Monday, October 24, 2011

The Matriarch

A couple announcements before moving on to our guest post by M.C. Chambers.

First, Heroines of Fantasy now has a Forthcoming Titles Page.  So, in addition to seeing our current novels (whose links are also listed on the right hand side bar), you can have a sneak preview of titles to be published in the not-so-distant future.  At the moment, Terri-Lynne DeFino's A Time Never Lived, scheduled for release in summer 2012, is listed.  Additional forthcoming titles from Kim Vandervort and me will be added as pitches and preliminary cover art become available. 

This week, Terri-Lynne DeFino, Kim Vandervort and I will all be attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, California.  As part of the kick off events, I will be at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore for an informal Meet and Greet the Authors event on Wednesday, October 26, from 6:30pm to 8:30pm.  Terri, Kim and I all have panels scheduled; to find out when and where please check out the Program Schedule for World Fantasy.  Finally, we will be at the mass autograph session on Friday, October 29, from 8pm to 11pm.  This is going to be a fantastic event, featuring all the authors at World Fantasy, including an impressive roster of Hadley Rille authors.  Books will be available for purchase and signing.

Those are the announcements for this week.  Onto our guest post.

M.C. Chambers is the author of SHAPERS' VEIL, recently released by Hadley Rille Books.  SHAPERS' VEIL is the story of Kawi, a hawk with the power to assume human form.  In addition to boasting stunningly poetic prose, SHAPER'S VEIL features a unique approach to the traditional magic of shapeshifting:  The "power" of changing shape depends on microscopic parasitic organisms called "Shapers".  This makes Chambers work a compelling blend of fantasy and science fiction, and a must read for fans of both genres. 

M.C. Chambers has also published science fiction short stories, including two in anthologies published by Hadley Rille Books.  She earned her first college degree in music, her second in computer science.  In addition to writing, she plays flute, programs databases, belly dances and walks in the wind.  She lives in Missouri with her husband, several of her sons, two cats and a cockatiel. 

Please welcome M.C. Chambers, and join us in a discussion of the Matriarch.


Some years ago I asked several women whom I admired what the word matriarch meant to them. Each of them named her own grandmother, and described how inspiring and influential she had been. Two things interested me by the responses: one, no one mentioned queens, politicians or world leaders, and two, it was not mothers but grandmothers who were given the title.
In mythology, a grandmother is an Elder, a wise woman, who protects and teaches the young.  I’m thinking now of grandmothers I have read about in fantasy. I remember wise and regal Galadriel, Arwen’s grandmother in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I remember the completely not regal but equally wise Nanny Ogg, an ancient, powerful and daffy sorceress who is also progenitor of half the county, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
Thinking of the mothers portrayed in stories, I remember many unsavory characters. In fairy tales, the good mothers die and evil stepmothers take their places. The mothers Dara and Jasra in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber are protective but ultimately manipulative power-seekers: matriarch wannabees hoping to rule through their sons, except that these strong, ambitious women raised strong, ambitious sons who thwarted them. But some mothers in spec fic are noble in their protectiveness: Sarah Conner from the Terminator movies and Helen Parr, “Elastigirl”, from The Incredibles.
When writing my novel Shapers’ Veil, I wanted my heroine Gydana to be not just a strong character who is female, but a character who is strong because she is female. The sword-wielding warrior women I had been seeing more and more of in fantasy did not resonate with me. I wanted to write of a woman who was like women I actually knew. I wanted to write of a mother.
Gydana, like Demeter without Persephone, is a mother who has lost a child and has withdrawn from the greater world. Yet she remains maternally adoptive. Just as a nursing dog will adopt a piglet or a tiger cub, Gydana takes all manner of creatures under her wing - including the shape-shifter who pulls her into her quest. She is close to nature, having learned where to find and how to use the plants and waters and heat that her world provides. This knowledge is her defense and her weapon. She understands the nature of things, and understands her strange companions, adversaries, dreams and the hungry force that threatens all life as part of all nature. Understanding them, she grows in her journey first to acceptance, then to mastery. She rejoins the greater world as an Elder, a titular Grandmother.
The grandmothers described to me by my friends were not rulers in the political sense. To some eyes, they may even have seemed ordinary women. Their true mastery lay in their understanding of life, and their ability and willingness to pass the legacy of their knowledge to their children’s children. This is what gave them power and influence. This is what made them Matriarchs.


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Mary!

I really enjoyed this post. I'm not sure who I would have mentioned if you were to ask me to name a matriarch, but I think my mother would have come to mind before my grandmothers, even though they have all inspired me in different ways.

Have you ever tried the same exercise with the word 'patriarch'? Just curious... I would have mentioned my paternal grandfather first, I think.

It is certainly true that matriarchal power appears in diverse forms in fantasy, as you point out. Your description of Dara and Jastra brought to mind the historical figure of Catherine de Medici, though I haven't read Zelazny's stories so I don't know if there's any real resemblance.

