes a staffe or rodde, and when they do enter into the married
mans house they do leaue it standing at the doore, in such sort, that if any
do come after they may plainly see it: which is a token that, although it be
her proper husband, he cannot enter in till it be taken away. The which
costume is obserued and kept with so great rigour and force, that whosoeuer is against this law, all the rest do kill him.47
As can be seen, there are two significant restrictions in this account. In the
first place, access to other men's wives is confined to a particular age-group.
However, there is no sign of any further restriction within this age-group, and
more emphasis may be placed on the fact that the whole business applies only
to a specific period of time. It cannot fairly be made to represent the everyday
workings of this society, any more than the Saturnalia can be made to represent those of ancient Rome; and if this period was associated with marriage,
it may well have come round with less than annual frequency. There is a
distinct possibility, therefore, that Herodotus has generalized the behaviour
sanctioned at a particular festival into something normal and secular-a
possibility further reinforced by his own reference to wedding-ceremonies;
and a description of ancient Greece founded on similar evidence would have
been at least equally surprising to his readers. This being so, it is as well to
examine the workings of one society of which a more detailed description has
survived from antiquity and in which rights of the same kind were recognized
all the year round.
The people in question were the inhabitants of Arabia Felix; and the one
account of this society which we possess, which was written by the geographer
Strabo, in the first century B.c., claims to be based on information which had
only become accessible to the West in his own lifetime. 'Brothers are held in
more honour than children,' it begins; and the most coherent part of the
46 Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone, An
47 Gonzalez de Mendoza, The History of the
Accountof the Kingdomof Caubuland its Depen- GreatandMightyKingdomof China,ii, London:
dencies,3ii, London I839, p. 209 (Yule, op. Hakluyt Society, I853-54, PP. 253-4 (Yule,
loc. cit.).
cit., p. 48, n. 3).

THE ANCIENT

IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

13

description which follows does appear to have as its subject a formally regulated system of adelphic polyandry. 'All kinsmen hold property in common,
but control is held by the eldest. One wife is shared by all, and when one man
goes in to have intercourse with her, he leaves a stick outside her door (all of
them have to carry sticks). At night-time, however, she sleeps with the eldest
of them. Consequently, everyone is the brother of everyone else... Adultery
is punished by death, though to be an adulterer, a man must belong to
another family.'48
There is only one other attempt in classical sources to describe the workings of a polyandrous society, and this is Julius Caesar's description of the
ancient Britons. Here too, the men involved are related to one another; and
the control retained by the eldest takes a more specific form. 'Wives are
shared between groups of ten or twelve men, especially between brothers and
between fathers and sons; but the offspring of these unions are counted as the
children of the man to whom the girl was first betrothed.'49 On this analogy,

it seems probable that Strabo has misinterpreted cause and effect in calling
everyone the brother of everyone else, as though the relationship were a

purely metaphorical one; but there are two further difficulties. First, it is
stated that the Arabs have intercourse with their mothers. Here the explanation may be that in some cases not only brothers but also (like the Britons of
Caesar) fathers and their sons, could have access to the same woman, and
that Strabo has failed to distinguish between mothers and other wives of a
father.50 But the additional information that women were, literally or otherwise, the sisters of their husbands, appears to be no more than a mistake; and
the simplest explanation would be that at some stage, a situation in which
women have husbands who are brothers has been transformedinto one where
the women 'have' brothers as husbands.
It could fairly be objected, however, that this is special pleading. Strabo
claims to be reporting from somewhere very near the horse's mouth, yet the
contradictions which have found their way into his account could equally
well be due to literary tradition, and specifically, to the categories in terms of
which so many other societies had been described. Brother-sister marriage
was one such category, intercourse between mother and son another; and
metaphorical brotherhood is known to go all the way back to Herodotus.
Furthermore, Strabo's description of this society concludes with an anecdote,
which is directly relevant to Herodotus; and although it is impossible to
prove that the story is not an Arabian one, its sophistication is perhaps
48 Str. 16, 4, 25,

p. 783.
Caesar BG 5, 14, 4-5. H. Zimmer, ZSS
xv (R6m. Abt.), I894, p. 224, argued that
this description applies only to the interiores
mentioned in ?2 and separated from the
present passage only by the tattooing of
omnesBritanni described in ?3.
50 W. Robertson Smith, 'Animal Worship
and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in
the Old Testament', Journal of Philology, ix,
I88o, pp. 75-I00oo, suggested a connexion with
the inheritance of father's widows attested
49

both in the Old Testament and the Koran.


The Hittite Lawcode, to take another
example, explicitly permitted brothers to
have intercourse with a single free woman
(fathers and sons could do the same with a
prostitute), provided that none of them was
married to her; but intercourse between a
man and his brother's wife, in the lifetime of
her husband,
an offence,
constituted
Friedrich, Die hethitische Gesetze, pp. 84-85,
??80-8I*(a), lines 45-50.

14

SIMON

PEMBROKE

sufficient to suggest that the distance between this society and the description
which has reached us is greater than Strabo admits.
One exceptionally attractive woman, according to this story, who had
fifteen husbands, found that she was in almost incessant demand. So she had
the idea of acquiring a set of sticks on her own account. Each of these closely
resembled one of those carried by her various husbands, and with good timing
she was able to postpone their respective visits by leaving the appropriate stick
outside her own door. In the end, however, one of her husbands was led to
suspect her of adultery, because he found a stick at the door one day when he
had just left all his brothers together in the market-place; and in this way, the
trick was discovered.
There is very little outside Strabo which can today be said to confirm his
picture of Arab society.51 The only criterion by which it can be judged is that
of its inner coherence; and if the incestuous element is passed over, this
coherence certainly gains a great deal from the distinction made between the
eldest husband and all the others. The same distinction is made by Caesar;
and although there is again no independent evidence from ancient Britain
which can corroborate this description,52a fair number of societies have been
recorded in the present century to which a similar distinction applies.53
Furthermore both descriptions imply a patrilineal system, with property
51 The Minaean inscriptions referred to in
W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in
Early Arabia,2 London 1903, p. 316, Additional Note G, where an individual is
designated as the 'son' (kinsman) of more
than one man, cannot legitimately be interpreted in this way, cf. M. Hartmann, Der
Islamische Orient, ii: Die arabische Frage,
Leipzig 1909, PP. 197-202: N. Rhodokanakis,
'Katabanische Texte zur Bodenwirtschaft',
SBAW (phil.-hist. K1.), 194, ii. Abh., 1919,
p. 66, n. 4; further references in Repertoire
d'tpigraphie Semitique, v, Paris 1928, no. 2999.
52 Total promiscuity is attributed to the
Caledonians in classical sources from the time
of Dio Cassius (70, 6, 12 and 76, 16) onwards;
but little more can be made of this than the
reports tentatively recorded by Strabo that
the Irish had intercourse in public with their
mothers and sisters, 14, 4, p. 201. The Irish
legend that the Picts originally came from
Scythia and on crossing to Scotland were
given 300 women, having brought none of
their own (so first Bede, hist. eccl. gent. Angl.
I, I, where it is said to explain a contemporary custom: 'ea solum condicione dare
consenserunt (sc. Scotti), ut ubi res perveniret in dubium, magis de feminea regum
prosapia quam de masculina regem sibi
eligerent: quod usque hodie constat esse
seruatum'), has for over a century been
taken to indicate matriliny, which is not
reported by Caesar (J. H. Todd, Leabhar

Breathnach, Dublin 1848, Addit. Notes, pp.


lv-lviii;J. F. McLennan, Primitive Marriage,
Edinburgh 1865, pp. 126-30). One striking
fact which has been used to support this
theory is that in the Pictish King-List, almost
no father is succeeded by his son, but this can
be explained in other ways. James Hogan,
'The Irish Law of Kingship', Proceedings of
the Royal Irish Academy, xl, 1931-32, Section
C, p. 254, pointed out that the elaborate
system of agnatic rotation which prevailed
in Ireland at this time would have a similar
effect; and more recently, Marjorie Ogilvie
Anderson, 'The Lists of the Kings', Scottish
Historical Review, 28 (1949), pp. 108-19 and
29 (I1950), pp. 13-22, has produced evidence
that the patronymics in these lists were not
genuine but simply supplied by the copyists
from elsewhere in the list, pp. IIO-I and p.
19. The nature of the phenomenon to which
Bede attached his story is not clear, but later
sources use the same story to explain different
customs; thus according to the Scala Chronica
(W. F. Skene, Chroniclesof the Picts and Scots,
Edinburgh 1867, p. 199), the Picts received
their women from the Irish, 'sure condicioun
qe lour issu parlascent Irrays, qel patois
demeurt a iour de huy', and the story is
attached not to inheritance but to language.
It is hoped to make a fuller study of this
tradition elsewhere.
56 Cf. E. R. Leach, Rethinking Anthropology,
London

