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May

The Chalice vs. the Blade

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Riane Eisler describes how humankind once lived in a caring, sharing environment. That period, which lasted for tens of thousands of years, survived, though barely, just into historical times. It was characterized by a worship of the divine feminine as represented by the chalice in the title of Eisler’s book.

In a blink of the eye, historically speaking, that environment was brutally overthrown and replaced with the beginnings of the patriarchy in which we live today. Those who overthrew this golden age worshipped not life and creativity, but death and destruction; in short, the blade. Those in power today continue to worship that blade, which has been changed by the rapid rise of technology into the lethal systems that could end all life on the planet in a matter of days or hours.

The premise of The Chalice and the Blade is that the rapid transition from a partnership society to a male dominator society was the result of the sociological equivalent of a “critical bifurcation point” in Chaos theory. Eisler explains in some detail how the currently popular scientific theory applies to that sudden shift into darkness that occurred approximately six or seven thousand years ago. However, she also goes on to propose that we once again face a critical bifurcation point; that we live in an exciting, dangerous time in which we can just as rapidly overthrow our hierarchically controlled patriarchal system and replace it with a technologically advanced model of the partnership system in which both genders work together to emphasize the nurturing side of life.

That’s the theory, anyway.

I found the early part of The Chalice and the Blade fascinating. Eisler frequently quotes such notables as Marija Gimbutas and James Mellaart, whose archaeological findings are the supporting pillars in Wiccan/Pagan cosmology. In fact, my only complaint about the first two-thirds of the book is that Eisler often refers to specific photos in the books of those two authors, but does not reproduce the photos in The Chalice and the Blade. Not a problem if you have the other works at hand; however, not everyone does.

About a third of the way from the end of the book, however, I began to lose interest. This is the point at which Eisler begins to explain how our age has reached that critical point in which we can effect a rapid transformation of our patriarchal (dominator) society into anything we want–in particular, the partnership model that would truly represent a maturing of our species. So why did I lose interest? Eisler’s theory is the stuff of dreams.

I would give almost anything to return to a Chalice-oriented social structure. However, Eisler just didn’t convince me that we have reached that critical bifurcation point. She labors long on man’s cruelty to woman and what things might be like; too long, by a good measure. Of course, in the vernacular of the internet, YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Having lived in those heady days of revolution known as the sixties, I’m a little more realistic about the pace at which change occurs. However, those days also taught me that persistence is how to bring change about. For that reason, I can criticize Eisler for her verbosity, but not her persistence.

If you’ve read Mellaart and Gimbutas, you might want to pass on reading The Chalice and the Blade. However, if your Goddess history is a little weak, you should take a look at this book to fill in the gaps. ~ Yona

*****

Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade was one of several books by feminist scholars released in the late 1980’s that tried to sketch out the origins of patriarchy in order to suggest ways that it might be ended. Like Marilyn French’s Beyond Power and Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy, Eisler asserts that patriarchy is built on particular symbol and value reversals – the Great Mother Goddess, primary symbol for the divine source of being and associated with peace and compassion, is marginalized and then discarded entirely, while a masculine war god is raised in her place. Of these three similar books, however, Eisler’s is by far the shortest, simplest, and easiest to read, which may account for its continuing popularity and multiple reprintings since its initial publication in 1987. At the time of writing, the book has sold over 500,000 copies and has inspired a similar study of China edited by Min Jiayin, The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture.

Eisler uses the symbols of chalice and blade to stand for two competing sets of values and models of society. The chalice stands for a style of social structure that Eisler calls the partnership model, in which relations between the sexes are understood primarily in terms of partnership rather than hierarchy. The resulting society is egalitarian, peaceful, and matrifocal, centered on the nurturing values traditionally associated with mothers. Using a variety of archaeological studies, Eisler claims that such societies existed in Neolithic Europe from the beginning of the agricultural revolution until around 5000-3000 BCE, when warlike invaders from the fringes of these regions conquered them. These invaders’ social model, which Eisler calls the dominator model, is warlike, hierarchical, and organized around patterns of domination. Sex, race, class, and other characteristics are used to rank individuals in a social pecking order, which is then kept in place with the threat of violence. This model is generally associated with a male god and with the glorification of the ability to take life, in contrast to the partnership model’s sacralization of women’s ability to give life through birth. Eisler also coins more technical-sounding terms to describe the dimension of gender in these models: she calls the principle of the partnership model gylany, which is intended to invoke the linking of the two sexes, while she refers to dominator societies as practicing androcracy, the rule of men by force.

