The Mothers  

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"Primitive society, like many savage societies of our own time, was probably strictly matriarchal. The mother was the head of the family. ...What masculine authority there was resided in the mother's brother. He was the man of the family, and to him the children yielded respect and obedience. Their father, at best, was simply a pleasant friend who fed them and played with them; at worst, he was an indecent loafer who sponged on the mother. They belonged, not to his family, but to their mother's. As they grew up they joined their uncle's group of hunters, not their father's. This matriarchal organisation of the primitive tribe, though it finds obvious evidential support in the habits of higher animals, has been questioned by many anthropologists, but of late one of them, Briffault, demonstrated its high probability in three immense volumes [The Mothers]. It is hard to escape the cogency of his arguments, for they are based upon an almost overwhelming accumulation of facts. They not only show that, in what we may plausibly assume about the institutions of early man and in what we know positively about the institutions of savages today, the concepts inseparable from a matriarchate colour every custom and every idea: they show also that those primeval concepts still condition our own ways of thinking and doing things, so that "the societal characters of the human mind" all seem to go back "to the functions of the female and not to those of the male." Thus it appears that man, in his remote infancy, was by no means the lord of creation that he has since become." --H. L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods, Blue Ribbon Books, 1930, p. 84.

The female, not the male, determines all the conditions of the animal family. Where the female can derive no benefit from association with the male, no such association takes place. — Robert Briffault, The Mothers, Vol. I, p. 191

"Moreover, Johann Jakob Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht (first published in 1856) and Robert Briffault's The Mothers (published in 1927) had discussed the archetype years before Jung or Neumann; as Neumann states, representation precedes explanation. Great Goddesses appeared in mythology and art centuries before the term “Magna Mater” arose; Keats and Poe did not need to know about a concept of the Magna Mater to conceive their extremely complex feminine characters." --Keats, Poe, and the Shaping of Cortazar's Mythopoesis, Pagina 8, Ana Hernandez Del Castillo, 1981

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions (1927) is a multi-volume book on anthropology and sexuality by Robert Briffault first published in English.

The book was reviewed by Havelock Ellis[1] in 1928 and published in an abridged edition by Gordon Rattray Taylor in 1959.



"From the Mysteries of Eleusis to tribal fertility dances, from defloration customs to ritual prostitution, from strange marriage ceremonies to circumcision, "The Mothers" is a major source for "Dirty Laundry" from all over the globe."
"The three volumes that form this work are an incredible source of information. Briffault, more or less an amateur yet with lots of time on his hands during WW1, went about his study of cultural institutions, rules and taboos like a loving stamp collector. He carefully documented his sources; and therefore his footnotes and bibliography alone make this work a gold mine. That his outlook was refreshingly less patriarchal and judgmental than that of most his colleagues of the time, for example Sir J.G. Frazier and his famous Golden Bough (1922), makes him all the more readable. [2] [Mar 2005]

See also

Full text

Introduction by Gordon Rattray Taylor[3]


It is just over thirty years since Robert Briffault’s prodigious work The Mothers was first published. Its enormous length — about ii million words when the extensive footnotes and the vast bibliography are reckoned in — and its consequent relatively high price have prevented more than a very few people from studying it, for few libraries hold it in stock.

Furthermore, at the time of its first publication anthropologists were turning away from the larger questions of cultural evolution, which they felt to be insoluble, and Briffault’s work tended to be seen as the last shot in a controversy which had already ceased to be interesting.

