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So I'm currently writing a story set in an Arabian-influenced medieval world. This society worships a mother goddess, and I was wondering if a matriarchal religion is culturally consistent for a culture that is also patriarchal in its family and political structures (and also pride themselves in having a strong military class).

I tried to research empires in history that worshipped a central female goddess, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of information in regard to these societies' power structures, since many of them predate the popularization of Abrahamic religions.
However, from what I've gathered I think men and women in these societies still followed heteronormative roles.

Can anyone give their two cents in this subject, or point me to a few resources that could give me more information?

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    $\begingroup$ Amaterasu is the head of the Japanese pantheon, and Japanese society is definitely a patriarchy (though more after Chinese influence than before). I've found that societies like this tend to have an "all-mother" that people worship and revere for giving everyone life and then somewhere else in the mythology, they justify why men are in control. Just tie the all-mother to some fundamental force of nature and it should be relatively easy to justify. $\endgroup$ – Pleiades May 22 '18 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ Mary Mother of God? $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 22 '18 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ Probably Tanit is another example. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 May 22 '18 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ Since the term patriarchy of course has a Marxist or 4th wave feminism connotation to it as does your entire question, do you also want the answers to reflect that? If so please state that in your question. If you want to construct a world based on one particular ideology, you have to stay consistent $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 May 22 '18 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy I may not be a catholic now but I was raised as one. For decades we have had priests preaching that. There are even songs stating that. Multiple popes have been saying that, since 431 AD. How is Mary being the "Mother of God" a distortion of the catholic doctrine? Maybe you meant another branch of christianism. $\endgroup$ – Renan May 23 '18 at 3:15

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The Egyptians worshiped Isis as a mother sky goddess and Bast as a hearth/home goddess as well as her role as a war goddess.

The Celts were also highly patriarchal and worshiped Brigid as a solar mother goddess and the "Dark Mother" Morrígan who has a lot of duality being both a destructive and nurturing power.

Less sure but I understand Kali fills a similar dualistic role in Hinduism being worshipped as both a mother and a destroyer but I'm not sure how patriarchal Indian society is as a whole.

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    $\begingroup$ Indian society is patriarchal to the point that women are still treated largely as property in much of the country. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy May 23 '18 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy That's kind of depressing, I'm not altogether surprised given some of the things I've seen with a few of the ex-pat Indians over here but I'd hoped, given how few in number they were that they were the exception at home as well. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 23 '18 at 10:59
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From my limited knowledge of anthropology, female gods are usually the first beings a forming civilizations worships, with masculine gods coming later. This is due to the "magic" or babies being associated women (ancient males didn't even think they had anything to do with the process in some locations). When males eventually come to power, which is usually assumed to be a result of male hunters "unionizing" against the usually female gathers, the new masculine gods are created to legitimize their authority.

If your society is exceptionally old or particularly good at recording their own history, a mother-goddess might possibly still be worshiped. Even then, other masculine sub-deities might exist to legitimize the patriarchy. For example, the goddess is herself female, but the angels of war, knowledge, craftsmanship, and medicine happen to be male.

Sorry I can't give any exact sources. I'm just remembering tidbits from a class I took in college.

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    $\begingroup$ ancient males didn't think they had anything to do with the process [of making children] for some reason I find this hilarious $\endgroup$ – Sydney Sleeper May 23 '18 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ Citations (and evidence) needed. $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 May 23 '18 at 1:38
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    $\begingroup$ @sydney-sleeper, revelant smbc $\endgroup$ – guest-418 May 23 '18 at 10:24
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If you want the patriarchy to be backed by the religion, maybe try this:

The cardinal rule of family for anyone unmarried is to obey and respect your mother. Mothers, however, are to obey and respect their husband. Men are considered the Mother-goddess's most unearthly and divine creation, for her sons (male humans) are what provide her daughters (female humans) the ability to bear life as the goddess herself has. The Mother-goddess of course has no husband, for she is the original being, with the divine ability to create from herself. (As any member of the religion would scornfully inform someone who questioned why they worship a woman) Mothers are respected as the creators of life, but fathers are what give them that ability, straight from the Mother-goddess's hand.

This is purely from my imagination, for the record. I have no historical examples to back this concept.

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    $\begingroup$ Pinion Minion mentioned having male sub-deities - that would work well here, too - the goddess's servants are all male, which further backs the idea that men are her highest creation $\endgroup$ – Josh May 22 '18 at 19:30
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One possibility that has no example in our past (that I know of) is a division of power/labor.

Simple put, women look after the soul and men look after the body.

There is a nurturing and life giving Goddess with her priestesses. They take care of all things supernatural and have (on the surface, at least) authority over all worship related events.

The men are responsible for the protection and expansion of the society. They rule, war, enforce laws, etc.

For this to actually work, several aspects of the society have to be "just right." That's because eventually people will end up in power who want power and are loathe to share that power.

So, how do we stabilize this situation.

