Ancient Society. Lewis H. Morgan 1877

Chapter XIV
Change of Descent from the Female to the Male Line

An important question remains to be considered, namely: whether any evidence exists that descent was anciently in the female line in the Grecian and Latin gentes. Theoretically, this must have been the fact at some anterior period: among their remote ancestors; but we are not compelled to rest the question upon theory alone. Since a change to the male line involved a nearly total alteration of the membership in a gens, a method by which it might: have been accomplished should be pointed out. More than this, it should be shown, if possible, that an adequate motive requiring the change was certain to arise, with the progress of society out of the condition in which this form of descent originated. And lastly, the existing evidence of ancient descent in the female line among them should be presented.

A gens in the archaic period, as we have seen, consisted of a supposed female ancestor and her children together with the children of her daughters, and of her female descendants through females in perpetuity. The children of her sons, and of her male descendants, through males, were excluded. On the other hand, with descent in the male line, a gens consisted of a supposed male ancestor and his children, together with the children of his sons and of his male descendants through males in perpetuity. The children of his daughters, and of his female descendants through females, were excluded. Those excluded in the first case would be members of the gens in the second case, and vice versa. The question then arises how could descent be changed from the female line to the male without, the destruction of the gens?

The method was simple and natural, provided the motive to make the change was general, urgent and commanding. When done at a given time, and by pre-concerted determination, it was only necessary to agree that all the present members of the gens should remain members, but that in future all children, whose fathers belonged to the gens, should alone remain in it and bear the gentile name, while the children of its female members should be excluded. This would not break or change the kinship or relations of the existing gentiles; but thereafter it would retain in the gens the children it before excluded and exclude those it before retained. Although it may seem a hard problem to solve, the pressure of an adequate motive would render it easy, and the lapse of a few generations would make it complete. As a practical question, it has been changed from the female line to the male among the American aborigines in a number of instances. Thus, among the Ojibwas descent is now in the male line, while among their congeners, the Delawares and Mohegans, it is still in the female line. Originally, without a doubt, descent was in the female line in the entire Algonkin stock.

Since descent in the female line is archaic, and more in accordance with the early condition of ancient society than descent in the male line, there is a presumption in favour of its ancient, prevalence in the Grecian and Latin gentes. Moreover, when the archaic form of any transmitted organization has been discovered and verified, it is impossible to conceive of its origination in the later more advanced form.

Assuming a change of descent among them from the female line to the male, it must have occurred very remotely from the historical period. Their history in the Middle status of barbarism is entirely lost; except it has been in some measure preserved in their arts, institutions and inventions, and in improvements in language. The Upper Status has the superadded light of tradition and of the Homeric poems to acquaint us with its experience and the measure of, progress then made. But judging from the condition in which their traditions place them, it seems probable that descent, in the female line had not entirely disappeared, at least among the Pelasgian and Grecian tribes, when they entered the Upper Status of barbarism.

When descent was in the female line in the Grecian and Latin gentes, the gens possessed the following among other characteristics: 1. Marriage in the gens was prohibited; thus placing children in a different gens from that of their reputed father. 2. Property and the office of chief were hereditary in the gens; thus excluding children from inheriting the property or succeeding to the office of their reputed father. This state of things would continue until a motive arose sufficiently general and commanding to establish the injustice of this exclusion in the face of their changed condition.

The natural remedy was a change of descent from the female line to the male. All that was needed to effect, the change was an adequate motive. After domestic animals began to he reared in flocks and herds, becoming thereby a source of subsistence as well as objects of individual property, and after tillage had led to the ownership of houses and lands in severalty, an antagonism would he certain to arise against the prevailing form of gentile inheritance, because it excluded the owner’s children, whose paternity was becoming more assured, and gave his property to his gentile kindred. A contest for a new rule of inheritance, shared in by fathers and their children, would furnish a motive sufficiently powerful to effect the change. With property accumulating in masses and assuming permanent forms, and with an increased proportion of it held by individual ownership, descent in the female line was certain of overthrow, and the substitution of the male line equally assured. Such a change would leave the inheritance in the gens as before, but it would place children in the gens of their father, and at the head of the agnatic kindred. For a time, in all probability, they would share in the distribution of the estate with the remaining agnates; but an extension of the principle by which the agnates cut off the remaining gentiles, would in time result in the exclusion of the agnates beyond the children and an exclusive inheritance in the children. Farther than this, the son would now be brought in the line of succession to the office of his father.