But today anthropologists are beginning to turn once more to these larger questions. For some forty years they have concentrated upon the detailed study of specific societies or ‘cultural configurations’ — a task made the more urgent by the rapidity with which modem technical progress and commercial expansion are destroying the social patterns of non-literate and technologically backward societies. During all this time, the attempt to erect large theories of cultural evolution has been in disrepute. While many of the criticisms brought against the theories of the older school of anthropologists — Tylor, McLennan and others — were just, it is nevertheless becoming recognized that the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, and groups like that headed by Steward at the University of Illinois are beginning to develop studies of a more synoptic character. The moment is therefore well chosen for a reissue of The Mothers , and the time is ripe for a reassessment of BrifFault’s remarkable work. That Briffault’s ideas might be considered on their own merits, I suggested to the original publishers that the work be published in an abridged form, with an introduction to put the whole topic in perspective. They accepted this proposal, as did the owner of the copyright, Mrs Joan Briffault Hackelberg. The present volume therefore presents the original text reduced to about one-fifth of its original length and omitting almost all the footnotes.

I have attempted to preserve the order, proportions, and literary style of the original work, chiefly by omitting much of the overwhelming mass of illustrative material and by condensing some of the more dis- cursive comments. As Briffault gives the reader few clues as to where he is going, preferring to let conviction grow out of the mass of the material, I have added a few verbal signposts to assist the reader in keeping track of the argument. Where passages are given in quotation t.m. — i*



marks they are in quotation marks in the original, and the source can be found by referring to the corresponding passage in the unabridged version.

It should perhaps be added that Briffault prepared for the Macmillan Company in New York a one- volume work which was published in 1931 under the title of The Mothers ; it was a complete restatement of the material and in no way an abridgement of the original English three- volume work published under that title.

Briffault' s Thesis

The form in which Briffault couched his ideas and the relative lack of interest with which they were greeted can only be understood in rela- tion to the controversy of which they formed part.

This controversy was launched in 1851, when the famous jurist. Sir A. Maine, published his Primitive Law , in which he asserted that the patriarchal family was the original unit of society, and that larger social units had been built up by the aggregation of these family units into clan and tribe. In support of this view, he cited chiefly Biblical examples. In the same year, the Swiss jurist Bachofen was preparing his Das Mutterrecht , asserting that the original state of man had been one of sexual promiscuity, from which had emerged matriarchies, which had only later been replaced by or converted into patriarchies.

This set off a series of attempts to draw up schemes designed to account for the whole development of human society, and represented the application of the idea of evolution, which had proved so fertile in the biological field, to society as a whole. J. F. McLennan made the most important restatement of the matriarchal view in 1886, citing a great mass of new anthropological evidence. Early in the nineteenth century, Westermarck — a man without anthropological qualifications — published his History of Human Marriage , in which he attempted to re-establish Maine’s position. He was not so much concerned to draw a picture of the whole development of human society as to assert that lifelong monogamy was the normal pattern of marriage throughout human society, polygamy representing a degeneration from the original mono- gamic pattern. This thesis was naturally much to the taste of Christian apologists and traditional moralists generally. Westermarck’s works enjoyed wide acclaim, and he wrote a long series of works embroidering this theme, most of which are still to be found in the majority of public libraries. Largely as a result, this view of marriage is still held by very many laymen, in so far as they concern themselves with the topic at all, and is often given fresh currency by American anthropologists. It is asserted in the new Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.

This view is, in point of fact, wholly untenable, and there can be



little doubt that Briffault felt incensed by Westermarck’s scientifically unjustified success, and that his main object in writing The Mothers was to explode this fallacy. This he undoubtedly achieves, adducing such a wealth of material to the contrary, and so decisively convicting Westermarck of manipulating his references and betraying other signs of bias, that one might have supposed that belief in the universality of mono- gamic marriage would have been abandoned for ever in a gale of laughter. In fact, as we know, his statement was ignored; and if this new version of his work does something to restore a more detached and speculative approach to the topic, it will have been worth while for this reason alone.

