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.
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.
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 Amazon.com
Notes for Editors:
- For further information on Ultrasociety visit Peter Turchin’s website or contact Jill Levine (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Cite this page: “She-story’s biggest secret: powerful fraternal network was evolution’s response to meddlesome women.” http://seshatdatabank.info/the-end-of-her-story.
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.