Part One – Problematizing the Subjugation of Matricultures

-in progress-

Adriana Cavarero (b. 1947 in Piedmont, Italy) investigates the erasure of matricultures in european patriarchal records.   Like Arendt, Cavarero disputes Heidegger’s notion that birth is thrown into the world (geworfen) by insisting that birth is coming from a mother (Cavarero, p.61).  Birth is the basis of every person’s material, embodied existence that is connected with other natals and situated in a time and place in human history (p.60). According to Cavarero, Plato, not Heidegger, originated the philosophy of ‘living-for-death’ (p.24) and Socrates initiated the conceptual shift that separated the abstract concept of life from the regenerative cycle of birth and death to the notion of the disembodied eternal life of the soul (p.25).

For Cavarero the lack of attention paid to the fact that we are born from woman has given western philosophy a preoccupation with death rather than birth.  The dominant necrophilic paradigm juxtaposes life and death in a way that disavows culture’s dependence on women’s generative maternal force.  Cavarero plays the role of Juno Lucina, the Roman goddess of midwives, who brings to light that which was hidden from view: “In the famous shift from mythos to logos, from the culture of the Great Mother to the patriarchal symbolic order that has come down to us, this philosophy [of antiquity] accomplished an even more crucial transformation” (p.4) by disclosing “fresh traces of this shift and the memory of what has been lost to patriarchal domination” (p.5).


Cavarero critiques the academy for spurning the abundant “documented evidence of the existence of an original matriarchy” (p.5).  She investigates the “traces of the original act of erasure” contained in patriarchal records (p.7) by reading them against the grain, in contrast to Arendt who reads Plato with the grain of mainstream classical scholarship.  Cavarero “tears apart” the tapestry of patriarchy in order to lay open the seams and threads of the mother, so that all her secrets are in full view; she “unties the matted threads” of the fathers’ classical tapestry of the confined mother, and calls on Penelope to re-weave the threads into a new open philosophy of the female that draws attention to the connectedness (p.8) of bodies and souls in the world (p.29). Cavarero starts by exposing Zeus’ crime of matricide, and interprets that act as symbolic of patriarchy’s erasure of the Great Mother (p.7f).

Cavarero’s intention is to create a “revolution in perspective where the symbolic axis shifts from death to birth”, compelling “a global rethinking of the meaning of the world” (p.80).  By “focusing on the category of birth, it is possible to restore meaning both to maternal power and to the reality of those who are born” (p.83).  In birth, we always find a woman who generates; she is “sovereign subject” of the act of regeneration. The one who is born comes to embodied being in the world through the passage of birth, and, in due time, takes its place in the polis (p.83).  Thus Cavarero turns to natality to prompt a cultural transformation by creating a different narrative of female symbols and subjectivity.

Cavarero says that cultural continuity depends on the maternal power to generate.  Continuity is assured only when the mother/daughter relationship is visible to human eyes.  Nature flourishes only when females give birth to daughters. When the maternal no longer has power to generate, we approach “the threat of nothingness” (p.61).

Settlers with european origins must trace the spiral of history back 4000 years to access cultural memories to study  european matricultures that existed before patriarchy introduced monotheism and erased european matricultures. We also study the Witch Holocaust during the Little Ice Age to understand how capitalism, patriarchy and religion silenced the voice of european women and stole their knowledge of healing and midwifery.

Erasure of Indigenous matricultures in Canada

Colonizers attempted to weaken communities by targeting the power of indigenous women as life-givers. Traditional practices of family planning, birthing, midwifery and healing were replaced by Western medicine: “The western medicalization of birth replaced our ceremony.  Bottles and substandard formulae took the place of nursing, detachment supplanted attachment, and mother was replaced by the physical, psychological, sexual and spiritual abuse of the residential school system” (Simpson, 2006, p.28).

Indigenous women are decolonizing their bodies by reclaiming birthing as ceremony and reclaiming responsibility to serve their communities as carriers of the culture (p.28f). Simpson links decolonization and First Nations reclamation of matriculture:

If more of our babies were born into the hands of indigenous midwives using indigenous birthing knowledge, on our own land, surrounded by our support systems, and following our traditions and traditional teachings, more of our women would be empowered by the birth process and better able to assume their responsibilities as mothers and nation-builders… Reclaiming indigenous traditions of pregnancy, birth, and mothering will enable our children to lead our resurgence as indigenous peoples, to rise up and rebel against colonialisms in all its forms, to dream independence, to dance to nationhood (p.29).

Indigenous women are decolonizing by reclaiming birthing as ceremony and reclaiming responsibility to serve their communities as carriers of the culture. They draw on 300 year cultural memories when matricultures built flourishing communities.  Indigenous cultures appear to be positioned to midwife the rebirth of matriculture, first in their own cultures and then in settler cultures.

Idle No More Movement dances at Portage & Main in Winnipeg.

Other topics:

  • Conventional Anthropology still holds to its ideology of universal patriarchy
  • The academy’s tactics for silencing the study of matricultures
  • Modernity/coloniality’s methods of erasing matricultures