But Briffault was not content simply to destroy — he sought to estab- lish an alternative theory. In contradiction to Maine, he asserted the former existence of a primitive matriarchy universally preceding patri- archy, but, unlike Bachofen, he did not define matriarchy in terms of actual mother-rule or inheritance through the maternal line, but in more general terms as a period in which women were socially predominant. As the crucial factor, he selects, for reasons which he adduces at length, the question whether, after marriage, the wife resides at her husband’s abode or the husband at the wife’s — i.e. what anthropologists term patrilocy or matrilocy. (The distinction is important, and several sub- sequent investigations designed to prove or disprove the matriarchal theory have gone astray through ignoring it. 1 )

Furthermore, his inquiries lead him to the view that marriage was originally a contract between groups, in which it was agreed that a man of one group might have sexual access to all the women of another group while being denied access to his own. This primitive restriction on sexual behaviour was then elaborated into such forms as restriction to all the women of a particular family — that is, in our terms, if a man marries a woman he is thereby married to all her sisters. Briffault persuasively argues that ‘sororal polygyny’ and its complement ‘fraternal polyandry’ are not perversions of the basic idea of a monogamous marriage. Quite to the contrary, they are restrictions of an original group contract so different from marriage as we know it that we shrink from applying the word marriage to it. Indeed, where such group contracts are found they are usually termed by the scandalised Western observer ‘sexual communism’ or ‘promiscuity’.

To establish these two main points, Briffault seeks to show that the alleged change from matriarchy to patriarchy was associated with the change from hunting to agricultural production and the essential emergence of property.

Into this landscape he also attempts to fit such well-known anthropo- 1 E.g. R. Karsten: Origins of Religion (1935).



logical puzzles as initiation ceremonies and the prevalence of lunar symbolism.

Briffault develops his work in four main sections. In Chapters I to 5 he considers the domestic arrangements of animals, from which human arrangements presumably developed, and seeks to show that they were matrilocal in character. More precariously, he argues that the male instinct created the group or herd, while the female instinct created the family. Since he is going on, later in the book, to argue that the family is a feature of patriarchies, the relevance of this section is obscure, to say the least.

In Chapters 6 to 16 he considers the whole question of the emergence of marriage, arguing the universal existence of a primitive matriarchy in the prehistory of all peoples, and seeking to show in various ways that marriage was originally matrilocal.

In Chapters 17 to 24 he considers various indirect forms of evidence. In particular, he argues that lunar deities are indications of a primitive matriarchy, and that such cults were originally served only by women, who were the first hierophants. He seeks also to fit the concepts of totemism and taboo into his system, and here he is least successful, though he makes a number of interesting points.

Finally, in Chapters 25 to 30 he attempts to trace the growth of the modem Western conception of marriage as a sacrament, as a cultural remnant of the idea of a holy marriage between a deity and a woman. Ideas of this sort are indeed present in our thinking to a much greater extent than most of us realize, and Briffault’s demonstration is fascinating; but on the sources of this need to preserve a sense of sacredness — so notably absent in many other fields — he has nothing to say. In con- junction with this, he traces the origins of the notion of romantic love.

Criticism of Briffault' s Views

For some time before Briffault reached the point of publication of these views, anthropologists had been becoming increasingly critical of such attempts to provide a general schematic account of the development of society, on two general grounds.

Firstly, as anthropological studies developed it became even clearer that one could only hope to understand the meaning of a culture item by considering it in relation to the whole culture. A given social action may carry quite a different connotation in one culture from that which it has when part of another. Consequently, to pick out a given pattern — let us say, mother-in-law avoidance — from a number of different cul- tures and compare them was an unacceptable technique. (Like many before him, Briffault relies heavily on this ‘comparative method.’) Anthropologists therefore rejected the whole method, and turned to


studying individual cultures in detail, seeking to profit from this new insight into their structure.

This argument was reinforced by another: we cannot assume that societies which are technologically primitive resemble equally primitive societies as they existed thousands of years ago. A long sequence of social changes may have occurred — the marriage customs of the techno- logically primitive Australian aboriginals are so complex that it seems certain they represent the outcome of a long process of elaboration. Hence (they felt) we have no information about primitive society, except what archaeology may uncover, and speculations about the past state of man are vain.

