When three people, quite independently, suggest that I should read the same book, I pay attention. On this occasion, I’d like to thank those who recommended The Chalice and the Blade, first published in 1987, which rings as true now as it did when it first came out. Available in 26 different languages and with over half a million copies sold, it is definitely a book of significance.
What I loved about it was that it confirmed a hunch that I’ve long had, that gender equality and sustainability are somehow entwined. I had thought that maybe this would be because the stereotypically “feminine” qualities of compassion and nurturing would lead to greater consideration for the non-human and future human inhabitants of Planet Earth.
But Riane Eisler takes a different view which, on reflection, I think is stronger. She suggests that, under Cultural Transformation Theory, there are two basic models of society:
- Dominator model = ranking of one half of humanity over the other, in either patriarchy or matriarchy
- Partnership model = social relations based on linking rather than ranking. Groups can be different without being either inferior or superior.
After a rigorous examination of the archaeological evidence, she concludes that the original direction of our cultural evolution was towards partnership, but following a period of chaos and disruption around 5,000 years ago there was a fundamental shift towards domination, and we moved from a life-generating and nurturing view of the Universe (chalice/grail) to worship of the blade (the power to take life).
Although she bases her argument in the relationship between the two halves of humanity, she extrapolates that dominator mentality to domination not only over women, but over weaker men, over other countries, over nature – in fact, over anything that can be classified as “other”. She writes: “…once the function of male violence against women is perceived, it is not hard to see how men who are taught they must dominate the half of humanity that is not as physically strong as they are will also think it their “manly” duty to conquer weaker men and nations.”
(I shall leave it to you to picture the many examples of the dominator mindset current in the world today.)
With intellectual and well-researched rigour, she explodes some powerful myths:
- Humans are naturally warlike and violent.
Not so, she says. Too much archaeological evidence has been interpreted through the lens of what the historian expected to see, rather than what was there. “Spears” in cave paintings were more likely branches or reeds. “Weapons” were more likely tools. Until one particular culture started marauding and put everybody else on the defensive around 5,000 years ago, it is likely that most prehistoric peoples lived peacefully and cooperatively.
- Males have always dominated females.
Not so. Again, the evidence has been misinterpreted. Historians assumed that if a society wasn’t patriarchal, it must be matriarchal, so when they didn’t find evidence of matriarchy, they concluded that males must have always been dominant. But looking at the evidence more objectively, it seems to suggest that in prehistory the two genders were regarded as different, but equal.
- Biological evolution necessarily leads to cultural evolution.
There is in many ways an implicit assumption that things get better as time progresses – that as human bodies and brains evolve, so does our wellbeing. If that is so, then if we moved from equality to patriarchy, then patriarchy must be an evolutionary step forwards. QED. But “progress” is not always progress – see last week’s blog post on Surviving Progress. It is entirely possible to take an evolutionary wrong turn – and in the present case, that turn could take us into an irrevocable dead end. Literally.
Equality is about a lot more than women’s rights. It’s about human rights. And if we can’t get human rights sorted out, there isn’t too much hope for nature’s rights.
It’s time that we moved out of this ill-fated dominator narrative, and into a healthier relationship dynamic. Fundamentally, we need a different story about what it means to be a human in the 21st century, because the stories we tell become the reality we get. To give Riane Eisler the final word…
“An important lesson to be learned from the rise of modern totalitarianism is that it can be a fatal error to underestimate the power of myth. The human psyche seems to have a built-in need for a system of stories and symbols that “reveal” to us the order of the universe and tell us what our place within it is. It is a hunger for meaning and purpose seemingly beyond the power of any rationalistic or logical system to provide.”
For more on Riane Eisler, you might enjoy this recent interview by Scott London.
Those long flights have had their revenge. I now have a stinking cold and have had to cancel all my meetings this week. On the plus side, it has given me time to catch up on some reading.
Before the cold got the better of me, I went to see the much-talked-about and much-nominated The Shape of Water. Very strange. I couldn’t make much sense of it until I decided to interpret it through the lens of The Chalice and the Blade, and turn it into a goddess/redemption story. According to my version, Elisa is the goddess, fallen from grace, who has to redeem herself by being incarnated as that poor, downtrodden creature, a woman in 1960s America, and a mute to boot. [Spoiler alert! Don’t read further if you don’t want to know what happens!} She falls in love with the sea creature, who is referred to more than once as “a god”. Her love for him redeems her, and after dying as a mortal she is reborn as her true self, the goddess and his true soulmate. Her gills are proof that this was her destiny.
Well, heck. I don’t know. Feel free to make up your own interpretation!