Thursday, October 18, 2012

Patriarchy in the Ancient World: Early Mesopotamia to the Dark Ages

Essay for History of Western Civilization midterm
Patriarchy in the Ancient World
            For the most part we live in a patriarchal world.  In every society men are authority figures – fathers are head of the household, only men can become priests, and in most religious families, women are to be submissive to their husbands.  On average men make $.30 more on the dollar than women do; men are allowed more options in terms of work (construction, electrician, truck-driving).  Most advertisement is geared towards men (for cars, electronics, even food such as those sexist Carl’s Junior commercials where scantily clad models eat messy burgers in a highly sexually suggestive manner).  Patriarchy is not new.  The life we know has been shaped for centuries.
            Pre-historic societies were pretty much egalitarian, and in fact, in some hunter-gatherer communities, such as those in the Paleolithic era, most revered women because they brought forth life.  It wasn’t until people became more domesticated with self-ruling city-states that patriarchy emerged.  Once people worshipped the Mother Earth Goddess or Great Mother Tiamat; however, with early Mesopotamia came the rise of polytheism.   
Venus of Willendorf
            With the exception of the Hebrews, polytheism grew among the people of Mesopotamia with the earliest cosmological myth, The Babylonian Creation.  The Babylonian Creation is a Sumerian poem in which Marduk, the “hero-god” strikes down Great Mother Tiamat and founds the holy city of Babylon and creates human beings.  While there are still goddesses that have power (such as Ishtar) the polytheistic hierarchy was patriarchal in design. 
            Aside from the creation poem there is ancient literature that implies a patriarchal society, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the king of Uruk is a rapist and until the Gods intervene, women must submit to his insatiable lust.  Probably the most implicit source of misogyny that came out of ancient Mesopotamia was the Hammurabi’s Code, which set the law and social order in Babylon.  Among rules that delt with theft and kidnapping, there were ones that ordered harsh and cruel punishments to women who disobeyed.  For example, a man could divorce his wife anytime he wanted, but if a woman wanted to divorce her husband against his will she would have been made a slave.


            Fast forward to sixth century Greece during the time of the great philosophers.  Even though Plato spoke subtly of women’s rights in terms of work and playing an important role in society, he still felt women were inferior because they were physically weaker.  His student, Aristotle, was not so kind.  His patriarchal thinking was dangerous and paved the way for a lot of Western thought.
            Aristotle viewed women as subordinate.  He felt that women were simply inferior – that they were merely deformed or “unfinished” men.  He claimed that women were “receptacles” for men and they shouldn’t be educated or seen as rational beings - either he was a complete misogynist or just a totally clueless math geek.  Either way his ideas formed the opinions of men for centuries after his death.
"I just don't understand women."

            Ancient Greek society in general was incredibly patriarchal.  Women weren’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything unless they were young and unmarried, and even then only when accompanied by their father.  They were forced to stay at home rearing children and staying out of their husband’s way. 
            The men seemed positively narcissistic – so much that statues of men were created depicting them as youthful and strong, naked and full of pride.  They seemed to rather stay in the company of other men, and young boys, rather than experience romantic entanglement with their submissive wives.  Did men hate women so much that they became homosexuals or was it that they were just so turned on by themselves?  Women, as Artistotle claimed, were indeed viewed as merely a receptacle… good only for the bringing forth of life.
You know you want me.

            It wasn’t until the rise of the Roman Empire and Egypt that we saw women being treated more fairly.  Clearly the patriarchal hierarchy still existed, but the lines were beginning to blur.  Women were allowed to go out and shop, they were educated and some – like Cleopatra – even ruled. 
            Even though original Christian societies saw women as evil – daughters of Eve – I think that over time women became more respected - that the treatment of women got better.  As we get into the Middle Ages we see faithful men becoming chivalrous, placing women on pedestals, and showing them great respect.  Of course this was mostly done to women who were the object of affection, and ultimately it still stunk of male dominance; at least women were allowed to breath fresh air; they were allowed to speak in public; they were beginning to be seen as more than just baby-makers.  

All we needed was a chance to prove it.


  1. Its interesting to note that in Sparta the most warlike city-state of ancient Greece, the women were treated best of all. See:

    1. Wow, I had no idea! Thanks for sharing! I think I will include that in my paper - thankfully it's not due until tomorrow! Thanks again!

  2. I love those pictures :). Great article-I'm currently studying early complex societies in my AP World History class, and I find this article very interesting and helpful :)


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