We use the term “patriarchy” to hold the blame for much of what is hurtful and harmful in our culture today. We (men and women) “rail against the patriarchy” that privileges and protects male power at the expense of women, children, and creation. Especially in light of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision in the US, we are sensitive to how women are denied autonomy over their bodies. But it’s been a long road of injustice on many fronts that got us here.
In wrestling with how we find our way through this, I’ve become curious about the root meaning of patriarchy and matriarchy. Where did these words come from, and what did they intend to represent?
In ancient traditions, patriarchy originates from the root word “patria” which means “homeland.” Patria/patriarch was the “one who leads the way home.” Taking the etymology back further, patriarchy is closest in the ancient English language to the word “pattern.” Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes teaches that the patriarchal archetype is one who sees the patterns of life and gains wisdom by understanding their relationship to the whole. Patriarchal energy is a wayfinding energy, the maker and keeper of maps both in physical and spiritual reality.
Matriarchy originates from the root word of “matria,” meaning “matrix.” The matriarch gathers many parts together and makes them one. Its oldest etymology is closest to the word “matter.” Matriarchy energy materializes, births, manifests “matter” into existence. The matriarchy archetype generates new life and holistic connections. It sees relationships and senses our interdependence with the natural world.
It’s true that over time patriarchy became associated with maleness and masculinity. Religions claimed the word patriarch to describe their dominant male leaders. Matriarchy likewise became assigned to the realm of the woman, imbued with far less power, though often an unspoken fear of her true, hidden capabilities.
Perhaps connecting these capabilities to maleness and femaleness is where we went wrong. We each have patriarchal and matriarchal energy within us. When held in balance, the patriarchal energy within us invites a way of seeing that includes the deep patterns that shape our world. The matriarchal energy manifests new ways of thriving based on old ways of knowing. Our matriarchal energy sources our concern for others and care for the common good.
By assigning these words to genders and privileging one over the other, we have diminished both experiences. Men face soul-killing pressure to know the answers, pave the way, protect the family, and make the decisions. Author bell hooks says, “Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.” (bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love)
Those who identify as women face equal soul-death as culture tells them to deny their instincts, suppress their call to adventure, and manifest only within the bounds of acceptable cultural norms. In fact, we have domesticated ourselves beyond recognition by failing to honor the fullness of who we truly are.
Perhaps killing “the patriarchy” is not the solution to our present predicament. When correctly understood, that would mean suppressing an essential part of ourselves. Instead, our work is to reclaim it, freeing it from the distorted ways it has been used to oppress men and women alike.
Why does this matter? We cannot heal our culture until we heal ourselves. But we have to start at the root – to see the patterning of Sacred Love within ourselves so that we can matter/materialize a more just and generous world for all.
We are in this together,
Rev. Cameron Trimble
Author of Searching for the Sacred: Meditations on Faith, Hope and Love