Such had the law of inheritance become in the Athenian gens in the time of Solon or shortly after; when the property passed to the son’s equally, subject to the obligation of maintaining the daughters, and of apportioning them in marriage; and in default of sons, to the daughters equally. It there were no children, then the inheritance passed to the agnatic kindred, and in default of the latter, to the gentiles. The Roman law of the Twelve Tables was substantially the same.

It seems probable further, that when descent was changed to the male or still earlier, animal names for the gentes were laid aside and personal names substituted in their place. The individuality of persons would assert itself more and more with the progress of society, and with the increase and individual ownership of property, leading to the naming of the gens after some ancestral hero. Although new gentes were being formed from time to time by the process of segmentation, and others were dying out, the lineage of a gens reached back through hundreds not to say thousands of years. After the supposed substitution, the eponymous ancestor would have been a shifting person, at long intervals of time, some later person distinguished in the history of the gens being put in his place, when the knowledge of the former person became obscured, and faded from view in the misty past. That the more celebrated Grecian gentes made the change of names, and made it gracefully, is shown by the fact, that they retained the name of the mother of their gentile father, and ascribed his birth to her embracement by some particular god. Thus Eumolpus, the eponymous ancestor of the Attic Eumolpidae, was the reputed son of Neptune and Chione; but even the Grecian gens was older than the conception of Neptune.

Recurring now to the main question, the absence of direct proof of ancient descent in the female line in the Grecian and Latin gentes would not silence the presumption in its favour; but it so happens that this form of descent remained in some tribes: nearly related to the Greeks with traces of it in a number of Grecian tribes.

The inquisitive and observing Herodotus found one nation, the Lycians, Pelasgian in lineage, but Grecian in affiliation, among whom in his time (440 B.C.), descent was in the female line. After remarking that the Lycians were sprung from Crete, and stating some particulars of their migration to Lycia under Sarpedon, he proceeds as follows: ‘Their customs are partly Cretan and partly Carian. They have, however, one singular custom in which they differ from every other nation in the world. Ask a Lycian who he is, and he answers by giving his own name, that of his mother, and so on in the female line. Moreover, if a free woman marry a man who is a slave, their children are free citizens; but if a free man marry a foreign woman, or cohabit with a concubine even though he be the first person in the state, the children forfeit all the rights of citizenship.[1] 1t follows necessarily from this circumstantial statement that the Lycians were organized in gentes, with a prohibition against intermarriage in the gens; and that the children belonged to the gens of their mother. It presents a clear exemplification of a gens in the archaic form, with confirmatory tests of the consequences of a marriage of a Lycian man with a foreign woman, and of a Lycian woman with a slave.[2] The aborigines of Crete were Pelasgian, Hellenic and Semitic tribes, living locally apart. Minos, the brother of Sarpedon, is usually regarded as the head of the Pelasgians in Crete; but the Lycians were already Hellenized in the time of Herodotus and quite conspicuous among the Asiatic Greeks for their advancement. The insulation of their ancestors upon the island of Crete, prior to their migration in the legendary period to Lycia, may afford an explanation of their retention of descent in the female line to this late period.