1961, pp.
I05ff,

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

15

transmitted through males only; and this too makes perfectly good sense,
which is more than can be said for the Bukhari tradition, since here the
acquisition of an heir, and hence the transmission of property, is represented
as depending entirely on chance.
Despite this, however, it is not easy to draw firm conclusions from Strabo's
description and apply them to the Nasamones of Herodotus. It might perhaps
be said that stick-carrying, like physical likeness in al-Bukhari, refers most
naturally to a situation in which a number of men have access to one particular
woman; and the anecdote lends some support to this view. It is not easy to
imagine a simpler version of Strabo's story which could apply to bilateral
promiscuity, since adultery would be impossible in a society of this kind.
Against this, however, must be set the custom recorded by Marco Polo, since
here it is a number of women who are accessible to one particular man, and it
is the former, not the latter, whose identity is communicated by the stick.
Above all, even if the patrilineal bias manifested by the Arabs does give a
certain verisimilitude to Strabo's description, it is certainly not true that there
is any further coherence between patrilineal inheritance and the carrying of
sticks. An almost identical custom has been reported, again and again, over
a period of several centuries, among the Nayar of Southern India; and this
society is a matrilineal one in which children are regularly recruited to the
lineages of their mothers. A woman may have a number of recognized
lovers, as well as one ritual husband, but none of these has any rights over her
children, and the notion of fatherhood is entirely lacking.54
From the fifteenth century onwards, European travellers have recorded
the fact that the Nayar left their swords and shields outside the houses of the
women they were visiting; and until a comparatively recent date, the accounts
given by these travellers have almost always drawn this picture in far greater
detail than any other aspect of the society. Nicolo di Conti described Nayar
women as taking any number of husbands they liked; the men left their
shields outside the woman's door, and their own property was inherited by
their nephews.55 The Portuguese Joho di Barros went further than this only
to specify (wrongly) that the nephews in question were the children of a
brother.5s Cesare dei Federici, in the sixteenth century, described the
principles of succession in the Royal family, but claimed that the remaining
Nayars held women in common;57 and much the same goes for the account
given by the Dutchman Philip Baldaeus, almost a century later, since here
there are several pages between his description of regal succession and what he
has to say about the Nayar as a whole. The second of these passages is here
quoted in full.
If they meet any of the common people in the streets, they cry out, Po,
Po, i.e. Give way, Give way. They seldom appear without their scymetars
and shields, which they leave at the door when (by a peculiar privilege)
54 See now E. Kathleen Gough in (ed. with
D. M. Schneider) Matrilineal Kinship, Berkeley
1961, pp. 298-404.
B. Ramusio, 'Viaggio di Nicolo
55G.
Conti venetiano alle Indie', Navigationi et
Viaggi, i," Venice 1553, fol. 378a.

56 L'Asia del S. Giovannidi Barros, nuouamentedi lingua Portoghesetradotta,Venice 1562,


fol. I76.
57 Cesare dei Federici, Viaggio nell'India et
oltre l'India, Venice 1587, p. 57.

16

SIMON PEMBROKE

they go to give a private visit to one of their neighbours wives, as a sign


that no body must enter there in the mean while to disturb them.58
It could hardly be inferred from such passages that a Nayar could be put to
death for consorting with the wrong class of woman.59
At this point it may be thought that the proportion of commentary to
the texts from Herodotus has become excessive, but two things may be

regarded as established. The first is that it would be difficult, if not impossible,


to prove that the societies which lie behind Herodotus's descriptions were not
matrilineal; and the significance of this fact will later be heightened by the
case of another society which was described by the same author and whose
interest lies precisely in the fact that he did not record its marriage customs.
The second is that whatever the true nature of these various Libyan and
Thracian societies, they have all, in Herodotus, been assimilated to a state of
complete promiscuity, and although this state can manifest itself in a number
of different forms, it is not essentially restricted by any of its manifestations.
Promiscuity, unlike matriarchy, is symmetrical; and whatever meaning is
attached to the second of these terms-its Greek equivalent will be discussed
presently-the rings worn by the Gindanes are no exception to the rule. The
approval meted out to these girls comes from the men every bit as much as
from the women; and the society is not ultimately directed by an oligarchy of
prostitutes.
The tendency which has converted these various customs into manifestations of promiscuity may be described as an additive one. In attempting to
make sense of his data, Herodotus has set them in a wider context, and the
context is in each case attributed wholly to the society in question. In this
sense, therefore, the tendency can be contrasted with one which was at least
equally important in ancient ethnology and whose effect was the subtractive
one of isolating foreign customs from their societies, instead of inventing a
social context for them. This process may be termed reversal, and it is again
Herodotus who provides the model, with the introduction to his description
of the 'marvels' of Egypt.
The people, in most of their manners and customs, exactly reverse the
common practice of mankind. The women attend the markets and do
business, while the men sit at home at the loom. The men carry loads on
their heads, while the women carry them on their shoulders. The women
pass water standing up, the men sitting down. They relieve themselves
indoors, but take their meals in the streets. Sons need not support their
parents unless they choose to, but daughters must support them whether
they choose to or not... Dough they knead with their feet; but they mix
mud, and even take up dirt, with their hands... When they write or
calculate, instead of going, like the Greeks, from left to right, they move
59 Voyagede
58 Philip Baldaeus, 'A Description of the
Pyrard de Laval,4, Paris
most celebrated East-India Coasts of Malabar I679, P. 274 =Francois
tr. Albert Gray and H. C. P.
and Coromandel', translated in Churchill's Bell, Hakluyt Society, London I887, i, p.
Collection of Voyages and Travels, iii, London
283; F. Buchanan in James Forbes, Oriental
1732, PP. 501-96,

at p. 579, cf. pp. 561-2.

Memoirs, i, London 1813, P. 385.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

17

their hand from right to left; and they insist, despite this, that it is they
who go to the right, and the Greeks who go to the left.60
T'hereis no sign, in this passage, of a specific purpose to which, in the time of
Herodotus, oppositions of this kind were already being put-a systematic
moral relativism, which drew up lists of divergent customs as a sort of
dialectic, designed to produce nothing. The marvels of Egypt have no sake
but their own; and the story about Egyptian men sitting at the loom while the
women went out reappears in what is, on any view, one of the most serious
of the plays of Sophocles.61 Even Xenophon, who can seldom be convicted
of any ulterior motive, unless it is one directly connected with himself, can
ad lib. in the same way when describing foreign customs. Thus after reporting
that the Mossynoeci have sexual intercourse in public, he moves on, without
warning, to a more general proposition: they do in public the things which
other people only do when alone, whereas when one of the Mossynoeci is
alone, he does things which elsewhere are only possible in company, like
laughing and dancing.62 More important, there are signs in Herodotus himself of the same tendency in a less fully elaborated form. When he says that the
Persians make their important decisions when drunk and then reconsider them
in a state of sobriety, he is doing little more than exaggerate in making the
drunken preliminary an institution. But he cannot resist adding, 'sometimes
they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider
the matter under the influence of drink'.63 It is symmetry, not relativism, at
which the addition is aimed.
About the end of the fifth century, however, there appeared a pamphlet
known as The Two Arguments (Dissoi Logoi), of which the sole purpose was
relativism. Its author, like the dialect in which he wrote, has not been
identified; and all further interest could be discouraged with a single quotation. 'Disease is bad for the sick, good for the doctors.'64 One section,
however, deals with the customs of cities and nations; and although a lot of
these customs are derived from Herodotus, there are significant additions,
particularly for Persia, where men are said to wear women's clothes and to
have intercourse with their mothers, sisters and daughters.65 And one
passage has an outstanding importance.
The Macedonians think it fine for girls to have lovers and sleep with them
before they are married, but a disgrace after marriage; the Greeks think
both disgraceful. In Thrace, tattooing is an adornment for women;
everywhere else, it is a punishment for wrongdoing.66
4IBC Migne), anticipates Lewis H. Morgan
with a remarkable evolutionary schema
in which the circumcision of Abraham is
Xen. Anab. 5, 4, 34.
63 Hdt. I,
made to symbolize the rejection of incest, and
I33, cf. I, I40, 2.
no. 9o, ii, pp. is then followed by a period of polygamy
64 Text in Diels-Kranz,5
which lasts until the enforcement of mono405ff.
65
D-K.
The
standard
later
15
408
gamy by the Prophets, but I have been
ii,
p.
treatment of incest is that of Sext. Emp. unable to find this a predecessor in classical
pyrrh. 3, 205, cf. e.g. Bardesanes in Euseb. sources.
PE 6, Io, 6. Methodius of Patara, Convivium 66 Dissoi Logoi ii, I2.
decemvirginum,?3 (Patrologia Graeca XVIII,
60
61
62

Hdt. 2, 35.
Soph. O.C. 337-41.

