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The Chalice and the Blade, Our History, Our Future Paperback – 1987
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Women played leading roles in the first Christian communities; Jesus' teachings had a feminist bent; ancient Hebrews worshipped the prehistoric goddess-mother well into monarchic times; and Nazis, with their system of male dominance, were a direct throwback to the Indo-European or Aryan invaders whom they crudely imitated. These controversial ideas and findings suggest the thrust of Eisler's highly readable synthesis. She convincingly documents the global shift from egalitarian to patriarchal societies, interweaving new archeological evidence and feminist scholarship. In her scenario, as women -- once venerated -- were degraded to pawns controlled by men, social cooperation gave way to reliance on violence, hierarchy and authoritarianism. The book is an important contribution to social history.
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On closer inspection, however, the picture is less clear than we have long believed. I was surprised to learn that archaeology, as a science, only became serious after World War II. Before this time, Egyptology and the like were mostly a front for imperialistic grave robbers, vying for the shiniest addition to their national museums. Dating of artifacts was done through assumption until the advent of carbon 14 technology and dendrochronography. All of this combined created a vision of the past that was heavily tainted by the expectations and experience of those who unearthed ancient sites.
Proper dating technology has painted a new picture of the ancient past. It seems that in many parts of Old Europe, there were Goddess worshiping cultures that harnessed their intelligence towards creating healthy communities. In these cities, sometimes occupied for millenia, there is no evidence of weapons, ruler-kings, or the glorification of war. In fact, some sites were occupied for thousands of years without any evidence of war. These cultures showed a surprising equality between the sexes, as well as a lack of hierarchy. The concentration of wealth by the powerful that we take for granted is something that came much later.
As the nomadic herding tribes migrated into the regions occupied by these Neolithic culture, they found great wealth and little defensive technology. The cities were rather ripe for the plucking. Once this occurred, people reorganized their focus, working hard to develop weapons technology for offensive and defensive purposes. This arms race continues in the present day.
The unfortunate side effect of this race is that early technological advances in city planning, in art, and other technologies of peace were put aside in the face of this new human created danger. Earlier assumptions about the dates of some primitive looking artifacts turned out to be wrong; after war came to these cultures, their technological development came to a halt, and much technology was lost and forgotten.
These peaceful Neolithic cultures predate Sumer by millennia. Sumer is often recognized as the cradle of civilization; it would be better to describe it as the cradle of modern culture of warfare. Eisler calls these cultures "dominator cultures", whereas the earlier Goddess worshiping groups engaged in a partnership model. By the time that Sumer was in full swing, the partnership model had been overcome by the warrior culture of the nomadic steppes.
As we hurtle into the 21st century, we spend unthinkable amounts of resources coming with better ways to kill each other. The amount of resources spent on military budgets worldwide could transform our world if we put them to better use. We have the technology to feed, clothe, and house people, but as long as we surrender to the dominator model, resources will continue to be concentrated in the hands of the few while the many suffer from need and lack. Eisler urges us to give up the old ways of aggressive ranking and warfare, and create a new world in which we find solutions that work to build communities, create prosperity, and improve the quality of life for our entire human family.
Right now, in 2016, I do believe Eisler's theory describing the predictable pushback of "dominator" culture, whenever "partnership" cultural values begin to gain ascendancy, is playing out right now: in the militarised conflict in the Middle East in one way, and in another, the popularity of Donald Trump's candidacy for President of the USA.
Reisler invites the reader to mourn the loss of ancient communities, and reconnect with their underlying values. I read the book as a life-affirming myth that challenges the abusive aspects of our patriarchal traditions. The Chalice and the Blade celebrates the value of partnership, equality, collaboration, non-violence, and connectedness to nature. Eisler gives us some sense of the enormous power to heal that resides in the repressed feminine and lunar realms. However, I would offer the following cautions:
1. It is possible that Eisler has extrapolated a few scraps of evidence into a highly idealized society that didn't really exist quite as she imagines it.
2 . It is possible that Eisler's vision is pyschologically naive in the sense that everything has a dark side. If the Goddess societies existed, they would, by necessity, have a dark side.
3. It is possible that the problem with western society is not that it has a male image of divinity but that it has a one-sided, gender-specific image of divinity. Substituting a Goddess-based image might not lead to Utopia, but might bring its own set of problems. Perhaps we need images of the divine that honor both genders.
4. Eisler is a nationally known advocate of partnership models as superior forms of human interaction in contrast to "dominator" approaches. Faced with the choice of partnership or domination, the former is clearly preferable. A more neutral way of distinguishing between these two approaches would be to substitute consensus for partnership and hierarchy for domination. It is possible that each approach - consensus and hierarchy - has its own merits and drawbacks. The negative shadow of consensus systems might be passive aggression, confusion, paralysis. It is possible that when grounded with love and respect, hierarchical systems can be generative and empowering.
I suspect that humanity would best be served by a society that reveres both male and female, earth and sky, soul and spirit, hierarchy and collaboration, passion and gentleness - a social order with a pluralistic approach that reflects mythopoetic diversity and celebrates consciousness. Yet, whatever the book's shortcomings I must confess that my heart is with Eisler.