The end of her-story: close-knit fraternal networks as an evolutionary response to powerful archaic women

Author: Edward Turner

In Ultrasociety (2015) Peter Turchin memorably uses the label alpha male states to describe the first polities in history. This is, he says, because of their structural inequality with a “god-king” dominating cowering subjects; true, perhaps, but these societies weren’t literally dominated by men. Queens, priestesses and princesses held together the key palace, temple and diplomatic networks. Interestingly, after the archaic states (3000-1000 BCE) fell, the new states were networked almost entirely by men.

Archaic era civilization is often described “palatial” but the palace was more than a posh home; it was the source of all power relationships, and the temples that were often headed by priestess were the legs under this command module.

For the 99 percent, the ancient temples were not obvious symbols of massive inequality. As food store, land-holder, place of learning, career ladder, and (in Egypt, Greece, Babylon and India) brothel – which, ingeniously, helped pay for the system (Manuel 1989) – they had a magnetic status and utilitarian role that held society together.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Mycenaean Woman. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Additional sums donated to temples, often by aristocratic women, made this social glue stickier with fear. The priests and priestesses invoked deities made terrifyingly memorable with human sacrifice. Paired with a relentless diet of ancestor-worship even the living regent became an unchallengeable god.

By the end of this 2,000-year period every Old World civilization had experienced a golden age for queens, priestesses and relatively independent aristocratic women who held the powerbases that helped bond the system together.

In Sumer (Akkadian Empire 2334-2154 BCE) one of the most exalted shadowmakers was the High Priestess of Ur, and women priests “were so common that the Sumerians criticized uncivilized foreigners for not having women priests.” (Tetlow 2004).

Harappa (2200-1900), ancient Pakistan, was not among the “uncivilized”: they had goddesses and high priestesses (Tripathi 1992, Ratnagar 1991); but it was the Vedic period (1500-800 BCE) that has been called the “golden age for Indian women” (Ramusack 2005).

In ancient Egypt women gained equality before law, rights over their own property even when married (Trigger 1993), controlled estates and employed male stewards (Robins 1993). That’s a powerbase. A similar situation existed in Mycenaean Greece (1600-1100 BCE) where a priestess could own land and employ assistants who owned land.

By the New Kingdom (1550-1070) the golden age for Egyptian women had passed (the formal priesthood now excluded women). However, royal women such as Nefertiti and Hatshepsat – who reigned for 20 peaceful years (Cline 2014) – were highly influential and behind them was the powerful office God’s Wife of Amun.

In New Kingdom Hatti (1400-1180 CE) the king’s wife (Tawananna) was a high priestess (Bryce 2002) and, according to our Seshat RA, Putuhepa commanded naming rights on the treaties and documents of the Hittite state (as Hattusilisa III) – and had independent diplomatic exchanges with foreign kings and queens.

Further East, in ancient Persia, women worked in the high administration of the Elamite Empire (c1210-1100) (Farazmand 2009). In the Far East, Lady Fu Hao, in China, was just the most famous of the archaic Shang Dynasty’s (1250-1045) legion of priestesses and royal female bureaucrats who had important administrative duties (Trigger 1993).  All over the Earth women glued.

So below, as above.  Of a sample of 348 heavenly deities from Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece 46% are female.  Of the gods with “Creator” traits (fertility, instigator, good luck, production etc.) 52% were female compared to deities with “Destroyer” traits (Fire, storms, death, plague etc.) which were 69% male.

Click here for a downloadable detailed breakdown of deity classifications

While this casual study can be done better (for example, the interesting subtle differences between regions might change in a better study) the point illustrates the importance of female deities (and perhaps creator ones, if the numbers hold up) to alpha-male states.

However, sometime after 1200 BCE civilization crashed and burned (Cline 2014). The palace and its temple satellites, the priestesses and the goddesses, no longer held society together. Whether life was so much worse during the Bronze Age collapse is debated but out of it a vast, new institution emerged: a “secular” bureaucracy.

Massive, professional, male and uncoupled from the palatial court, legitimized by a Father god – it was common to all the axial age “mega-Empires”, as Turchin called them.

Examples of the bureaucracy were spreading its wings in Qin China, probably with the partition known under the Western Han by the terms “Inner-” and “Outer Court” (Zhao 2015); the Archaemenid bureaucracy of 400 BCE – in which historians believe an astonishing 3 million people worked (Farazmand 2001); and, the all-male Imperial Bureau (scrina) of the Roman Empire.