18

SIMON PEMBROKE

Marriage does not figure among Herodotus's Egyptian marvels-it receives,


in fact, only the barest of passing mentions in the whole of the Second Bookand the nearest he comes to reversing a custom of this kind, in the passages
discussed so far, is the duty laid upon Egyptian girls to look after their parents.
But the Dissoi Logoi are strikingly close to what he has to say about the
Thracians:
They sell their children to traders. They keep no watch over their girls,
and let them sleep with any man they like; but they keep a most strict
watch over their womenfolk, whom they buy from the parents at a great
price. Tattooing, for them, is a sign of noble birth, and the want of it
indicates low birth.67
As the author of the Dissoi Logoi points out, the contrasting treatment of
women and unmarried girls is not symmetrically opposed to the practice of
the Greeks, since these keep watch over both; and in structure, at least, it is
the Massagetai who would come closest to fitting this role, since here promiscuity is referred explicitly to their wives. The opposition made by Herodotus,
therefore, which (as with the Persians' two methods of deliberation) is a
purely internal one, is brought out for its own sake; and although it would be
unwise, in this instance, to suggest that the permissive attitude of the Thracians
towards their daughters has simply been fabricated by Herodotus as a pendant
to their severity with their wives, the passage is enough to demonstrate that
sexuality and reversal are not always kept apart in Herodotus's mind. And
with this we are brought back to the Lycians. Could it be said that the 'one
custom in which they differ from all mankind' is not merely different from,
but the direct antithesis of, Greek practice?
II
The question can be answered without any premature verdicts as to the
factual content of Herodotus's description. And the first point to be noted is
that Herodotus describes not one custom, but two. 'Ask a Lycian who he is'
does not, taken on its own, refer to anything more significant than behaviour
in the street; and it is the mother's mother that links the two customs.
Patronymics, in ancient Greece, had a function comparable to that of surnames, though they clearly lacked the impersonal and generic quality which
makes it so hard to ask any further questions about a surname. Even so, the
questioner, not content with his victim's patronymic, would be more likely
to ask where he came from than what his father's father was called, since
except in the case of younger sons, this would most often be the same name as
that of the victim;"68 and 'X, son of Y, from Such-and-such a place' is a
common formula in official documents. But the second Lycian custom, the
filiation of children whose parents are of different status, or to be more precise
the status of these children, seems to indicate a familiarity, however indirect,
with the workings of the society as a whole. It cannot be treated as an
isolated oddity, and here the answer is more complex.
67
68

Hdt. 5, 6.
Is. 2, 36; 2, 41; P1. Lach. I79a; Dem. 39, 27; [Dem.] 43, 74.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

19

Greek practice, in this respect, was not standardized. In the Lawcode of


Gortyn, in Crete-roughly contemporary with Herodotus, though neither he
nor any other ancient author shows much knowledge of the society which it
reflects-there occurs a passage which is at first sight remarkably close to his
version of Lycia,69 and which is worth quoting here because it shows how
much more complex the real criteria were.
[if the slave]
goes to the free woman and marries her,
the children are to be free, but if
the free woman goes to the slave, the
children are to be slaves.7o
Here it was possible for the children of a free woman and a slave father to
count as free, but an additional factor was involved, locality, and this covers a
wide range of possibilities. It is not enough to describe the first marriage as
matrilocal and the second as patrilocal, since anything might be involved
from the thoroughgoing residence-unlikely in the case of the father, whose
status is apparently unchanged-to mere access at night."71For the children
it was presumably crucial where, and hence how, they were brought up.
Crete was exceptional-the Lawcode makes lengthy provisions for
marriage between slaves, using exactly the same term as for marriage between
free persons-but it was not Never-never Land. Furthermore where status
and political rights were involved, the situation might vary not only from
place to place but from day to day, as Aristotle observed; and the decisive
factors were political. There were some democracies, he said, in which a man
could have citizenship if his mother had it-that is to say, without reference
to the status of his father; and in many cities the same went for a man's
illegitimate sons. It all depended on the size of the population: such persons
might be tolerated on the citizen lists as long as the numbers were low, but as
these rose, qualifications would become correspondingly restrictive. The
first to be struck off would be the children of a slave father or a slave mother
(Aristotle does not break the sequence down further than this); they would be
followed by those whose fathers were not citizens, until finally citizenship
was restricted to those who had citizen descent on both sides.72
All the same, if Aristotle's series is accepted-and it does not involve any
dogma as to the general course of human evolution-we are left with maternal
descent as one extreme and descent through the father as something pretty
close to the other. Herodotus's description of Lycia, therefore, represents the
first E. Szanto, 'Zum lykischen
69So
Mutterrecht', Festschrift O. Benndorf, Vienna
1898, pp. 259-60.
70 M. Guarducci (ed.), InscriptionesCreticae,
iv, Rome 1950, no. 72, col. vi, 56ff. The
verb for 'marry', 6muLv,is standard for all
classes of persons in the Code (cf. col. iii,
4off. and vii, I5ff.), although later it ceased
being anything like a legal term, LSJ, s.v.
But it does appear to have been used in a
similar sense in the laws of Solon (Hesych.,

i. 322 no. 466 Latte) and miss.v. LvE'Lv,


interpreted by Plutarch as a kind of droit du
seigneur (Sol. 20, 2).
71 Cf. Audrey Richards in A. R. RadcliffeBrown and Daryll Forde (ed.), African
Systems of Kinship and Marriage, Oxford 1950,
pp. 208-9.
72 Arist. Pol. I278b26ff.; for illegitimate

sons cf. Ar. Av. I660ff., [Dem.] 43, 51, Dem.


57, 53, Athen. vi. 234E and outside Athens
Ditt. Syll.3 I2I3 (Boeotia), SGDI 3624 (Cos).

SIMON

20

PEMBROKE

customs of the country as the antithesis of Greek ones, and it remains to be

seen what was made of them by his successors.


The first of these goes under the name of Herakleides Lembos. His
identity, and date, do not much matter, because although the authorship of
the work in question is disputed, its contents are generally agreed to derive,
pretty directly, from the great collection of monographs on the constitutions of
Greek cities which was inaugurated by Aristotle and which also included one
dealing with Barbarian Customs. In the present context, however, the
authority of the name Aristotle need not be taken too seriously, since with one
exception, the monograph on Athens, all that survives of this collection is a
number of short quotations in later authors; and the quotations consist almost
entirely of local traditions to which no comment is attached. Furthermore the
entire world, except for Greece, was compressed into a single volume, so that
there is little reason to suppose that the original was much less summary than
is Herakleides:
The Lycians are all pirates. They have no written laws, only customs, and
have long since been under the rule of women. They sell false witnesses,
together with their property."3
What I have translated, rather ponderously, as the rule of women, is a single
Greek word, gynaecocracy, a formation exactly like democracy, though
without the same footing in the English language. Herakleides was the first
author to attribute this state of things to Lycia, and it is not altogether clear

that it belonged there, since it was not a legal or constitutional term, and there
were no institutions, public or private, which it could be said necessarily to
involve. Like the word matriarchy, which despite its mixed descent has fared
better in English, gynaecocracy was more an evaluative than a descriptive
term. The word is not attested before the fourth century B.c., but we possess
one authoritative definition, which was made by Aristotle. Gynaecocracy is
'women getting out of hand'; and the situation in which this is said to happen
is even more revealing. Everything in a democracy, he argues, tends inevitably towards tyranny, 'with gynaecocracy in domestic affairs, so that wives
inform against their husbands, and slaves getting out of hand for the same
reason'.7" It was axiomatic, for Aristotle, that slaves and women were
naturally inferior.75
The next author to deal with life in Lycia is Nicolas of Damascus, who

lived in the first century B.c. and wrote, among other things, a treatise On
Customs.This treatise appears to have consisted of a maximum two or three
sentences on each of the nations described. Among them were the Lycians,
who
honour women more than men, take their second name from the mother's
side, and leave their property to their daughters, not their sons. Any free
man who is caught stealing is enslaved.
be given until a month has elapsed.7"

73Herakleid.

Pol.

I5

Arist. fr. 611, 43 Rose).


74

Arist. Pol. I269b40,

(FHG
I313b32.

ii, 217

5
7

In court cases, evidence cannot


Arist. Pol. I254bi3, cf. Poet. I454a21.

