Bachofen, J. J.

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BACHOFEN, J. J. (18151887) was a Swiss scholar of mythology and Roman law and history. Through his most famous books, Gräbersymbolik (1859) and Mutterrecht (Mother right, 1861), Bachofen had a great influence on twentieth-century culture, even in fields not closely related to the history of religions.


Johann Jakob Bachofen was born to a patrician family in Basel, Switzerland, on December 22, 1815. His father, Johann Jacob Bachofen, owned a highly successful silk ribbon business that had belonged to the family since 1720. The wealth accumulated by the Bachofens was visible in their immense real-estate holdings, as well as in their rich art collection. Bachofen's mother, Valeria Merian, came from one of Basel's most distinguished families of important businessmen, politicians, and university professors.

Bachofen was brought up to be a pious churchgoing member of the French reformed Christian community. In 1831 he became a student at the Pädagogium, the preparatory college of Basel University, which he entered in 1834. Here his most important teacher was Franz Dorotheus Gerlach in Latin, and the two became lifelong friends. From 1835 to 1837 Bachofen studied at Berlin University, attending lectures of the outstanding representative of the historical school of law, Friedrich Karl von Savigny (who influenced him deeply); the romantic geographer Karl Ritter, whose lessons on ancient geography were to be of great importance for Bachofen's conception of matriarchy; the philologists August Böckh and Karl Wilhelm Lachmann; and the historian Leopold von Ranke. In order to deepen his knowledge of Roman law, Bachofen spent the winter semester of 18371838 at the University of Göttingen, where he took courses with Gustav Hugo (the founder of the historical school of law and a friend of Savigny) and the classicist Karl Otfried Müller. In 1838, after having achieved his doctoral degree in Basel with a study on Roman law, Bachofen spent a year in Paris taking courses at the École de Droit and the Collège de France under Pellegrino Rossi, as well as one year in London and Cambridge. By 1840 he had returned to Basel, where he became ordinary professor of Roman law in 1841, appellate judge at the criminal court in 1842 (a post he filled for twenty-five years), and a member of the Basel Senate in 1844. He resigned his university position in 1844 because of a political campaign directed against him by the local press, and in 1845 he gave up his seat in the Senate. He also served briefly on the university governing board (18551858), but resigned because of conflict with a colleague. Thereafter Bachofen withdrew completely from academic life.

The turning point in Bachofen's life came during his first journey to Italy in 1842 (a journey followed by others in 18481849, 18511852, 1863, and 1865). Here, especially while visiting Roman archaeological museums and ancient tombs, he found inspiration for his works on prehistoric, oriental, and pre- or early Roman Italy, and he came to understand the importance of funerary evidence (the Gräberwesen ) for the study of antiquity. Other archaeological trips reinforced this direct approach to the ancient world: Greece (18511852); the British Museum in London (1847 and 1852); the Louvre in Paris (1852, 1860, 1864, and 1865); and Spain and southern France (1861).

After leaving behind his studies on Roman law, which had made him a respected scholar, Bachofen abandoned mainstream classical philology, first in his Geschichte der Römer (1851), in which he led a direct attack on the principles of the eminent scholars Barthold Niebuhr and Theodor Mommsen, then in the Gräbersymbolik and the Mutterrecht. The latter two books, which are inextricably linked, were the result of seventeen years of collecting and organizing a huge amount of literary and archaeological data, most of which remains unpublished.

By the late 1860s Bachofen had started studying the writings of the most important ethnologists and anthropologists of his time: John Ferguson McLennan, Werner Munzinger, John Lubbock, Edward Burnett Tylor, Adolf Bastian, and Lewis Henry Morgan, among others (he read altogether more than six hundred different authors). In these years he planned a revised edition of the Mutterrecht, which would have taken into account "the remains of the maternal system surviving in all the peoples of the world," as he stated in a letter to Heinrich Meyer-Ochsner (November 10, 1870). He never managed to fulfill this task, but published these extensive ethnological data in the Antiquarische Briefe (1880 and 1886). Bachofen died on November 25, 1887; he was survived by his wife, Louise Elisabeth Burckhardt, whom he had married in 1865, and their twenty-one-year-old son.


Bachofen's dissertation on Roman law was written in Latin: De romanorum iudiciis, de legis actionibus, de formulis et de condicione (1840). His inaugural lecture, "Das Naturrecht und das geschichtliche Recht in ihren Gegensätzen," held on the occasion of his appointment to a professorship at Basel University on May 7, 1841, is important for understanding his Savigny-influenced view of Roman law. Other major works on this topic are Die lex Voconia und die mit ihr zusammenhängenden Rechtsinstitute (1843) and Das römische Pfandrecht (1847). Bachofen's main treatises on Roman history are the Politische Betrachtungen über das Staatsleben des römischen Volkes (published posthumously in 1848) and Die Geschichte der Römer, edited with Gerlach (1851).

