Chapter 2: Status of the Mother and Matrilineal Descent


Among other pointers to the non-existence of any legal status for the mother in Indo-European society, the absence of a word *mātrius as a counterpart to patrius may be cited.
Nevertheless, the vocabulary, especially in Greek, preserves the memory of quite different social structures which are probably not Indo-European: the existence of a Zeus Hēraîos and of a conjugal couple Héra-Heraklês, the Greek names for “brother”—adelphós, literally “coming from the same womb” and kasígnētos “id.”—cannot be explained by reference to a system of patrilineal filiation.
But in the historic period these are only memories: Zeùs Hēraîos is a hapax and in spite of their etymology, kasígnētos (which could for a while substitute for phrá̄ter as a classificatory term) and adelphόs both designate the “brother” as terms of patrilineal kinship.


All the facts adduced up till now prompt us to recognize the primacy of the concept of paternity in Indo-European. By contrast, they also help us to appreciate the deviations from this principle which can be established. This primacy is corroborated by some slight hints of a linguistic nature which are not always apparent, but which gain greater weight when traced to their origins.
One of these facts is the creation of a term in Latin, patria ‘fatherland’, from pater. But this derivation could not have taken place directly. It will be better appreciated if we examine the adjectives which have been coined from pater and mater.
The adjective derived from pater is patrius. Here we have an adjective which refers exclusively to the world of the “father.” There is no correlative term for the “mother”; the word *matrius does not exist. The reason for this is evidently the legal situation of the mother; Roman law did not know an institution for which the adjective would be suitable, and which would put “father” and “mother” on an equal footing: the potestas is exclusively patria. According to this law, there was no authority, no possession, which belongs to the mother in her own right. The adjective derived from mater is quite different; it is maternus, to the formation of which we shall return.
One might think that at least one common derivative of pater and mater existed, that in -monium, for matrimonium is parallel to patrimonium. But in fact this is no more than a quite superficial symmetry. As we shall show later on, the two formations are not correlative and do not indicate the same function. [1] Further, morphological indications betray the essential difference which separates the two concepts.
We know that one of the Indo-European societies which have longest preserved the ancient structure is that of the South Slavs, among whom the form of family called zadruga still exists. Vinsky [2] has subjected to close study the functioning and composition of this “Grossfamilie.” Most often consisting of a score of members, sometimes thirty and even as many as sixty, the zadruga is a considerably larger unit than the nuclear family which we usually see: it unites as many of these nuclear families as there are sons living in the common home. This family is of a rigorously patriarchal type. However, a stranger may become a member by marrying a daughter: the line is continued through the heiress. The son-in-law is incorporated into his new family to the point of losing his own status. It goes so far that he takes the name of his wife, the other members calling him by a possessive adjective derived from this name. Henceforth he bears the family name of his wife, as do his children, since his own name no longer has a social function.
But there are also facts which attest the contrary, particularly in ancient Greek society. We have studied above a special peculiarity of Greek which separates it from the other Indo-European languages, the designation of “brother” by adelphós, which indicates co-uterine fraternity. This is not the only term which designated the “brother” by reference to the “mother.” A parallel term of the same meaning is the adjective homogástrios (ὁμογάστριος) with the doublet ogástōr (ὀγάστωρ). It would appear that we have here an ancient pointer to a certain preponderance of the woman.
Greek mythology offers a number of confirmations of this. Let us consider for example the great divine couple, the very prototype of the couple, Zeus and Hera, united by the hieròs gámos, the sacred marriage, illustrating the marital powers of the husband, supreme lord of the gods. A.-B. Cook, [3] the author of a monumental work on Zeus, has studied this hieròs gámos. According to him, the union of Zeus and Hera is not an ancient phenomenon: it appeared towards the fifth century B.C., as if to normalize a more complex state of the legend. Before this, there were two distinct couples: on the one hand Zeus and a certain partner, and on the other hand a certain god and Hera. We have a proof of this in the ritual calendar of Athens which mentions an offering to Zeùs Hēraîos (Ζεὺς Ἡραῖος), probably the sole case where a god is designated by the name of his wife. In this stage of the legend, Zeus is subordinated to Hera. Cook [4] has collected the evidence which shows that at Dodona, the most venerable sanctuary of Zeus, the wife of the god was not Hera, but Diṓnē (Διώνη). Among the Dodonians, according to Apollodorus, Hera was called Dione. Diṓnē is an adjective derived from Zeùs. The divine figure of Dione is taken from the name of Zeus and represents his emanation.
Hera, for her part, is a sovereign, particularly at Argos. Now, the person who is associated with her is Heracles, the son-in-law of Hera in the usual form of the tradition. But certain facts, the jealousy of Hera, for instance, seem to indicate a conjugal relationship and not a maternal one. We may in all probability regard Heracles as a “prince consort” of Hera at a very ancient date.
