Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.*
In last week’s blog, I explained patriarchy as a system in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality with the intent of passing property to male heirs. How did a system that identifies a man’s essence with his property and the ability to pass it on to sons come about? I suggest that the answer to this question is war and the confiscation of “property” by warriors in war. Patriarchy is rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.
My argument is that the origin of “private” property, defined as property owned by a single (male) individual, and as that which defines the “essence” of that individual, is the “spoils” of war, which are divided up by victorious warriors. The “spoils” of war are the tangible treasures “looted” or taken by the victors from the conquered, such as jewelry and sacred objects. The “spoils” of war include land “taken” as the result of warfare, along with the right to exploit resources, directly or through taxes and levies. The “spoils” of war also includes the right to “take” the women of the defeated enemy and to confirm ownership of them (and humiliate their fathers or husbands) by raping them. The “spoils” of war also include the right to “take” these raped women and their young children home to serve as slaves and concubines.
Though many people were surprised when the rape victims of the recent war in Bosnia began to speak out about the use of rape as a tool of war by Serbian soldiers, in fact, rape has always been an “ordinary” part of war. In the “great” epic known as The Iliad which is said to be the foundation of western culture, Achilles and Agamemnon are fighting over which of them has the right to rape a “captured” woman named Briseis. The term “spear captive” is used to mask the reality that Briseis and other women like her were “rape victims” and that the “heroes” being celebrated were their “rapists” and “jailers.” I believe that the institution of rape and the (twisted) notion that men have a right to rape (certain kinds or types of) women originated with war.
The institution of slavery also originated in war. Both the Bible and the Greek epics testify to the ancient custom of enslaving the women and children of the enemy. Slave women in every culture, like the slave women on plantations in the Americas, are at the mercy of their owners and his sons, who can rape them if they felt like it. The “custom” of taking slaves from the enemy and the “custom” of also taking enemy women sexually, is deeply intertwined with the history of war. The Africans who sold other Africans into slavery in the Americas were selling Africans they had taken as the spoils of war.
If we entertain the hypothesis that earlier matriarchal clan systems existed, then we can see that the notion of individual powerful men’s peri-ousia being defined as the treasures, land, and people they property they “stole” and then claimed to “own” would have involved a massive cultural shift. The shift to defining men by the property they owned required that men would also ”own” and absolutely control their wives and daughters, who had previously been free. Such a cultural shift could only have been instituted and maintained through violence.
Patriarchy is a system of male domination, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence. Warriors who have learned the methods of violent domination of other human beings—not only other soldiers, but also the women and children of the people they conquer—bring the methods of violence home. Violence and the threat of violence can then be used to control “one’s” wife or wives, in order to ensure that “one’s” children really are “one’s” own. Violence and the threat of violence can be used to ensure that “one’s” daughters are virgins who can be “given” to other men to perpetuate the system of patriarchal inheritance. Violence and the threat of violence can be used to hold enslaved people “in line.” In addition, violence and the threat of violence can be used to subdue those within one’s own culture who are unwilling to go along with the new system. Women who refuse to let men control their sexuality can be killed with impunity by their male relatives or stoned by communities as a whole.
How does such a violent system legitimate itself? By religious symbols. In Greece, warriors were “in the image” of the “warrior God” Zeus whose rape of Goddesses and nymphs was celebrated. In Israel, the power of warriors is mirrored in a male God who is called “Lord” and “King” and who achieves his will through violence and destruction. Sadly, this is not an exclusively western problem. In all of the so-called “highly developed” cultures defined by patriarchy and war, symbols of divine warriors justify the violence of men. Laws said to have a divine source enshrine men’s control the sexuality of their wives, permit some men to rape some women, and allow some people to own other people as slaves.
To read the rest of this essay, please click on this link to Feminism and Religion.
Carol P. Christ will be leading life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute this spring and fall. Join her and learn more about prepatriarchal woman-honoring Goddess cultures. She spoke on a WATER Teleconference recently which you can listen to now if you missed it. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.
This essay was first published in Feminism and Religion.