Bachofen's eventual rejection of scholarly philology and his conversion to a symbolic approach to antiquity is most evident in a letter to Savigny dated September 2427, 1854 (published as "Eine Selbstbiographie" in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft 34, 1916, pp. 337380). In this context the strong impression exercised on Bachofen by the ancient sites of Italy and Greece is of utmost importance (see Griechische Reise, written in 1851 and edited 1927 by Georg Schmidt). Other major writings leading to his works on funerary symbolism and gynecocracy are the unpublished Das alte Italien (especially the incomplete manuscript 104, written in 1855) and the lecture "Über das Weiberrecht" given in Stuttgart on September 9, 1856 (Verhandlungen der 16, Versammlung deutscher Philologen, Schulmänner und Orientalisten, 1857, pp. 4064). Bachofen's two chief books are Versuch über die Gräbersymbolik der Alten (1859) and Das Mutterrecht: Eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der Alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur (1861), the latter of which he dedicated to his mother, Valeria Merian.

Strongly inspired by Georg Friedrich Creuzer's Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (18191822), Bachofen's Gräbersymbolik conceives myth as "the exegesis of the symbol" (Gesammelte Werke, 19431967, vol. 4, p. 61). Myth narrates through a series of connected actions what the symbol embodies and unifies. Similar to a discursive philosophical treatise, myth unfolds the profound, impenetrable muteness of the symbol, though respecting and not violating its intrinsic mystery: "to expound the mystery doctrine in words would be a sacrilege against the supreme law; it can only be represented in the terms of myth" (Gesammelte Werke, 19431967, vol. 4, p. 61). The symbols of funerary art (Bachofen takes into account Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Microasiatic evidence) are thus capable of revealing the true essence of antiquity, as well as of religion throughout. In the Gräbersymbolik, the most significant symbols analyzed are those of the three mysteric eggs and of the rope-weaver Ocnus. The myths arising from them explain the relationships between the cosmic powers of life and death, light and obscurity, spirit and matter, masculine and feminine, and right and left, as well as the duality of Roman power as exemplified by Romulus and Remus (and consul and magistrate).

The symbolic context of the Gräbersymbolik also occurs in Bachofen's best-known work, the Mutterrecht. Here he presents his theory of the evolution of human society from its beginning to modernity as it develops through three stages of civilization (Kulturstufen ). According to this scheme, before the stage of patriarchal society, which extends from Homeric antiquity to the present, in prehistoric times there were two earlier and universal stages. The first was that of haeterism (or aphroditism ), a stage of sexual promiscuity and social anarchy very close to the original state of nature. During this stage, humans lived in swamps without any legal and ethical obligation, and women suffered complete domination by every male component of the horde. Since descent could be reckoned only through the mother, women rebelled against this condition of disorderly life and instituted the mother right, at once a juridical system, a social order, and a religious view founded on the principle of matrilinearity (in Bachofen's view this matrilinear aspect is particularly evident within the ancient Lycians: see his Das lykische Volk und seine Bedeutung für die Entwicklung des Alterthums, 1862).

This second stage, gynecocracy, was thus characterized by the nonviolent power of the materfamilias, who endorsed piety, communal peacefulness, and the prosperity of the people and life. This new stage took place within an agricultural milieu, where the worship of chthonic and lunar deities prevailed over that of heavenly and solar ones. The most important divinity was the mother goddess Demeter, who was closely linked to the fertility of earth and women. Towards its end however, this stage degenerated into amazonism, that is, the military predominance of women over men. The reaction to the female principle was fulfilled by Dionysian religion, which determined the decline of gynecocracy and gave way to the third and last Kulturstufe, that of patriarchy.

In patriarchy, the Dionysian principle was soon replaced by the Apollonian, then by Roman law, and finally by Christianity. Humankind organized society in patrilinear families, grouped in cities, kingdoms, and empires. In Bachofen's view, the patriarchal order represented the victory of spirit over matter, of culture over nature, of reason over instinct, but also of arbitrary power over freedom, of social hierarchy over communal unity, of violence over peace. Beneath Apollo, the main divinity of this stage was Zeus, father and king of the Olympian gods, who embodied the spiritual, uranic, and male principle.

