Matrilineality among the Lycians


Herodotus, the fifth-century historian from Halicarnassus, a major city of ancient Caria, a region of Anatolia adjoining Lycia, should have known the customs of his neighbours (Vernier 2006 [1]: 35), and above all those he considered so exceptional, such as matrilineality, that is tracing descent through maternal lines (DL 34-35; LLES 141-158). Nevertheless, most scholars cannot agree with the so-called "speculative ethnography" (Mora 1986 [2]: 45, 240-248) they see at work in Herodotus's witness about the Lycian kinship system. However, as no conclusive evidence against it can be reached, we should not have the same stance we take when he describes the Hyperboreans living in the farthest north. After listening to the "father of history", I will show that among the Cainites, some traces of matrilineality may be found as well. "Their customs are in part Cretan and in part Carian. But they have one which is their own and shared by no other men; they take their names not from their fathers but from their mothers; and when one is asked by his neighbour who he is, he will say that he is the son of such a mother, and recount the mothers of his mother. Nay, if a woman of full rights marry a slave, her children are deemed pure born; and if a true-born Lycian man take a stranger wife or concubine, the children are dishonoured, though he be the first in the land" (Herodotus, I 173). The so-called "prophecy" envisaged in the third chapter of Genesis: "I will put enmity / between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head and you shall crave his heel." (15), should be taken seriously, for example reading the name of Cain's son, "Enoch" (ḥănôk) as Lycian xñnahi (GLyk 125; DLL 83) that is, "grandmother's", which means that the Cainites want to keep a close relationship with grandmother Eve, they want to stress they are "children of the First Woman". In the Lycian funerary inscriptions, we have clear attestations of a tribute to grandmothers (Schürr 2008 [3]: 177, 183-184). The name of the Lycian dynast Xinaxa (DLL 109) and the Mylian xinasi- (GLyk 123, s.v. xinasike; DLL 135, s.v. xinase/i–, "grandmother's") may follow the same leitmotif.

Originally Published: April 16, 2021

Last Updated: June 22, 2021

  1. Vernier, B., Quelques remarques méthodologiques sur l’étude comparative des systèmes de parenté, in Parenté et société dans le monde grec. De l’Antiquité à l’âge moderne, A. Bresson, Editor. 2006, Ausonius Éditions: Pessac. p. 27-44.
  2. Mora, F., Religione e religioni nelle storie di Erodoto. 1986, Milano: Jaca Book.