"The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future" by Riane Eisler, translated into Hebrew by Tamar Oren, Gal Publishing House, 386 pages, NIS 88.
A new school of thought sprang up - primarily during the last third of the 20th century - on the question of the existence of God. This school is represented in research studies that argue that God is female, not male. One of the most prominent of these studies is by art historian Merlin Stone, "When God Was a Woman" (1976), in which she claims that the members of prehistoric society worshiped a goddess, not a god.
Eleven years later, Dr. Riane Eisler relates to this line of thinking as something that is completely self-evident. In her introduction to "The Chalice and the Blade," she writes: "It of course makes eminent sense that the earliest depiction of divine power in human form should have been female rather than male ... Our ancestors must have noted that life emerges from the body of a woman ... It would have been natural for them to image the universe as an all-giving Mother ..." Eisler presents a revolutionary idea: There is a close connection, she maintains, between the worship of the goddess and the high status women once had in comparison with men during the prehistoric period - in the family and within the overall social framework.
Because of its feminist outlook, her study provoked a chain reaction. Throughout the world, including Israel, her book gave rise to workshops and women's groups focused on re- establishing a link between, on the one hand, women in search of themselves and, on the other hand, the goddess within them and their ancient inner strength.
Eisler's approach differs from that of past studies because she is neither an archaeologist nor a historian. She has no particular interest in philosophical or metaphysical debates over the question of God's existence. Her interest in the past is connected to her work as a futurologist. Eisler, who in the past seemed somewhat like an American version of Shulamit Aloni, a former Israeli political leader and cabinet minister, is a sociologist and a jurist by profession and one of the founders of the Center for Partnership Studies in Los Angeles. During the 1960s, she fought for citizens' rights in general and for women's rights, in particular, and developed egalitarian pre-nuptial agreements. In the 1970s she changed direction. She observed with alarm family violence, wars and destruction of the environment and, fearing that the world was heading for catastrophe, she began to consider what transformation human society would have to undergo in order to survive.
Until the mid-1990s, Eisler specialized in history, archaeology, anthropology, economics, political science, gender studies, chaos studies and systems theory. The interdisciplinary knowledge she acquired in the field of history neatly dovetailed with her war on discrimination against women and on the inequality of women's status in the family. She thus developed the idea of studying cultural evolution from the prehistoric age to our own in light of male-female relations.
In her work, Eisler has been helped by the revolution that took place in the study of prehistory during the last three decades of the 20th century. In contrast to what most of us learned in school, women - not men - occupied center stage in early human civilization. Prehistoric society was based on agriculture, not hunting. Archaeological finds previously thought to have been ancient hunting tools were, in fact, discovered to be sewing and knitting instruments. The canvas bags that archaeologists had defined as quivers were actually baskets used for carrying children, and the almost-mythological figure of the male hunter was replaced by the female gatherer.
This revolution also affected the analysis of the thousands of statuettes of buxom women that have been discovered. In line with previous archaeological assumptions, they were called "Venus statuettes." Eisler argues that this label was a reflection of stereotypical archaeological thinking, according to which the ancient world spent all its time in orgies and prostitution. She cites new research studies that identify the statuettes as being connected with ancient rituals, in which women's power to grant life plays a central role. This is the prevailing approach in archaeology today.
Eisler ponders the fate of this worship of the goddess and asks why the goddess has disappeared, and whether there is any connection between her disappearance and men's oppression of women for thousands of years. In searching for an answer, she surveyed tales of Greek mythology, the stories in the Bible and works of ancient Chinese literature, and discovered that all of them had a common starting-point: They all contained remnants of testimony relating to a period in the ancient past when men and women lived in harmony with one another and with nature.
This period, argues Eisler, ended because women became the victims of character assassination. Women, who constitute half of the human race and who once enjoyed the same status as men, lost that egalitarian status. That is the tragedy of humanity. The existence of this era of harmony between the sexes is alluded to by Aeschylus in his "Oresteia" trilogy of tragedies. Orestes is on trial on a charge of matricide. The gods rush to his defense. Apollo says that children are not linked to their mothers by blood ties, to which Athena, the goddess of wisdom, replies: "There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth ... I am always for the male with all my heart, and strongly on my father's side."
The Chorus, which represents humanity's longing for the distant past, cries out in anguish: "Gods of the younger generation, you have trampled the laws of the ancient time, torn them out of my hands." Athena determines the verdict in the trial: Orestes is acquitted of murdering his mother.
According to Eisler, the calamity that the Chorus in this Greek tragedy bewails reflects not only the conflict between matriarchal culture and patriarchal culture, but also the transition from a society in which men and women were equal, to one where men dominate women. The transition took place sometime between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E. Nomadic tribes that had lived in the marginal regions of the globe, were forced to migrate because of climatic conditions and wars over pasture land. These tribes then invaded settled areas in the West.
The invasion of the West was, in effect, a cultural confrontation between two different social systems - a confrontation whose price is still being paid by humanity. The conflict was between, on the one hand, an agricultural society that lived along the banks of major rivers under favorable climatic conditions and whose members worshiped a goddess-mother, and, on the other hand, a nomadic society of sheep-farmers who worshiped a single, male god. The two societies in conflict also had different hierarchical structures: The agricultural society was headed by women, while the nomadic tribes were led by men.