Among the Etruscans also the same rule of descent prevailed. ‘It is singular enough,’ observes Cramer, ‘that two customs peculiar to the Etruscans, as we discover from their monuments, should have been noticed by Herodotus as characteristic of the Lycians and Caunians of Asia Minor. The first is, that the Etruscans invariably describe their parentage and family with reference to the mother, and not the father. The other, that they admitted their wives to their feasts and banquets.[3]

Curtius comments on Lycian, Etruscan and Cretan descent, in the female line in the following language. ‘It would be an error to understand the usage in question as an homage to the female sex. It is rather rooted in primitive conditions of society, in which monogamy was not yet established with sufficient, certainty to enable descent upon the father’s side to be affirmed with assurance. Accordingly the usage extends far beyond the territory commanded by the Lycian nationality. It occurs, even to this day in India; it may be demonstrated to have existed among the ancient Egyptians; it is mentioned by Sanchoniathon (p 16; Orell), where the reasons for its existence are stated with great freedom; and beyond the confines of the East it appears among the Etruscans, among the Cretan, who were so closely connected with the Lycians, and who called their fatherland motherland; and among the Athenians, consult Bachofen, etc. Accordingly, if Herodotus regards the usage in question as thoroughly peculiar to the Lycians, it must have maintained itself longest among them of all the nations related to the Greeks, as is also proved by the Lycian inscriptions. Hence we must in general regard the employment of the maternal name for a designation of descent as the remains of an imperfect condition of social life and family law, which, as life becomes more regulated, was relinquished in favour of usages, afterwards universal in Greece, of naming children after the father. This diversity of usages, which is extremely important for the history of ancient civilization, has been recently discussed by Bachofen in his address above named.[4]

In a work of vast research, Bachofen has collected and discussed the evidence of female authority (mother- right) and of female rule (gyneocracy) among the Lycians, Cretans, Athenians, Lemnians, Egyptians, Orchomenians, Locrians, Lesbians, Mantineans, and among eastern Asiatic nations.[5] The condition of ancient society, thus brought under review, requires for its full explanation the existence of the gens in its archaic form as the source of the phenomena. This would bring the mother and her children into the same gens, and in the composition of the communal household, on the basis of gens, would give the gens of the mothers the ascendancy in the household. The family, which had probably attained the syndyasmian form, was still environed with the remains of that conjugal system which belonged to a still earlier condition. Such a family, consisting of a married pair with their children, would naturally have sought shelter with kindred families in a communal household, in which the several mothers and their children would be of the same gens; and the reputed fathers of these children would be of other gentes. Common lands and joint tillage would lead to joint-tenement houses and communism in living; so that gyneocracy seems to require for its creation, descent in the female line. Women thus entrenched in large households, supplied from common stores, in which their own gens so largely predominated in numbers, would produce the phenomena of mother right and gyneocracy, which Bachofen has detected and traced with the aid of fragments of history and of tradition. Elsewhere I have referred to the unfavourable influence upon the position of women which was produced by a change of descent from the female line to the male, and by the rise of the monogamian family, which displaced the joint-tenement house, and in the midst of a society purely gentile, placed the wife and mother in a. single house and separated her from her gentile kindred.[6]

Monogamy was not probably established among the Grecian tribes until after they had attained the Upper Status of barbarism; and we seem to arrive at chaos in the marriage relation within this period, especially in the Athenian tribes. Concerning the latter, Bachofen remarks: ‘For before the time of Cecrops the children, as we have seen, had only a mother, no father; they were of one line. Bound to no man exclusively, the woman brought only spurious children into the world. Cecrops first made an end of this condition of things; led the lawless union of the sexes back to the exclusiveness of marriage; gave to the children a father and mother, and thus from being of one line (unilateres) made them of two lines (bilateres).[7] What is here described as the lawless union of the sexes must be received with modifications. We should expect at that comparatively late day to find the syndyasmian family, but attended by the remains of an anterior conjugal system which sprang from marriages in the group. The punaluan family, which the statement fairly implies, must have disappeared before they reached the ethnical period named. This subject will be considered in subsequent chapters in connection with the growth of the family.