Thanks so much for sharing how the idea of the matriarch inspired your own work.

Terri-Lynne said...

Great post, Mary. I have much to say, and no time to say it in! I'll be back in a little while. Wow, great stuff!

Eric T Reynolds said...

Hi Mary, I've often wondered: throughout time, especially during prehistoric times, how many societies (those of fully modern homo sapiens going back tens of thousands of years, and those from ancestors of our species as well as other contemporary human species like Neanderthals) were matriarchal. There are certainly other species where this is true, and it's true in some human cultures today, so I suspect among humans, culture may have something to do with it. I don't know how much study has been done from archaeological sites, but I think there has been some and would be a fascinating field.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Eric --

I'm sure someone will jump forward to contradict me, but as far as I know there is very little evidence of outright matriarchy in human history or prehistory. This may depend on your definition of matriarchy, but I'm thinking about hypothetical societies where power structures were determined by women, and power inherited principally along matrilineal lines.

While there are plenty of examples of matriarchy in other animals, it's not at all common among primates -- another reason why it's difficult to imagine a social structure like matriarchy in Homo's pre-history.

Some historians (notably Robert Engelman in his history of population growth MORE) argue that prior to the transition to settlements dependent on agriculture, the power structure of nomadic human tribes was more balanced -- neither strongly patriarchal nor strongly matriarchal -- because both males and females contributed in concrete ways to the survival of the tribe (men through hunting; women through cultivating and gathering).

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah--back for a little while. The word Matriarch is so...hefty. It's a word full of power and authority and wisdom. Is it even possible NOT to feel such things in the presence of that word? Or in the presence of a Matriarch herself? And I love that a matriarch doesn't necessarily have to be beloved. She can be completely "wicked." I'm thinking Cersei Lannister and the Queen of Thorns herself, Oleanna Tyrell (one of my fav characters in the series.)

Eric T Reynolds said...

Karin, I've wondered if there might have been prehistoric cultures that were more of a balance. Also, I was thinking there was a primate group that was matriarchal and looked it up and it seems bonobos are while their close cousins the chimps are patriarchal. But you might have different knowledge on that.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin...what about the Amazons, huh? THEY were matriarchal! :-P

I suppose matrilinear isn't the same as matriarchal, huh. Hmmm...

I have heard such things that debunk any notion of a matriarchal society, that the Venus of Willendorf is actually porno, not a goddess idol. I cannot help wondering how much is just humanity's ever-changing thoughts on what they KNEW to be true yesterday, and how much is actual history.

Though the thing about primates does say a lot. Many thoughts, many thoughts...

Terri-Lynne said...

Clarification--not that I'm saying the (mythological) Amazons were matrilinear. I was thinking two thoughts at the same time!

Anonymous said...

Hi Karin,
The term 'patriarch' had a strong connection with Old Testament heroes and also with the Italian Renaissance rulers, but 'matriarch' seemed more removed, pertaining to ancient civilizations and elephant herds!

A matriarchal culture does not necessarily have a female ruler, and a patriarchal culture can have a female ruler (like Queen Elizabeth). The matriarchs among us will have power independent of the underlying culture.

Terri - to some minds, everything is porno, n'est ce pas?

Terri-Lynne said...

Mary--how does history discredit a woman anything? Call her a whore or otherwise turn her into the sort of sex symbol NOT accepted by the society maligning her.

Mary Magdelene got turned into a prostitute, and our Venus of Willendorf is now a porn doll...sigh...

Athena Andreadis said...

All monkeys, including primates, have female hierarchies that run parallel to male ones. For our two closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, an individual's status depends on the status of her/his mother, because there is no fixed paternity. In addition the bonobos' female power alliances are as powerful as the male ones, and dictate troup action.

Although there is no absolute evidence of "matriarchal" societies in humans there are two caveats here: one is the definition itself; the depiction of women in Minoan frescoes, for example, makes the viewer wonder about that society. Ditto for the people who left the kurgan burials, in which many women carried both jewelry and well-used weapons.

Another is that biology, let alone history, has been/still is routinely distorted to fit a prevailing status quo (look at all the evo-psycho nonsense, that "proves" the best social configuration is the suburban US fifties dyadic family). It's very easy to reclassify powerful women as evil and/or destructive, and it has been done galore. As a matter of ironic fact, humans are the only primates in which the female power alliances have been systematically and thoroughly obliterated.

Terri-Lynne said...

Athena--many good thoughts there. Sometimes I wonder if there is any way to really KNOW, given all the bickering factions in the neverending male/female debate. I like to see evidence of matriarchal rule, whether fact or wishful thinking. It makes the mind just keep going in that direction to all the possibilities.

Terri-Lynne said...

Mary--yes, to some, EVERYTHING is porno. I really hate the notion that Willendorf is such. It's just right! Like making Mary Magdelan a prostiture. :(

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Athena -- Yes, it is true that primates, including humans, have female hierarchies that run parallel to male hierarchies. In my previous comment on the matter, I neglected to mention this and apologize for the omission. But that is not the same, in my mind, as being a "matriarchal" society, wherein the alpha female is dominant to the alpha male. Not that this doesn't happen, but as far as I have seen, it is the exception to the rule among primates.

