Marisa Rey-Henningsen, The World of the Ploughwoman. Folklore and Reality in Matriarchal Northwest Spain.
Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 254. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1994. 293 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0746-2), FIM 165,­
Soft (ISBN 951-41-0745-4), FIM 140,­

Marisa Rey-Henningsen, The Tales of the Ploughwoman. Appendix to FFC 254.
Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 259. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1996. 154 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0782-9), FIM 100,­
Soft (ISBN 951-41-0781-0), FIM 75,­

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Marisa Rey-Henningsen was born and brought up in Madrid. Her parents were from Galicia, and as a child she grew up in a society in which old Galician tales were still told. Although she moved later to Denmark, she frequently returned back to Spain in the 1960s and 1970s to collect Galician folklore, especially tales. The two books she has recently published ­ The Tales of the Ploughwoman (texts) and The World of the Ploughwoman (research) ­ are a synthesis of her fieldwork and research.

Her analysis of Galician culture and tales is of great interest not least because of the dual identity of the author. She is both an insider and an outsider: a Galician woman who speaks of herself, and an anthropologist-folklorist who speaks of “the other”. Her own freely admitted position as a go-between seems to have given her an extra sensitivity to discern and analyse the expressive co-existence of the two opposed cultures in Galicia: matriarchal and patriarchal. One who is both different and similar has a special insight (perhaps also a passion) which captures deep meanings in small differences which to many others appear insignificant.

One of Rey-Henningsen’s starting points is that “folklore is the mirror of society”, that “tales reflect the cultural patterns of society”. From this it follows what folklore is not. It is not “wishful thinking”, “poetic fiction”, day-dreaming. Rey-Henningsen rejects literary and psychoanalytical methods which promote such ideas and takes a firm stand on sociocultural analysis. For her this means, first, that the researcher must know the culture which is creating a folklore. Only with that knowledge is a cultural context analysis possible, in which the criteria for the analysis of folklore are the community’s own cultural values. This approach brings into play the concept of “reality” more prominently than is usual in folkloristics.

Personally I admit an inclination towards utopian forms of “wishful thinking”. I think that imagination in women’s culture (as well as in others) is of great importance. Perhaps this is why I find Rey-Henningsen’s thorough historical and social analysis of Galician peasant culture convincing and impressive. She assures even the doubtful reader of the importance of the facts behind folklore for a proper understanding of its meanings. As background she gives a short history of Galician family structures from the times of the Roman Spain (AD 202­409) through the Catholic Middle Ages up to the present day. We learn that the pre-Roman Iberian Peninsula was, especially in the north, to a large extent inhabited by various matrilineal communities. In the course of centuries the matriarchal ideology was in a living dialogue with the official patriarchal one, and there were periods, in the Middle Ages for example, when the matriarchal element shaped Spanish culture as a whole. Many of the local communities have continued to exist side by side with the patrilineal communities and the patriarchal official order.

In the most common matrilineal family model the mother is the leader of the family and the owner of the property. Thus inheritance and lineage continue from mother to daughter (when there are no daughters a son can inherit), and daughter’s family lives in her mother’s house. This model has been especially strong and resilient in Galicia. Rey-Henningsen describes this local social form on the basis of historical sources, the results of the social-anthropological research of Carmelo Lisón Tolosana, and her own fieldwork. Her approach is a good example of the advantages of multi-disciplinary research and shows clearly that several matrilineal systems dominated Galician peasant communities until the 1970s. Equally important is the fact that patrilineal systems also co-existed with the matrilineal ones in Galicia, although they were less common. Together these systems created an interesting two-voiced culture which was unceasingly in creative conflict with itself.

Rey-Henningsen emphasises that she is speaking of a living, real matriarchy, and not of an uncertain myth in the distant past, which so many have been searching for before. The concepts “matriarchy” and “matriarchal” remain somewhat loose, as the author does not give any precise definition of this central feature in the research volume. Nevertheless, she constantly describes and analyses its various dimensions. She speaks of family matriarchy, and of matriarchal areas, regions, environments, societies, countries, power structures, systems, order, family patterns, cultural traditions, ideology, thinking… In the preface to the text volume, however, she does attempt a definition: “Rather than the idealised concept of matriarchy propounded by romantic evolutionists, Marxist philosophers and feminists throughout more than 150 years of debate, I use the term ’matriarchal’ to denote the female-oriented culture resulting from the convergence of descent in the female line, matrilocality, daughters’ right to inherit, female chauvinism, tolerance of female sexual life and mother-centred religious ideas. That which establishes the cultural supremacy of the female sex, with all its consequences ­ the primacy of the realm of the mother, idealisation of the mother-daughter relationship, discrimination against the opposite sex, religious dominance of the cult of the Mother of God ­ in a kind of ’inverted patriarchy’ is what I refer to as matriarchal.”