No doubt there is much truth in both these views. The horse has changed greatly from the Eohippos from which it is descended. But it is unnecessarily defeatist to say that nothing can be learned from such studies. If we had no skeletons of the Eohippos to go upon, we might not appreciate that the horse was so much larger, and we could only guess that the Eohippos had not developed the horse’s specialized hoof; but we should at least be sure that the Eohippos did not swim or walk upright.

The passage of time may modify or complicate a given social pattern; it is not proved that it can bring about a change in kind. Indeed, it seems to me that it may be the case that technological advance is only possible when certain underlying changes of attitude or psychological make-up occur; such changes would also effect changes in social patterns generally, so that some aspects of social pattern may be correlated with the level of technical development, after all.

Though anthropologists tended to reject these synoptic attempts on a priori grounds, subsequently the advance of archaeology went far towards confirming their scepticism. It was observed that agricultural peoples, driven by population pressures out of Asia Minor into the steppe country, became pastoral — which is just the contrary of what Briffault asserts to be the normal process. Gordon Childe subsequently showed that various primitive peoples have passed through matriarchal and patriarchal stages in varying orders, and have adopted various methods of subsistence in quite a haphazard way . 1 Meanwhile anthropologists have noted tribes which, at the present time, are passing from patriarchal to matriarchal patterns of society; for instance, the neigh- bours of the Tsimshian in North-west America . 2

It is now past all reasonable doubt that society does not evolve according to one single standard line of development. Of course, it might still be true that there was a normal line of development from

1 V. Gordon Childe: Social Evolution (1951). a J. R. Swanton: Social Organisation of American Tribes (1905).



which societies would occasionally depart in exceptional circumstances. The foregoing evidence does not justify the conclusion that all attempts to find any system in such data is vain. But once we admit that matri- archy can follow patriarchy, much of Briffault’s material becomes ambiguous. When he draws attention to signs of an earlier matriarchy in a society which is now patriarchal, he may in reality be observing the signs of a future matriarchy which is only just developing.

A New Assessment

Briffault did himself much disservice by claiming too much : it was in the nature of the man to prefer the sweeping generalization, and he loved to shock the unimaginative out of their preconceptions. His data do not justify him in making the assertion that matriarchy always and everywhere preceded patriarchy, even if wc neglect the facts just adduced. Even if in existing patriarchies signs of earlier matriarchy can be detected, this does not prove that a still earlier patriarchy may not have preceded the matriarchal phase. The periods of time in question are but a few hundred years — the pre-history of man runs to tens of thousands.

Briffault would have made a more convincing contribution if he had confined himself to asserting that in every patriarchy the existence of a previous matriarchal state can be shown or inferred, leaving unbroached the question of what had preceded that state during the thousands of years of pre-history. For the realization that these social patterns are labile is a novel and important one, to which we are only now coming. It never occurred to Maine that the Jewish patriarchy which he so much admired, and thought was fundamental and God-given, had actually developed out of an earlier mother-centred system, as Briffault shows. Even today, few people are any better informed than Maine. The belief that patriarchies were always patriarchal is almost universal. Briffault might justifiably have written his book to prove this one fact.

Again, Briffault invited ridicule or neglect by grossly over-generaliz- ing his theory of marriage. It is certainly true that monogamy is not the universally preferred pattern; but it is going much too far to assert group marriage as universal. The likelihood is that humanity found a number of different solutions to the problem of regulating the relations between the sexes; group marriage may well have been one, perhaps even the most widespread one. The hypothesis certainly enables Briffault to reduce a great deal of otherwise baffling material to coherence, even if it does not explain quite as much as he claims. It is therefore well worth much closer examination than it has so far received.

His larger theory, in which the change from matriarchy to patriarchy is linked with changes in the method of subsistence, from pastoral to



corn-growing and so forth, again attempts too much in asserting a single sequence of development. The more modest task of exploring whether certain social structures are always associated with certain modes of subsistence would have been more rewarding.