The assumption of a gynecocratic, oriental root for Roman history inspired the main work of Bachofen's maturity, Die Sage von Tanaquil: Eine Untersuchung über den Orientalismus in Rom und Italien (1870), a book juxtaposed with Theodor Mommen's popular Römische Geschichte (18541856). The Antiquarische Briefe vornehmlich zur Kenntnis der ältesten Verwandtschaftsbegriffe (1880/1886), which are dedicated to Morgan, shed light on the great influence the American scholar had on Bachofen starting from 1874 onwards, inspiring his vast studies on the institution of the avunculate in matrilinear societies (still partly unpublished). The posthumously edited Römische Grablampen (1890) shows how in the last weeks of his life Bachofen had returned to study funerary symbolism.

Reception and Influence

During Bachofen's lifetime only his writings on Roman law were appreciated. His works on Roman history and on mythology were criticized or even ignored by most of the scholars of his time. The only specialists who admired Bachofen's work were Meyer-Ochsner, a wealthy private scholar like himself, and Alexis Giraud-Teulon, a French honorary professor at the University of Geneva; Bachofen corresponded with both of them for years. Giraud-Teulon was profoundly influenced by the Mutterrecht, whose theories he reformulated in La mère chez certains peuples de l'antiquité (1867) and Les origines du mariage et de la famille (1884). These works presented Bachofen's ethno-sociological conceptions from a scholarly though simplified point of view, making them accessible to anthropologists, ethnologists, and sociologists of the time. Lubbock (The Origin of Civilization, 1870) and McLennan (Studies in Ancient History, 1876) took great interest in Giraud-Teulon's interpretations of Bachofen's ideas; Morgan even considered the Swiss scholar to be the predecessor of his own theories (Ancient Society, 1877). From the end of the nineteenth century until the late 1920s, Bachofen was considered a forerunner of family-evolutionism; most discussed were his conceptions of haeterism and matrilinear gynecocracy. Although these topics were progressively abandoned by scholars, Bachofen's theory of the Kulturstufen, closely related to that of the Kulturkreise, survived within the ethnology and sociology of the first half of the twentieth century (e.g., that of Leo Frobenius, Oswald Spengler, Adolf Ellegard Jensen, and Wilhelm Schmidt).

Morgan's works and Giraud-Teulon's Bachofen-influenced idea of an original communism influenced Karl Marx (see The Ethnological Notebooks, edited by Lawrence Krader, 1972) and Friedrich Engels (Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staates, 1884; in the fourth edition of this book in 1891 Bachofen's influence is even stronger). Later this topic was studied also by Paul Lafargue, Heinrich Cunow, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, and Ernst Bloch.

The work of Bachofen reached its greatest popularity during the 1920s, when it was rediscovered by the Münchner Kosmiker Karl Wolfskehl, Alfred Schuler, and Ludwig Klages. Klages's Vom Kosmogonischen Eros (1922) introduced a true Bachofen-Renaissance, which expanded in a variety of fields, reaching from mythical symbolism (Carl Albrecht Bernoulli, J. J. Bachofen und das Natursymbol [1924] and J. J. Bachofen als Religionsforscher [1924]; Alfred Bäumler, "Bachofen, der Mythologe der Romantik," an introduction to the renowned anthology of Bachofen's work, Der Mythus von Orient und Occident, edited by Bäumler and Manfred Schröter [1926]; and Karl Kerényi, Bachofen und die Zukunft des Humanismus [1945]), to psychology (Carl Gustav Jung, who suggested translating Bachofen's work into English in 1967, and Erich Neumann), to literature (Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gerhard Hauptmann, Walter Benjamin, and Thomas Mann), to ancient history (George Thomson), to city planning (Lewis Mumford), and to feminism (August Bebel, Robert Briffault, Ernest Bornemann, Evelyn Reed, Ida Magli, Marie Louise Janssen-Jurreit, Richard Fester, and Heide Göttner-Abendroth).

See Also

Creuzer, G. F.; Evola, Julius; Family; Feminine Sacrality; Feminist Theology, overview article; Frobenius, Leo; Goddess Worship, overview article; Gynocentrism; Kulturkreiselehre; Patriarchy and Matriarchy.