Matrilineal social systems produce, Rey-Henningsen believes, matriarchal culture. Of this culture she gives an overall description in which she discusses the feminine-oriented culture through its main components (e.g. sanctity of mother, importance of mother-daughter relationship, battle of the sexes). Throughout she shows clearly how the female bias expresses itself in the symbolism of everyday objects (e.g. breast-shaped cheeses), in the ways people talk and tell stories, in the forms of verbal aggression between the sexes, in women’s sexual life, and, especially, in religion and magic. In addition to the overall picture of the cultural and social strength of women in Galicia, the presence of the author ­ with her comments drawn from her childhood and fieldwork ­ makes the description many-sided. Some themes are especially interesting, such as the idea and practice of prenatal baptism as part of female-oriented fertility rites. These descriptions offer magnificent insights into how women’s problems can be solved in a matriarchal culture. The account of the struggle between female and male saints in the local churches gives a vivid picture of the competition between matriarchal and patriarchal cultures in Galicia.

The description of Galician matriarchal culture serves as the larger frame of reference for Rey-Henningsen’s ultimate aim: the analysis of folktales as one of its verbal manifestations. The text volume with its 85 tales, half of them collected by the author and her husband Gustav Henningsen, is a welcome addition. Even if it is inevitably only a selection, with a special matriarchal purpose and arrangement, it makes it easier for the reader to follow the analysis of the tales. Research can even be continued by the reader, especially as each tale is not exhaustively handled in Rey-Henningsen’s research.

The author brings a fresh approach to consideration of various tale-genres as a cultural unity expressing matriarchal and sometimes also patriarchal ideas. Thus she does not dwell on genre-analysis, which for her is not important. Instead she emphasises another folkloristic device: the didactic, imprinting and conforming functions of the tales. This emphasis helps her to keep her main point clearly visible: to show that gender consciousness ­ either matriarchal or patriarchal, or a mixture of both ­ determines the structure or scheme of the tales. However, the concentration on the functions of folklore narrows the world of tales. In principle this world should be infinite, and not bound to certain limited functions.

Nevertheless, the functions seem less important when the author deals with the rich world of the tales themselves in the actual analysis. Rey-Henningsen presents “the matriarchal tale paradigm” which is not linear (A -> B) like the Proppian but circular (A -> A): the hero goes back to the place from where she or he started, i.e. his or her mother’s home. The driving force is the hero’s love for mother. The tales use inverted gender patterns: woman is active and aggressive, man passive and weak; and Virgin Mary can take the role of God. The tales stress matriarchal values: priority of daughter, sovereignty of mother, marginalisation of father and husband, unimportance of romantic love. The romantic idealisation of unequal match (poor boy marries king’s daughter) is here seen from a realistic angle: this kind of match does not communicate the wishful thinking of the poor, but reflects the real experience of the irrelevance of man in matriarchal societies.

Striking interpretations like this sometimes make the reader wonder whether the author’s profound knowledge of matrilineal reality has led her see the tales as a repetition of what she already knows. But at their best her interpretations ­ together with comparisons of patriarchal versions of the tales and the indisputable evidence of the texts ­ work well. They open doors to a world of incredibly powerful female order of precedence. A good example is the analysis of the tale of St Catherine. Unlike any other version, in the Galician tale St Catherine prefers living in Hell with her mother to staying in Heaven without her.

This matriarchal ideology, which Rey-Henningsen brings to light, especially through folklore, will inspire anyone who is interested in women’s cultures. Reading her book brought constantly to mind songs and laments of Karelian and Ingrian women which in many areas also represent a powerful female culture. In many respects this culture too could be described in Rey-Henningsenian terms: it too shows the projection of the female self on to the Virgin Mary; it too places a strong emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship and on the systematic view of all human beings as mothers’ children. Could we call also this culture matriarchal? And how would Rey-Henningsen interpret its nature: does it present historical evidence of a former matrilineal society? Or is it, as I have always thought, an independent and ever changing female creation which at its best is so free that it can override the surrounding patriarchal frame?

Senni Timonen
Finnish Literature Society

FF Network No. 14
(December 1997): 20-22

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