Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Why does sexism persist? Some would say it’s because our ancient reverence for the feminine was displaced by worship of male gods. And what caused that? In The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (Viking), Leonard Shlain, surgeon, author, and independent scholar, links the demise of the goddess to the rise of literacy. “Writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook,” he argues. “Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.”
These are unsettling claims, but Shlain gathers a wide range of evidence, from Paleolithic cave paintings in the south of France to the pulsing computer screens of cyberspace, to support his “neuroanatomical hypothesis.”
Shlain theorizes that major cultural shifts may follow a society’s advances in literacy. Acts of reading and writing strengthen the brain’s linear left hemisphere at the expense of the right hemisphere’s more holistic, visual approach. Shlain calls the former abilities “masculine” and the latter “feminine,” noting that images are usually perceived in an all-at-once fashion, while one reads or writes words in linear sequence. Thus, the hypothesis: the shift to literacy and alphabetic writing led directly to the domination of masculine modes of thinking, the abhorrence of images, and a marked decline in the political and social status of women. The result? A decline in women’s rights and goddess worship.
During a tour of Mediterranean archaeological sites, the author recalls, “At nearly every Greek site we visited, [our tour guide] patiently explained that the shrines we stood before had originally been consecrated to a female deity. And, later, for unknown reasons, unknown persons reconsecrated them to a male one.” Traveling to Crete, Shlain paused “among the impressive remains of Knossos. Elegant palace murals depicted festive court women, girl acrobats, and snake-holding priestesses—evidence of women’s seemingly high status in Bronze Age Minoan culture.”
Shlain’s tour ended at Ephesus, site of the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, once the largest shrine to a female deity in the Western world. Here, the tour guide tells the legend of Mary, Jesus’ mother, coming to Ephesus to die.
Contemplating all of this, Shlain comes up with his book’s central questions: Why did property begin to pass only through the father’s line? What event in human history could have been so pervasive and immense that it literally changed the sex of God?
There are, of course, a number of feminist scholars who have done pioneering work on these topics. Shlain cites the path-finding books of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (The Language of the Goddess; HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), art historian Elinor Gadon (The Once and Future Goddess; HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), and social theorist Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade; HarperSanFrancisco, 1988). Shlain’s unique contribution to the field is his application of scientific discoveries regarding left and right hemispheric brain function to explanations of social change. Who would have thought that the move to literacy might have initiated the reign of patriarchy?
Shlain begins a long search through recorded history for “the thug who mugged the Great Goddess.” The alphabet, according to most sources, was invented in Phoenicia. But the oldest alphabet uncovered by archeologists was found in the Sinai desert, where Yahweh gave Moses the Ten Commandments, one seminal document that announced patriarchal monotheism and the proscription of sensuous imagery. The first commandment enforces the central tenet of monotheism: “Thou shalt revere no other gods or goddesses.” The second commandment famously banishes all images of the Divine and the natural world: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
The ancient Greeks, like the ancient Israelites, also revised their myths to the detriment of the feminine. Shlain points to the masculinizing effects of literacy in the revised Greek myths recounting the births of three major goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, from gods: “New myths are frequently imposed on a culture by the needs of a dominant ruling class. What better way to discredit women’s roles in the creation of life, and by extension, the Great Goddess, than to have your goddesses born of gods?”
The stories and teachings of Athens’ three most famous philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, tell a similar tale of the gradual devaluation of the feminine:
“The slide from [Socratic] egalitarianism to [Aristotelian] misogyny … compressed into a few years the gradual degradation of women that took place over the centuries that Greek culture passed from an oral tradition to an alphabetic written one.”
A similar shift occurred in ancient India, where the goddess-friendly cultures of Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Valley were overwhelmed by successive waves of patriarchal, script-bearing invaders. Yet, Shlain notes, “despite the virtual suffocation of the older, egalitarian culture of early India by warrior Aryans, misogynist Greeks, and anti-iconic patriarchal Muslims, Hindu culture, especially in the south, somehow managed to retain many feminine characteristics.”
Surprisingly, Shlain predicts a return of the power of the image:
“The invention of photography and the discovery of electromagnetism have brought us film, television, video, computers, advertising, graphics, and a shift from the dominance of the left hemisphere to reassertion of the right. Image information has gradually been superseding print information, and in the resulting social revolution women have benefited as society shifts to embrace feminine values.”
Shlain is convinced we are “entering a new Golden Age in which the right-hemispheric values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature will begin to ameliorate the conditions that have prevailed for the too-long period during which left-hemispheric values were dominant.”
Gaylon Ferguson is an anthropologist studying the traditional cultures of West Africa.