The new central bureaucracies had direct antecedents in many sophisticated archaic bureaucracies but 1000 years of evolution had made them larger, more professional, more male, with a more distinct separation from the ruling dynasty.  The new bureaucracy did not require a diversity of gods to legitimize it – just one, perhaps – or the ruler, who was more humble messenger than god (Turchin 2015).

Whether by Roman or Confucian quill, women were almost entirely struck from the bureaucratic rolls. In China, now blocked from the external bureaucracy women were left only with “duplicitous methods” (Hinsch 2011). Where they had a role, such as Persia, women were personnel managers in the Achaemenid bureaucracy and “compensation managers” during the construction of Persopolis (Farazmand 2009). Nevertheless, the Greeks claimed the intrigues of powerful Persian women caused upheaval and rebellion. Eventually, Islam swept through the region. Job done.

The new civilizations were not to lack high status and educated women; it was to not employ them, and to end their contracts. The Roman Empire had many priestesses: in Rome, the College of the Vestals; in Greece, at the Eleusinian Mysteries at the Temple of Demeter and at Eleusis the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi. Theodosius I the Christian closed these pagan temples in 394, 392 and 390 CE.

Like their ancient sisters, axial age women generally could own property. They were educated and published poetry – as they did before (the first poet known to history was Enheduena of Akkad). The power structure of the new age just did not want them.

Two questions clarify the situation: 1. Why were even high status women – eventually everywhere – progressively excluded from the most influential institution of the next two millennia, the secular bureaucracy from c.500 BCE? 2. Why did axial age monotheistic religions airbrush out goddesses from the pantheon and kick the priestesses out of the temples?

The priestesses and priests of the religious cults of 3000-1000 BCE had one basic job: turn an ordinary beer-drinking (and sometimes Beer god worshipping) dude into a god through the promotion of his gods.  At this women clerics didn’t do “badly” – otherwise why so many? The role of priestess even carried on long after their founding palaces were buried under thriving new cities.

No, when the going got tough – environmental stress, serious military competition – evolution simply favoured non-palatial states, like ones with the big cooperative, secular bureaucracy. This is Peter Turchin’s argument in Ultrasociety. The axial age polities were stronger because they were more cooperative. Perhaps the new polities became more cooperative by relegating meddlesome women further from power.

One serious flaw in the palace model was the lack of firewall to prevent elite conflict – acid to the bonds of a state – spilling into the bureaucracy and the temples. The stunning Amarna Revolution was possible because these institutions of state were identified with the all-powerful New Kingdom king Akhenaten. Not only that, the harem was a notorious brewing-ground for conspiracy – and marriage diplomacy had created harems full of foreign princesses. A harem conspiracy from New Kingdom Egypt even assassinated the Pharaoh Ramesses III.

Marriage diplomacy (Cline 2014) for god-kings was, like the temples, priestesses and goddesses, an essential gel that held together archaic civilization – but also an Achilles heel. Diplomatic incident? Have a princess! While they agreed to send daughters to each other’s harems and trade they stayed awesome gods rather than humiliated-defeated-in-war kings.  But as foreign queens and princesses became nodes of diplomatic and trade networks and hired staff to promote their interests (Cline 2014), they must have become a destabilising influence.

Alpha female networks created enough unpredictability that, if they did not bring the alpha male states crashing down they stopped them rising again.

The solution evolution found for aristocratic conspiracies was the secular bureaucracy – a massive fraternal network that was to become the new social glue. With the emergence of the first transnational groups, the world religions all-male networks largely replaced marriage diplomacy between polities.

Later all-male political-religious groups like Knights Templar, Jesuits and Assassins formed the hybrid of these two pathways. The end of the palatial states was the end of her-story and the beginning of his-story.

Ultrasociety is available on

Notes for Editors:

  • For further information on Ultrasociety visit Peter Turchin’s website or contact Jill Levine (
  • Cite this page: “She-story’s biggest secret: powerful fraternal network was evolution’s response to meddlesome women.”

References and links of interest:

Bryce, T. 2002. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Cline, Eric H. 2014. 1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton University Press. Princeton.

Farazmand, Ali ed. 2001. Handbook of Comparative and Development Public Administration. Marcel Dekker, Inc. New York.

Faramand, Ali ed. 2009. Bureaucracy and Administration. CRC Press. Boca Raton.

Hinsch, Bret. 2010. Women in Early Imperial China. Second Edition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Lanham.

Manuel, Peter Lamarche. 1989. Ṭhumrī in Historical and Stylistic Perspectives. Motilal Banarsidass. Delhi.