For Eisler, history is the keystone of her argument, her proof that because partnership societies existed in the past, they might be achievable again in the future (xv). She uses Minoan Crete as her primary illustration of a partnership society, and draws on archaeologists James Mellaart and Marija Gimbutas to argue that the worship of a single Great Goddess was the shared religion of all of Neolithic Europe. The following chapters turn to cultural and art history, as she examines the literature of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to find myths suggesting remnants of usurped female power. Her particular proof texts include the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is tempted to eat the fruit of knowledge by a serpent, a symbol associated with Goddess worship in several ancient cultures of the region, and the Greek Oresteia, in which the Furies are stripped of their power to punish the murder of a mother by a son when Athena sides with the gods against the goddesses.

Eisler’s ultimate aim, however, is not historical but normative. The chapters on archaeology and cultural history serve as a background for her insistence that with the invention of the atomic bomb, humanity has reached an evolutionary crossroads. Human society must turn again to a gylanic model of association and embrace its values, because to continue along the path of androcracy is likely to lead to nuclear war. The remainder of the book is devoted to what Eisler calls Cultural Transformation theory, and sketches out mechanisms by which transformation from a dominator model of society to a partnership one can be accomplished. Among her observations is a criticism of the rigid sexual stereotypes that she sees as a necessary part of a dominator society, as well as the claim that the rise of women’s status in a given society is highly correlated with its overall quality of life.

Although Eisler’s goals are admirable, her assertion that history provides the proof for her arguments is dangerous due to the poor quality of her scholarship. Much of the archeology that she relies on for her argument has been discredited by later scholars, particularly the work of Marija Gimbutas. Even in the case of Crete where the material evidence is suggestive of an egalitarian society, Eisler’s claims are grossly overstated. She makes far-reaching statements about social structure, the nature of Minoan religion, and the relations between the sexes essentially on the basis of a limited set of paintings, buildings, and figurines. In contrast to most contemporary archaeologists, who are hesitant to make any certain claims about the Neolithic due to limited data, here the speculations of a few now-discredited archaeologists are reported as proven fact. The lack of illustrations in The Chalice and the Blade prevents the reader from coming to her own conclusions about the artifacts on which so much of Eisler’s argument rests. Further, Eisler’s cultural history is both oversimplified and full of minor errors. For example, in analyzing the two creation stories of Genesis, she attributes the first story (in which man and woman are created simultaneously) to an earlier, more egalitarian source, while the second story (of Eve being created from Adam’s rib) is considered a later androcentric addition. Contemporary biblical scholarship, however, dates the second story hundreds of years earlier than the first. The simultaneous-creation story which Eisler admires is actually part of the priestly tradition that, a page before, she portrayed as an androcentric conspiracy, carefully editing out evidence of egalitarianism from the biblical text (85-86). Finally, despite Eisler’s frequent insistence that it is not men per se, but rather the sacralization of killing and death that creates dominator societies, her model nevertheless perpetuates the very “war between the sexes” that she seeks to end – pitting the nurturing, womblike chalice of the Goddess against the destructive, phallic blade of Yahweh and other war gods. In her tendency to strongly associate women and mothering with her desirable model, she potentially marginalizes men by failing to effectively model positive images of masculine power. Under a system where Mother is God, can men legitimately be anything but children?[1]

Postscript: Riane Eisler was born in Vienna, but was forced to flee with her family to Cuba and then to the United States in response to the Nazi occupation of Austria. She holds degrees in sociology and law from the University of California, and is currently president of the Center for Partnership Studies, a non-profit organization dedicated to realizing Eisler’s vision of cultural transformation. Its work includes programs against violence in intimate relationships, designing partnership-style educational techniques for children and adolescents, economic activism, and public education on the research of Eisler and her associates.

Works Consulted

The Center for Partnership Studies [online]. Cited 24 Apr 2004. Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.partnershipway.org/).

Conkey, Margaret W., and Ruth E. Tringham. “Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology.” Feminisms in the Academy, eds. Domna C. Stanton and Abigail J. Stewart. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Donaldson, Laura E., reviewer. “The Course of Co-Creation” (The Chalice and the Blade book review). Cross Currents 40 (Spring 1990): 124-6.

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade. With special epilogue for 25th printing. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987 [1995].

Patton, Laurie L. “The Chalice and the Blade (book review).” Anglican Theological Review 70 (July 1988): 287-290.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “The Chalice and the Blade (book review).” Daughters of Sarah 15 (May-June 1989): 22-23.