Our Five Thousand Year Obsession with the Angry Father Figure

I find our human history a fascinating narrative, an evolutionary adventure that appears often to unfold as an exciting three steps forward followed by a frustrating two steps back. Particularly from my reading of Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and The Battle for God, Allan Johnson’s The Gender Knot, and Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, I have come to this admittedly provocative framing of the last five millennia of our tenure on planet Earth. “Who’s your daddy?” has been the operative organizing principle of human society, but it is past time that we move beyond this obsession with parental figures to a question more like, “Who’re your peers?”

I go back 5000 years based on the archeological findings of Marija Gimbutas as woven into the historical narrative put forward in Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade. Gimbutas’ excavations document warlike nomadic tribes from the less desirable, colder, sparser periphery invading the settled agricultural areas of Europe around the Mediterranean Sea between 4300 and 2800 BCE and imposing their hierarchical militaristic cultures on top of the more peaceful egalitarian societies of these agrarian enclaves.

According to Gimbutas’ unearthing of art on walls and pottery, these invaders generally worshipped angry male war gods and organized their conquered territories around male chieftains and a hierarchical structure of control with “us and them” thinking, that led to such societal “innovations” as genocide, slavery and burgeoning empires. Several such stories are documented in the book of Deuteronomy in the Torah…

So the Lord our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people: and we smote him until none was left to him remaining. And we took all his cities at that time, there was not a city which we took not from them, threescore cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these cities were fenced with high walls, gates, and bars; beside unwalled towns a great many. And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children of every city.

Even today when we study this period in high school history classes the narrative is usually built around competing empires (e.g. Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Egyptian, Persian), in many cases the next conquering the previous and generally imposing its will and culture.

Particularly highlighted in history texts is the classical Greek society, which in many ways is framed as the foundation of our contemporary Western one. The history of the Greek Peninsula was documented by the historians of its time as a series of wars between city states, final consolidation under the male chieftain Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander (The Great) who proceeded to conquer much of the rest of the civilized world that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea.

And the documented history of classical Athenian Greek culture, though including the beginnings of democratic institutions, great poets, writers, scientists and philosophers, is a story of a small oligarchy of male citizens that controlled the overwhelming majority of the remaining people as chattel – slaves, wives, concubines and children. Their polytheistic Olympian religion featured both male and female deities, but the male ones always in ever greater ascension. Chief among their Gods was the iconic angry father-figure Zeus, who in league with his siblings (Poseidon, Hades, etc) overthrew and exiled his parents (the Titans Chronus and Gaia), and ruled from the heavens hurling thunderbolts.

Alexander was perhaps the most enlightened of a series of conquering despots that imposed social stratification, a belief system exalting heroic male warrior gods and men, ubiquitous slavery, with goddesses and women reduced to male consorts and concubines. Military conquests were often highlighted by the organized slaughter of other human beings, destruction and looting of their property and subjugation and exploitation of the survivors.

Theologian Karen Armstrong theorizes in her book, A History of God, that the religious innovation of Abrahamic religion during the Axial Age (from ~800 BCE to 200 CE) was an attempt to mitigate the mayhem of this hierarchical militarism and resulting chaos and suffering by defining a single supreme male father-figure god (evolving from the war god Yahweh) who subsumed all other deities and manipulated earthly events to punish his human children for not following his more humanistic laws. According to his prophet Isaiah, Yahweh admonished his followers…

You may multiply your prayers, I shall not listen. Your hands are covered with blood, wash, make yourselves clean. Take your wrong-doing out of my sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah Chapter 1)

This was a new supreme angry father-figure, the God of the Jews and the Bible, issuing ethical rules for all human beings to live by, a new sheriff in town to root out the bad guys and make sure everyone else behaved appropriately. It is interesting to me that even though he was in many ways a completely different deity than the capricious and self-serving Olympian gods; he was still framed in male and parental garb. It was still only the angry patriarch that could get the attention and command the imagination, loyalty and fear of the people.

