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The Cult of the Holy Mother is a female-dominated religious organization that retains a large role in the shaping of society and affairs of the nation. The cult traces its origins to a virgin woman chosen by the creator deity to produce the Messiah, a god-emperor who was destined to save mankind and go on to rule this nation. The cult is made up of mostly priestesses that enter into holy matrimony with their deity. These brides have taken vows of chastity to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of religious rituals. There rituals are deemed necessary by the organization and forbidden for others to carry out. As such, they are regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of the state. Occasionally, a supernatural event will be triggered which is described by the cult as a miracle. A priestess will be chosen by their deity to give birth to a son, who will grow up to be ordained as the next god-emperor. These "Sons of God" occur anywhere from every few decades to every few centuries. They serve as an expression of the god's power and authority over nature, as well as a reminder to the people of the contract between God and mankind. This event symbolizes the holy trinity that the religion bases itself upon, with God the father in heaven, God the Mother as the intermediary between both worlds, and God the Son as his representative on Earth.

Society is dominated by men, who take dominant roles in civil and public life and women taking a secondary status. However, there is subtle undercurrent in society that men would be incompetent on their own, which is demonstrated throughout the mythology and stories society tells itself. The faith itself is also female oriented, giving higher importance on the virgin mother over the Son of God. Despite this, it maintains the patriarchal hierarchy, viewing any suggestion of the reverse as dangerous and heretical. This seems to go against their own self-interest and the overall status of women in general, as it curtails their advancement in public life.

I want to design this matriarchal religion as the single dominant faith in the nation that works within society without challenging the rule of man. How can I make it this work? And how can the faith benefit from maintaining this stance while retaining their influence over the population?

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    $\begingroup$ Your previous question was already clearly inspired by the New Testament.. this question has terms like "Son of God" and "Blessed Trinity". It reads like you ask our opinion about some kind of reform of Christianity itself. I think this question would better fit on Christianity Stack Exchange. Avoid the word story, put it as a proposal, or interpretation. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 20 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies This has no similarity at all with Christianity and hypothetical histories are not on topic there. In the way Hogwarts parallels Oxford University with a headmaster and the House of Slytherin parallels a greek letter fraternity house, that is where the similarities end. Do not ask this at Christianity.se. This religion, in structure, better emulates Islam where men are required to do all labor and women are put on a pedestal (nominally). This essentially asks for an unbroken and functional Islam. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 20 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet not quite Islam.. there is clearly a redeemer in this story and a trinity concept, defining things alongside God. The Islam does not allow that, it does not have redeemers, or holy spirits. The above reminds me of Arianism, a form of early Christianity which put a hierarchy inside the trinity with God on top. That was a stricter monotheism. Islam advocated that as well, and it had lots of followers originating from Arianism. In that sense you have a point. But the story is quite different. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 20 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Goodies I can't put James Kirk in an X-Wing and Kahn in a tie fighter then magically turn Star Wars into Star Trek. The tree OP describes has nothing to do with any known religion, it just happens to be a tree with an apple, and apparently gives "wisdom". What religion has that? None I know of, but both Islam and Christianity have different sorts of trees. So what? This is the "Cult of the Holy Mother," it simply has nothing at all to do with Christianity; especially its structure. Kirk=Luke; Trinity=Allah. Only proper nouns are changed, nothing more. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 20 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet I opened our chat with my impression it sounds like Christianity, and it was your statement above "exactly how the Quran is intended" that made it equal to Islam. Let's agree to disagree on this and suppose the root story or any comparisons with RL religions play a minor role.. close my case, appreciated the interesting discussion. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 20 at 19:24

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TL;DR

An early sect within The Church of the Holy Mother made a pact with the patriarchy. This sect surrendered their claims to political power to the patriarchs and in return the patriarchs recognized the sect as the sole legitimate religious authority. As a result, having celibate, cloistered women running the church and working as advisors eventually became tradition.


luizpsr provides a great justification for the contemporary position of The Church of the Holy Mother: woman yield religious authority but let men take care of mundane matters. For my answer, I'm going to look into how this arrangement could come to be.

Side Note: My use of "church" as opposed to a "cult" is intentional.

Historical Examples in the Real World

Common Trends

If you look at the history of various religions (including Christianity), you'll see some trends:

  1. After the initial emergence of the religion, a wide variety of interpretations and traditions develop and then begin competing to shape the religion's orthodoxy.
  2. In order to spread, religions often adopt some values from the existing cultures.
  3. Religious organizations often provide secular leaders with legitimacy and a good reputation in exchange for material support.

#1 and #2 both explain why religions may seem contradictory; they aren't just the continuation of an initial revelation, but the on-going process of reconciling differing interpretations. #3, meanwhile, explains why religious organizations may compromise their ideological purity. In other words, a (nominally) matriarchal religion operating within a patriarchal society is not only plausible but realistic.

