Once upon a time, before patriarchy

Over a thousand years ago before classical Greece, on a paradisiac island, there was a pre-patriarchal civilisation that prospered: Minoan. In this indigenous Mediterranean history, the seeds of Dionysus were sown, later fruiting amidst the mountain dance of the maenads, and then in the heart of the patriarchal Roman empire. How does Dionysus open the door to these stories before patriarchy, reminding us that patriarchy is not the only narrative that exists?

“Patriarchy is not the only narrative. Wilder, more magical modes of the masculine have always been hidden just below our feet. The time has come to access the biodiversity that still lives secretly in the root systems of familiar myths. What is masculinity? What has it meant in the distant past? What could it mean?”

Sophie Strand, The Flowering Wand

Patriarchy is not the only narrative: this much we already know, because even in the thick of patriarchal culture, within us there are stirrings of a desire for something else, something in our bones that knows it cannot be this way. What if, for those who presently inhabit ‘the West’, these are remnants of a not so far away past? What if, right here on these lands, beneath our feet, where we stand, buried under the layers of forgotten or revised histories, misheard or inaccurately translated, transcribed tales, carried by—as Sophie would say, perhaps—the burrowing rodents, nematodes and earthworms, fungi and archaea, living in our earthly soil, lie, dormant, traces of another story? The ask of our times is not to search far and wide for stories from a foreign place to be transplanted here, but to reach deeper beneath the stories indigenous to these lands, to re-find something we have always known. What lies beyond patriarchy? The answer is within our grasp.

Patriarchy is intertwined with empire, reinforcing each other and ceaselessly expanding their reach. Sophie writes that, “the rise of empire depended on the deracination of mythologies.” If we enter into the heart of empire we will find the traces of the other story we are looking for, in the subcultures, practices, and communities they tried to weed out. Guided by this, let us explore what may be the most familiar story of empire in so-called Europe: that of the Roman empire, which was infamously patriarchal. Here was an empire distinguished for its technological advancements and intellectual endeavours, all of which were founded upon the Roman army, its expansion and consolidation of territory and vast swathes of land, necessitated by the glorification of mass violence. The Roman empire was, simply: militaristic, hierarchical, misogynist and homophobic, all of which came hand in hand with a paradigm of war.

And yet, within such an empire, a different story was already fruiting. In truth, as Chiara Baldini explains, Athenians were already “tired of being ruled by despotic aristocrats whose economic power too often translate[d] into tyrannical rulership and unjust conditions for the population.” As is the case in a hierarchical society, wealthier Romans lived extravagantly, luxuriously, looking over the rest of the citizens who could only dream of such a life—the farmers, bakers, builders, craftsmen, who laboured day and night, alongside: the lower classes, the enslaved, and the immigrants. Sentiments of disgruntlement, dissatisfaction, and revolt, rose to varied heights, and in waves—one of which was rode upon by the Greek god, Dionysus, who was imported to cosmopolitan Rome, taken in with the name, Bacchus. Thus began a cult, a frenzy of Bacchic rites, that upturned the Roman empire: because for the Romans who had little to their names, Bacchus represented what they dreamed.

Bacchus’ followers, the Bacchantes, revelled. At these revelries, there was an unsightly, clamorous, ecstatic mingling of social belongings, a bypassing of the order that the Roman empire had been built upon.

In these long nights of madness, intoxication and sheer vitality, the fragility of empire revealed itself, vanishing at the edges, into a world where life and nature in all its paradoxical fullness were celebrated.

There is much more to be said about the Bacchantes, but to return to the focus of this exposition: key to all this is Bacchus, among other things, as a representation of a masculinity that is unimaginably different from that of the Roman’s. Written off—a smear campaign, one could say—as a foolish drunk and a baby-faced, rosy-cheeked ‘sissy’, his masculinity itself is revolutionary: a devastatingly powerful strike to the heart of the Roman empire. His masculinity was one that made space for people of different gender identities and sexual orientations to express themselves publicly. Thusly, he was worshipped with orgiastic rites, believed to have been exclusive to women—scandalously so—in a time when women were barred from participation in public life.

To understand why this was so, we must go further back to Bacchus’ origins in Greece, and his close association with women—the feminine—which will also show us toward an ancient, pre-patriarchal society that has always existed. As Sophie writes, “Dionysus is not just the god of wine. He is the god of women. He comes to honor the maidens and the mothers and to reconnect them to a mythic mycelium that predates the rise of dominating hierarchies during the Iron Age.” Even as a Greek god, Dionysus was always pictured surrounded by women—who were called the maenads, derived from manaesthia, ‘to rave’. As the mythologies go, recorded in ancient sources, Dionysus’ women were mad, often inspired into a state of ecstatic frenzy through dance and intoxication, dressed in fawn skins, carrying thyrsus wrapped in ivy or vine leaves, weaving ivy-wreaths as crowns, practicing strange rites on mountain tops in the dark of the night.