A detailed bibliography of Bachofen's printed writings and the literature on his life and works is available in Hans-Jürgen Hildebrandt, J. J. Bachofen: A Bibliography of the Primary and Secondary Literature (in English and German; Aachen, Germany, 1988). Most of Bachofen's published and previously unpublished work has been collected in his Gesammelte Werke, 8 vols., edited by Karl Meuli and others (Basel, 19431967). The remaining (10,000) unedited handwritten pages lying in the Basel University archive are thoroughly described by Johannes Dörmann in his Archiv J. J. Bachofen auf der Grundlage des Nachlasses J. J. Bachofen (Basel, 1987; appendix to the Gesammelte Werke, vol. 5). Further insight into the Bachofen-Archiv is supplied by Emanuel Kienzle, "Nachwort," in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 6, pp. 459477 (1951); Ernst Howald, "Nachwort," in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 507560 (1954); and Philippe Borgeaud, La mythologie du matriarcat: L'atelier de J. J. Bachofen (Geneva, 1999). A selection of Bachofen's major work in English translation, with notes, glossary, and bibliography, is Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J. J. Bachofen, translated by Ralph Mannheim with a preface by George Boas and an introduction by Joseph Campbell (Princeton, 1967; 2d ed., 1992).

The most complete sketch of Bachofen's life and work until 1861 is Karl Meuli's "Nachwort," in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3, pp. 10111128 (1948). The years leading to the Sage von Tanaquil are covered by Emanuel Kienzle, "Nachwort," in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 6, pp. 447451 (1951), whereas the period after 1870 is examined by Johannes Dörmann's "Bachofens 'Antiquarische Briefe' und die zweite Bearbeitung des Mutterrechts," in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 8, pp. 523602 (1966). The peculiarity of Bachofen's personality within German scholarship has been outlined by Jonathan D. Fishbane, Mother-right, Myth, and Renewal: The Thought of J. J. Bachofen and Its Relationship to the Perception of Cultural Decadence in the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1982), and Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt (Chicago and London, 2000), pp. 111200, the latter focusing on Bachofen's relationship to Mommsen ("Orpheus Philologus: Bachofen versus Mommsen on the Study of Antiquity," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 73 [1983]: 189). Bachofen's studies in the history of Roman law have been examined by Roy Garré, Fra diritto romano e giustizia popolare: Il ruolo dell'attività giudiziaria nella vita e nell'opera di J. J. Bachofen (Frankfurt am Main, 1999), and Annamaria Rufino, Diritto e storia: J. J. Bachofen e la cultura giuridica romantica, 2d ed. (Naples, 2002). His conception of history was examined by Georg Schmidt, J. J. Bachofens Geschichtsphilosophie (Munich, 1929); Johannes Dörmann, "War J. J. Bachofen Evolutionist?" Anthropos 60 (1695): 148; and Andreas Cesana, J. J. Bachofens Geschichtsdeutung (Basel, 1983); his relationship to politics by Max Burckhardt, J. J. Bachofen und die Politik (Basel, 1942).

In Germany, Bachofen's success in the second half of the twentieth century owes much to Marxism and feminism (see Uwe Wesel, Der Mythos vom Matriarchat [Frankfurt am Main, 1980] and Hartmut Zinser, Der Mythos des Mutterrechts [Frankfurt am Main, 1981]); to literature (Walter Muschg, Bachofen als Schriftsteller [Basel, 1949]); and to psychology (Adrien Turel, Bachofen-Freud: Zur Emanzipation des Mannes vom Reich der Mütter [Bern, 1939]). A comprehensive reconstruction of the Bachofen -Renaissance can be found in Das Mutterrecht von J. J. Bachofen in der Diskussion, edited by Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, 2d ed. (Frankfurt am Main, 1987). Other collections include J. J. Bachofen (18151887): Eine Begleitpublikation zur Ausstellung im Historischen Museum Basel, edited by Barbara Huber-Greub (Basel, 1987) and Matriarchatstheorien der Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Beate Wagner-Hasel (Darmstadt, Germany, 1992).

In France, where the Mutterrecht had been translated already in 1903 by the Group of Feminist Studies in Paris (a new translation by Étienne Barilier appeared 1996 in Lausanne), the strong criticism of Émile Durkheim prevented Bachofen's work from having any influence within the École Sociologique. In Italy, on the contrary, where most of Bachofen's works have been translated (starting with the anthology Le madri e la virilità olimpica, edited by Julius Evola [Milan, 1949]), many scholars have produced important writings on various aspects of the Swiss mythologist (Arnaldo Momigliano, Giampiera Arrigoni, Giulio Schiavoni, Eva Cantarella, and Giampiero Moretti). International conferences on Bachofen took place in 1987 and 1988 (Pisa: "Seminario su J. J. Bachofen," Annali della Scuola Normale di Pisa 18 [1988]: 599887; Rome: "J. J. Bachofen e la discussione sull'origine dello Stato," Quaderni di Storia 28 [1988]: 7139).

Alessandro Stavru (2005)