Nic. Damasc. FGrHist 9oF Io3(k)


Stob. Flor. 4, 2.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

21

Of these customs the last two are not at all easy to assess. It is not clear
whether the Lycians are now supposed to be a fully law-abiding society, or
whether theft is to be interpreted as honour among thieves; and it is not clear

whether the time-lag before litigation applies to theft as well, so that the
relation of these two customs to one another is at least as problematical as
their relation to the corresponding ones in Herakleides. However, it is not
certain, with either author, that the first part of the description (which in
Herakleides is the rule of women) is ultimately derived from the same source
as the second, and in the case of Nicolas, attention must be concentrated on
this earlier part.
There is certainly much more detail than there is in Herakleides; but the
mother's name adds nothing to Herodotus, and although Herodotus did not
describe the transmission of property in Lycia, it cannot be said that the way

in which Nicolas has filled the gap is altogether satisfactory, or that the terms
he uses point to direct observation of the system. They can be found a very
close parallel in the account written by Strabo, at about the same time, of the
people known as the Cantabres, in Spain. In this society, according to
Strabo, 'the men bring a dowry to the women, and it is the daughters who are

made heirs and who then give their brothers in marriage'."77


It is no more normal for women to have control of their brothers in a
matrilineal society than it would be in a patrilineal one; and although neither
of these terms is a particularly precise one, neither of them can be said to
throw much light on the Cantabres. Perhaps the simplest way of dealing
with Strabo's account is to say that the institutions which he has attributed
to the Cantabres are just Greek ones turned upside down. But there is a
system of inheritance from this part of the world which might perhaps go back
to the time of Strabo and if it did would reinforce his description at precisely
those points which appear to be the most far-fetched.
The system, which is almost unique in Europe, was brought to the attention of scholars over a century ago, in I859-two years before, and quite
independently of, the publication of Bachofen's Mutterrecht.The Basques of
Northern Spain, it was discovered, left their entire property to the eldest child,

whether this child was a boy or a girl. The practice is fully documented from
the twelfth century A.D. until I767, when it was formally abolished;78 and
although no longer legally permitted, it appears to have survived its abolition,

in some areas, right down to the present day.79 If the eldest child was a girl,
her husband lost his surname and took hers. It was the eldest child by whom
Str. 3, 4, I8, p. I65.
forms me that the locus classicusfor primo78Eugene Cordier, 'Le droit de famille geniture of this type is Polynesia, cf. R. W.
Revuehistoriquede droitfran;ais Williamson, The Social and PoliticalSystemsof
aux
et Pyrn~nes',
Central
77

e'tranger, v, I859, PP. 257-300,


further references in
492-520;

353-96,
Philippe

Veyrin, Les Basquesde Labourd,de Souleet de


Basse-Navarre,Arthaud: Collection du Musie
Basque, I947, p. 327. A bibliography of
Basque customary law in Emile Jarriand,
'La succession coutumier dans les pays de
droit 6crit', Nouvellerevuehistoriquede droit,
xiv, I890, pp. 77-79. Dr. E. R. Leach in-

Polynesia, Cambridge 1924, i, pp. 1862o3, 374, 380, 382. A

187; iii, pp. 200-201,

convergence between Cordier's material and


the Japanese system described in Lewis H.
andAffinity,p.
Morgan, Systemsof Consanguinity
428, was noted by A. Giraud-Teulon, Les
originesde la famille, Paris-Geneva 1874, p.
I79.

Veyrin, op. cit., p. 260.

22

SIMON PEMBROKE

the younger ones were given in marriage, quite irrespective of the sex of
either party; and the younger children, all of whom had substantial obligations towards the eldest, are referred to in one dialect by a word which
appears to mean slaves.8s
It was quite possible, therefore, for a man to be the 'slave' of his sister; and
if Strabo, or his informants, had encountered a system of this kind, it would
not be altogether surprising that the description should reach us in the form
which it has. Even if this is the case, however, it must be emphasized that
what Strabo has described is not the system, but simply those situations which
could be contrasted most strongly with the correspondingsituations familiar to
the Greeks. Primogeniture, the one principle which explains these situations,
has been completely omitted, and could not possibly be inferred from the
resulting picture without independent evidence.
There is no sign of primogeniture in Lycia, and no ancient writer again
describes the system of inheritance as Nicolas did, or indeed in any other way.
Strabo himself confined his comments on the Cantabres to the observation
that the arrangements he described exhibited 'a certain gynaecocracy', and
that this was not altogether civilized. But there is no sign that he meant anything more technical than women getting out of hand. Primogeniture of the
Basque type is not a matrilineal phenomenon, and even when property is
inherited by the eldest daughter, it is this woman who is assimilated to a male
role. But the converse does not hold, and her younger brothers are no more
assimilated to a female role than they would be if the eldest child were a male.
In the context of Nicolas's description of Lycia, the fact needs additional
emphasis, because Nicolas is also the author of the one description surviving
from antiquity of a society which was beyond question a matrilineal one. The
Ethiopians, he said, held their sisters in more honour than their children.
So far, the language is identical, in syntax and even vocabulary, to that used
by Strabo in describing the Arabs, except that Ethiopian sisters have ousted
the brothers of the Arabs. But when Nicolas goes on to say that the Ethiopian
kings are succeeded not by their own sons, but by those of their sisters, the
value of his information is no longer open to the same kind of doubt.81 Inheritance by the sister's son is the classic feature of a matrilineal system, just as
inheritance by a man's own son is that of a patrilineal one; and in the first
case, although property and other rights are transmitted through women,
they are not transmitted to them, and control of this property is kept in the
hands of males.82 There is no reason to suppose that contact with Ethiopia

was lost in the course of antiquity, and one reason why Nicolas's description
had no successors, or if it did, why they have not survived, might be that it
was not thought sufficiently interesting.
80 Coutumesancienneset nouvellesde Bardge, du
Pays de Lavedan et autres lieux dependantde la
Province de Bigorre, Bagn~res 1837, art. 16:
'un puin6 ou une puinfe, appelfs en vulgaire
du pays esclau et esclabe, qui sortiront de la
maison pour travailler, trafiquer, ou demeurer valet ou servante ailleurs, sans
I'approbation et consentement du pare et de
la mere, ou de l'hfritier de la maison, sont

obliges de tenir en compte ce qu'ils ont


gagnd sur ce qu'ile peuvent pr~tendre de leur
maison tant moins de leur 1lgitime.'
81 Nic. Damasc. FGrHist 90F 103(m) =
Stob. Flor. 4, 2.
82 Cf. the distinctions in Jack Goody,
Death, Property and the Ancestors, Stamford
1961, pp. 3I5-20.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

23

It is quite possible that this can also explain why he had no predecessors.
The Ethiopians had been described by Herodotus, several centuries earlier;
yet the account which is given by Herodotus does nothing to corroborate the
description by Nicolas.
Their way of choosing a King is different from that of all other peoples, as,
it is said, are all their other laws. They choose from among them that
citizen whom they judge to be the tallest and to have strength in
proportion to his stature.83
It has been suggested that Herodotus is indicating, by means of this story, the
fact that Ethiopian Kings were not succeeded by their sons, and that to this
extent the two descriptions can be said to tally.84 But an interpretation of this
kind is at best allegorical, and like all allegory, it fails completely to distinguish
between intention and result. Nicolas himself mentions the Herodotean
system as the one to which the Ethiopians resorted in the absence of sisters'
sons; and although this might represent an attempt on his part to reconcile
two discrepant traditions, one of which was not available to Herodotus, there
is another possibility, which in the present context must be given a greater
emphasis. It is perfectly conceivable that Herodotus was familiar with both
versions, and that he chose deliberately to exclude the sisters' sons. In any
case, he has not included them, and this fact alone is enough to justify an
exceptionally close scrutiny of the descriptions of Lycia which he inaugurated.
Furthermore the allegorical interpretation can in a wider context be seen as
self-defeating. It can seldom be proved that the various societies described by
Herodotus were not matrilineal; but the fact that he does not describe the
Ethiopians as promiscuous shows how arbitrary it is to treat the many descriptions of promiscuous peoples which were made by later writers as due to
the impression of total confusion which would be made on a Greek or Roman
observer by a matrilineal society.s5 Ancient descriptions cannot simply be
subsumed under the categories of modern anthropology, and it is in every case
the precise nature of the relation between fact and description which must be
ascertained.
83 Hdt. 3, 20.
84 A. Giraud-Teulon,

Les origines du mariage


et de lafamille, Paris-Geneva I884, p. 209, n.
I. Str. 17, I, 54, p. 822, who follows Herodotus, gives wealth as an alternative criterion,
but does not mention sisters' sons. Similar
inferences have been made from the statement of Solin. interp. (c. 6Io A.D.), p. 234,
26ff. Mommsen, that the King of the
Hebrides has no wife of his own, but simply
borrows those of other men, 'unde ei nec
votum nec spes conceditur liberorum'. But
all that can be said of this passage with
certainty is that it is symmetrical to the
description of the Libyan Troglodytes in
Diod. 3, 31, 2 (Agatharchides, GGM i. I53
?61 MUller) who hold all women in common
except that of the monarch, intercourse with

this woman being an offence punished by a


fine.
85 The most important of these descriptions is Theopompus FGrHist II5F2o4 =
Athen. xii. 5 7D-5I8B, where the Etruscans

are said to bring up their children communally. The source of this description is not

certain, but there is no independent evidence


to support it (cf. now F. Slotty, 'ZurFragedes
Mutterrechtsbei den Etruskern', Symbolae
HroznV = Archiv Orientalni xviii, 3 (1950),
pp. 262-85, esp. p. 273, where it is demonstrated that the metronymic element in
Etruscan nomenclature is an extremely late
phenomenon and cannot be explained in
this way); and much of Theopompus's description is devoted to pornography.