First, have it ingrained from childhood that the role of men is to take care of women and that women are the source of wisdom. Boys are trained to fight and women are taught how to read and write. This only works for the common classes though. Higher classes and those who are sociopaths won't care.

Second, make a man's status depend not on what he owns but how well taken care of the women in his family are. If you wife walks around in a frock and your daughters are hungry, you are (or soon will be) at the lowest rung of society. This helps control the higher classes since to gain or maintain power, they have to show that they are worthy.

Third, the women have to have have a monopoly on the knowledge of the society. Most religions got started because the priests/priestesses held some necessary knowledge like when to plant or when the Nile would flood. So, within the women's circle, an individual's contribution to the health (mental and physical) of the society would determine her status. Their stratification could be along the lines of academia. The more knowledge they know and share, the higher their status. Figuring out a way of breeding better wheat jumps your status over several levels, etc.

This society has the chance to be stable.

It also lends itself to some interesting counter culture characters with which you can explore the boundaries of the society.

Obvious:

The girl who wants to fight. The boy who wants to read.

Darker:

The girl who just wants to wear frilly dresses and knit all day. The boy who wants to gather wealth for himself.

Dark:

The woman who enjoys tearing people down, giving purposely bad advice, and making their lives miserable. The man who rapes or beats women.

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There is no real issue.

Most polytheistic religions had mother goddesses with very high status and their cults were very influential. Many of the most important temples were for female deities as well. As James mentioned this lives on in the Catholic and Orthodox faith with the importance given to "mother of God". Even the truly monotheistic and severely patriarchal religions such as Judaism and Islam have mystical forms that embrace the feminine aspects of divinity in a manner similar to the well known yin and yang duality.

Basically since god created mankind in his image and mankind does not really work without having both men and women even a patriarchal society cannot fully remove the feminine aspects of divinity. God knows people have tried very hard in the real world for over two thousand years and as soon as society stopped actively oppressing women we have female clergy and talk about how assuming an omnipotent God is limited to single gender does not make sense.

But from your wording you actually want divinity to be seen as single female entity in a gender swapped version of the Abrahamic God. This requires a specific evolution. Fortunately you can more or less copy from how monotheism happened. Just swap the gender of the deity.

First, your goddess must be seen as the protector of the state and nation. This happens by the clergy of the Goddess making a strong and durable political alliance with the king and the nobility. Clerics serve as advisors and see to all important rituals. They have real authority.

And while limited meritocracy is possible if scholarship is highly valued, the clergy is also linked to the nobility by ties of blood. They marry into nobility and are born from the nobility. A caste system where priest come from "a separate nobility" seen as equal or even superior to secular nobility is also possible. The important thing is that priest are inherently people of status in a way compatible with the power structure of the secular side.

Note that if the society is heavily patriarchal this implies that the clergy of the Goddess are men. Probably "for real" and in the biological sense but women acting the male gender role in ritual and ceremonial mystical sense would probably work as well.

Second, the clergy of the Goddess at some point decided to use their political influence to get rid of the competition. Competing clergies were assimilated as aspects of the Goddess, as cults of saints or angels serving the goddess or simply disbanded as obsolete or banned as heretical. Christianity offers lots of examples to copy.

And as competition decreased the ability to achieve full on monopoly on religion will ultimately be achieved. You can stop at any point of this evolution that is convenient to your purposes.

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One possibility is that the way people actually behave in daily life is different than a modern person might assume based on a description of their theology. So, they worship a goddess, and women should know their place. Some outsider asks, isn’t this contradictory? They say, no. She’s a goddess. That’s different.

The way they explain how she got such a high station, though, might explain how they see women. Maybe women can inherit titles and property, as happened in many (but not all) patriarchal societies. So there might be a ruling queen who cites the goddess to justify her claim to power, but the society is still patriarchal. Maybe the goddess’ actions were as villainous as those of Zeus, but it’s okay when she does it, because she’s a goddess. Maybe the society has a stereotype of women as cheating, scheming, husband-killing, manipulative social climbers, and her legend says she’s the best at it. Maybe she’s special because she’s the great-grandmother with no father or husband to obey. Or you can look to how the Victorians idealized women: maybe she epitomizes female purity and self-sacrifice, so there’s a goddess women are supposed to venerate, but they do so by living up to the expectations of society (and are told their reward will follow).

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I speak about this from the perspective of India. We have 3 major Indian goddesses:

  • Lakshmi
    goddess of wealth and prosperity
  • Saraswati
    goddess of learning and wisdom
  • Parvati
    goddess of strength and power

Their powers varied in different regions and times, going up and down with the changes in society. Eventually they became consorts of the respective Trinity:

  • Vishnu
  • Brahma
  • Shiva

In an agriculture based society, there are always female deities, but with evolution and the lesser dependence on the elements, their power reduced. Mothers are also supposed to be protectors - in nature it is so, hence goddesses are worshiped in many cultures.

