Excerpted from Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin, 1998

 

IMAGE / WORD

But of all other stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind must have been his who conceived how to communicate his most secret thoughts to any other person, though very far distant either in time or place? And with no greater difficulty than the various arrangement of two dozen little signs upon paper? Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of man.    

— Galileo1

 

Even a positive thing casts a shadow... its unique excellence is at the same time its tragic flaw.

— William Irwin Thompson2

 

Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”3  The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse.

 

There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be char­acterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. The reasons for this shift will be elabo­rated in the coming pages. For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook, linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine. Although these represent opposite perceptual modes, every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both. They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature supe­rior to its reciprocal.

 

These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the ten­sion between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.

 

In the 196os, Marshall McLuhan proposed that a civilization’s principal means of communication molds it more than the content of that communication. McLuhan classified speech, pictographs, ideographs, alphabets, print, radio, film, and television as distinctive information-conveying media, each with its own technology of transmission He declared that these technologies insinuate themselves into the collective psyche of any society that uses them, arid once embedded, stealthily exert a powerful influence on cultural perceptions

 

McLuhan’s aphorism, “the medium is the message:’ is the leitmotif of this book. Robert Logan, the author of The Alphabet Effect, expounded on this idea:

“A medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information but rather an active force in creating new social patterns and new perceptual realities. A person who is literate has a different world view than one who receives information exclusively through oral communication. The alphabet, independent of the spoken languages it transcribes or the information it makes available, has its own intrinsic impacts.”4

 

While McLuhan, Logan, and others have explored many of the effects that alphabetic literacy has had upon Western history; I wish to narrow the focus to a single question: how did the invention of the alphabet affect the balance of power between men and women?

 

The proposition that the alphabet has hindered women’s aspirations and accomplishments seems, at first glance, to be antithetical to historical facts. Western society, based on the rule of law and constitutional govern­ment, has increasingly affirmed the dignity of the individual, and in the last few centuries Western women have won rights and privileges not available in many other cultures. Most people believe that the benefits that have accrued to women are due primarily to a high level of education among the populace. But a study of the origins of writing in less complex times thou­sands of years ago reveals how writing, first, and then the alphabet, altered the balance of power to women’s detriment.

 

Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egali­tarian than in more developed societies.  Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse vari­ety of preliterate agrarian cultures — the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world — had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.

 

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was one of the very few scholars to challenge literacy’s worth.

“There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appear­ance of writing… is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consist­ing of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.”5

 

Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West. Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.

 

The key to my thesis lies in the unique way the human nervous system developed, which in turn allowed alphabets to profoundly affect gender relations. The introductory chapters will explore why and how we evolved in the manner we did. In later chapters, I will reinterpret a number of myths and historical events, making correlations based on circumstantial evidence. Correlation, however, does not prove causality — the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise. As we examine various sets of facts, I will appeal, therefore, to the court of what archaeologists call com­petitive plausibility, and I will ask the reader to consider with me which of the hypothetical explanations of historical events is the most plausible.

 

Although each of us is born with a unique set of genetic instructions, we enter the world as a work-in-progress and await the deft hand of the ambi­ent culture to sculpt the finishing touches. Among the two most important influences on a child are the emotional constellation of his or her immedi­ate family and the configuration of his or her culture. Trailing a close third is the principal medium with which the child learns to perceive and inte­grate his or her culture’s information. This medium will play a role in deter­mining which neuronal pathways of the child’s developing brain will be reinforced.

 

To observe an enthralled four-year-old mastering the letters of the alphabet is to witness the beginning of a lifelong method central to the acquisition of knowledge. Literacy, once firmly rooted, will eclipse and sup­plant speech as the principal source of culture-changing information. Adults, for so long enmeshed in the alphabet’s visual skein, cannot easily dis­entangle themselves to assess its effect on culture. One could safely assume that fish have not yet discovered water.

 

Imagine that you came of age in a non-literate culture and were unaware of the impact the written word could have on your life. Suppose that as an adult you then found yourself in a literate society confronted by others who seemed to possess magical powers. Your reaction probably would not differ much from that of Prince Modupe, a young West African who, in his autobiography, related his encounter with the written word:

“The one crowded space in Father Perry’s house was his bookshelves. I gradually came to understand that the marks on the pages were trapped words. Anyone could learn to decipher the symbols and turn the trappedwords loose again into speech. The ink of the print trapped the thoughts; they could no more get away than a doomboo could get out of a pit. When the full realization of what this meant flooded over me, I experienced the same thrill and amazement as when I had my first glimpse of the bright lights of Konakry. I shivered with the intensity of my desire to learn to do this wondrous thing myself.”6

 

The prince could not know that in his attempt to free the doornboo, the pit itself would trap him in an unforeseen way: written words and images are entirely different “creatures”. Each calls forth a complementary but oppos­ing perceptual strategy.

