The most recent book I’ve had in the car is The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, published in 1987. When my pastor was moved to a new church last spring, he put most of the books he had accumulated over seven years on a table for us to peruse and take. I ignored most of the religious and church-building books, but this one caught my attention. It is a scholarly book, complete with lots of notes. It is also quite readable with an audience beyond other scholars.
Eisler begins her thesis in archaeology and its description of the dawn of civilization 6000-9000 years ago. Sites and artifacts from this period had lots of female imagery, including worship of a Goddess. Archaeologists, mostly male, interpreted this as a time of matriarchy rather than patriarchy, a time when women were in control rather than men.
But Eisler, along with with many other female researchers, determined that the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, rather the opposite is partnership. Patriarchy is rule by men, it is male supremacy. Partnership is led by women, but leadership is not rulership.
Patriarchy is about ranking: men over women, priest over supplicant, king over duke over commoner. Once that is firmly established the ranking is extended to citizen over outsider, one nation over another, one race over another, straight over gay, and on and on. Attempts at stepping out of this hierarchy, or, even worse, trying to take a higher position in the hierarchy, is usually met with violence. The ranking and the dominating of one half of humanity over the other half is enforced and maintained through power, frequently a blade. A lot of technological development in such a society is for destruction and war.
Partnership is, instead, about linking. We’re in this together, no one is ranked above another. I use my skills because I am good at them, not because society assigns me a role. I work for the betterment of the community, just as you do. I help you to use your skills and talents, for you to become the best you can be as you do the same for me. If I am a leader it is because I have leadership skills. A symbol of this is the chalice, the common cup. Technological development is for construction and life.
This partnership society existed for a few thousand years and covered an area from perhaps what is now Slovenia to northern India. Evidence of worshiping the Goddess were found in hundreds of sites across this region. All the fundamentals of civilization were developed in this time. These include: growing food and domesticating animals; technology for containers and clothing; crafting objects from wood, fibers, leather, and eventually metals; law, government, and religion and related concepts of judgeship and priesthood; dance, ritual drama and oral literature; art, architecture, and town planning; trade; and administration and education.
This lasted until a series of invasions from northeastern Europe and northern Asia swept into southeast Europe, bringing its society of ranking and imposing it on newly conquered areas. This invasion didn’t reach Crete, where the partnership society flourished, until about 1500 BC, when it too was overrun and a society of ranking was imposed. But in that time there was a vibrant and thriving – and peaceful – culture.
As I read this account of historical conquest I kept thinking it implied that on a field of battle the army of a dominator society will win out over an army of a partnership society. For protection shouldn’t we maintain a dominator society? Eisler answers this question in a way I don’t expect when discussing the future.
Eisler examines this period of chaos. Old myths are still around, but new myths are created and imposed to justify male supremacy. Eisler looks at several instances where she identifies bits of both mythologies.
I was especially fascinated by Eisler’s interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden. By the time this was written down the writers, who were priests in Israel, no longer felt they needed to mention the Goddess, a female deity. Even so, their intentions are quite clear.
One of the symbols associated with the Goddess is the serpent. Female deities, including Roman
Athene, Ua Zit in Egypt, and Astarte in Canaan, are frequently depicted with serpents. Because a serpent sheds it skin it represents rebirth. It is also connected to healing, which is why the caduceus, a modern symbol of medicine, features a pair of snakes.
Other symbols of the Goddess are the Tree of Life, also a Tree of Knowledge. Both are symbols of the generous nature of the Goddess and the way She imparts wisdom. And another symbol is the horned bull, a symbol of power and of nature.
But in the Garden of Eden story, the serpent becomes the messenger of evil, the one who tricks woman and is cursed to spend its days on its belly. This is saying the old way of partnership and the Goddess is evil. The myth takes it one step further by directly declaring that sin has entered humanity through the woman, making her evil and providing divine justification of male supremacy. The Eden story includes the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. By saying these trees are off limits the story is saying there are some things – like women not allowed to receive knowledge from gods – that are not to be questioned.