But when civilizations evolve the power equation changes and in almost all cultures, power has been shifted from the female to the male. This has been done in an organized legitimate manner, there were no sudden upheavals, but it has happened nonetheless.

So what I am trying to say here is, most of the societies are evolved, it is an assimilation of many aspects, so it is very common to have patriarchal societies co-existing with mother goddesses, it is because of tradition that such practices go on, however it does not mean that women in that society are endowed with more power or are treated equally. When traditions persist, sometimes they are symbolical, but they do not translate into practices in the practical lives of the residents of that society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you edit this to answer the question more conclusively? You've talked a little about Indian goddesses (not a single mother-goddess) but haven't directly addressed whether or not a mother-goddess is culturally consistent for a patriarchal society. $\endgroup$ – walrus May 23 '18 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ @walrus : Hinduism is so large and very complex. Mr. ponshon is talking about Hinduism only, but from 'shanmat point of view'. In my answer at worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/112948/51049 , using shaktism (of Hinduism again), I have already shown the highest supreme power as Goddess(Adi Prashakti) is totally consistent with Indian patriarchal society and indian military and gory. So what else do you want? $\endgroup$ – zaxebo1 May 23 '18 at 14:31
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If you want a good fictional example of a fictional society like this, check out NK Jemsin's Dreamblood books. The setting is a culture where women are "goddesses"... and therefore neglected and excluded from power in the name of protection or respect. The two things aren't contradictory in the minds of the people of this culture, as well as probably in the real world examples given in some of the other answers here.

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comment: What constitutes Patriarchy is very subjective.



Nevertheless, In india, worship of Durga etc deity in Bengal region is an exmaple of this. In the Shaktism sect of hinduism, which is most prevalent in West Bengal and Assam region of India, and also followed in many other parts of India; the goddess is supreme and she creates the trinity of male Gods. also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adi_Parashakti . Shaktism exists even now, and is followed by millions of people even now. Shaktism is one of the three major sects of Hinduism(esp. the theist part of hinduism), if you go by classification on the basis of the main deity. (caution: there are scripturally valid, atheist sects of hinduism too).

Navratri, the Nine day festival of Goddess victory is celebrated and is the biggest festival in shaktism branch of Hinduism. During this festival atleast nine or more girls are invited in each household to feed them, and then only the prasada is taken by others. These small girls are visualized as living forms of devi during this festival. Boys have no role (as God, goddess) in this worship.

Yet all the kingdoms and transfer of property(in Shakt households and Shakt prevalent regions and ancient Shakt kingdoms) is patrilineal , as elsewhere in India.

Military class is justified in shaktism as Devi is considered energy. see Mahakali https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahakali . She is goddess of time and death. She has lots of weapons. She is depicted as drinking dripping blood of demons.

Biggest justification of 'the still existing existing military connection with female goddess' - is that War Cry of many indian regiments of current Indian military army is STILL in the name of supreme Goddess, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regiments_of_the_Indian_Army#Infantry_Regiments1 The war cries to feminine Goddess by the many current Indian army regiments are still following:

  • hail Goddess Kali, here come the Gorkhas
  • victory to Durga Naga
  • victory to Mother India
  • victory to Goddess Durga
  • victory to Goddess Jawala
  • victory to Goddess Kali

Gory: Till date, animals are sacrificed for goddess , which is sanctified by Hindu Shakt scriptures. But animals are "not" sacrificed for Vishnu or Shiva oriented sects of Hinduism - where male Gods are supreme. So aggression is inbuilt part of Shaktism.

Celebration of vagina and menstruation of Goddess: In Assam, there is a temple, where it is thought that "vagina" of the dead body of Goddess Sati (one of the avatars of supreme Goddess) dropped. Its called kamakhya temple https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamakhya_Temple . So here vagina form of devi is worshipped. During each month few days temple is closed for male devotees, during these four days only women devotees are allowed inside temple , and it is thought that devi is having menstruation. Rest of the days, anybody can come inside temple. This temple is considered one of the prime pilgrimage centre of Shaktism.

Newly added modern trends: As in Hinduism , you can create your own Gods - In modern times, India itself has been actually imagined as mother goddess, called Bharatmata. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bharat_Mata

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One possible explanation might be the culture has moved into place in the relatively recent past. An examination of the P.I.E. religion suggests that although Deus Pater (the Sky Father) was the supreme god, many of the female deities were essentially "married" to the gods the Proto Indo Europeans worshipped as the P.I.E. people expanded their range.

Having existing goddesses "married" to the P.I.E. gods provided legitimacy, and the newly conquered people would be less likely to revolt against their new ruling caste if they were allowed to worship their old gods, even in somewhat new roles.

So while your ruling culture is militaristic and patriarchal (as the P.I.E. people were thought to be), the initial conquerors "married into" the old religion, so the subject population still worships the Mother Goddess in her new role as the wife of the Sky God.

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