Monday, July 18, 2011

Gender Roles in Ancient Societies

When most people think of the ancient societies when it comes to gender roles they think back to women giving birth to children, raising those children, preparing all the meals, tending to the housework and being all around subordinate the male of the household. This however isn’t true for every society in the ancient world. In fact there are plenty of societies that were matriarchal and where woman dominated the household. Likewise there were societies where men and women shared responsibilities equally.
Let’s start with the “Viking Age.” The men of this age were always painted in the light of being extremely masculine, full of brute force and strength. There have been countless tales of Vikings descending on a town, overtaking it and making it a colony of their own. There is also much evidence that they took the women from those towns and made them their own brides (Jesch 1991).
Now women couldn’t actually be Vikings since the Norse word vikingar applies strictly to men. The women did play a very large role in the Scandinavian towns (in Norway, Finland and Sweden) as well, if not more in the Scandinavian colonies (Faroe, Iceland, Greenland). While the Viking men were away or dead (since women were windowed quite often do to the warring nature of the Viking men) the woman ran the towns. They took care of the farming and trading within the village or town. There is even evidence of women entering into the world of commerce. Excavation of multiple Scandinavian graves of woman yielded merchant’s scales and weights. A parallel can then be drawn between these roles of women in this age to women in America who took care of the work while the men were at war (Jesch 1991).
It is interesting to point out that many societies didn’t publicize their gender roles very well (thus leading to very little about it in historical literature) most of the information gathered is at burial sites. This is evident in the Viking Age as I mentioned above as well as many other parts of the world. Perhaps the best example of this is the Mayan culture.
There were actually a handful of Mayan societies that were matrilineal the foremost being Tonina. Tonina was a city which became matrilineal after the death of the powerful leader Lady K’awil. She is proof that women were involved in politics in ancient Mesoamerica when she assumed the mantle of power after the failure of two male leaders. Lady K'awil's reign is documented by murals which depict her seated on a throne with captives at her feet. More evidence of her power was buried along with her in her tomb (Bell 2002).
What is also interesting about the Mayans was that their supreme deity was the Moon Goddess which is very different from a lot of other societies at the time whose supreme deities were usually male. The Moon Goddess is depicted in murals and other forms of art. However, these were not the only forms of art for the ancient Maya. Textiles were an important aspect of ancient Mayan life that was produced by women. Woman also played a big role in the religious aspect of the culture. While boys were being trained to hunt, the girls were taught how to prepare the religious shrines (Bell 2002).
Also it is interesting that the concept of gender in ancient Maya art is ambiguous; it is difficult to identify the gender of some figures simply because one couldn’t survive without the other. Specifically images of heir recognition, “this duality is explicit: there is a male figure on one side of the newly-anointed, and a female figure on the other side” (Bell 2002).
Even though there is a sense of duality and equality in the society there is also a lot of evidence that women were considered the superior. This is due to childbirth which as for mentioned in my last post is something that only woman are biologically capable of. This then makes the argument the gender roles in some societies are based on the physical aspect of the “sex” of the person.
The mythology and power associated with the ability to create life was one which men tried to emulate. Men would participate in the act of bloodletting their own genitals to create something new from their blood. Instead of giving birth to life they would give birth to new eras through this symbolic gesture of menstruation. This was a ritualized act using the skin were stingray spines, obsidian blades, or other sharp object to pierce the skin. The blood was allowed to drip on cloth, which was then burned (Gustafson 2002).
We can then draw the conclusion that not every society was male dominated in the ancient world though it is safe to say the majority of them were. When looking back at Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Asian countries, etc. the women were for the most part subordinate towards the males thus drawing up the gender roles that many societies used in the past and still used today.

Women in the Viking Age by Judith Jesch (Woodbridge, Boydell, 1991).

Bell, E. E. “Engendering a Dynasty: A Royal Woman in the Margarita Tomb, Copan.” In Ancient Maya Women. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2002

Gustafson, L. S. “Mother/Father Kings.” In Ancient Maya Gender Identity and Relations. Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 2002

Image Courtesy of


None said...

An interesting observation in Egypt was that women were clearly the lesser sex, but they still somehow managed to snag a throne or two (Nefertiti). Awkkkkkkkkward.

Sam Curtin said...

Very good point. Egypt perhaps the worst when it came to pressing women.

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