That demand to obey without question is the same demand given by totalitarians:
Don’t think, accept what is, accept what authority says is true. Above all, do not use your own intelligence, your own power of mind, to question us or to seek independent knowledge. For if you do, your punishment will be horrible indeed.
Separately, the bull has come to us as the horned and hoofed devil. All of this is clearly saying the Goddess is not to be worshiped and woman is to be ruled by man.
A great deal of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, is written to support a ranking and dominator society. It is a “network of myths and laws designed to impose, maintain, and perpetuate a dominator system of social and economic organization.”
Consider Deuteronomy 22:13-21. What to do if a man alleges that his bride is not a virgin? If her parents can prove she is a virgin the husband pays a fine to the family. If there isn’t proof the husband can take her back to her parents and they have her stoned. She is killed for bringing dishonor to her father and the nation. What is the nature of that dishonor?
A woman who is sexually and economically free is a threat to the entire fabric of a rigidly male-dominated society. Protecting a woman’s virginity protects the economic transaction between father and husband. If the accusation of lost virginity is false, the husband is fined because he slandered the father as honest merchant. If the accusation is true than the woman is now an economically worthless asset – the father can’t sell her to another suitor and she would become another mouth for him to feed for the rest of her life. Worthless assets are destroyed to prevent additional costs.
The Old Testament, of course, doesn’t portray this as an economic problem, nor even a moral dilemma, but the Word of God. The Old Testament defines right and wrong in terms of what protects and what might upset a dominator society. We have been conditioned to think this is correct and proper.
This is the first rule of ranking: Convince those of lower rank that they are supposed to be of lower rank and that their superiors have a right in enforcing their superiority. In the Eden story and across the Old Testament that rule is given the moral authority of being demanded and ordained by God.
The Old Testament isn’t entirely about male supremacy. Parts of it, particularly some of the prophets, speak of the partnership society.
In contrast to the Old, a great deal of the New Testament, particularly the life and teachings of Jesus, promote the partnership society. Jesus doesn’t talk about “masculine” virtues of toughness, aggression, and domination. Instead he promotes the “feminine” virtues of turning aside violence and loving our enemies. He rejected the teachings of high-ranking men, the Pharisees. He had women in his inner circle, including Mary Magdalene, an idea that was a marvel to his male disciples. He encouraged women to full participation in public life.
This challenge to male supremacy as supported by the Old Testament is a strong argument that Jesus was indeed a historical person.
Saint Paul supports this challenge to supremacy with his line that in the community of Jesus there is “neither male nor female.” But there are other times when Paul blows it, such as with the line that “women should be silent in church.”
This foundation for a partnership society didn’t last. Male supremacy needed only 200 years to assert itself again. Leaders declared themselves to be clergy with special powers. And the senior clergy, the bishops, declared which writings about Jesus were true and which were heretical. In the *Gospel of Mary* Mary Magdalene challenges the authority of Peter. Out it went. For various reasons the New Testament doesn’t have Gospels of Peter, Philip, or Thomas. One of those reasons is the idea that knowledge of God is available to all and doesn’t have to be filtered through a priesthood.
I’m aware we still have lots of challenge to the supremacy system in the familiar Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and more in some passages in the letters of Paul. As much of a challenge as these passages are the parts that were excluded are even more so.
The supremacy takeover of Christianity was complete when Constantine, Emperor of the Rome, converted to Christianity. “Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them.” Christianity then spread across Europe through “might makes right.” The alternative to conversion was usually death. Pagan temples and shrines were demolished. The chalice of the Goddess now holds the figurative blood of Christ, shed through violence. The nonviolence preached by Jesus is gone. For the next thousand years the only scholarship permitted was blessed by the church. This was very much a religion based on ranking and supremacy.
Judaism and Christianity aren’t the only religions that support male supremacy. A great number of religions from this region and era are designed to support ranking. Even so, the idea of the Goddess persists, even after millennia. One modern Christian view of her is as the Virgin Mary. But she is definitely subordinate to a male deity.