Ramusack, Barbara N. in Smith, Bonnie G. 2005. Women’s History in Global Perspective, Volume 2. University of Illinois Press.

Ratnagar, Shereen. 1991. Enquiries Into the Political Organization of Harappan Society. Ravish Publishers.

Robins, Gay. 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press.

Tetlow, Elisabeth Meier. 2004. Women, Crime and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society: Volume 1: The Ancient Near East. A&C Black. New York.

Trigger, Bruce G. 1993. Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context. American University in Cairo Press.

Tripathi, L. K. 1992. Position and Status of Women in Ancient India: Seminar Papers, Volume 2. Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture, and Archaeology, Banaras Hindu University.

Zhao, Dingxin in Scheidel, Walter. ed. 2015. State Power in Ancient China and Rome. Oxford University Press.


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March 10, 2016

Great article! Just a small nitpick: based on what I’ve read so far, including in Turchin’s Ultrasociety, even in the old agriculturalist societies, proto-state/pre-god-king stage, like in the Ubaid, it wasn’t so much “her-story” as, at most, “their-story.”

In light of this, it is imperative to note, that the only time alpha-female networks existed corresponds with the time of even more powerful alpha-males.

Nonetheless, it seems very well-supported and a know fact in some anthropological and historical circles, that women, indeed, were in many legal and social ways on parity with men in the old agriculturist societies that you described.

As you wrote, the necessity to maintain and enforce an empiric identity pushed women out of political sphere during the Axial Age (with the more accommodating Sassanid Persia being the last holdout).

It’s interesting that, as the article states, it was that intense warfare-mediated necessity that diminished the direct political influence of women. Might it be then that, as warfare becomes less intense in the current neoliberal economic order, women’s political influence is bound to increase again? If so, what are its bounds and conditions for staying? Is it only a function of the overall secular, relatively pacific nature of the international affairs of today? Are women no longer an internal destabilizing force when they join political organizations when compared to same organizations lacking them? If cliodynamics/cultural evolution studies have predictive power, I’m hoping that this question might be within the domain of answerable ones, as controversial as it might be.

    Edward Turner
    March 14, 2016

    Ilya, thank you for your comment!

    I would agree these archaic societies were more them/us than run by alpha-female networks. That’s a good point. The alpha-female networks of the archaic period are notable not because of the absolute power they had but 1. the fact they existed at all on a large scale with polities and between polities 2. their comparatively greater power and influence compared to later societies.

    That is one reason why, early in the draft of writing, I made the subtle change from “her-story” to “she-story” – when spoken, She-story sounds more like Sssh-story – Sssh, be quiet etc. It is unspoken history which has a female aspect to it, rather than a historical period where women ruled (which it wasn’t).

    However, She-story as Sssh-story was a bit too subtle to make a good title, and because it did not make a good title the word at the end also had to change.

    It is true that “the only time alpha-female networks existed corresponds with the time of even more powerful alpha-males.” However, I would ask where alpha-males got their greater power? Powerful women were key to the functioning of the system but that did not make the system principally female.

    Again, this is She-story more than “her-story.” Archaic alpha-female networks I refer to are not composed primarily of women – powerful women had staff who were men or were married to a man. The gender of the network refers simply to the person at the top of the tree. Alpha-females were powerful within states because they controlled or influenced networks that included powerful men.

    The “harem conspiracy” of the New Kingdom is an example of an alpha-male being placed on the throne by a powerful female network. This was likely instigated within the harem by a mother but its success was largely dependent on the cooperation of men within the royal administration.

    To say alpha-males derived their power from alpha-female networks is to say they derived power from powerful women, which is to say the system was set up in such a way that enabled women to exercise power. The axial age removed these ways for women to exercise power (through men).

    //Might it be then that, as warfare becomes less intense in the current neoliberal economic order, women’s political influence is bound to increase again? If so, what are its bounds and conditions for staying? Is it only a function of the overall secular, relatively pacific nature of the international affairs of today? Are women no longer an internal destabilizing force when they join political organizations when compared to same organizations lacking them? If cliodynamics/cultural evolution studies have predictive power, I’m hoping that this question might be within the domain of answerable ones, as controversial as it might be.//

    The greater influence of women particularly since the twentieth century is an interesting phenomenon but this era is not structurally similar at all to the archaic period. While you could argue inequality has increased and so we have new alpha-males like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who live on palatial estates, the “neo-liberal” order does not involve palatial government, as women are not married-off for political reasons, or appointed as priestesses to run powerful temples.