Paul & Thecla

A specific historical example that is especially relevant involves the Christian Apostle John and a woman named Thecla.

According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, she was inspired by Paul's teachings to convert to Christianity and leave her fiancée for a life of celibacy. The stories depict Thecla enduring numerous trials - including miraculously surviving multiple attempts to execute her - before becoming a preacher. These texts also reference other female preachers and depict Paul as an egalitarian and strong advocate for celibacy.

By contrast, the Pastoral Epistles depict Paul advocating for women to serve a subordinate role in the Church and dedicate themselves to raising children. Though evidence is limited, it's likely this contrast was intentional. The Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Pastoral Epistles reference people and events that are rarely mentioned in other Christian texts but promote opposed ideologies.

Despite Thecla being widely known and venerated until at least the 4th century AD, the Acts of Paul and Thecla did not become canon, but the Pastoral Epistles did. This suggests that those promoting traditional gender roles prevailed and became part of mainstream Christianity.

(This video goes into more details about Paul and Thecla.)

History of The Church of the Holy Mother

Using the observations and examples above, here's a proposal for a history that would explain how The Church of the Holy Mother developed over time.

The Time of the Founders

Though the nation now has a unified political system and culture, in ancient times, it was home to a variety tribes. They differed in many ways, including gender roles; some were completely male dominated, others were completely female dominated, but most were somewhere in between. One of the few things these tribes did have in common was a prophecy in which a virgin woman would give birth to the Messiah.

The Messiah was born into a tribe that was effectively egalitarian. The people of this tribe were willing to accept a man as their leader, but also comfortable with the role The Mother of the Messiah would play. For while the Messiah was as wise, charismatic, and ambitious as his mother, he lacked her passion for theological debate and her skill with managing organizations. He dedicated his time to preaching to the masses, socializing with benefactors and allies, and eventually leading armies; he entrusted his mother first with organizing his fledgling religion and later with managing many domestic affairs of his burgeoning empire.

As a result, both the Messiah and his mother became influential and widely respected. However, the Messiah led a much more public life, leading to him being the better known of the two. Both his triumphs and failures were on display for the world to see, as were his virtues and faults; despite being revered, he was too human to convince most people that he was purely divine.

By contrast, the Messiah's mother maintained an air of mystery. Her interactions with the public at large was limited. Instead, she was known through her writing - which she produced a lot of. This included letters communicating on behalf of her son, chronicles of her son's exploits, and treaties establishing the basic precepts and lore of the then-new religion. Establishing herself through words and not deeds allowed her to maintain a more pristine reputation.

Struggles between Early Sects

Though the Messiah succeeded in establishing his political power and passing it on to his heirs, it was his mother who ultimately came to dominate the religion. After her passing, other women close to the Messiah continued in her footstep. However, each had a different relationship with and understanding of the Messiah and his mother; it was from this that many sects formed.

Key points of contention included:

  • How much of the Messiah's success could be contributed to his mother? Was she just moral support or was the Messiah just her proxy?
  • Did the Messiah's mother have any romantic or sexual relationships or did she remain chaste?
  • How involved was the Messiah's mother in daily affairs? Was she an active, engaged leader or a reclusive, detached theologian?

According to one sect, which I shall call The Brides of God, the Messiah's mother lead through inspiration but was detached from the mundane world - avoiding politics and remaining celibate. This sect was primarily composed of women who preferred a life of intellectual enrichment; many choose to be cloistered and celibate to focus on spiritual purification. Among other things, this sect wrote famous texts on how to properly organize society and established the practice of holy matrimony to God.

The Bargain that Established Orthodoxy and Canon

The competing interpretations among various sects was aggregated by rising political instability; the Messiah's male descendants did not hold as much influence, particularly among those tribes that were traditionally led by women. This proved to be problematic for a group of elite patriarchs whose forefathers had amassed power through good relationships with the Messiah. They were concerned that there position would be compromised if the Messiah's descendants lost power or were forced to make compromises with the matriarchs.

Meanwhile, The Brides of God were struggling. First, sects that had encouraged woman to have large families proved far more capable of maintaining and gaining adherents over numerous generations; these sects were gaining more influence as a result. Secondly, The Brides of God had originally benefited from the support of prominent matriarchs whose daughters, sisters, and mothers had entered into holy matrimony. Over time, though, this support waned.

Fortuitously, the people within the two groups knew each other and conversations began that eventually led to an unspoken agreement. The elite patriarchs would provide the financial and logistical support The Brides of God needed. In exchange, The Brides of God would craft a compelling argument to counter growing distrust and resentment towards the patriarchs.