The Psychoanalytic Clue

Briffault’s greatest mistake, one cannot help feeling, was to dismiss as valueless the entire contribution of Freud, for it is precisely Freud who could have helped him to solve the points on which he stumbles most hopelessly. First and foremost, Freud provides a comprehensive and consistent theory of the origin of incest fears. Since, as Briffault accur- ately notes, the whole system of exogamy rules is simply a system of incest-regulations, it is strongly supportive of his views that Freud attributes this preoccupation with incest to a preoccupation with the mother. That is, Briffault’s contention that exogamy rules arose in societies in which mothers were dominant is completely in harmony with Freudian theory. Conversely, the jealousy which Westermarck thought a universal human instinct is revealed by Freudian theory to spring from a preoccupation with the father, and thus to be character- istic of patriarchal but not of matriarchal societies. Briffault, who justly rejects Westermarck’s view on this point, could have proceeded to explain just why it is found in patriarchal societies, and indeed why Westermarck should have held such a view, had he not been so cavalier towards psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, Briffault derived his psychology from the teachings of Shand, now almost forgotten.

Again, Freud provided, in his description of the mechanism of projection , a theory which explains perfectly why those who are preoccupied with the mother-figure tend to envisage their deity as a mother, while those preoccupied with the father tend to postulate father deities. Briffault, who traces the tendency for the moon to be seen sometimes as a male and sometimes as a female deity (and occasionally as both con- jointly) could — had he realized this — have related this dynamically to the corresponding social changes from matriarchy to patriarchy. Simi- larly, Freud’s account of decomposition — the process by which people sometimes classify people into good and bad figures, and have difficulty in seeing that good and bad aspects can be combined in a single person — is accurately reflected in the way in which some peoples divide their deities into good and bad, God and Devil, while others feel that a deity may have good and bad features simultaneously. Briffault notes the anthropological fact quite correctly, but makes heavy weather of fitting it into his system because he does not understand (what Freud could have explained to him) the origins of these alternative attitudes.

Briffault was correct in his insight that the description of the deity


could be used as a clue to the social structure of the people making the description, but tries to link the two in a mechanical way, instead of regarding both as reflecting an unconscious attitude. (In matriarchies, women have the priestly role, and the moon is their patron because it seems to control their menstrual periods, his argument runs.)

Freud’s attempt to account for totemism and to explain taboos seems to me only partly successful . 1 On the other hand, Bettelheim’s analysis of Australian initiation ceremonies, and the comparisons he makes with the disturbed children he has studied in the USA, seem to me the only writings which make any sense on this subject and, indeed, to be stimulating in the extreme. To say, as the anthropologist generally does, that initiation ceremonies mark the transition from youth to manhood may be true — if we assume that this transition takes place at puberty — but it certainly does not account for the frenzied violence which often accompanies them. It certainly offers no clue as to why the Australian aborigines should make a long and deep gash on the underside of the penes of these boys, and dress them in women’s clothes — hardly a gesture designed to bring out their manhood. On the contrary, as Bettelheim points out, it is clearly a ceremony designed to turn them into substitute women, and it is the women who insist on this ceremony . 2 The anthropologist who is unwilling to accept a psychoanalytic inter- pretation of such odd actions would be more honest if he were simply to admit that he has no explanation to offer, instead of talking earnestly about rites de passage .

Briffault, though he takes a different view, is no more a propos. He argues that these ceremonies are designed primarily to demonstrate the young man’s fitness to support a wife. This explanation at least recognizes the vital fact that it is the women who insist on these ceremonies. But tortures which maim, render impotent or even kill the victim do not really have this effect, and are clearly in a different category from de- manding (as may also happen) that the young man demonstrate his prowess at hunting or fighting. At best, the aspect which Briffault stresses is but a single one ; the other features — all the stranger because they seem to have no utilitarian value or even to be harmful — demand explanation.