German philogist Walter Friedrich Otto recounts, of Euripides’ portrayal of the maenads: “the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. They strike rocks with the thyrsus, and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth, and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid. Honey trickles down from the thyrsus made of the wood of the ivy, they gird themselves with snakes and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast. Fire does not burn them. No weapon of iron can wound them, and the snakes harmlessly lick up the sweat from their heated cheeks. Fierce bulls fall to the ground, victims to numberless, tearing female hands, and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots with their combined efforts.”

Chiara further notes that they are often also depicted playing the frame drum together with the pan flute, creating music that had a “repetitive, maddening quality”, intensified by word repetition and self-hypnotic techniques, to accompany a dance that involved throwing their heads backward and hip swaying to be entranced, altering their perception. They also ingested mild-altering substances, like plant stimulants: mushrooms, roots and seeds—they were herbal gatherers who entered the wild to be in “deep communion with untamed nature, mingling with wild animals, ingesting wild plants, and dancing to the point of forgetting who they are, thus becoming “wild with divinity”.”

In this way the maenads were set up to be demonised by patriarchal narratives: they were the ineffable cross of wildness, divinity, and nature.

Sophie converges on Chiara’s point here: “Put simply, maenads are women who know they aren’t different from the natural world. They are its poetic, feral creations. And thus, they are women reunited with older spiritual and ritualistic traditions that acknowledged their power.” (What Dionysus, or Bacchus, represented, then to the Roman empire, was the inciting of this dangerous power far beyond their control.)

The existence and ‘real’ history of the maenads is still open to interpretation—were the maenads real?—though Chiara contends that Dionysus, through the maenads, pays homage to a real history that is often forgotten, one that precedes patriarchy: the Minoans. She writes: “Maenads were the Greek representatives of this lineage during the transition from primitive matrilineal earth goddess culture toward patriarchal society.” They are “the great-granddaughters of Neolithic herbal gatherers and worshippers of a goddess of nature”.

“As a matter of fact,” she supplements, “Dionysus’s name is first attested in a Linear B inscription found on the island of Crete and dating back to the thirteenth century BCE. There the celebration of the fertility of the land and of the cycles of nature were among the main motives for religious rites. Techniques of ecstasy were central to spiritual practice, and women played a major role in the celebrations of rituals. According to [Carl] Kerényi, in Minoan Crete the main deity was a great goddess, dwelling on mountain peaks and bearing an “evident relationship with wild nature”, while the bull, later associated with Dionysus, was another main motif and “an exemplary manifestation of the deity in Crete”. This seems to indicate that Greek maenadism could have carried a reminiscence of those times, when ecstatic rites were officiated by women in honor of a great goddess of fertility and wild nature, and the bull was the ever-present metaphor of the male fecundating principle.”

Here we have it: in the heart of the Roman empire, we find a god of masculinity who inspired, and found himself surrounded by, these mythologised women who were bewitching, untamed creatures of Mother Earth, who then, in turn, point us to a deeper story of a world before patriarchal structures and civilisations, a world in which the maenads would not have been crucified. As it turns out, over a thousand years before classical Greece, on a paradisiac island, there was a civilisation that excelled in cultural advancements, wealth and artistic mastery. It prospered with peace—ushered in without conquest, violence, or a cruel wielding of power. Instead, they worshipped goddesses depicted bare-breasted, snakes in hand; they celebrated cycles of the agricultural year; and in honour of nature, they developed agriculture and fertility cults, believing profoundly in the abundance of humans reflecting the abundance of nature. This civilisation was that of the Minoan civilisation, the oldest civilisation in Europe.

According to the scholarship of Hungarian classical philologist Carl Kerényi, we know that this was a civilisation “lacked the desire for monumental statement, pictorial or otherwise. We find no interest in single human achievement, no need to emphasize, to rescue its significance.” Instead, for them, “life means movement and the beauty of movement was woven in the intricate web of living forms which we call ‘scenes of nature’; was revealed in human-bodies acting their serious games, inspired by a transcendent presence, acting in freedom and restraint, unpurposeful as cyclic time itself.” Minoan Crete held a people who flourished without patriarchy, who embedded themselves in nature and saw themselves in it, saw all of it as divine and deserving of honour—but at the same time seeing the paradox of it all, in the cyclicity of time that rendered everything small. Indeed, they were just human-bodies acting their serious games, transcendent, and unpurposeful. In this way the bacchanilia in Rome reflected that comfort in paradoxes, which presented a sharp contrast to everything the patriarchal empire of Rome stood for: all had to be defined, recorded, structured…

In Minoan Crete are the remnants of a not so far away past that we feel in our bones, the history that is indigenous to this land so-called Europe, the stories that need to be excavated to remind ourselves that patriarchy is not, and has never been, the only narrative, that it is up to us to return to it, to breathe life into stories that have lain dormant. Stories that show us a way beyond patriarchal empire, that show us that a way of life without patriarchal empire would not be barren, or disorganised chaos—that in fact, it would and could be one of unbridled freedom, beautiful diversity, fulfilling each of our human lives and all that we may need.

When we tell ourselves that patriarchy is not the only narrative, we ought to know that this is a truth our ancestors knew and lived, just five thousand years ago—not so long ago, considering the history of time and Earth, and us humans living on it.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

Learn more