Of course, it is one thing to recognize the existence of biological and evolutionary history; quite another to use it and/or distort it in order to justify the status quo. Just because full-out matriarchy is not all that common in primates doesn't mean it could not have happened in humans at some point in history. However, as you point out, evidence for that is inconclusive.

Personally, (unlike Terri), I'm not inclined to look toward the past in hopes of finding a lost society that was somehow "better" in this aspect of human behavior. Not because I don't want to believe there were once fully matriarchal societies, but because I've generally found that the past is rarely as "romantic" as we would like it to be with respect to most anything that we hold up as an ideal for human society.

When it comes down to it, I believe the best time in human history to be a woman is right now.

"humans are the only primates in which the female power alliances have been systematically and thoroughly obliterated"

I was curious about this statement; it seems a little bit of an exaggeration. If female power alliances have been systematically and thoroughly obliterated, why do they still exist? If anything, I think there are multiple examples throughout history of successful power alliances forged by women; and women who have achieved the very unique status among primates of being the alpha female who is dominant to the alpha male. So while there have been consistent efforts to keep women from positions of power, I don't think those efforts have always been systematic, and they certainly haven't been thorough.

Terri -- On the Venus of Willendorf, I think any fertility symbol is likely to be labeled "porn doll" by some factions of today's society. In my mind, the application of the term "porn doll" to the Venus cheapens not only the artifact, but it also belittles the act of sex which it may (or may not) have represented. The Venus could have meant any number of things to the people who created her; but what's really revealing is the different things it can mean to people today.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--given the "HOPE" of what might have been and the reality of what IS, I'm glad to be a woman in this day and age. I don't think there has ever been a better time to be one.

It really made me sad to see a whole discussion demoting Venus of Willendorf from goddess to porn doll, and for just the reason you say--not because a sex goddess is any less a goddess, but that it's being made cheap and ineffectual rather than revered and powerful (as sex as a force is and should be.) The attitude was, "Ha! You thought this rotund, nude statue was the representation of women as a power, when in fact it was a cheap toy used to titilate men." That really grinds my gears.

Kim Vandervort said...

I'm catching up, so I apologize for my late responses!

Great post Mary, and excellent ensuing discussion! I find it interesting, though not surprising, that people mention their grandmother as the matriarch. My grandmother was the glue that held the family together, the woman responsible for hosting all of our family gatherings and keeping the family strong. In my husband's side of the family, where the matriarchs have passed away, including his mother, the family seems fragmented and a bit lost.

Some of this obviously has to do with women finding a place within a patriarchal framework. Most people acknowledge, even in today's society, that the man may be in charge of the finances or forces outside the home, but the women are the generally acknowledged keepers of home and family. And there's a LOT of power to be had there-- religious, societal and academic education, the passing down of heritage and family stories, the oral history of a family, just to name a few. That isn't to say that this is woman's ONLY place-- modern women are generally responsible for this IN ADDITION TO her place in the work force and/ or the community. But I think the power of the family is still held firmly in the matriarch's hands.

I agree that I'd like to see more examples of this in history and/ or fiction. Part of the problem, as someone else pointed out, is that it is difficult for woman to achieve a matriarchy outside of the family because we are fully entrenched in patriarchal society. Most cases where we see true matriarchy (myths of the Amazons, for example) men don't exist in the culture at all. Similarly, while some Native American tribes were considered matriarchal, I believe men still made the bulk of decisions affecting the general safety and welfare of the tribe.

I'm not sure where I'm going with any of this, other than to say you've definitely touched on an interesting topic. As you pointed out, anything regarding women who are powerful because they are women is something we see too little of in fiction.

Athena Andreadis said...

Karin: having a woman dominant over a man does not create a female alliance. It's an individual occurrence. Powerful women are often isolated from other women and treated as honorary men.

Alliances between women cannot exist in patrilineal and patrilocal societies (i. e. most human societies), because the women in those contexts are not kin and as a result have no power base. With few exceptions, there have been no female-based armies, fraternities, dynasties, etc.

This is not the case for other primates: they're either solitary (orangutans) or have bona fide female alliances by kinship, which often determines status and can be propagated.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Athena --

You make some interesting points; unfortunately I must respectfully disagree with your interpretation of social organization and power structures in human vs. primate societies.

Thanks, though, for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. It always makes for interesting discussion.

Athena Andreadis said...


Show me one case -- or more than the isolated anomalous one -- in which a female king (not a consort, but a ruler in her own right) handed power to her daughter who then handed it to her daughter.

That's the kind of female alliance that a matriarchy implies. It happens in bonobos; it does not happen in humans.

It may sound depressing, but that's the way it has mostly been in human history, whether we like it/agree with it or not.