Toki Oshima illustration
By Joyce White
In her 1987 book “The Chalice and the Blade,” Riane Eisler shows us a culture that existed for thousands of years, in which the inhabitants enjoyed peace, prosperity, cooperation, and equality between men and women. She calls that a partnership model of society, represented by the chalice; its opposite (the one we are most familiar with) is represented by the blade.
I have always thought that there must be a way to live without violence and war, but until the late 1980s, I had not known that such a culture actually had existed. I didn’t learn about it in any high school or college class, though. That possibility was not even discussed, the assumption being, I suppose, that since violence and warfare dominate the written history of Western civilization, that must be the way things have always been. When prehistoric cave art was discovered, it was assumed that it was done by men and depicted the hunt and the rituals surrounding hunting, even when the painting showed women dancing.
Eisler and other scholars who support her thesis introduced me to the exciting evidence that people actually had been living peacefully in a large area of the Near and Middle East and into Europe, even though conventional archaeology and anthropology had not, to my knowledge, mentioned such a possibility.
With few exceptions, the prevailing evolutionary model has been of man the hunter-warrior, and Eisler says that has influenced the interpretation of archaeological evidence. One example relates to the stick and line forms painted in Paleolithic times on the walls of caves and engraved on bones and stone objects. Many scholars thought that they obviously depicted weapons – arrows, barbs, spears, harpoons. But Alexander Marshack, one of the first scholars to challenge that view, wrote in “The Roots of Civilization” that these line paintings could just as easily be plants, trees, branches, leaves and reeds. This view would account for what would otherwise be a remarkable absence of such vegetation among people who must have relied heavily on vegetation for food, Eisler says.
Because small, naked feminine figurines were found in these early excavations, scholars concluded that they represented “primitive fertility cults.” However, Eisler suggests that instead of being random and unconnected materials, the Paleolithic remains of female figurines, red ochre in burials and vagina-shaped cowrie shells appear to be early manifestations of what later developed into a complex religion centered on the worship of a Mother Goddess as the source and generator of all forms of life.
In addition to the inclination of scholars to view cave findings from the conventional model of a male-centered and male-dominated form of social organization, Eisler explains that not until after World War II was some of the most important evidence unearthed of this Mother Goddess religious tradition extending over thousands of years. It led into the long period in our cultural evolution “when our forebears settled down into the first agrarian communities of the Neolithic.”
Our knowledge was “immeasurably advanced by the exciting discovery and excavation of two new Neolithic sites: the towns of Catal Huyuk and Hacilar” in what is now Turkey. Of particular interest, Eisler says, according to James Mellaart who directed the excavation for the British Institute of Archaeology, “was that the knowledge uncovered at these two sites indicated a stability and continuity of growth over thousands of years for a progressively more advanced goddess-worshiping culture.”
In addition to these two Neolithic sites where “shrines to the Goddess and Goddess figurines are found everywhere,” Goddess figurines are found in other areas of the Near and Middle East. In the Middle Eastern town of Jericho (now in the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank), where “back in 7000 B.C.E. people were already living in plastered brick houses – some with clay ovens with chimneys – clay Goddess figurines have been found.” Eisler adds that the numerous Neolithic excavations yielding Goddess figurines span a wide geographical area beyond the Near and Middle East and into Europe.
The Neolithic agrarian economy, Eisler says, was the basis of the development of civilization leading over thousands of years into our own time. “And almost universally, those places where the first great breakthroughs in material and social technology were made had one feature in common: the worship of the Goddess.”
New excavations, Eisler explains, are increasingly conducted not by the lone scholar or explorer of early days but by a team of zoologists, botanists, climatologists, anthropologists and paleontologists as well as archaeologists. This interdisciplinary approach characterizes the more recent digs, such as Mellaart’s, and yields a much more accurate understanding of our prehistory.
As a result, we now know that agriculture – the domestication of wild plants and animals – dates back much earlier than previously believed. In fact, Eisler says, the first sign of what archaeologists call the agricultural revolution began to appear as far back as 9000 to 8000 B.C.E., more than 10,000 years ago!
By around 6000 B.C.E. not only was the agricultural revolution an established fact, Eisler says, but agricultural societies began expanding in all directions, including into southern Europe. Some of the contact, as in Crete and Cyprus, she says, went by sea, and in each case “the newcomers arrived with a fully fledged Neolithic economy.”
The image of old Europe that most of us carry is of barbaric tribesmen who kept pushing southward and finally outdid even the Romans in butchery. But “one of the most remarkable and thought-provoking features of old European society revealed by the archaeological spade is its essentially peaceful character.” These locations were chosen for their beautiful settings, good water and soil, and availability of animal pasture. The settlement areas are remarkable for their excellent views of the environment but not for their defensive value. “The characteristic absence of heavy fortifications and of thrusting weapons speaks for the peaceful character of most of these art-loving peoples,” Eisler notes. The excavations showed no signs of warfare for over 1,500 years.