We have therefore not one single couple but two: Zeus and Dione on the one hand, and Hera and Heracles on the other.
They have been fused into a single one in which the great goddess is the wife of the great god: Zeus and Hera are henceforth united. It is therefore probable that the primitive forms of the legend preserve the memory of the major role devolving on the woman.
The same trait emerges from a confrontation of the two Greek words for “brother,” adelphós (ἀδελφός) and kasίgnētos (κασίγνητος). The notion of phrā́tēr, with that of phrātría, is highlighted in a tradition (of Ionic origin) relating to the feast of the Apatoúria Ἀπατούρια; in the course of this, on the second day, a sacrifice to Zeùs Phrátrios (Apatoúrios), as well as to Athēnaía phratría (Apatouría) took place. The etymology of Apatouría is clear. The ancients already interpreted the word as homopátria (ὁμοπάτρια): it is the feast of those who have the same “father”: apátores (ἀπάτορες), which is equal to phrā́teres, since the phrā́tēr are those who are descended from the same patḗr. This brings out the notion of male and paternal lineage.
Let us now consider the word kasígnētos. It belongs to the ancient poetic language, but it does not have the same dialect tradition as apatoúrios, which seems to be Ionic: kasígnētos is Aeolian, “Achaean” (of the Cypriot variety). The original sense is that of adelphós, in the light of uses like κασίγνητον καὶ ὄπατρον (Il. 11, 257; cf. 12, 371), which is tantamount to “from the same mother and father,” and this is confirmed by Il. 3, 228: αὐτοκασιγνήτω τώ μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ ‘the two brothers which my mother has given me’, apropos of Castor and Pollux. The formation is that of a compound in which the first term kásis ‘brother; sister’ (in Aeschylus) has been reinforced by a verbal adjective -gnētos ‘born, of birth’.
But one use of kasígnētos causes difficulty: “Hector makes an appeal to all his kasígnētoi. And first he addresses himself to the son of Hiketaon, to the proud Melanippus” (Il. 15, 545-7). Thus Melanippus, the son of Hiketaon, figures among the brothers of Hector. But this person is not his brother: he is the son of Hiketaon and not of Priam. This was already noted in antiquity: the scholiasts translate kasígnētoi here by the vague term sungeneîs (συγγενεῖς) ‘relatives’: at this epoch in Ionian the sungeneîs were still called kasígnētoi. Today we can be more precise. According to the genealogy of the person, indicated elsewhere in the Iliad, Melanippus was the son of Hiketaon, the brother of Priam. He is therefore precisely the son of the brother of Hector’s father. Thus kasígnētos does not here designate the brother issued from the same father, but the “brother” issued from the father’s brother, that is to say in our terminology the “cousin.”
We can draw two conclusions from this:
1) this kinship is necessarily of a classificatory type, so that kasígnētos joins phrā́tēr and apátōr;
2) kasígnētos, like adelphós, has probably, through synonymy, deviated from its etymological signification, which must have referred to the mother, with the result that it entered an exclusively paternal type of filiation. We now see that in spite of the persistence of local, perhaps foreign, traditions, the force of Indo-European conceptions has brought the aberrant ideas into line with the primitive norm.
We have a confirmation of this in a Laconian gloss: κάσιοι· οἱ ἐκ τῆς ἀυτῆς ἀγέλης ἀδελφοί τε καὶ ἀνεψιοί; brothers or cousins of the same ἀγέλη, the same “band,” were called kásioi. The children called kásioi were organized in the same “band” because, being brothers or cousins, they acknowledged the same “father.”
Such is this complex history in which we see that, when a culture is transformed, it employs new terms to take the place of traditional terms when they are found to be charged with specific values. This is what happened to the notion of “brother” in Ibero-Romance. As a term of kinship, Latin frater has disappeared, and it has been replaced by hermano in Spanish and irmão in Portuguese, that is to say by Latin germanus. The reason for this is that in the course of Christianization, frater, like soror, had taken on an exclusively religious sense, “brother and sister in religion.” It was therefore necessary to coin a new term for natural kinships, frater and soror having become in some way classificatory terms, relating to a new classificatory relationship, that of religion. Similarly in Greek it was necessary to distinguish two types of kinship, and phrā́tēr now being used solely as a classificatory term, new terms for consanguineous “brother” and “sister” had to be forged.
These lexical creations often overturn the ancient terminology. When Greek used for “sister” the feminine form (adelphḗ) of the term for brother (adelphós), this instituted a radical change in the Indo-European state of affairs. The ancient contrast between “brother” and “sister” rested on the difference that all the brothers form a phratry mystically descended from the same father. There are no feminine “phratries.” But when in a new conception of kinship the connection by consanguinity is stressed, and this is the situation we have in historical Greek, a descriptive term becomes necessary and it must be the same for brother and sister. In the new names the distinction is made only by morphological indications of gender (adelphós, adelphḗ). Apparently slight facts, like this one, throw light on the profound transformation which the Greek vocabulary of kinship has undergone.


[ back ] 1. On matrimonium, see Book Two, Chapter Four.
[ back ] 2. Vinsky, La grande famille des Slaves du sud. Etude ethnologique, Zagreb, 1938.
[ back ] 3. A.-B. Cook, Zeus, III (1941), pp. 1025-1065.
[ back ] 4. Id., The Class. Rev. (1st Series) XIX, 365-416.