Sunday, June 20, 2010

Third Sunday in June

In the opening scene of Robert Graves's great historical novel The Golden Fleece (published as Hercules, My Shipmate in the U.S.), one of the surviving Argonauts has come ashore on an island ruled by women. He is interrogated by a priestess who is disgusted by his stories of men taking the upper hand in his world, even of being on top during sex. When she has heard enough, the priestess decides that the man should be killed lest his dangerous ideas should be spread among her own menfolk. He is carried away and, in characteristic Gravesian fashion, "torn to pieces," like Orpheus, by maenads or nereids of nymphs, or whatever the young women called themselves.

Historically, the role that men play in the conception and nurturing of children has been a nebulous one. It was not until fairly recently (a few thousand years ago, that is) that a man's role in procreation was discovered. Prior to that moment, which was an enormous turning point in human history, women held the mystery of life exclusively among themselves. This would explain the preponderance of female figurines that have been found in excavations of early totemistic village sites, that indicate a central, all-powerful earth goddess dominating the spiritual lives of prehistoric cultures.

In a supplement to his monumental 12-volume study of world mythology, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, James Frazer warned against interpreting the dominance of goddesses in the oldest myths as an indication of the dominance of women in prehistoric societies, or what he called "gynocracies". But it is a fact that the further back in time you go in mythology, the less important gods become, until, in the oldest mythologies, there are no gods at all and only an all-powerful earth mother left.

Even if there were no proof to the contention that women enjoyed a more prominent role in ancient societies, there is plenty of proof in human psychology of such a prominence. The first word uttered by every human being is almost invariably the word for mother, from whom all warmth, affection and nourishment comes.

Robert Graves carried the transition from the matriarchal to the patriarchal a little too far, in his learned but nearly incomprehensible book, The White Goddess. I agree with Randall Jarrell that if it helped Graves to write the poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," then it was worth writing. But Graves has contributed to our understanding of the historical/psychological conflict between the male and female principles, and how considerably the female has been disenfranchised in the last three thousand years.

Father's Day was an afterthought, a holiday, like Kwanzaa, created for people who felt left out, an obligatory nod to the Y chromosome. It is also a late development of the developed world, where fathers are more important in our age of two-income households.* In the U.S., the idea for the holiday was first introduced in 1908, but was met with derision in some quarters. Mother's Day had been an official tradition from 1912, but Father's Day was not passed into law until 1972. It has since become, like all holidays, a commercial occasion for buying greeting cards and gifts.

In poor countries, fathers are exceptional when they participate in the life of the families that they played a part in creating. But where matrimony is usually a personal arrangement, fatherhood is only acknowledged in exceptional cases, and then only as a means of support. In a majority of cases, the family unit consists of mothers and their children. Influenced by American traditions, Father's Day is observed here in the Philippines, but without enthusiasm. Reverence for a person who is too often not around is an awkward practice, at best.

* According to, while Mother's Day is the busiest day for phone calls in the U.S., Father's Day is the busiest for collect calls.

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