There is an interesting reference by Polybius to the hundred families of the Locrians of Italy. ‘The Locrians themselves,’ he remarks, ‘have assured me that their own traditions are more conformable to the account of Aristotle than to that of Timaeus. Of this they mention the following proofs. The first is that all nobility of ancestry among them is derived from women, and not from men. That those, for example, alone are noble, who derive their origin from the hundred families. That these families were noble among the Locrians before they migrated; and were the same, indeed, from which a hundred virgins were taken by lot, as the oracle had commanded, and were sent to Troy.[8] It is at least, a reasonable supposition that the rank here referred to was connected with the office of chief of the gens, which ennobled the particular family within the gens, upon one of the members of which it was conferred. If this supposition is tenable, it implies descent in the female line both as to persons and to office. The office of chief was hereditary in the gens, and elective among its male members in archaic times; and with descent in the female line, it would pass from brother to brother, and from uncle to nephew. But the office in each case passed through females, the eligibility of the person depending upon the gens of his brother, who gave him his connection with the gens, and with the deceased chief whose place was to be filled. Wherever office or rank runs through females it requires descent in the female line for its explanation.

Evidence of ancient descent in the female line among the Grecian tribes is found in particular marriages which occurred in the traditionary period. Thus Salmoneus and Kretheus were own brothers, the sons of Aeolus. The former gave his daughter Tyro in marriage to her uncle. Kith descent: in the male line, Kretheus and Tyro would have been of the same gens, and could not have married for that reason; but with descent in the female line, they would have been of different gentes, and therefore not of gentile kin. Their marriage in that case would not have violated strict gentile usages. It is immaterial that the persons named are mythical, because the legend would apply gentile usages correctly. This marriage is explainable on the hypothesis of descent in the female line, which in turn raises a presumption of its existence at the time, or as justified by their ancient usages which had not wholly died out.

The same fact is revealed by marriages within the historical period, when an ancient practice seems to have survived the change of descent to the male line, every though it violated the gentile obligations of the parties. After the time of Solon a brother might marry his half-sister, provided they were born of different mother, but not, conversely. With descent in the female line, they would be of different gentes, and, therefore, not of gentile kin. Their marriage would interfere with no gentile obligation, But with descent in the male line, which was the fact when the cases about to be cited occurred they would be of the same gens, and consequently under prohibition. Cimon married his half-sister, Elpinice, their father being the same, but their mothers different. 1n the Eubulides of Demosthenes we find a similar case. ‘My grandfather,’ says Euxithius, ‘married his sister, she not being his sister by the same mother.[9] Such marriages, against which a strong prejudice had arisen among the Athenians as early as the time of Solon, are explainable as a survival of an ancient custom with respect to marriage, which prevailed when descent was in the female line, and which had not been entirely eradicated in the time of Demosthenes.

Descent in the female line presupposes the gens to distinguish the lineage. With our present knowledge of the ancient and modern prevalence of the gentile organization upon five continents, including the Australian, and of the archaic constitution of the gens, traces of descent in the female line might be expected to exist in traditions, if not in usages coming down to historical times. It is not supposable, therefore, that the Lycians, the Cretans, the Athenians and the Locrians, if the evidence is sufficient to include the last two, invented a usage as remarkable as descent in the female line. The hypothesis that it was the ancient law of the Latin, Grecian, and other Greco- Italian gentes affords a more rational as well as satisfactory explanation of the facts. The influence of property and the desire to transmit it to children furnished adequate motives for the change to the male line.