This plan proved so successful, that The Brides of God soon overshadowed all other sects. Using their political power, the patriarchs officially recognized the traditions of The Brides of God as orthodoxy; The Brides of God became The Church of the Holy Mother. Though many other sects were brought into the fold, it was The Brides of God who had the final say. In particular, they established religious canon, ensuring that any texts or teachings that opposed the patriarchy's right to rule were deemed unacceptable.

Story Telling & World Building Benefits

Using the above in your world building I feel offers a lot of benefits, including:

  • It provides an opportunity for a rich, diverse culture with variations across different regions and social groups instead of a homogenous, monolithic culture.
  • It provides the nation with a deep, dynamic history that's more realistic than one that came into being and somehow stayed the same for centuries.
  • It provides the background for a realistic religion with a lot of idiosyncrasies, apparent contradictions, and differing interpretations.
  • It provides a rich source of tension and conflict between the church and state; due to ideological differences, both would be motivated to help the other only as much as necessary and would likely have many subtle or overt attempts to exert influence or take power from the other.
  • It allows for multiple explanations for the irregular pattern of new god-emperors emerging. Supporters of The Church of the Holy Mother would see it as necessary to renew the faith of the people and the strength of the nation against the forces constantly seeking to end peace and prosperity. Opponents of the church would suggest that the births were not holy or virginal and instead a ruse to maintain power. Both could claim to be fighting against corruption, allowing for antagonists that aren't just acting for evil or selfish reasons.

In summary, instead of having a simple explanation for the apparent contradiction between religious matriarchs supporting male rulers, my advice is to develop a more complex one that can be leveraged for richer world building and more nuanced conflicts in the story telling.

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To let women in charge of secular affairs is to keep them from the most vital role in society: religion.

Perhaps they see the state of moral and spiritual superiority of women as derived from this lack of engagement with secular affairs. Men and women could have been equal in the beginning, but men immerse themselves to much in the physical world and thus started to neglect their spirituality. So to put women in charge would be to repeat the fall of men, condemning humanity.

For this reason, rather than taking direct control, women are supposed to provide spiritual and moral guidance to their husbands and sons, as well as advice them in other matters.

As for what practical benefits it could provide, having only indirect power in society (cultural power, but little way to enforce its will) help them from having a papacy situation. That is, if you give power to a religious entity, over time it starts to behave like a pope (corruption, infighting, etc).

Additionally, by keeping women from power, this religion would have a easier time push women's moral superiority. When there is a male corrupt politician, they can simply point out that he would have done better if he listened to the women in his life, but if it is women doing it, people will question why the religion is ruled by women when they are just as corruptible as men.

Notice that for the matriarchs of the religion, it makes no difference that women can't be president, as the matriarchs can't be (unless you go full theocracy). Since it only advance the position of women other than themselves, they wouldn't have strong incentives to advance women's position outside of their sects anyway.

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Women advise most major decisions behind the scenes.

Like the Roman Empire, the people are extremely superstitious, and like to consult auguries on issues before taking important decisions. This generally involves going to priestesses and asking them advice on the best decision.

The priestesses are extremely wealthy, have a lot of nunneries with very productive goods, and very well connected. They normally have a good sense of what is likely to happen from their knowledge of people so they can offer good advice on whether a decision is in line with the divine even without any miracles (though they may claim it's a miracle), and they often offer generous loan terms to people who act in harmony with the divine.

They have gained even more power with the emperors they've sponsored who have made cult friendly laws and given them even more land and influence.

While most women aren't directly involved in the cult, they often have close friendships with their members. Consulting women is a good idea to get a solid idea into the internal thinking of the Cult of the Holy Mother. Being violent or abusive towards women is a good way to be ruined. Lords who are successful tend to get a lot of advice from Cult affiliated women and consult them on every major decision privately.

The cult works for most women and kills women it doesn't work for.

Most women in society enjoy the gender roles that the cult encourages, with lots of support for women who stay at home raising kids, do businesses from home, and who are supportive of their husbands in public, and are mostly fine with men making major decisions on politics.

In return, women tend to be more protected from war and violence at the home. So long as you follow the ideals of the cult you are somewhat safe. Women who have tried to start businesses outside of the home or who have raised armies to carry out political goals haven't been backed by the cult and often been killed or hurt by more established men who do have the backing of the cult, and so women mostly feel it's a good idea to follow the cult.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, especially re having each god-emperor on their side. Assuming that the priestesses get to educate and raise each god-emperor, that gives them enormous power over the direction of the nation (assuming they don't mess it up and antagonise one). There's a passage in Lois McMaster Bujold's book Barryar where a character is vastly amused when she is told that as a woman she won't have any power but she is to raise and educate the child emperor. Unlike the man telling her what her role is, she recognises the influence from controlling education. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 6:27
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Separation of power between clergy and nobility, based on medieval Europe

In medieval Europe there was a clear separation of power between the church (who had authority in ethical matters) and the nobility (who had authority in political matters). There was a constant power struggle between both institutions on detail questions (like the investiture controversy), but in broad terms the separation between both institutions and their mutual codependency was understood.

