GENDER ROLES: PREJUDICE OR POWER

I have been asked by a number of people to work up a piece that addresses how the principles of the Mesolithic Goddess world apply to 21st century women. I could do that. But is it really a good idea? An essay like that suggests that only women had any place of relevance in ancient cultures, that men were somehow subservient and inferior to women, that women ruled. There simply isn’t anything in the historic record that supports such a notion. It does suggest however that women’s and men’s medicine maintained unique gender lines, each was equally powerful and absolutely essential. I have written extensively about both. Men were as devout Goddess worshippers as women, and like women, regarded the feminine, nurturing nature of the Earth Mother as absolute. If anyone believes women are superior, then or now, and therefore men are not their equals has simply made it up. Such an attitude didn’t exist in the shamanic, hunter-gatherer world of the sacred feminine and its devotion to Earth mysteries. My insistence that equality must prevail without exception doesn’t allow me to forge such a piece for women alone. So perhaps the best thing I could attempt is to illustrate the extraordinary interplay and interdependence between these gender specific practices and let you determine for your own unique life the significance of the Goddess world of the Mesolithic. I recently read an excellent article in Today’s Health entitled “Is It Time to Return to Caveman Parenting?”. I highly recommend it as an introduction to a world I have studied for nearly half a century.

Let’s first consider what “medicine” is and how ancient people might have defined it. Medicine, spirit handling, shamanism, all these things we tend to view as spiritual, mystical, powerful, spooky, witchy, or whatever adjective comes to mind are simply outgrowths or extensions of the essential tasks necessary to live well in the hunter-gatherer community. What we now think of as dreary chores were once regarded as deeply sacrosanct ceremonies as empowered as an exorcism ritual (speaking of, women’s brooms and sweeping were once regarded as exorcismal). Then, the woman or man gifted with the ability to run off malevolent spirits or peer into the future wasn’t anymore special or revered than the man who made flutes or the woman known for weaving enchanted baskets. The responsibility each of these individuals bore with various and diverse predisposition was considered their “medicine”, a critical component to the tribe’s survival. Every individual had his or her medicine, nurtured since early childhood and cultivated throughout that person’s life. No such thing as a “weekend warrior” could have ever been found in that ancient world. In a more modern context it could be said that a renowned doctor received no more respect or wielded anymore power than a janitor. Both tasks were equally vital. It is these various and sundry everyday-tasks-turned-medicine that fell into gender specific roles.

As a means of understanding, men took care of areas related to hunting, fire, and air. Their world was made up of animal medicine, the science of fire building and smoke medicine, the creation of drums, flutes and whistles, and the manufacturing of hunting tools including the selection of stone. Men mixed pigments for all of these items as well as face and body paint and tattooing soot. They were also the caretakers of the sun, the weather, and protection for their people. Men were responsible for carrying messages from one village to the next.

Women had their own formidable responsibilities. They cared for the things related to gathering, soil and water. Women’s medicine included overseeing the entire plant kingdom and the abundance it provided. This meant food and its preparation and storage, medicine for body and spirit, baskets, weaving, pottery and tanning. Women including the groves and the creation of shrines and altars throughout the environment took care of every habitat from mountains to meadows. They were the keepers of the rivers, streams, springs, lakes, even the ocean. Women were the guardians of the moon and stars.

It becomes clear after looking over these somewhat generalized lists that collaboration between genders was critical. How might the choreography have gone?

Chances are the stone tools needed by a woman to process hides, prepare food for storage or immediate consumption, and for grinding grain and so forth were made by a man. She might have gone to him and explained, perhaps, that she wanted a stone with a particular strength, character or nature. Conversely, once game and fish were brought in by men that harvest was turned over to the world of women who kept both the knowledge and the prayers to process the creatures down to their last sacred bone. Further still, the bladders that were filled with water, the leather pouches used for carrying and cooking, the large, unbroken bones filled with life-saving marrow were used in homes and lodges, stored as famine food and carried by men on hunts.

And what of those hunters? The plant species for bows, arrows, tool handles, spears, nets, etc., and there are many, came through women. So did the countless plants needed for protection, stealth and invisibility. Someone might well have wanted his arrows, for example, to have specific properties and values; he might need his bow enchanted, or the power in his favorite ax revitalized. That hunter would have consulted a woman. He might feel a need for something that would protect from predation or spirits. She would know what plants he needed to carry, consume or what ones with which he had to pray.

The same collaboration would take place between the men who mixed up pigments for dressing up or empowering their tools, painting their bodies or tattooing their flesh with sacred symbols, and the women who safeguarded the wisdom of the species needed. Every species has a unique, spiritual fingerprint as it were and nothing was randomly selected. It was the women who made the fine studies of those plants and knew which plant served each specific purpose. Even pigments derived from clay required collaboration as clay belonged to the women.

And what of what we would refer to now as the more serious things such as rituals? Most were called under the auspices of specific astronomical signs, difficult to determine without the collection observation of the men who took care of the sun and the women the moon and stars. Specialized lodges could be constructed for, lets say, a men’s ritual with the knowledge of species safe-kept by women. Perhaps the spirit handler needed that lodge to be cloaked with a specific type of protection, maybe he needed hides of a certain animal processed and dyed with certain plants. Then there were the species needed for the ritual itself and maybe the practitioner needed them brought into the lodge in baskets woven in particular fibers and enchanted with particular prayers. Needed to were the drums, flutes, whistles, prayer sticks, medicine bundles derived from plants or bones, all of which passed through women’s hands. You better believe that these gender specific roles had huge collaborative implications even when a ritual might be for men or women only. Along the same lines women’s rituals needed fires built with specific species for specific purposes. Women selected the species but men poked the fires for those rituals.

And then there were even more unique circumstances. Women held the keys to the gates that opened to the spirit world and the communion with the Earth spirits that inhabited every hollow, forest, mountain, cave, meadow, bog, spring or fen. Access to these worlds for men required long and arduous apprenticeships with women. Any men’s clan or society that required plant knowledge of any possible type, you guessed it, had to apprentice in part with women. Any situation, such as dreaming repeatedly of learning the other gender’s medicine was a very big deal and the dreamer had to prove him or herself to be worthy. None of this attitude, like, well, “if a man can do it so can I” or “if a woman can do it so can I” existed in any shamanic tradition. Only the catalyst of repeated and profound dreams or visions would even be considered as a possible entry into a different gender’s world. Nor would anyone even want to or consider it otherwise. The gender specific roles were seen as personal power and utterly sacred.

So in conclusion might I suggest something? The next time you become manic over some seemingly gender specific chore or feel that “women’s work” is trivial and unimportant or that “men’s work” is tedious and exhausting, take a moment to reflect on the absolute power wielded by your ancestors due wholly to gender identity. And in no way, by the way, does this exclude our transgender brothers and sisters. They too held vital roles and uniquely empowered medicine in the ancient world. And that is yet another extraordinary story.




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Responses to “GENDER ROLES: PREJUDICE OR POWER”

  1. Thank you, Verda. What impresses me the most is the complete understanding and acceptance of the equality in roles. Each gender had their assigned areas and collaboration was inherent in the social fabric of the community. And it seems that nothing was consider lesser or greater than. A great contrast to the hierarchical ways of our current culture.

  2. What you call ” spiritual fingerprint ” in the species, i call resonance, much the same, Great Read, Thank you

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