SIMON PEMBROKE

24

Nicolas had one predecessorin the Lycian tradition, Nymphis of Heraclea,


who wrote in the third century B.c. and would have deserved consideration
earlier, if it were certain how much of the anecdote in question is his. It is
quoted by Plutarch, five hundred years later; and even 'quoted' is an exaggeration, because the form it takes is little more than a summary, with
variations, of a story which Plutarch has just told in more detail. The first
story he describes as mythical, which
the explanation given by Nymphis, in Book IV of Heraclea,is not in the
least. According to him, there was a wild boar ravaging the territory of
Xanthus, crops and livestock alike, until Bellerophon killed it. For this he
received no reward. So he turned to Poseidon and cursed the people of
Xanthus. And the whole land was covered with salt, and everything was
destroyed, for the soil became barren; until finally he was moved by the
prayers of the women, and asked Poseidon to avert his anger. And for this
reason, it was the custom of the Xanthians to take their names not from
the father's side, but from that of the mother."6
Xanthus was the capital of Lycia, and the exploits of Bellerophon are consistently set in this country. What he usually had to fight, however, was not a
boar but a creature which transcended the wildest possibilities of crossbreeding, the Chimaera, part lion, part goat and part snake."7 It is this
animal of which he rids the Lycians in Plutarch's 'mythical' version, along with
the Amazons; again he gets no reward and again he prays to Poseidon to
make the land infertile. This time, the results are more spectacular: an
immense wave inundates the countryside, and Lycia is submerged. The men
of Lycia plead with Bellerophon, but in vain; once again it is the women who
are successful, not this time by entreaty, but by converging on him with lifted
skirts; and it is shame, not pity, that makes him leave, taking the sea with
him.88

A hundred years ago Bachofen, in a brilliant interpretation of this story


which anticipates analytical psychology, saw its theme as involving the
ambivalent relation of Bellerophon to women: having defeated them, at one
level, in the form of Amazons, he is overcome by them when they appear to
him in their true guise.s9 Fifty years later, classical scholars were looking for
ethnological parallels, since the Greek ones did not appear satisfactory: in
both instances, runaway soldiers are met by women-the mother of a Spartan,
the wives of Cyrus's Persians-who lift their skirts and cry 'Where are you
going to? You can't get back in here where you came from !'90 The significance
of this detail, however, is not sufficiently restricted for use to be made of it
= Plut, mul.
86 Nymphis FGrHist 432F7
virt. 248D.
87 I1. 6, I79ff.
88
89

Plut. mul. virt. 248AB.

A Doppelverhidltnis:
J. J. Bachofen, GesammelteWerke,hrsg. K. Meuli, ii, Basle 1948,
p. 87. Whatever his debt to Hegelian dialectic, Bachofen seems to have been the first to
apply the notion of ambivalence to the study

of myth, and his Dionysus, a similar case, is


in many ways more suggestive than that of
Nietzsche.
90 Plut. apophth. Lac. 24 IB; mul. virt.
246A; Nic. Damasc. FGrHist 90F66, ?44;
Polyaen. 7, 45, 2; Justin I, 6, I3ff. Cf. L.
Malten, J. d. L. 40 (1925) 126 n. 12, E.
Kornemann, Klio 19 (1924), P. 356.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

25

here. Instead, attention must be paid to another element in Plutarch's


legend, and that is the flooding of the countryside by Poseidon.
There is a considerable number of stories in which Poseidon loses to
another divinity a part of Greece which previously belonged to himself. In
one case, he was given something in return; he made Delos over to Leto, but
received Calauria in exchange, and for Delphi, which he gave to Apollo, he
was given Taenarum. The transaction was recorded by the oracle, in two
lines of verse, which were presumably written under its new management.9'
Sometimes he was allowed to stay, but more as tenant than as freeholder, as
in the case of Corinth, where he was driven from the citadel by Helios and
thereafter confined to the Isthmus, or that of Troezen, which he was compelled to share with Athena.92 It is significant, in the present context, that
at some stage he grew angry with Troezen and made the country barren, by
covering it with salt, though fortunately this policy also was averted by
prayer."9 Most often, however, he simply lost possession and was not compensated for the loss-that of Aegina to Zeus, of Naxos to Dionysus.94 Argos
he lost to Hera, and again vented his anger on it, this time with an inundation.95 The most famous case, however, was that of Athens, from which he
was expelled by Athena.
As can be seen, there are some details in these stories which coincide with
details in the Bellerophon story, and this point will be returned to later. More
generally, however, these stories raise, in a convenient form, a question of
method which is of decisive importance for all aspects of the present study,
and a preliminary stand must be adopted here. One attitude to the interpretation of mythology which has a very wide circulation in classical studies
is that myths enact stages in the history of religion. The best example is the
killing of Pytho by Apollo, at Delphi, and the view that this story reflects the
replacement of one religious cult by another-a view which has the names of
Erwin Rohde and Martin Nilsson behind it,96 although it is older than either
of these and stretches well back into the eighteenth century. Nicolas Frdret,
whose studies in the interpretation of myth, read before the Acad6mie des
Inscriptions et Belles-lettresat various times before his death in 1749, still have
a lot to offer, was exceptionally sceptical as to the possibility of eliciting
history from legend. 'La Fable,' he declared, '. . . est le mdlange confus des

songes de l'imagination, des reves de la philosophie et des debris de l'ancienne


histoire.' Its analysis, for Frdret, was impossible; one could never arrive at
the origin of each fiction, let alone that of the various details of which each
fiction was composed. One exception, however, he did make, with Apollo
and Pytho as the prime example.
On y voit l'histoire de l'6tablissement des Dieux 6trangers dans la Grace:
histoire traduite en fables, dont les auteurs prdtendirent apparemment
reprisenter en style figur6 les facilitis et les obstacles qu'avoient rencontris
= Str. 8, 6, 14,
91 Ephorus FGrHist 7oFI 5o
p. 373; schol. Ap. Rhod. 3, I242 = Philostephanus FHG ii. 31, fr. 18; Call. fr. 593
Pf.; Paus. 2, 33, 2.
92 Corinth Paus. 2, I, 6; Troezen 2, 3o, 6.
93 PaUS. 2, 32, 8.
3

Plut. qu. symp. 741AB.


Paus. 2, 22, 4.
E. Rohde, Psyche (Engl. tr.),8 London
1925, P. 97; Nilsson, Geschichteder griechischen
Religion, i, Munich2 1955, p. 546.
9
95
96

26

SIMON PEMBROKE

les ministres des nouveaux Dieux, et donnbrent leurs fictions pour des
aventures arrivies aux Dieux memes.97

In this version, the authors of the fables are clearly in close touch with the
ministers of religion, if not actually identical with them; and this thoroughgoing intentionalism is, in fact, the only basis on which Frdret'sinterpretation
is conceivable. Without the priests, any formal expression of the relation
between one religion and its predecessoris more likely to be the exact opposite
of the real relation, as for instance with the canonization, in modern Greece,
of St. Nicolas the Assassin in Thessaly and of St. George the Vampire in the
Argolid.98
In the case of Poseidon, the problem could be stated as follows: do these
stories constitute evidence of an earlier period in which Poseidon was supreme?
If they do, the fact would have been preserved, on Frdret'sview, by the priests
of the various deities that expelled him. As it is, however, in the two most
striking cases, the information comes from the losing side. The salt treatment
given to Troezen explains why there is a sanctuary of Poseidon outside the
wall; the flood at Argos accounts for an Argive sanctuary dedicated to
Poseidon.99 In both instances, it is the presence of Poseidon, not his expulsion,

that is being explained-and the same thing may be said of Delphi, because
Pytho was buried therel00--the sequence that is arbitrary. What is happening
in these stories is something prescribed by Plotinus: 'myths have to separate
in time things which are really simultaneous'.1?1
With Poseidon's expulsion from Attica, the process is even clearer, because
here we can see what the simultaneous objects were: not the gods themselves,
but an olive-tree and a well (the second of these is described as a piece of sea)
in the Erechtheum, which Poseidon and Athena put there as tokens during
their quarrel-that is to say, to stake their respective claims. Such, at least, is
the version of Herodotus;102 but the later accounts make Poseidon flood the
countryside as well, and one of these, which was given by Varro, provides
an extra detail which is directly relevant to Lycia.
The story is set in the reign of Cecrops. One day, there suddenly appeared
at Athens an olive-tree, while in another part of the city, water was seen to
burst from the ground. The King sent someone to Delphi, to ask the oracle
what this meant and what should be done about it. He was told that the

olive-tree stood for Athena, the water for Poseidon, and that it was up to his
citizens to decide which of the two deities their city should be called after.
Cecrops, accordingly, assembled the citizens of both sexes (for at this time,
women had a vote as well as men); the men all voted for Poseidon, the
women for Athena, and as there was one more woman than there were men,
Athena won the day. Poseidon, furious with the result, performed his usual
trick of flooding the whole country, and the flood was not abated until three
penalties had been laid on the women. They must lose their vote; no child
97 Nicolas Frdret, Oeuvres,xvii, Paris 1796,
pp. 149, i56 = Histoire de l'Acadfmie des
Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, xi, 1770o,pp. 31,
36.
98 A. J. B. Wace, Antiquity30, 1956, pp.
156-62.