It may be inferred that marrying out of the gens was the rule among the Athenians, before as well as after the time of Solon, from the custom of registering the wife, upon her marriage, in the phratry of her husband, and the children, daughters as well as sons, in the gens and phratry of their father.[10] The fundamental principle on which the gens was founded was the prohibition of intermarriage among its members as consanguinei. In each gens the number of members was not large. Assuming sixty thousand as the number of registered Athenians in the time of Solon, and dividing them equally among the three hundred and sixty Attic gentes, it would give but one hundred and sixty persons to each gens. The gens was a great family of kindred persons, with common religious rites, a common burial place, and, in general, common lands. From the theory of its constitution, intermarriage would be disallowed. With the change of descent to the male line, with the rise of monogamy and an exclusive inheritance in the children, and with the appearance of heiresses, the way was being gradually prepared for free marriage regardless of gens, but with a prohibition limited to certain degrees of near consanguinity. Marriages in the human family began in the group, all the males and females of which, excluding the children,, were joint husbands and wives; but the husbands and wives were of different gentes; and it, ended in marriages between single pairs, with an exclusive cohabitation. In subsequent chapters an attempt will be made to trace the several forms of marriage and of the family from the first stage to the last. A system of consanguinity came in with the gens, distinguished as the Turanian in Asia, and as the Ganowanian in America, which extended the prohibition of intermarriage as far as the relationship of brother and sister extended among collaterals. This system still prevails among the American aborigines, in portions of Asia and Africa, and in Australia. It unquestionably prevailed among the Grecian and Latin tribes in the same anterior period, and traces of it remained down to the traditionary period. One feature of the Turanian system may be restated as follows: the children of brothers are themselves brothers and sisters, and as such could not intermarry; the children of sisters stood in the same relationship, and were under the same prohibition. It may serve to explain the celebrated legend of the Danaidae, one version of which furnished to Aeschylus his subject for the tragedy of the Suppliants. The reader will remember that Danaus and Aegyptus were brothers, and descendants of Argive Io. The former by different wives had fifty daughters, and the latter by different wives had fifty sons; and in due time the sons of Aegyptus sought the daughters of Danaus in marriage. Under the system of consanguinity appertaining to the gens in its archaic form, and which remained until superseded by the system introduced by monogamy, they were brothers and sisters, and for that reason could not marry. If descent, at the time was in the male line, the children of Danaus and Aegyptus would have been of the same gens, which would have interposed an additional objection to their marriage, and of equal weight. Nevertheless the sons of Aegyptus sought to overstep these barriers and enforce wedlock upon the Danaidae; whilst the latter, crossing the sea, fled from Egypt, to Argos to escape what they pronounced an unlawful and incestuous union. In the Prometheus of the same author, this event is foretold to lo by Prometheus, namely: that in the fifth generation from her future son Epaphus, a band of fifty virgins should come to Argos, not voluntarily, but fleeing from incestuous wedlock with the sons of Aegyptus.[11] Their flight with abhorrence from the proposed nuptials finds its explanation in the ancient system of consanguinity, independently of gentile law. Apart from this explanation the event has no significance, and their aversion to the marriages would have been mere prudery.

The tragedy of the Suppliants is founded upon the incident of their flight over the sea to Argos, to claim the protection of their Argive kindred against the proposed violence of the sons of Aegyptus, who pursued them. At Argos the Danaidae declare that they did not depart from Egypt under the sentence of banishment, but fled from men of common descent with themselves, scorning unholy marriage with the sons of Aegyptus.[12] Their reluctance is placed exclusively upon the fact of kin, thus implying an existing prohibition against such marriages, which they had been trained to respect. After hearing the case of the Suppliants, the Argives in council resolved to afford them protection, which of itself implies the existence of the prohibition of the marriages and the validity of their objection. At the time this tragedy was produced, Athenian, law permitted and even required marriage between the children of brothers in the case of heiresses and female orphans, although the rule seems to have been confined to these exceptional cases; such marriages, therefore, would not seem to the Athenians either incestuous or unlawful but this tradition of the Danaidae had come down from a remote antiquity, and its whole significance depended upon the force of the custom forbidding the nuptials. The turning-point of the tradition and its incidents was their inveterate repugnance to the proposed marriages as forbidden by law and custom. No other reason’ is assigned, and no other is needed. At the same time their conduct is intelligible on the assumption that such marriages were as unpermissible then, as marriage between a brother and sister would be at the present time. The attempt of the sons of Aegyptus to break through the barrier interposed by the Turanian system of consanguinity may mark the time when this system was beginning to give way, and the present system, which came in with monogamy, was beginning to assert itself, and which was destined to set aside gentile usages and Turanian consanguinity by the substitution of fixed degrees as the limits of prohibition.

