Site map Laboratory About the author Community Links

Wolff’s chapter on “Matriarchate and Patriarchate”

When I “discovered” that, among the final chapters of the Dolomitensagen there was one titled “Matriarchate and Patriarchate”, I hoped that eventually Wolff had narrated in some more detail how had he introduced and developped this topic in the Fanes’ saga. Unfortunately, this is only a short presentation of the main anthropological concepts, devoted to people who know nothing of the matter and therefore rather simplistic, candid – and outdated. There is no reference to the religious aspects of the story, nor to the interrelations between matriarchate and totemism. Here I’m just providing a short summary of Wolff’s discussion, asking all those who wish to get deeper into a modern vision of matriarchate to consult one out of the several books available.


Wolff starts by mentioning J.J. Bachofen, the Swiss jurist who published a treaty on this subject in 1861: The Matriarchal Right. An Essay on the Religious and Legal Features of the Matriarchate in the Ancient World.
Later on, he examines the life conditions in the Paleolithic and states that men were hunters and women gatherers, and that the latter ones started cultivation, “maybe for the sake of pretty flowers” (!). He developpes this concept stating that a long-time practice with plants allowed women to learn the basic concepts about vegetal life and thence to exploit it by planting small gardens aside the village huts. This of course required that at least a partial sedentariness had been reached. The availability of a rather dependable supply of agricultural products allowed to overcome the periods when game was scarce, and so gave an important contribution to overall welfare. This rudimentary form of horticulture had a great impulse when the hoe was invented and the importance of some irrigation was understood.
Slowly, the gardens became more important than hunting and fishing, so that they became the core of village economy – and they were managed by women. What followed was that dwellings also were owned by women, and therefore a husband-to-be was compelled to move to his wife-to-be’s home. This structure was repeated at the top of society: the undisputed chief was a queen, whose husband was just a prince consort.
Probably at this moment, men started luring few wild animals into fenced enclosures near their houses and, as they had a surplus of vegetals available, feeding them when required. This way, breeding was born: sheep and goats first, pigs later, cattle last.
According to Wolff, what brought to the collapse of this scheme was the invention of the plough. Domesticated cattle could be yoked to draw a plough in order to cultivate much larger extensions of land, even though this type of cultivation yelded much less per surface area than intensive horticulture. But this type of agriculture was in the hands of men. Ploughmen expanded their fields over and over, to the point that quarrels arose for the ownership of the land, both within any single village, and with neighbouring communities. Wars broke out. As far as the social structure was concerned, this brought to an upset: men had now become the pillars of economy and of the sheer survival of the group, therefore power shifted into their hands, often rather abruptly.
From this time onwards, the bridegroom no longer moved to live in the bride’s home, on the contrary he often abducted her (more or less consensually) to have her living in his own, to the point that wives were considered a property of their husbands; at the top of society, the king quickly became more important than the queen and was considered as the highest and undisputable authority.
Traces of the old matriarchal structure of society can be found, however, even in several social groups of today, as well as in many Dolomitic legends, one of which is the "Kingdom of Fanes".