    Right now were are in the middle of a phase change to more decentralized government in which women and everyone will have greater power. However, the “neo-liberal” world administration is very technocratic and hierarchical and more-likely reflects the axial-age inheritance in its purest, most jacked-up form.

    However, this will become irrelevant through the technological changes that brought it about and I suspect that women as effective communicators who are less obsessed by hierarchy and dominance will play a role in its demise.

      March 16, 2016

      Hi Edward,

      First, a correction to my previous comment: by “empiric” I meant “imperial.” Silly typo.
      Thank you for your thoughtful and lengthy response. Your clarification regarding “Her” in the context of the theme of “Sssh” makes complete sense, and I think I correctly understood your original intent in the article: to, essentially, convey to the public that women were not always the political underdogs in patriarchal societies.
      Regarding one of the causes of contemporary women’s rise and reemergence in the power sphere, I find myself, again, in complete agreement with you – such rise is, indeed, due to completely different dynamics than what existed during the days of god-kings.

      Unless, I misunderstood you, a potential quibble I have is with the statements regarding the decentralization of government. Given the current trends in technology, infrastructure, and urbanization, humans are ever more reliant on critical systems that expand the land’s carrying capacity, by enabling the increase in the ability of it to provide more food per area and more living density. Specialized skill sets that require operating and improving such technologies require reliance on experts. The increased bureaucratization further deepens and increases the links between institutions and people. In addition, mass communication allows the government to better channel its dogma and get a better ability to gauge and control the mentality of its populace.

      If anything, the above implies that modern societies, even if managed as autarkies, assuming sufficient natural resources, human capital, and absence of trade, have now a minimum-population/scale requirement to make it all work.
      Perhaps, what you meant then, are the ongoing contra-trends towards nationalism and separatism? Indeed, Peter Turchin is on record for predicting major instabilities by around 2020. Furthermore, a noted Stratfor geopolitical forecaster, George Friedman, has been predicting a militaristic resurgence of Japan by around 2030, which (as I see it) could conceivably be triggered by a breakdown in the neoliberal economic order (i.e. free international trade) if a marine-dominant power like the US becomes less assertive, more isolationist (a possibility that looks much more likely to us, in 2016, than it looked even a year ago).

      If it is the latter process which was what you denoted by “decentralization,” then I have a further quibble: I don’t see women emerging as power brokers in this process. Perhaps, they will have legal rights, as they do today in many modern industrial states, but it’s hard for me to see how they’d gain any additional leverage. Furthermore, I have grounds to suspect that in the more long-term, the feminist ideology, in its current (de facto) anti-natalist and freedom-of-sexuality manifestations, will be extinguished. As many historians and evolutionists have noted already, the current fertility rates are leading to long-term extinction of the adherents of said ideology, and there are no signs of it changing in any serious way.

      It is, perhaps, more natural to think of women’s social and power status as reaching an apogee in our times, with a further correction after said government decentralization takes place.
      In some ways, legal decentralization had always been the fact of life; that is, until the late stages of Industrial Revolution. Before I delve further, I’ll put the short version: it tended to be that a husband had something resembling a complete ownership over his wife and children.
      Because I admire cliodynamics and the study of social evolution, I can’t help but bring to your attention the work of the J.D. Unwin, an English anthropologist, titled “Sex and Culture.” It is surprising how one scholar from early 20th century managed to assemble such in-depth comparative study of human cultures with regard to the issue of strength of society vis-à-vis its sexual mores, but the fact remains that it’s probably one of the most underappreciated works out there, whose quality almost approaches what you, Peter Turchin, and the rest of his team are engaged in. In that work JD Unwin showed that lax social mores with regard to sexuality, after a few generations of practicing them, are very strongly correlated to deterioration of social cohesion, with ensuing weakening of societies and empires that practice those, with eventual cultural extinction via conquest becoming more probable as time progresses.

      As much as we either might or may not want for it to be otherwise, such weakening of social mores was both preceded and went along with the giving of more legal and social power to wives against that of their husbands. In developed agriculturalist states, this tended to happen when legal custom changed by taking a husbands sovereignty over his wife away, even if in part. This “slide of mores” could often begin by changes as innocuous as introduction of dowry (a mechanism for protecting the wife’s rights).

      Against the backdrop of strongly militarily competing states and empires, any negative effect on societal cohesion/asabiyyah could have disastrous consequences. JD Unwin still expressed hope that, perhaps someday, strong sexual mores (for him, absolute monogamy) could coexist with legal and status equality between the sexes, but in my mind it is still an open question, regardless of what happens in terms of government’s decentralization.