Das Mutterrecht  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Das Mutterrecht (1861) is a book by Johann Jakob Bachofen on prehistoric matriarchy. Its English title is Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World. In it, Bachofen assembled documentation demonstrating that motherhood is the source of human society, religion, morality, and decorum. He postulated an archaic "mother-right" within the context of a primeval Matriarchal religion or Urreligion.

Bachofen became an important precursor of 20th-century theories of matriarchy, such as the Old European culture postulated by Marija Gimbutas from the 1950s, and the field of feminist theology and "Matriarchal Studies" in 1970s feminism.


Bachofen's 1861 Das Mutterrecht proposed four phases of cultural evolution which absorbed each other:

  1. Hetaerism: a wild nomadic 'tellurian' [= chthonic or earth-centered] phase, characterised by him as communistic and polyamorous, whose dominant deity he believed to have been an earthy proto Aphrodite.
  2. Das Mutterecht: a matriarchal 'lunar' phase based on agriculture, characterised by him by the emergence of chthonic mystery cults and law. Its dominant deity was an early Demeter according to Bachofen.
  3. The Dionysian: a transitional phase when earlier traditions were masculinised as patriarchy began to emerge. Its dominant deity was the original Dionysos.
  4. The Apollonian: the patriarchal 'solar' phase, in which all trace of the Matriarchal and Dionysian past was eradicated and modern civilisation emerged.

While based on an imaginative interpretation of the existing archaeological evidence of his time, this model tells us as much about Bachofen's own time as it does about the past.


There was little initial reaction to Bachofen’s theory of cultural evolution, largely because of his impenetrable literary style, but eventually, along with furious criticism, the book inspired several generations of ethnologists, social philosophers, and even writers: Lewis Henry Morgan; Friedrich Engels, who drew on Bachofen for The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; Thomas Mann; Jane Ellen Harrison, who was inspired by Bachofen to devote her career to mythology; Walter Benjamin; Erich Fromm; Robert Graves; Rainer Maria Rilke; Joseph Campbell; Otto Gross; Erich Neumann and opponents such as Julius Evola.

Friedrich Engels analysed Bachofen's views as follows:

"(1) That originally man lived in a state of sexual promiscuity, to describe which Bachofen uses the mistaken term "hetaerism";
(2) that such promiscuity excludes any certainty of paternity, and that descent could therefore be reckoned only in the female line, according to mother-right, and that this was originally the case amongst all the peoples of antiquity;
(3) that since women, as mothers, were the only parents of the younger generation that were known with certainty, they held a position of such high respect and honor that it became the foundation, in Bachofen's conception, of a regular rule of women (gynaecocracy);
(4) that the transition to monogamy, where the woman belonged to one man exclusively, involved a violation of a primitive religious law (that is, actually a violation of the traditional right of the other men to this woman), and that in order to expiate this violation or to purchase indulgence for it the woman had to surrender herself for a limited period." (Friedrich Engels, 1891: see link below)

A selection of Bachofen's writings was translated as Myth, Religion and Mother Right (1967). A fuller edited English edition in several volumes is being published.

As has been noted by Joseph Campbell in Occidental Mythology and others, Bachofen's theories stand in radical opposition to the Aryan origin theories of religion, culture and society, and both Campbell and writers such as Evola have suggested that Bachofen's theories only adequately explain the development of religion among the pre-Aryan cultures of the Mediterranean and the Levant, and possibly Southern Asia, but that a separate, patriarchal development existed among the Aryan tribes which conquered Europe and parts of Asia.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Das Mutterrecht" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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