One reason why this worked out was because the church's commitment to celibacy meant that they would not be able to found family dynasties of their own which would then rival the family dynasties on which the nobility based their authority.

Your Cult of the Holy Mother could very well take the role of the Catholic Church. Just with the difference that the organization is all-female instead of all-male. They legitimize the rulership of the (mostly male) nobles by confirming their heavenly mandate and in return the nobles enforce their believes with laws and holy wars.

And the societal order of "men are secular rulers and women are spiritual rulers" would ensure that neither would be able to take over the authority of the other.

Now this of course begs the question how the god-emperor - a man born by immaculate conception - fits into all of this. As a man, he would be considered a secular ruler. But due to having no worldly father, he would not have any hereditary claim of secular authority. Any other secular rulers would probably not be too happy about a new god-emperor being born and telling them what to do. If the boy were a threat to their authority, they would probably plot to murder him before he gets old enough to meddle in their affairs.

So I would rather recommend to give him a role which is less of an emperor and more of a pope. A spiritual leader with a hands-off attitude towards political affairs as long as they do not undermine religious authority. Or alternatively, a weak emperor like those of the Holy Roman Empire who in theory were the focal point of the empire but in practice had little authority over the kings and dukes below them. Which meant that the unity he brings is worth more than the slight loss of sovereignty.

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  • $\begingroup$ I might go with a Japanese emperor circa WW2. Symbolic, and all actions done in his name, but with little concrete policy control. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 23 at 1:32
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The Proof Texts are not So Important?

In theory, this looks like a religion that tells society to listen to women more. You might even see people in such a society point out, as they have in our own: isn’t there a contradiction between saying that men cannot ever be expected to do the right thing because they’re incapable of it, yet they should get to run everything? In practice, you’ll see a lot of examples in the real world of people ignoring sacred texts a whole lot more explicit than that. Why wouldn’t they?

One reason might be: if the clergy are female, and most literate people are clergy or educated by them, that would naturally lead to most writing being done from a female, rather than a male, perspective. So that is something you might wish to change, if you believe the pen is mightier than the sword. However, another way to justify it would be: the men who run things think that book-learning and literacy are effeminate and a real man doesn’t sound like a priestess.

Some institutions are so complicated, the macho men can’t run them on their own, so they need to put nerds in charge of those few things and keep them in their place. You would expect those systems to become so important, the people in charge of them get real power and eventually take over, but there are many possible reasons that hasn't happened yet.

If you aren’t going that route, though, you definitely will need to add a social role for male clerks and scribes, separate from the female clergy.

Or Maybe They Are?

While you don’t go into detail, your use of scare quotes makes me suspect that the “miracles” are not what they appear to be. It is still very possible for a hierarchy run by women to be run by traditionalist women who want to keep other women down. (Feminist theory has a lot of explanations for the fact that most women weren’t feminists, and that their most effective opponents have been anti-feminist women ladies.)

This might be well-trodden ground, but there are many examples of places where women’s roles and dress codes are rigidly enforced by law. Although, if a society needs to do that, that means many women already don’t accept them.

The System Gives Women a Sop

In our world, traditionalism broke down because it didn’t give women satisfying enough lives. Toward the end, though, it tried to justify itself as benevolent toward women. They were acknowledged as superior in some ways, given priority in many social contexts, and assigned some spheres that they were allowed to run. A large part of this ideology was a need to protect them, often from genuine dangers.

This turned out not to be enough to persuade most women to accept their designated roles. However, maybe this culture gives women a better deal. Perhaps there are enough career paths open to talented and ambitious women, that they plausibly don’t feel the need to challenge the system. They might even be invested in preserving the complementary roles, since that’s what stops men from entering their own professions and taking those over.

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Women as spiritual only beings

Your society views women as conduits to divinity, and therefore, they are unfit for mundane tasks, such as politics, as such would demean their divine status.

In this logic, women would serve tasks that were on accord with the tenants of the Deity, or, ones that wouldn't bestow impurity upon then. This would create a material society based on patriarchy, and a spiritual one that's matriarchal in essence.

Being as such, your primary work were to create the foundations of the Religion, how it's organized in text, and what are their core values and virtues, in order to separate politics, economy, military endeavours and such from the spiritual order, making them activities that actively expose someone to sin, temptation and violation of sacred laws.

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