99 Paus. 2, 32, 8; 2, 22, 4.


100 Varro L.L. 7, 17; Hesych.

pouv6c(Rohde, loc. cit.).


101 Plotin. Enn. 3, 5, 9.
102 Hdt. 8,
55.

s.v. 'oglou

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

27

born should take his mother's name; and they themselves must not be called
Athenian women.103
The universal suffrage essential for this story need not concern us, unless
as one further instance of a Utopia set in the past and not the future. What is
important is the practice of children taking their mothers' names-which is
apparently what happened up to the time of the story; and this practice is
exactly symmetrical to that of Xanthus in the story given by Nymphis, where
the corresponding change is introduced. With the evidence in its present
state, it is not possible to get much further than this, but the alternatives can
at least be outlined. Nymphis may well have written something like the story
which stands in Plutarch, maternal filiation and all; but this does not mean
that he must have derived it from outside the Herodotean tradition. What is
certain is that variations and combinations of these stories were circulating
over a period of centuries. It makes no difference whether the process was
predominantly oral, or literary, and there is no reason why the story in Varro,
or an earlier version of it, should not be taken as the model, rather than as the
copy.
All the same, one possibility may be raised which has a wider application:
could it be Plutarch himself that attached the Xanthian custom to the story?
To put this more generally, was the tradition of maternal descent in Lycia so
well-known that it would come to mind every time the country was mentioned? Half a millennium separates Plutarch from Nymphis, so there is
certainly room for intermediaries; but it can, as it happens, be shown that
Plutarch himself did not always make this association. 'The lawgiver of the
Lycians,' he wrote, in another context, 'is said to have laid down that citizens
in mourning should wear women's clothes. By this he meant to show that
mourning is a womanish business and not the thing for a gentleman who has
had the advantages of a liberal education.'104
The point at issue is not the origin of the custom, nor even the reliability
of Plutarch, though it is worth observing that the custom in question cannot be
correlated with a descent system, matrilineal or otherwise.105 The important
thing, for the present argument, is the explanation provided by Plutarch;
and this explanation belongs with the story that at Locri, deserters were
publicly exposed in women's clothes,106 or with what the Roman writer
Aelian has to say about the crown of wool which adulterers were made to
wear at Gortyn: 'it means he is unmanly, womanish, and lecherous with
103 Varro ap. Aug. C.D. I8, 9; not discussed in the recent commentary on Plut.
mul. virt. by Philip A. Stadter, 1965.
104

Plut.

consol,

ad Apoll.

I12F;

so also

Val. Max. 2, 6, 13, with the same explanation.


'The Harpy Tomb at
105 F. J. Tritsch,
Xanthus', JHS 62, 1942, PP. 39-50, identifies
two figures on the East Side as men in
women's clothes, but himself points out that
the attendants in women's clothes on other
monuments of this kind are connected with
Persians and probably represent eunuchs (p.

46, n. 19). It is also suggested that 'this


court ceremonial was introduced into Lycia
during the two centuries when Lycia formed
a part of the Persian Empire' (p. 47). None
of this, therefore, supports his contention that
the custom described by Plutarch goes back
to a time when 'only the female members
represented the family in Lycia' (p. 44, n.
15). Ritual transvestism is widely attested
in Greece itself, though not, to my knowledge, in funeral contexts.
106 Diod. xii, 16.

28

SIMON PEMBROKE

women'l07--an assimilation which would hardly be made today, although


something of the kind lies behind such expressions as 'ladies' man' and the
verb, possibly obsolete, 'to womanize'. At any rate, the mention of Lycia
does not prevent Plutarch from trundling forth his commonplace about unmanliness; the 'position' of Lycian women, in the broadest and most
evaluative sense of the word, was not, in his view, anything exceptional; and
there remains only one way to save the phenomenon concerned. The
Nymphis story is set in the past, and so also is the custom which it is supposed
to explain. 'That is why,' in his own words, 'it was the custom for the people
of Xanthus to take their names from the mother's side and not that of the
father.' And Xanthus, together with its whole population, was annihilated
by the Persian general Harpagus; the information comes from Herodotus,
who says that the whole town was set on fire-and the recent French excavations of Xanthus have revealed a layer of cinders, four inches in depth, which
belongs to the same period and covers the entire citadel.10s Could the whole
tradition, then, be referred back to the time before the fire?
The answer is given by Herodotus's account of the destruction. The
Xanthians, after a heroic resistance, were overcome by the Persians' superior
numbers, and forced inside their walls.
They collected into the citadel their wives and children, all their property,
and their slaves; and having done so, fired the building, and burnt it to the
ground. After this, they bound themselves together by dreadful oaths,
and sallying forth against the enemy, they died, sword in hand, not one
of them escaping.109
Nothing about this story suggests anything anomalous-for the few moments
it lasts-in the social organization of Xanthus. There are no women in
armour, no grandmothers issuing orders from the battlements; and what
makes up a Lycian household is the standard Greek inventory-wife, children,
property and slaves.110 Herodotus, in the excitement, has forgotten his
unique Lycian custom; and this would be even more understandable, if it
came from a different tradition.
Of this tradition there is not the slightest trace in any other historical
writer. There is not a hint of it, in historical contexts, from the Athenian
incursions into the country during the Peloponnesian War to the time when
Lycia was finally brought under Roman domination, nor even in the detailed
and half-legendary accounts of Alexander the Great's journey through Asia
Minor.1ll The texts I have assembled constitute the sum total of what ancient
writers had to say about Lycian society; and there remains only the evidence
of archaeology, or inference from facts of a different kind.
107 Ael V.H. xii, I2.
108sP. Demargne, CRAI I952, p. I65.
There was another fire, however, some time
after 480 B.c., which none of the literary
sources mention: P. Demargne, CRAI 1955,
pp. Io04-5; H. Metzger, Fouilles de Xanthos, ii,
Paris 1963, p. 81.
o109
Hdt. I, 176.
11o Cf. Arist. Pol. I253b5.

111Arr. Anab. I, 24, 4, clearly distinguishes Lycia from Caria, and explains the
fact that a woman was satrap of Caria by the
practice of Asia as a whole, which in his view
dated back to Semiramis (I, 23, 7, cf. Diod.
17, 24, 2). He does not claim that succession
was matrilineal in Caria, simply that women
were not excluded from office.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

29

The archaeological evidence, in this case, is by no means negligible.


Hundreds of inscriptions have been found in Lycia, and used, for over a
century, to support the claims of Herodotus. It is certainly not obvious in
advance that these inscriptions have nothing to offer, and a separate article
has been devoted to examining the validity of the conclusions drawn from
them.112 Of these inscriptions those closest to the time of Herodotus are
written in a language which is still very little understood but is now thought
to be related to the Hittite and Luwian group of dialects. In any case, some
are bilingual (Greek), and consequently there is a number of Lycian kinship
terms whose meaning is known, and others can be guessed at, so that while
any positive reconstruction of the Lycian family system must leave several
major questions open, it is thought possible to demonstrate that it was not at
this time based on matrilineal descent. Even so, this conclusion cannot be
extended to the centuries which preceded Herodotus without taking into
consideration one further piece of evidence from which the same conclusions
have been drawn. The genealogy given by Homer to Priam's ally Sarpedon,
King of Lycia, has ever since Bachofen been regarded as reflecting a matrilineal system and so placing the highest of all ancient authorities behind
Herodotus. But the Homeric version conflicts with that of Hesiod, and it is
argued in another article that a third piece of evidence, provided by
Herodotus himself, indicates that neither of his two predecessors can be described as authentic and that while both have their ulterior motives, these
do not include a system of succession unknown in Greece.113 Finally, an
attempt will be made elsewhere to meet what in the absence of independent
evidence would be the strongest argument for accepting Herodotus's statement-the fact that his accounts of remote peoples, distorted or otherwise,
cannot be said to include Lycia, since this lay on the same coast as his native
Halicarnassus. Despite its proximity, Lycia is given a peculiar role in later
traditions, and this role, it will be suggested, converges with, if it does not
directly explain, its role in the ethnological tradition, while cases in which
Lycia is featured as a background to the Greek gods' life-stories suggest a
possibility of much wider significance: that the setting of many of the supposedly local traditions on which the historian of this period has to rely is in
fact not Home, but Away. It is not claimed that the singular custom can be
directly subsumed under this body of tradition, but the two things can fairly
be aligned.
III
Before this, however, the traditions discussed so far need to be seen against
another background. It must be established how the Greeks dealt with women
in reconstructing their own past. One story has already been mentioned in
which the state of things in prehistoric Athens was represented as identical
with that which was supposed to prevail in contemporary Lycia; and there
are, in a wider context, many other close ties between Greek reports on
112 'Last of the Matriarchs', Journal of the
Economic and Social History of the Orient, viii,
1965, PP. 219-47.