And later, Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps just another particularly well-spoken (or well-quoted) human prophet (like Isaiah before him) of the One God, was exalted as the “Son of God” by a new offshoot Christian religion which would rise to prominence as the dominant religion in Europe among an array of violent and warring tribes, again united by one militaristic empire after another. The European history of the Common Era is generally told in the context of great male leaders who relied on military might rather than compassion to make their mark on human history.

Medieval Europe can be seen as a pinnacle of “Who’s your daddy?” thinking with secular male monarchs of ruling aristocratic families operating in an overarching religious framework staffed by an earthly hierarchy whose members were referred to by the honorific “father” by their inferiors on the org chart, and all offering prayers to a “holy father” god. Male parental authority, either actual or metaphoric, was the rule, and the only “mother” who got any billing was the Virgin Mary, the “Mother of God”.

It was the beginning of the Modern Era when the new technology of movable type gave people at the bottom of the hierarchy the ability to have a voice (in print) and begin to challenge the authority of these father-figures with ideas like autonomy, democracy, enfranchisement, abolitionism, feminism, etc. But even in an increasingly more egalitarian Era, there has still been a significant mythologizing of the male parent, literal or metaphorical. America has its “Founding Fathers” in general and George Washington (“Father of his country”) in particular. We never hear of the few influential Colonial women being referred to as “Founding Mothers”. America’s captains of industry have also been cast in parental roles with their aristocratic families and male heirs heavily covered in the news, literature and other popular media. Similarly, our Presidents (all male so far) are covered not only as political figures but as heads of “first families” with “first ladies” at their side. My recollection is that no one has run for the American Presidency since the beginning of the 20th Century as the nominated candidate of a major party without a wife and kids by his side. And in a patriarchal twist to the egalitarian American ethos, every married man with children was popularly cast as a “father in his own castle”.

Even in our contemporary culture, stories about violent crime family “Godfathers” like Vito Corleone or Tony Soprano capture much of the public’s imagination. We continue to mythologize male parental authority even as our society in fact moves away from it in a number of areas. “Who’s your daddy?” is still a question that is not anachronistic in popular culture, though now generally asked with a smile and a wink.

Hey… I’m all for honoring parents, both female and male. I continue to be one (though both our kids are young adults now) and it is a critical role in nurturing the next generation. But I don’t think it continues to be necessary to frame our society around the metaphors of parents and children, particularly the metaphor of the angry father. I’ve been angry, and I’ve been a parent who happens to be male, but I don’t see the two synergizing in me into some iconic figure that has any more lock on wisdom or authority than anyone else in my nuclear family. I think our culture in general is ready to start embracing peers rather than parents as the travel partners in the path forward for our human civilization.

4 replies on “Our Five Thousand Year Obsession with the Angry Father Figure”

  1. Cooper,

    Just a top of my head comment, no references to cite, but I’ve read novels and non-fiction that suggest that matriarchal societies and goddesses were supplanted by patriarchies and male gods as people figured out that making babies was not magic and mysterious and only the power of women could make it happen. Who’s your Daddy? indeed is appropriate, as the knowledge of the male’s contribution took away the power of women. Of course, it took a lot longer for the knowledge that the gender of the next generation is indeed determined by the father, and not the mother.
    (Shame on you, Henry VIII, for getting rid of your wives for not providing you with sons!)

  2. Hey Anne… Hello from across the decades… how many years has it been since we communicated?

    I have heard that theory put forward before, and its an interesting speculation, but who knows? But it seems since the development of agriculture around 8000 BCE and animal husbandry maybe 1000 years later, that people who were aware of how herd animals procreated would figure that it worked similarly for humans. Marija Gimbuta certainly dug 7000 year old settlements where there is evidence of the practice of both and no indication of a hierarchical “dominator” social order.

    What I find interesting, is that since it can be very difficult to determine the biological father of a child given birth by a woman with multiple sex partners, you might see why people fixated on paternity might try to rigidly control particularly a young woman’s life to ensure that they knew who impregnated her.

  3. I’m not sure why but this blog is loading extremely slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

  4. Please do… I have not heard anyone else express this sort of an issue, but then I don’t get many comments on my blog, though I appear to have a fair amount of readers.

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