Briffault is in even deeper water when he tries to explain the changes in the status of women. It is when men come to possess so much wealth that they can keep women in idleness that they become sexual play- things and lose status, he declares. He realizes that this view is quite inconsistent with the depressed status of women among the Australian aborigines, and suggests that this is because the aborigine has used his

1 S. Freud: Totem and Taboo (1919).

a B. Bettelheim: Symbolic Wounds (1955).



superior strength to dominate his women. But elsewhere Briffault has argued that women are not only stronger but also fiercer and more cunning than men. And even if this were not so, it would still leave him under the obligation of explaining why, in matriarchal agricultural societies, men do not equally exert their strength. The Celts, too, whom he sees as matriarchal and deferring to women, had notable heroes; why did they tolerate their women’s arrogance and sexual freedom ? Finally, in our own day, in the West, man is more than ever able to earn sufficient to support his woman in idleness; but the American woman, for one, is hardly dominated by her male.

But here psychoanalytic theory provides a scheme which, though derived from quite other data, fits the anthropological facts as if it had been made for the purpose. The Oedipal situation, as described by Freud, accounts for men’s fear that women will betray them sexually, and their sense that they are a threat to be kept under control. But the Oedipus situation can only exist where a strong father-figure is present, and is intensified if he is severe or thought to be so. Hence we should expect to find this attitude to women strongly marked in families of the patriarchal type, and absent in those families where the children are brought up by the mother alone (usually with the help of her brother), and where the biological father performs no parental role. It is many years now since Malinowski reported just this absence of sexual guilt and concomitant freedom of women from the Trobriand Islands, where the family structure is of the type just mentioned.

(Note how, in the West, the status of women has risen and sexual freedom has increased in proportion as the patriarchal nature of the family has declined.)

In making this estimate of Briffault’s work, I am naturally influenced by my own speculations on these matters put forward initially in 1949, and developed in 1953 an d I 95^; 1 in them society is postulated as oscil- lating irregularly between phases in which the mother-figure is dominant and others in which the father is dominant, with the possibility of a balance between the two. Institutions, such as marriage or the inheri- tance laws, change so slowly, that institutions appropriate to a father- centred phase may persist into a mother-centred one, and no doubt the reverse also occurs. Hence we cannot safely classify a society by the little we know of its institutions, such as, whether marriage is patrilocal or descent patrilineal. Thus, as Margaret Mead has shown, the Tcham- buli have all the social features — such as patrilineal descent — associated with a patriarchy, but in fact the women dominate the men. 2

1 G. Rattray Taylor: Conditions of Happiness (1949); Sex in History (1953); The Angel Makers (1958).

  • M. Mead: Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935).


For the same reason, when Briffault succeeds in showing signs of the existence of a preceding matriarchal phase in a patriarchal society, this does not seem conclusive proof of a primitive matriarchy, since an even more primitive patriarchy may have preceded it.

Does this mean, then, that we should reject Briffault’s contribution as worthless? That is the conclusion which some contemporary critics reached; but in my view this is to throw out the baby with the bath- water.

The Problem Restated

The task which has fascinated so many anthropologists in the last hundred years — the attempt to devise a comprehensive account of the sequences of social development — turns out to be insoluble and perhaps meaningless. But this does not mean that this whole area of inquiry must now be abandoned ; it means only that the task must be reformu- lated. The many extraordinary social phenomena which Briffault chronicles remain for the most part without any satisfactory explanation. Is it a matter of pure chance whether a given tribe adopts polygamy or monogamy, exogamy or endogamy? Or are such practices related in some way to its mode of life, or to its religion ? Is it a matter of pure chance whether it adopts a father-religion, a mother-religion or a religion of some other type ? What is the explanation of the savagery which so often attends initiation ceremonies ? The remarkable range of human behaviour which Briffault records in such profusion still calls aloud for clarification, and if we object to Briffault’s synthesis then we admit the need to find some alternative.

More than this : is it not possible that the explanations of many such cultural features are tied together ? To put it differently, is it not pos- sible that there is only a limited number of basic sociocultural patterns, that the almost infinite variety of those we know consists only in varia- tions on a few simple themes ?