113 To be published in a forthcoming issue


of Man (Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute).

SIMON PEMBROKE

30

foreign customs and Greek speculations as to their own past. Some of these
ties can be explained by a systematic attempt to relate the two-a view like
that of Thucydides that barbarians were a kind of survival from a stage
which the Greeks had passed.14 Others, however, seem to lie well outside
such attempts, and even to precede them, and the importance of these ties
may be suggested by describing the first as alternatives in space and the
second as alternatives in time.
Alternatives provide the material for what must be one of the simplest
explanations ever put forward. A Maori legend explains the fact that the sun
rises and sets regularly by a story that it used not to, until it was fought by
their ancestor and compelled to keep proper hours. The explanation consists
of nothing but an alternative to the existing state of things; this alternative is
set in the past and enacted, with a change to link the two. If the stories which
must now be considered, therefore, are to be regarded as essentially more
valuable than the Maori one, reasons for differentiating the two must be more
specific than the natural superiority of the Greeks.
The first and most famous of these stories does not affect the issue. In the
works of Hesiod, Man is not created by the gods. All that happens is that
gods and mortals are 'separated'-there are no more details than that-at a
particular place in Greece.15 Woman, on the other hand, is created, but only
later and only as a counter to the gift of fire which Prometheus made to
mankind and which was not intended by Zeus. And though Hesiod has a lot
to say about the difficulties of getting on with women, now that they are here,
he has as much to say about the difficulties of getting on without them.116
Men were much better off before all this; toil and trouble were unknown; but
there is no sign that they could reproduce themselves. They may even have
been immortal, since at that time there was no 'noisome illness, which brings
men their fate'.117 Similarly, aberrant origins, such as autochthony, the
emergence of man from the soil, like that of Phoronis, the 'earliest man' of
Sicyon, are of no interest here, because they are never repeated. Having once
emerged, the autochthonous man goes off to find a local nymph, and thereafter everything is as it should be; and the same goes for the stones thrown by
Deucalion and Pyrrha, which turned into the human race.118
The most important tradition, in the present context, is again centred on
Cecrops, the Athenian King who organized the voting over Athena and
Poseidon. Cecrops was also responsible for a number of inventions, and
among these was marriage.119 He was, certainly, a very ancient figure; he
was known to be 'twofold' or more literally 'two-natured', half-man and
half-beast. But the tradition, as we have it, is late and allegorical in form:
the title is explained by the two natures, male and female, which he was the
first to join in matrimony.1? The question is, what happened before this; and
114

Cf. esp. Thuc. I, 8, I.

115 Hes. Th. 535.


116 Hes. Th. 591-612.
117 Hes. OD. 90-92.

118Hes. fr. I 15 Rz.


11 Charax FGrHist Io3F38 (now dated to
the second half of the 2nd century A.D.,

FGrHist IIIB (Addenda), p. 741, 25ff.);


Justin 2, 6; Nonn. D. 41, 384; Johannes
Antiochenus FHG iv. 547, fr. 13.
120

Suid. s.v. Kekrops, iii. 90 n.

I272

Adler,

refers this back to Cecrops himself, making


the top half of him male, the lower half
female.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

31

the sources are unanimous with their answer: promiscuous intercourse. The
first of them, Clearchus of Soli, vaguely adds something about 'collective
marriages'.121 But one goes into more detail.
Some say he found men and women having intercourse quite casually, so
that no son could tell who was his father, no father who was his son.
Cecrops accordingly drew up the laws making them co-habit openly and
in pairs. In fact it was he who discovered the two natures of mother and
father, and so became called two-natured.122
Not, of course, quite accurate: one of the natures-as the first sentence
practically admits-was not the discovery of Cecrops. The identity of the
mother did not come in question, and it was a commonplace, as well attested
for antiquity as for other societies, that it could not do; but paternity was a
more open question. Telemachus, asked if he was the son of Odysseus,
replied rather whimsically that his mother said so, but he himself did not
know, because no man could be sure of his own begetting.123 The idea does
not, in ancient literature, receive the near-obsessional form in which it is
presented by Strindberg; but it does come out, at a serious level, in the
hundreds of formulaic curses, written on tablets, which have survived from
almost all periods of classical antiquity. The procedure was to write down the
victim's name-usually some divinity was invoked-and specify what was to
happen to him; and where it was felt that the occupation or the appearance
of the victim was not enough to guarantee his identity, it was as often as not
his mother's name, not his father's, which was brought in to eliminate all
doubt.124

Something of the same correspondence between ritual formula and literary


tradition can be seen in ancient ethnology. Herodotus, it has been seen, was
not unduly troubled by paternity. If it could not be shared on a collective
basis, it could be assigned to individuals on the basis of physical resemblance.
The first of these systems involved no hatred or envy; and the cheerfulness of
the second can be matched by a passage from Hesiod. A city where justice is
dispensed fairly, he says, has peace and prosperity. There is no famine there,
for it has increase of all kinds; 'and the children that women bear resemble
their parents'.125 The idea is elaborated in the words of an oath which the
Athenians who fought at Plataea were supposed to have sworn just before the
battle. The text of this oath was inscribed on a stele which was put up in a
village in Attica over a century later, and it ends with an imprecation.
If I stand by the terms of this oath, let the city be free from sickness, but
if I fail, let it fall sick. Let the city escape destruction, but if I fail, let it be
sacked. Let the city have increase, but if I fail, let it be without increase.
Let the children that women bear resemble their parents, but if I fail, let
121 Athen. xiii, 555D = FHG ii. 319, fr. 49.
banal form Eur. fr. o1015 TGF2 Nauck.
The translations 'promiscuous concubinage',
124 A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae, Paris
LSJ, s.v., and 'a general practice of poly- I904, pp. li, lii and 448; R. Wtinsch, 'Neue
andry', W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Fluchtafeln', RhMus 55, I900, P. 263; cf.
Marriagein EarlyArabia,Cambridge I885, p. for Attica IG iii. 3 (Appendix), nos. Io2a7,
162, are both misleading.
Io2bI9.
125 Hes. O.D. 235ff.
122 Schol. Ar. Plut. 773
123 Od. I, 215, cf. 4, 387 and in a more

SIMON PEMBROKE

32

them be monsters. Let the offspring borne by cattle resemble the cattle,
but if I fail, let them be monsters.126
Hesiod has an unjust city too, and it is afflicted with barrenness,pestilence and
famine. But it is surely necessary to see the imprecation behind Hesiod and
not Hesiod behind the imprecation. Here, in fact, is a unique form of alternative to which tense and mood, past and future, are almost indifferent. The
alternatives are there, and each has its consequences. And if, in Herodotus,
the consequence appeared to have become detached, only one thing could be
inferred back from it: a society in which it is possible to assign fathers on the
basis of physical likeness is no less idyllically just than one in which all are
kindred and relatives of one another.
A similar analysis can be made of one further tradition, and the text in
question, which is quite unique, is of fundamental importance to the distinction suggested earlier in this article between promiscuity and matriarchy.
The story was supposed to explain the saying 'Melian boat', which was
applied to boats which no longer held water.
Hippotes was sent on a colony, and he cursed the men who would not sail
with him. They had made excuses, some saying that the boats were
leaking, others that their wives were unwell, and so they stayed behind.
So he laid them under a curse: that they should never find a boat that was
water-tight, and that they should be ruled by women for ever.127
The destination of this expedition is uncertain, but there is no sign that the
victims of the curse accompanied it. What can be stated with certainty is
that the curse itself is identical in structure with a more conventional one.
There are convincing reasons for associating the theme of leaking vessels with
that of virginity; a Vestal Virgin was supposed to be capable of carrying water
in a sieve, and ProfessorE. R. Dodds has suggested that the same theme may
be discerned behind the punishment of the Danaids, who were condemned
for murdering their husbands to an eternity of carrying water in leaking pots.128
An association centred on domestic vessels might perhaps be extended to seagoing ones, although the status which can be given to such associations is a
notoriously difficult problem and it is not wholly essential to the present
argument. What the leaking boats certainly do correspondto is the stipulation
'that the sea shall be impossible to sail', which is made in the conventional
formula; and the second half of this formula specifies that women shall be
sterile, or shall give birth to monsters.129 It is this collective sterility, or miscarriage, which is replaced by the rule of women. Hippotes and the oath of
Plataea, therefore, make only one conclusion possible: matriarchy and the
idyllic belong to two different worlds.
It is worth seeing to what extent, in practice, this distinction is worked
126

L. Robert, Etudes e'bigraphiqueset philologiques, Paris I938, p. 308, ?39ff.; SEG xvi.
140o; Tod GHI1 no. 204 and p. 158. A
similar, half-legendary formula in Aeschin. 3,
II.

ferences in FHG ii, p. 150 (fr. I43), where the


identity of Hippotes is discussed.
128 D. Hal. 2, 69; Plin. NH. 28, I2 (Dodds
on P1. Grg. 492dIff.).
129

127

Phot. Lex. 594, 9 and [Diogen.] prov.

