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The Root Of Western Patriarchy

(Traduit en français)

It goes without saying that the West has become hyper-feminized. Canadians, in the Current Year (TM), do not need reminding of this. But it was not always this way — the roots of Europeans are as patriarchal as those of the Arabs, the Chinese, or of anyone else for that matter. The West has been Christianized everywhere for at least 1000 years, and Christianity is held up as a patriarchal religion by its ideological enemies. But these roots go even deeper than the West’s Christian past, and the deeper you go, the more patriarchal they become. Dig deep enough, and you will find at the West’s rootstock a patriarchal order unmatched anywhere else.

As with so many other things, its origins are to be found in the pastoral warrior-nomads who stormed out of the Pontic steppe in the 4th millennium BCE and crashed into the societies around them — specifically it is to be found in their religion. But this is not the religion of Zeus and Mitra — or, rather it is, but it is a stratum of this religion which lies much deeper than the mythology of the proto-Olympian gods, and much closer to home.

Hearth and Home

The ancient Indo-Europeans believed, as did other ancient peoples, that the soul did not die with the body but survived it, passing to a finer and incorporeal though no less real form. However they did not believe that body and soul were ever fully separate, but that when a man died and was buried, his family buried something very much alive and present to them, which took up its abode beneath the earth. This belief was to have profound consequences, shaping Indo-European society and all its daughter civilizations down to the present day. Not only did the dead man continue to exist, but he required constant sustenance which was to be provided in the form of sacrifices and libations offered to him by his living relatives.

Whereas we in a Christian society may not fully understand why the archaic man was willing to risk life and limb to recover a soldier’s body from the field, or why a victorious naval captain might be put to death for neglecting to rescue the bodies of the dead from the tempest, there would have been no question in the mind of an archaic Roman or Greek. For a man of this belief, the fear of spending an eternity as a hungry ghost was at the forefront of his mind. Above all else, the family must be preserved in order to carry out the religious observances that would sustain him in the afterlife, just as he had dutifully done for his own ancestors while he held the headship of his household. The altar around which these observances were made was the family hearth.

In Homer, the most wretched condition a man could sink to, the most barbarous and animal-like mode of existence he could find himself in, was that of the hearthless man [1]. de Maistre said “wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists”, and for the archaic Indo-European, the hearth was his altar and represented everything coextensive with civilization. In Latin called the focus, the archaic Indo-European home was indeed focused upon the hearth in every way. It was the spiritual centre of the household, a source of comfort and familiarity, and the emblem of the stability and permanence of the family. The hearth represented for this man everything that had gone before, and his mode of worship guaranteed his traditionalism, his self-conception as a mere link in an interminably long chain.

His ancestors would reward dutiful worship with blessings and protection, and would punish neglect with disquiet and unrest. He kept upon the hearth, his altar, a lighted fire that was to burn night and day without interruption. In this fire lived a deity to whom he would make propitiation and sacrifice, known to the Romans as Vesta, to the Greeks as Hestia, to the Hindus as Agni. Ovid says “conceive of Vesta as naught but the living flame” [2],  and he expresses here one of the most archaic Roman theologies. The worship of the dead and that of the fire were closely bound up together; hearthfire, domestic spirits, heroes — all these are of a piece, all an inseparable part of what may be called domestic worship.

It is important to note that domestic worship was not universalist. Unlike under later theologies, each Indo-European household had its own fire, its own gods, and its own worship. Not only did the gods of another household not desire the worship of strangers, such worship was viewed with hostility. Each household was a discrete and autonomous social unit, and the absolute monarch of that unit was the House Father. He was simultaneously king, high priest, supreme justice, and sole proprietor. As Maine says of this household, “contrasted with the organisation of a modern state, the commonwealth of primitive times may be fairly described as consisting of a number of little despotic governments, each perfectly distinct from the rest, each absolutely controlled by the prerogative of a single monarch.”[3]

All members of the family were in the manus (“Hand”) of the House Father, and by a custom accepted between households his dominion could not be interfered with from outside. He alone was fit to administer the rites. He alone was fit to continue the worship. And when he died, he alone could take his place among the immortal household gods around whom the domestic worship centred. Hearn tells us “it was a worship of males by males, of past Fathers by present Fathers. After his death, not less than during his life, the Pater represented in the Spirit-world all those who on earth had been under his Hand, and required that the offerings due to him should be made by his successor and representative alone.”[4]

In addition to his priestly authority the House Father had absolute judicial authority, and as noted, no one could interfere with his judgement. He had ius vitae necisque — the power of life and death — over his wife and children and his prerogative in this regard was unchallengeable. Livy presents us with an account of this in the person of Spurius Cassius Viscellinus: “There are those who say that his father was responsible for his punishment: that he tried the case in his house, and that, after causing his son to be scourged and put to death, he consecrated to Ceres his personal property, from the proceeds of which a statue was made and inscribed ‘the gift of the Cassian family.’” [5] This power of the House Father to proclaim a death sentence on his own child is all the more striking when we realize that Cassius was not only an adult at the time, but an ex-consul (the consecration of the son’s property is simply a nice touch). Indeed in more archaic times the son would have had no claim to property at all, and anything he owned or acquired before he was emancipated (released as a House Father in his own right) would have been administered and owned in trust by his father.

Inheritance was of course male only, and proceeded, as did the worship, along the lines of primogeniture. When the House Father died, the wife and children passed into the manus of the eldest son along with the rest of the property, to where it was not at all unusual for a son to have ius vitae necisque over his own mother. This inheritance was not something the next of kin was in a position to refuse, as it devolved upon him as a duty to take up the responsibilities no less than the rights attaching to patria potestas, or paternal authority. I will mention here that although the terms am using in this article to describe Indo-European patriarchal mores are Latin, they have analogues in other languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, Iranian, the Slavic and Germanic languages, and all other IE daughter languages, the mores being born of a common ancestor.