If such patterns could be found, the task of analysing the history of cultural evolution would be greatly simplified. And if the conditions determining which pattern would be adopted could be established, it might be possible to make more reliable inferences about the social pat- terns of human communities in prehistoric times. Only by exploring the subject in this kind of way do we seem to have any hope of forming ideas about the manner in which social and sexual institutions have emerged in the long evolutionary scale of man’s slow assumption of humanity.

If the psychoanalytic approach is adopted, we require, in order to account for the social changes which we observe on the historical scale, only to account for the changes in family structure. Perhaps it could be shown that economic factors make it inevitable that a pastoral society



should be patriarchal. Perhaps, however, it may be the case that a patriarchally-minded individual prefers to occupy himself with flocks rather than with agriculture. We are most likely to find the answer to such choices when we can locate cases in which a change is actually occurring or is known to have occurred. Why are the neighbours of the Tshimshian, for instance, moving from matriarchy to patriarchy ?

For the past half century, anthropology has taken a static rather than a dynamic approach : it has explored the structure of given societies in great detail. It has given little attention to the interaction between societies and to the change of societies with time. This is natural enough, and probably the harder task could only be fruitfully attempted when the easier had been performed. Naturally, too, the psychoanalytic tool has first been employed in order to explore the structure of given societies in more detail (e.g. by Kardiner, Linton, du Bois and others). But the time has come when it could be turned on these larger problems of historical change.

It is reasonable to believe that a new epoch in anthropology is now opening up. When we really understand the dynamic connections be- tween social institutions, such as marriage, and economic conditions, and the connection of both with personality structure, we may reach a position from which we can attempt the task prematurely undertaken by Maine, McLennan, Brifiault and others, of inferring how first social institutions were developed by the human race, and what form they may conceivably have taken.


Brifiault opens the way for some development on these lines both by the devastating way in which he clears the ground of the forest of misconceptions which have grown up and enables us to view the data with less ethnocentrically-prejudiced eyes; and also by the many odd features of the terrain which he then points out, and the stimulating suggestions he offers to account for them.

It must be conceded that he is open to criticism in matters of detail. He not infrequently contradicts himself, and sometimes uses a fact to prove one thing at one stage and to support an equally plausible but quite different view at a later point. He is sometimes guilty of selecting his references to prove his point and glossing over those which are incompatible with it. The captious critic could make him look small, and it is easy to be persuaded that the writer who is inaccurate in detail is, ipso facto , wrong as regards his thesis. In point of fact, the kind of mind which is capable of conceiving a large theory is apt to be impatient of details ; the mind that concentrates on details generally fails to see the wood for the trees.



We do not read Briffault for a text-book statement of incontrovertible fact, but for a challenging argument supported by a mass of fascinating detail. We can hardly expect that, having written a million and a half words, having impoverished himself and damaged his health in the process, he should then sit down and spend the next ten years trying to disprove his own theory. It is for others to raise the objections, and to see whether they can be met by minor modification of the main hypo- thesis or not.

Nor do we read Briffault exclusively for his main thesis; his inquisi- tive and radical mind explores many byways of anthropology, always throwing light, challenging preconceptions, and offering new insights. He is as instructive when he is discussing the origin of human clothing as he is when evaluating the role of the troubadours. Not the least fascinating feature of The Mothers is the way in which he weaves material from Biblical Jewish history or from Classical Roman and Greek sources into the general anthropological picture. It is intensely stimulating to see societies which we have come to know and take for granted in our schooldays, and which have thus acquired a special status in our minds, compared with societies which we regard as strange or primitive objects of anthropological study, and to see how they, too, are just as strange, their development just as complex. Just as our read- ing of the Bible, coloured as it is by religious presuppositions of a later date, seldom reveals to us the moon and mother-worshipping origins of Jewry, so our reading of the Classics is focused on a late phase of the society, and its curious matriarchal origins escape our eye.

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