8, 31 = Arist. fr. 554 Rose. Further re-

LSJ s.v.

45I, 488.

tX<o76S, II, I,

cf. e.g. TAM ii.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

33

out by the ethnologists of antiquity, although gynaecocracy, in the Hippotes


story, is not explicitly referred to anything which affects the continuity between generations, any more than it is in Aristotle's definition or even in
Strabo's comment on the Cantabres. A classic case is provided by the
Garamantes of Libya, a people to whom marriage was unknown. Pomponius
Mela, recording the fact, said that they assigned paternity on the basis of
resemblance, but Solinus denied even this. It was only the mothers, he declared, who recognized their children. For the name of father there was no
respect at all-which was why the Garamantes were universally agreed to be
the most degenerate of all peoples.130
The historical data which underly this discrepancy are not accessible, but
Solinus makes one valuable distinction explicit, which is quite simply whether
or not the fathers want children. That is to say, if paternity by resemblance is
one extreme, the other is constituted not by collective paternity, but by the
situation he indicates: a state of things in which the adult males demand, and
receive, no connexion with the next generation whatsoever, so that this connexion devolves exclusively on the women. There could hardly be a more
extreme form of matrilineal descent; and it is worth recording, therefore, that
there did exist at least one tradition in which something very like the exact
opposite of this happened.
The starting-point of this tradition is the saying 'from tree or rock', which
itself has a long history: it is already proverbial in Homer. When Penelope
asks Odysseus to tell her his parentage and where he comes from, she says, 'for
you're not from the tree or rock they talk about'.131 And in the Iliad Hector,
surveying the prospect of being killed by Achilles, tells himself: 'there is no
chatting with him, from tree or rock, as a girl and a boy chat together'.132
Later writers, for the most part, follow Penelope rather than Hector, as
though men had once just sprung from rocks and trees; but there does seem to
be a more general notion of spontaneity behind what Hector says, extending
to the ease with which a boy and a girl find things to say to one another.
Penelope, in any case, is talking about what cannot happen nowadays, not
what used to happen; tree or rock constitute an alternative, not a piece of
history, like money growing on trees. And from here it is no great distance to
the line with which Hesiod, at the beginning of his Theogony,abruptly terminates his story of the Muses visiting him on Mount Helicon: 'But why do I
tell all this of tree or rock?'133
The tradition which was later attached to this phrase, and with which we
are concerned here, was a more sinister one. At some time in antiquity, the
rocks and trees were connected not with spontaneous generation but with a
practice whose importance in ancient life is amply reflected in mythology,
and which again does not make for any continuity between generations: the
exposure of children. The fullest version of this explanation was given by the
grammarian Didymus.
130 Mela I, 45; Solin. 30, 2.
131Od. 19, I63.
132 I1. 22, 126-8.
133

Hes. Th. 35. The phrase was also re-

ferred, later in antiquity, to the story told in

the Cypria (fr. 9 Ki = schol. P. Nem. Io,


I I4), in which the Spartan Dioscuri, Castor

and Polydeuces, tried to escape their cousins


Idas and Lynceus by hiding in a hollow tree:
Plut. commun. notit. Io83D.

SIMON PEMBROKE

34

The ancients lived a nomadic life. They had, as yet, no houses, but
coupled without shame, and when children were born, exposed them in
the hollows of rocks and trees. Those who found the children thought that
this was where they came from, and so brought them up.'3
Even if this is a rationalization, the form it takes is significant; and for the
question whether, in a literary tradition, those societies which do not recognize
paternity must place on the women that role of continuity which the fathers
have vacated, it is decisive. The tradition itself is not concerned with continuity, and does not fully work out its own implications. And the earliest
mention, apart from Lycia, of descent being traced on the mother's side,
confirms this view.
The author is Philo of Byblos, who wrote in the second century A.D.,
though he claimed to be translating the work of a Phoenician priest called
Sanchuniathon-a near-contemporary of Moses, whom he placed before the
Trojan War. Whether or not there is anything in Philo's claim is not important
here, since it cannot possible be referred to the passage in question. The
point at which he brings in maternal descent is halfway through a catalogue
of the inventors of useful things-a catalogue whose pointlessness, and failure
to explain anything, cannot be exaggerated. 'They traced their descent on the
mother's side, because women at that time had intercourse casually with any
man they ran into.'135
It would be very hard indeed for this statement to be less appropriate to
its context. It is attached to two brothers, Samemroum and Ousoos; and
these are preceded, and followed, by four generations of two brothers each,
all, in some mysterious fashion, descended from one another. In the course of
this, not a single woman is mentioned.
Phenomena of this kind are barely worth saving. The chief value of Philo's
information lies in the contrast which it provides to the earliest surviving use
of the word for matriarchy, which was made several centuries earlier in a
description of the customs of an Illyrian tribe.
After the Istri come the people called the Libyrni. . these are ruled by
women, and the women are married to free men, but have intercourse
with their slaves and with men from the neighbouring tribes.136
Schol. Ven. AB II. 22, I26, cf. Eust.
I262, 7ff.; the text of schol. B, as printed by
Dindorf, p. 288, 27ff., is obviously corrupt.
Exposure is also mentioned, in the same
context, by schol. Hes. Th. 35. It looks distinctly possible, though the suggestion has
not to my knowledge been put forward, that
these passages contributed to the state of
nature which in Vico's Scienza Nuova succeeds
the universal flood, 'nel quale le madri, come
bestie, dovettero lattare solamente i bambini
e lasciargli nudi rotolar dentro le fecce loro
propie, ed appena spoppati abbandonargli
per sempre (Mothers, like beasts, must
merely have nursed their babies, let them
wallow in their own filth, and abandoned
134

them for good as soon as they were weaned)'.


The
Book ii, chapter iii, ?369 Nicolini.
Townley scholia, commenting on the same
passage of Homer, bring in Deucalion.
135Euseb. P.E. I, Io, 9 = FGrHist
790F2, cf. Arrian FGrHist I56F85 = Eust.
Dion. Per. 828, which is roughly contemporary.
= GGM i, p. 27 Miller.
136 Scylax ?2I
The same theme is elaborated in the Syriac
Bardesanes's account of the Bactrians, Ps.
Clem. Recognit. ix, 23, pp. 282-3 Rehm,
but the system attributed meanwhile to the
Libyrni by Nicolas of Damascus is allocating
fathers by resemblance, FGrHist 9oF Io3(d) =
Stob. Flor. 4, 2.

THE ANCIENT IDEA OF MATRIARCHY

35

Scylax, the author of this passage, was writing at the beginning of the fourth
century B.c. and so anticipated Aristotle's definition ofmatriarchy by a matter
of decades, but there is nothing here to suggest that the definition was less
than usually comprehensive. And there could hardly be a situation further
removed from the cases of promiscuity which have been considered earlier.
The Massagetai all had one another's wives to consort with, whereas the
nightmarish combination of slaves and foreigners presented here meant the
sustained and systematic frustration of every free man in the society. It was
hatred, ridicule, and contempt, but it was not matrilineal, and there is no
sign that Libyrnian husbands could disclaim the children of their wives.
There is no single instance in which what the Greeks called the rule of women,
in Greece or outside it, can be identified as a matrilineal system, and independent evidence is needed, in every case, for the society in question to be
identified at all.
There is, however, a more positive aspect to this conclusion. The traditions which have been considered here show marked similarities of structure,
and the problems arising from them are all closely related, but this does not
mean that the historical facts round which they are organized fall into a
similar pattern, or that a coherent relation can be established between the
pattern of fact and the pattern of tradition. Neither the sequence in which
events are arranged, nor the setting against which they are placed, can always
be isolated as fundamental data; and if this fact does not suggest a high degree
of historical content behind the traditions, it does throw considerable light on
their formation. What the Greeks knew about their past, and about their
neighbours, turns out to be very little; but against this can be set a wider and
more consistent picture of their image of the two things. To some extent, at
least, this image can be seen under construction.