Its been a while since I’ve done a feminist book review, so when Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future became available through my public library’s digital collection I decided to give it a try. Unbeknownst to me, this book is considered a seminal work in women’s studies and remains a best seller under Amazon.com’s “Women’s Studies History” category.
I must admit that I found the book to be a bit of a mess. I’ve found that “seminal works” often cover too much ground, lack focus, and end up repeating themselves haphazardly in their quest to revolutionize established systems of thought. All three criticisms apply in this case. Despite these shortcomings, however, I believe the book’s underlying premise offers great value. Let me explain.
Eisler’s thesis revolves around two proposed societal models: partnership societies and dominator societies.
- Partnership societies value creation and renewal. Their interpersonal relationships link people, connect them, and stress affiliation. Power and organization are used for enabling and actualizing functions.
- Dominator societies, in contrast, value violence and destruction. Their relationships are ranked such that some individuals hold superior positions over those deemed inferior. Its power structures pursue domination. This model arguably prevails in our current reality.
These models don’t revolutionize much on their own, but Eisler goes one step further. Most of us assume that our persistent dominator proclivities trace all the way back to cave men hoisting clubs and dragging women around by the hair. Eisler argues the opposite, that Neolithic partnership societies existed for thousands of years before a few rouge dominator groups invaded and crashed the party. As such, creative, equal, and supportive societies are not Utopian fantasies.
The author first argues that new archaeological excavations (as of the 1980s) and reinterpretations of previous finds demonstrate that most Neolithic people lived in stable communities for hundreds if not thousands of years without fortifications or evidence of rank or warfare. Her evidence also points to widespread worship of a great Goddess as demonstrated by their temples, art, and figurines. From this, the author sees an ancient world filled with women and men living equally and peacefully while in tune with the mystery of life, death, and rebirth.
Then the archaeological record shifts dramatically as, presumably, dominator groups come on the scene, bringing mountain or thunder gods championing destruction and death. Within a few centuries every town is fortified and burial sites show clear hierarchies with lots of military artifacts. By the time historical records appear in Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, the partnership model and its Goddess were fading into myth, their symbols undermined or co-opted.
While this account appears eminently plausible, the lay reader cannot reasonably evaluate Eisler’s claims regarding the archaeological evidence. My hunch is that she overstates her case a bit, or at least is generous when interpreting unknowable Neolithic symbolism and representation. However, given prevailing views at the time of publication (interpreting everything as spears and hunting), I am willing to forgive her if she overcompensates a bit (interpreting everything as trees and fertility).
Despite these misgivings, I found her discussion of ancient literary and cultural evidence quite compelling. It turns out that ancient texts contain a wealth of references and hints to earlier partnership societies and their Goddess if you just look. Greek myths reference an earlier golden time, plausibly a reference to a hold-out partnership society on this island of Crete. Similarly, consider the strange number of wise and/or powerful women Odysseus encounters in The Odyssey.
Careful readings of biblical texts (among other Mesopotamian texts) also reveal references or hints to an earlier partnership reality. Others demonstrate just how the Goddess and her partnership values were undermined and replaced by male gods and their dominator values. Most damning, to me, is the book of Genesis. The Adam and Eve story, for example, takes on sinister new meaning when you know that serpents (“reborn” as they shed their skins) were prominent Goddess symbols. In addition,
also not coincidence is that the trees of knowledge and life, once associated with the worship of the Goddess, are here presented as the private property of a supreme male deity– symbolizing, and legitimizing, the absolute life-and-death power over society of the ruling castes of men, as well as of all men over women.
The Cain and Abel story also looks different from our new vantage point. The mountain god doesn’t want the Goddess’ life-giving fruit and vegetable offerings, he wants a blood sacrifice.
As Eisler goes on, it becomes clear that our acceptance of domination culture as “natural” and “right” is conditioned and that our systems and institutions perpetuate this model. Consider our cultural obsession with virginity and sexual purity:
a woman who behaves as a sexually and economically free person is a threat to the entire social and economic fabric of a rigidly male-dominated society. Such behavior cannot be countenanced lest the entire social and economic system fall apart. Hence the “necessity” for the strongest social and religious condemnation and the most extreme punishment.”
Another telling section heading reads: “Knowledge Is Bad, Birth Is Dirty, Death Is Holy.” Need I say more? No wonder we have problems.
Eisler ultimately argues that when partnership values have flourished in our societies, our cultures have also flourished. Alternatively, when dominator values dominate, our cultures suffer under totalitarianism. This conclusion seems obvious at this point, but what do we do with it?
The author attempts to draw direct connections between partnership and women, although I couldn’t quite work out what the proposed relationship would be. Do women drive partnership values such that we should liberate women to bring about peace and prosperity? That angle seems to endorse the connected and nurturing woman stereotype more than I’m comfortable with. Alternatively, do partnership values, often associated with women, both liberate women and give us peace and prosperity? If so, how to we elevate partnership values? I was going to say “the battle cry isn’t clear,” but then I realized that’s a dominator metaphor.
What is clear is that we want a partnership society and we need a partnership society. As Eisler writes,
The old love for life and nature and the old ways of sharing rather than taking away, of caring for rather than oppressing, and the view of power as responsibility rather than domination did not die out.
Just consider how persistent the Great Mother concept has been despite three millennia of repression: Greek and Roman fertility goddesses, Isis and Cybele mystery cults during Roman times, Mary Mother of God in the Christian faith . . .
Unfortunately, domination is very good at fighting back and at co-opting new technology to advance its rule (the whole swords vs. plowshares thing). For instance, the domination system successfully leveraged the industrial revolution to deem women’s work inferior to men’s work (see my previous posts here and here). We still wrestle with that result today. After reading this book, I’m certain that dominators are co-opting the IT revolution as I write. Just as women and other subordinated groups have found new connections, creative outlets, and means for self actualization through the internet, new media, and social networking, dominant groups are fighting back with threats, harassment, violence, and exclusion. Unless we act quickly and strongly to advance our partnership values, I am certain that dominance values will be with us for another century.
Ultimately, while I am not a “spiritual” person, after reading The Chalice and the Blade I’ve become a firm believer in The Goddess, or at least what she represents: creation, connection, and renewal. We desperately need these values in our world today, and I am determined to do my part to advance them.