The agricultural societies never stood a chance against the nomadic invaders. Worship of the goddess was based on harmony and peace. The agricultural communities were not fortified. The members of those communities invested all their energies in their families. Since they did not develop weapons, they utilized their skills and creativity in sculpture and painting. Archaeological findings indicate that they attained a high artistic and cultural level.
A different story
The nomadic tribes included the Hebrews. Eisler, daughter of a Viennese Jewish family that fled the Nazis and immigrated to the United States, has an unfavorable opinion of the attitude toward women displayed by the same nation that introduced monotheistic faith to the world. Lot, the righteous individual from Sodom, is prepared to place the fate of his virgin daughters in the hands of strangers simply to save his skin (Genesis 19). On the affair of the mistress on the hill (Judges 19:12), the first recorded gang rape, which ends with the murder of the victim, Eisler writes: "Nowhere in the telling of this brutal story ... is there even a hint of compassion, much less moral indignation or outrage ... and this in a book full of seemingly endless prescriptions and proscriptions about what is morally and legally right and wrong."
However, the story that molds the world's consciousness regarding woman's inferior status is the description of the creation of Adam and Eve and the tale of the Garden of Eden that appear in the Book of Genesis. Children are taught in school that Eve was created from Adam's rib (Genesis 2:21). However, the Book of Genesis includes an earlier version of the creation of Adam and Eve that is not taught in school: "God created Adam in His image; He created Adam in a divine image; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27) This depiction has a number of facets. The supreme power, God, is bisexual. He does not conduct any preliminary negotiations with Adam. He creates Adam and Eve in His image and they have equal status. In Chapter 1, God is termed "Elohim" (the supreme judge) while in Chapter 2, He is referred to as "Yahweh," the supreme power associated exclusively with the Hebrews. In the Jewish tradition (the Talmud and the kabbala), mystical and metaphysical explanations have been given for these contradictions.
Eisler's view is unequivocal. She sees the stories in Genesis as the expression of a change in the basic family structure, a change that took place in the wake of the nomads' victory over the agriculturists. The dramatic change in the perception of the world - the victory of belief in one God who is male and the defeat of the belief in a female supreme force - is, in Eisler's opinion, the reflection of a new social reality in which the male dominates the female. The negation of women's rights had to be supported and strongly reinforced by a belief in a male supreme force.
Regarding the differences between the two versions in the Book of Genesis, Eisler comments: "Many of these inconsistencies are obvious clues to the still ongoing conflict between the old reality, which lingered in the people's culture, and the newer realities the priestly ruling class was trying to impose."
Partnership vs. control
Adopting this change as a basic assumption, Eisler distinguishes in her study between, on the one hand, the ancient social model of partnership and equality between the sexes and, on the other hand, the model of control that is the product of monotheistic faith. This distinction is conveyed in the title of her book. The chalice symbolizes women and the worship of the goddess, while the blade represents war, men and the worship of the male god. Eisler's message is that only a return to the ancient social order and to love on the basis of absolute equality between the sexes can save the world from destruction.
"The Chalice and the Blade" is an iconoclastic work that is also an eye-opener. The approach that Eisler suggests suddenly explains many things. For example, why Judaism insists that the history of the world began approximately 5,700 years ago. Before this artificial time-frame, an ancient world existed and it is this world that the Jewish religion sought to eliminate from human consciousness. That world, claims Eisler, was the Garden of Eden, the world of the goddess-mother, a world that humanity longs for. A superficial and rapid survey of Jewish historians and of editors of encyclopedias of Jewish history that have appeared in recent decades, indicates that they related to the depictions in the Bible as historical facts. Not one Jewish scholar of biblical or historical studies has examined the transition to monotheism in light of the status changes in the family cell. Perhaps even the animosity toward Judaism can be traced to its total war on the worship of the goddess.
According to recent studies, Eisler emphatically notes, Jesus' struggle against the Jewish religious establishment was the expression of a social protest, whose fundamental demand was equal rights for women and men (Letter to the Galatians). Jesus was alone in this struggle. His apostles did not follow in his footsteps. Like Judaism, Christianity adopted the model of male domination, although it did return to religious devotion the figure of the goddess - in the form of the Virgin Mary, Jesus' mother.
Eisler's book quickly became a best-seller. Twenty-three editions have already been printed and it has been translated into 17 languages. British- American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, author of "The Nature of Human Aggression," defined "The Chalice and the Blade" as the most significant contribution to the study of human evolution since Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species."
In 1996, Eisler's "Sacred Pleasure" appeared. That book, which has not yet been translated into Hebrew, provides an extensive treatment of sex and love in a world that worshiped a goddess. The monotheistic world, argues Eisler, distorted the facts. The priests of the new religion regarded the free relationship between men and women as licentiousness, corruption and prostitution.
There is a certain irony here. In the ancient world, the love ritual between men and women was consecrated with wine, oil and candles. The Jewish and Christian priests removed those three elements from the bedroom and instead used them to consecrate the ritual of love for a male god.