Upon the evidence adduced it seems probable that among the Pelasgian, Hellenic and Italian tribes descent was originally in the female line, from which, under the influence of property and inheritance, it, was changed to the male line. Whether or not these tribes anciently possessed the Turanian system of consanguinity, the reader will be better able to judge after that system has been presented, with the evidence of its wide prevalence in ancient society.

The length of the traditionary period of these tribes is of course unknown in the years of its duration, but it must be measured by thousands of years. It probably reached back of the invention of the process of smelting iron ore, and if so, passed through the Later Period of barbarism and entered the Middle Period. Their condition of advancement in the Middle Period must have at least equalled that of the Aztecs, Mayas and Peruvians, who were found in the status of the Middle Period; and their condition in the Later Period must have surpassed immensely that, of the Indian tribes named. The vast and varied experience of these European tribes in the two great ethnical periods named, during which they achieved the remaining elements of civilization, is entirely lost, excepting as it is imperfectly disclosed in their traditions, and more fully by their arts of life, their customs, language and institutions, as revealed to us by the poems of Homer. Empires and kingdoms were necessarily unknown in these periods; but tribes and inconsiderable nations, city and village life, the growth and development of the arts of life, and physical, mental and moral improvement, were among the particulars of that progress. The loss of the events of these great periods to human knowledge was much greater than can easily be imagined.


1. Rawlinson’s “Herodotus,” i, 173.

2. If a Seneca-Iroquois man marries a foreign woman, their children are aliens but if a Seneca-Iroquois woman marries an alien, or an Onondaga, their children are Iroquois of the Seneca tribe; and of the gens and phratry of their mother. The woman confers her nationality and her gens upon her children, whoever may be their father.

3. “Description of Ancient Italy,” i, 153; citing “Lanzi,” ii, 314.

4. “History of Greece,” Scribner &. Armstrong’s ed., Ward’s Trans., i, 94, note. The Etiocretes, of whom Minos was the hero, were doubtless Pelasgians. They occupied the east end of the Island of Crete, Sarpedon, a brother of Minos, led the emigrant to Lycia where they displaced the Solymi, a Semitic tribe probably; but the Lycians had become Hellenized, like many other Pelasgian tribes, before the time of Herodotus, a circumstance quite material in consequence of the derivation of the Grecian and Pelasgian tribes from a common original stock. In the time of Herodotus the Lycians were as far advanced in the arts of life as the European Greeks (Curtius, I, 93; Grote, i, 224). It seems probable that descent in the female line was derived from their Pelasgian ancestors.

5. “Das Mutterrecht,” Stuttgrat, 1861.

6. Bachofen, speaking of the (Cretan city of Lyktos remarks that “this city was considered a Lacedaemonian colony, and as also related to the Athenians. 1t was in both cases only on the mother’s side, for only the mothers were Spartan; the Athenian relationship, however, goes back to those Athenian women whom the Pelasgian Tyrrhenians are said to have enticed away from the Brauron promontory. “Das Mutterrecht;” ch. 13, p. 31.

With descent in the male line the lineage of the women would have remained unnoticed; but with descent in the female line the colonists would have given their pedigrees through females only.

7. “Das Mutterrecht,” ch. 38, p. 73.

8. “Polybins,” xii, extract the second, Hampton’s Trans., iii, 242.

9. “Demosthenes contra Eubulides,” 20.

10. Demosth., “Eubul.,” 24: In his time the registration was in the Deme; but it would show who were the phrators, blood relatives, fellow demots and gennetes of the person registered; as Euxitheus says; see also Hermann’s “Polit. Antiq. of Greece,” par. 100

11. “Prometheus,” 853.

12. Aeschylus, “Supp.,” 9.