Raine Eisler’s book, The Chalice and the Blade, written in 1998, has sold more than a million copies attesting to its quality and perhaps its uniqueness. Prior to the 1960’s, there were not a great number of women archeologists. As more and more women came into the profession, new light was given to some of the ancient images of women. Eisler follows the work of one of them, Marija Gimbutas, who worked closely with James Mellhart in certain sites in Turkey dating from the Neolithic. Here are some of the key takeaways from Eisler’s book.
Humans, as early as the Paleolithic era, were aware of the cycles of nature with vegetation dying off in winter and returning in the spring. They also saw these cycles in themselves¾a child is born to a woman, death occurs, and another child is born. This may have led to questions like the following. Where do we come from before we are born? Where do we go after we die? Eisler symbolizes this female divine by a chalice.
Following the work of Mellhart and Gimbutas, particularly in the Neolithic site of Catal Hoyuk in Turkey, she posits that because there is no evidence of mass fortifications or destruction, the advent of agriculture and early villages may not have been based on a patriarchal model. Furthermore, the houses in Catal Hoyuk are not highly differentiated indicating a lack of hierarchy at least in housing. In the same era in Crete, the frescos and other art portray women in leadership positions. This Minoan civilization had technology like draining systems, but in their art, there were no scenes of battles. If some images were sexuality explicit, both genders were included. The ritual of hieros gamos started in the ancient Middle East. It was a sacred marriage usually between a male leader and a woman who was symbolically the goddess. Neither one was subordinate to the other. It was a very long lasting ceremony which continued into Greek civilization.
Eisler explores several hypotheses for the advent of war. It could have been invaders, sometimes named the Kurgans or Indo-European invaders around 5,000 BCE and later the Semitic people that became the Hebrews. They were characterized by male domination. This denotes the advent of more violence, fortified cities, and battlements.
Metal use changed from art and ornamentation to weapons. This all created a dichotomy between the genders and a domination model with the male in charge and the female submissive. Slavery began around this time and graves show the sacrifice of women and slaves in the grave of a male leader. During this time, a more hierarchical society developed.
The serpent represented the Mother Goddess. At about this time in several different civilizations’ myths, the serpent is destroyed by a male: Zeus slays the serpent Syphon,
Apollo kills the serpent Python, Hercules destroys Ladon, Baal subdues the serpent Lotan, and the Hittite god slays the dragon Illuyankas. In the Bible, Jehovah kills the serpent Leviathan. And of course, in the story of the Garden of Eden, Eve is tempted by the serpent.
As time goes on, housing is characterized by more differentiation, political power is centralized as well as religious power. There is no separation of church and state. There is more ranking in the social order. Scribes and priests are male and women are excluded. In the Bible, the god (Yahweh or Jehovah) is violent, vengeful, and jealous. Hereditary power through the male also starts to dominate.
As in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, only men are present including the male god. Sarah, the mother, is nowhere to be seen. Virginity of the bride becomes paramount and adultery is severely punished. In one story in the Bible, a father offers his daughter to be raped. Birth now makes women unclean as does her monthly period.
Instead of the cycles of life with the Mother Goddess, death becomes the symbol with Christ who is crucified. Many of the art objects portray this violent death.
Eisler maintains that Greek society and literature had more roles for women. Hypatia of Alexandria in Egypt was a renowned mathematician. The poet Sappho of Lesbos wrote that “Some say cavalry and others claim infantry or a fleet of long ears is the supreme sight on the black earth… I say it is the one you love.” In Aristophanes’ famous Lysistrata, women threaten to withhold their sexual favors until the men cease their wars.
At the beginning of the movement that becomes Christianity, there is a kind of spiritual equality: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Adages such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your neighbors” are touted as the way to live. Women such as Priscilla are active in the early church. However, it doesn’t take long for early church fathers such as Tertullien to become outraged that women had equal access to the early church. “They teach, they engage in discussion; they exorcise; they cure.” By the year 200 CE, the role of women had changed substantially in Christianity. They were excluded. The Holy Rome Empire was ruled by men.
The Hammer of the Witches (Malleus Maleficarum) promulgated by two bishops in the Middle Ages, condemned witches and killed thousands, mostly women. Women were the healers. Women were now seen as the carnal source of all evil which also justified male dominance. Those sects who identified with the mother and chaste love such as the Troubadours, Cathars, and Baghards were all punished.
Eisler shows that humans can change our behavior. Evolution has taught us that. She asks what this partnership would look like. Psychologist Alfred Adler stated that the ranking of one-half of humanity over another “poisons all human relations.” The new science of empathy uses both reason and intuition. Jonas Salk wrote “to bring about a change in the collective mind that will constructively influence the course of the human future.” Hazel Henderson stated that the military is the “most energy-intensive entropic activity of humans, since it converts stored energy directly into waste and destruction without any useful intervening fulfillment of basic human needs.”