In taking up the patria potestas the House Father would of course be expected to discharge his duties with the utmost diligence, and this would simply have been impossible without the property he inherited. The ancestors needed a plot of land on which to be buried, and the division between estates (thus families) was so paramount that the space between them was consecrated to the god of the enclosure [6]. While the Germanic tribes lacked private property this was exceptional among most IE civilizations, and in any case their nobility buried its dead in barrows which served a proto-proprietary function to claim “the territory and the right to hold it” [7] in much the same way as the sepulchre of the ordinary Greek or Hindu would.

For the vast majority of IE peoples, the soil wherein reposed the dead was so much a part of the family that the individual House Father did not even have the right to dispose of or sell it. This throws light on a crucial aspect of the House Father, namely that this was a title or office, and though he might judge with impunity and act with absolute authority, he was essentially a steward acting in the behalf of his ancestors — he could still be considered subordinate to them and was restrained only in his duties to them.

This private form of worship also had major consequences for the family structure and here we come to the essence of Western patriarchy. Patriarchy works precisely because it vests patria potestas in the father and not the mother, thus ensuring the stability and continuity of the family unit. In Indo-European societies this was done, as we have already seen to some extent, by the House Father’s absolute authority not only over his wife but also over his children even to their adulthood. However the House Father was not a mere despot who felt at liberty to act on his own caprice whenever he willed, but was bound by the conventions born of the essentially religious nature of the family unit. Since the domestic religion was, as noted, a worship of men and by men, the family daughter’s role was necessarily a subordinate one. For the purposes of worship, she was considered as essentially bound up with her father, she took part in his rites, worshipped his ancestors, and so forth. But it was necessarily the case in this religion, as already noted, that worship of the household gods of another was forbidden.

How then could she be expected to marry into another household? The answer was that upon marriage the daughter became part of the husband’s family and ceased to be part of her father’s; she would thus be initiated into the husband’s domestic worship and forever alienated from that of her father, the one she had known her whole life. Several points follow from this. First is that, though the natural bonds of affection might endure between her and her father, the daughter would become a legal stranger to him, and while women lacked any ability to inherit in any case, she would no longer be able even to partake of his worship. Second, as a consequence of this, marriage was not entered into lightly but only with the utmost gravity. The new wife was in the manus of her husband, and completely dependent on him not only for sustenance, but also for the religious aspect of her life, that she not become Homer’s hearthless wretch, debased and without a worship.

The manus of the House Father refers to specifically paternal authority, and so the wife being under his, we come to our third point which is that she occupies a legal position as effectively his daughter [8], whence the dowry paid by her father to her new husband (and effective father) for her upkeep. From this we see the essential feature of marriage in the IE tradition, which is that it is not a contract between man and wife (contracts between family members were forbidden), but a contract between two men. One of the terms of the contractual obligation was that the new husband not abandon his wife under any but the most egregious circumstances, leaving her without a worship — a fate worse than death.

One of these circumstances that would permit divorce from and abandonment of the wife was infidelity. The paramount consideration in the family unit was that the domestic worship be continued at all costs, and if the father could not trust that his children who were to continue his worship were his own, then the worship was illegitimate — a grave misfortune indeed, with eternal ramifications. Since this paramount consideration was an essentially religious one, and since the religion was an essentially patrilineal one, it follows that the essential family relation was one that proceeded along the male line — a familial relation known as agnation.

The basic feature of agnation is that one is considered related only to those with whom one shares a common male ancestor. In Indo-European familial relations, the common male ancestor was identical with a common worship [9], and thus considered legitimate kindred. Relation through the maternal grandfather would not count thus, and would be regarded as merely consanguineous. Even two half-brothers who shared the same mother would not be considered related unless the House Father adopted one or both of them, which in the earliest ages was done only in exceptional circumstances and only when it would not deprive another household of its own worship (forbidden if e.g. the half-brother was the only male heir of his household). Relation through women counted for almost nothing; relation through men counted for everything. This is a very difficult sentiment for us in the modern age to wrap our heads around, but one that is eminently logical given the unique theology of the Indo-Europeans.

An Altar to the Future

It was of course this very privileging of the male lineage that ensured the strength of the family by ensuring that the paternal bond was at least as unbreakable as the naturally strong maternal bond. More than that however, the view of the family as a corporate body whose existence stretched back to time immemorial, and whose existence must be indefinitely prolonged for the benefit of the current generation, made Indo-European society uniquely far-sighted, which is to say, uniquely traditionalist. The conservative who laments the death of traditional gender roles has no idea how right he is to lament thus, how long such an arrangement took to build, nor how long it has taken to unravel. Rebuilding it will be a multi-generational effort that cannot be effected by democratic means, but must be built around that altar around which Western civilization has been constructed: the family hearth.


[1] Homer, Iliad, IX, 70-75

[2] Ovid, Fasti, VI, 283

[3] H.S. Maine, Ancient Law, ch.6, p.49

[4] W.E. Hearn, The Aryan Household: Its Structure and Its Development, ch.3 §1, p.65

[5] Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, II, 41

[6] Servius, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii, ch.2 §469

[7] Stephen Pollington, Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds: Princely Burial in the 6th & 7th Centuries, p.35

[8] Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, Book II ch.2 p.36

[9] Plato, Laws, V, 729c

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