Scientific excavations have revealed a lot of information about prehistory, especially about the Neolithic, when our ancestors first settled in communities sustained by farming and by breeding of stock. Archaeologists examine excavations of buildings and their contents, all the objects of daily life, including art. They also examine burial sites to learn about attitudes toward life and death.
Eisler extrapolated from these excavations to conclude that these were people who lived by the power of the chalice, i.e., the power to nurture and cooperate, to grow their crops and make their art, to honor the Goddess of the earth, to live in harmony. The power of the blade, on the other hand, features dominance and the use of weapons and frequent conflict. Although cultures never are totally one or the other, the predominance of one or the other results in very different ways of life.
Eisler mentions the prevalent idea that a culture that rejects the patriarchal model must be matriarchal; that if men aren’t dominant, then women must be exercising power over others. She says that matriarchy does not accurately describe these groups who lived peaceably for thousands of years. Rather, equality and cooperation basically existed between the sexes. She coined the term “partnership model” to differentiate it from the “dominator model” with which we are more familiar.
By 1980 archaeologist Nicolas Platon had been excavating the island of Crete for over 50 years. He termed it Minoan Crete after legendary King Minos. As work progressed layer by layer, Eisler explains, Platon’s team uncovered multistoried palaces, villas, farmsteads, well organized cities, harbor installations, networks of roads, places of worship and burial grounds. Frescoes, sculptures, vases and other works of art revealed a unique culture.
The story of Cretan civilization begins around 6000 B.C.E., the author states, when a small colony arrived on the island, bringing the Goddess with them as well as an agrarian technology that classifies these first settlers as Neolithic.
Images of the Goddess were found everywhere, many with their arms raised in a gesture of blessing. This was a way of life, Platon says, in which “the whole of life was pervaded by ardent faith in the Goddess Nature, the source of all creation and harmony.” In Crete, for the last time in recorded history, Eisler reports,” a spirit of harmony between women and men as joyful and equal participants in life appears to pervade.”
In addition to their remarkable art, Cretan society appears to have had a fairly equitable sharing of wealth, with even peasants having a comfortable standard of living. From the agrarian beginnings of the first settlement, the island’s economy gradually developed a large mercantile fleet that sailed the entire Mediterranean, contributing to economic prosperity. From their beginnings in a clan culture, by 2000 B.C.E. evidence of the development of centralized government appeared.
But here, Eisler says, centralization did not bring with it autocratic rule, nor did it bring advanced technology for the benefit of only a powerful few or the kind of exploitation and brutalization of the masses common to other civilizations of the time. From Platon’s reports, Eisler says that government revenues from the island’s increasing wealth were judiciously used to improve living conditions, which were extraordinarily modern. The urban centers had perfect drainage systems and sanitary installations. Although only a few of the public works remains had been cleared at the time of Platon’s report (before publication of “The Chalice and the Blade”), from those that had been cleared, he documented viaducts, paved roads, lookout posts, roadside shelters, water pipes, reservoirs and evidence of large-scale irrigation projects.
Gardens were an essential feature of all Minoan architecture, as was the design of buildings for privacy, good natural light and beauty. Minoans were very close to nature, and their architecture was designed for people to enjoy it.
Eisler reminds readers that Crete was not a utopia but a real human society complete with human problems and imperfections. That culture developed thousands of years ago when science as we know it did not exist. Moreover, this was a society maintaining itself in the midst of an increasingly male-dominated and warlike world.
Minoan Crete was the last and most technologically advanced society in which male dominance was not the norm. The shift from a partnership model of society to a dominator model was gradual. At the core of the invaders’ system, Eisler says, was placing higher value on the power that takes life rather than giving it. In her terminology, this was the power of the blade – weaponry and warfare and male dominance. The invasion that began with small bands of marauding herders from Europe grew and became outright warfare, gradually replacing the partnership model with the dominator model with which we live now. But the partnership model did last for thousands of years, so perhaps there is hope for more balance to evolve in our own culture.
Albert Einstein described human beings as part of the whole that we call the universe, but “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness … We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
About the author: Joyce lives in the western foothills of Maine, and winter is her time for exploring possibilities for more peaceful and satisfying ways of being on this Earth. She notes that when Riane Eisler came from California with her husband, David Loye, to speak at UMaine Orono in the early ’90s, the audience in the crowded auditorium had a lot of enthusiasm for her ideas. Eisler dedicated her book to “David Loye, my partner in life and work.