 

Images are primarily mental reproductions of the sensual world of vision. Nature and human artifacts both provide the raw material from the outside that the brain replicates in the inner sanctum of consciousness. Because of their close connection to the world of appearances, images approximate reality: they are concrete. The brain simultaneously perceives all parts of the whole integrating the parts synthetically into a gestalt. The majority of images are perceived in an all-at-once manner.

 

Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence’s syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear. The use of analysis to break each sentence down into its component words, or each word down into its component letters, is a prime example of reductionism. This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below aware­ness. An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of writ­ten words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion.

 

To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former charac­teristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine. As we examine the myths of different cultures, we will see that these linkages are consistent.

 

Associating images with the feminine would seem to fly in the face of numerous scientific studies that demonstrate that males are better at men­tally manipulating three-dimensional objects than their female counter­parts. Also, numerous other studies reveal that young females are more facile with words, spoken and written, than are their male peers. Despite these studies attributing different image and word skills to each sex, I will present many cultural, mythological, and historical examples that will solidly con­nect the feminine principle to images and the masculine one to written words. Again, I will use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in their tran­scendent sense. Every human is a blend of these two principles.

 

The life of the mind can be divided into three realms: inner, outer, and supernatural. The inner world of experienced emotions and private thoughts is essentially invisible to others. The outer, concrete world of nature constitutes our environment: it is objective reality. There exists also a third realm some call it spiritual, some call it sacred, and some call it supernatural. Humans have acknowledged and incorporated this third realm into every culture ever created.

 

The cosmology of any given culture is analogous to the psyche of an individual. Its myths and religion reveal how the group psyche arrives at its values concerning sex, power, wealth, and gender roles. In hunter-gatherer societies, members generally worship a mixture of male and female spirits. In general, virile spirits tend to be more prestigious in societies that place a high value on hunting, nurturing ones are more highly esteemed wherever gathering is the primary strategy of survival.

 

Humankind discovered horticulture approximately ten thousand years ago. In the Mediterranean, the most extensively studied region, archaeolo­gists have uncovered strong suggestive evidence that in all emerging agrar­ian civilizations surrounding the basin, a mother Goddess was a principal deity. From the outer rim of history, we begin to learn Her name.  In Sumer, She was manna; in Egypt, She was Isis; in Canaan, Her name was Asherah. In Syria, She was known as Astarte; in Greece, Demeter; and in Cyprus, Aphrodite.  Whatever Her supplicants called Her, they all recognized Her as the Creatrix of life, nurturer of young, protector of children, and the source of milk, herds, vegetables, and grain. Since She presided over the great mys­tery of birth, people of this period presumed She must also hold sway over that great bedeviler of human thought—death.

 

Prior to the development of agriculture, male spirits embodied the attributes of bold, courageous hunters. But in the iconography of the Great Goddess, male imagery paled. Her consort was a companion who was smaller, younger, and weaker than She. A conflation of a son She loved in a motherly way, and a lover She discarded after he consummated his duties of impregnation, he was so dispensable in these ancient myths that he fre­quently died, either by murder or by accident. In many agrarian cultures, the yearly sacrifice of a young male surrogate in the consort’s honor was a com­mon ritual. The participants then plowed the victim’s seed blood into the earth as “fertilizer” to ensure that the following year’s crop would be boun­tiful. The clearest demonstration of the Goddess’s power was Her ability to bring him back to life each spring. Whether She was resurrecting Her con­sort or regenerating the earth, Her adherents stood in awe of Her fecundity. For several thousand years, every people throughout the Fertile Crescent venerated a deity who personified the Great Goddess. When we speak of this area as the “cradle” of civilization, we tacitly acknowledge the superior role the feminine principle played in the “birth” of modern humankind.

 

Then, the Great Goddess began to lose power. The barely legible record of the earliest written accounts beginning about five thousand years ago provides intimations of Her fall. Her consort, once weak and inconsequen­tial, rapidly gained size, stature, and power, until eventually he usurped Her sovereignty. The systematic political and economic subjugation of women followed; coincidentally, slavery became commonplace. Around 1500 B.C., there were hundreds of goddess-based sects enveloping the Mediterranean basin. By the fifth century A.D. they had been almost completely eradicated, by which time women were also prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.

 

In their attempts to solve the mystery of the Goddess’s dethronement, various authors have implicated foreign invaders, the invention of private property, the formation of archaic states, the creation of surplus wealth, and the educational disadvantaging of women. While any or all of these influ­ences may have contributed, I propose another: the decline of the Goddess began when some clever Sumerian first pressed a sharp stick into wet day and invented writing. The relentless spread of the alphabet two thousand years later spelled Her demise. The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, into the social intercourse of humans initiated a funda­mental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. It was this dramatic change in mind-set, I propose, that was primarily respon­sible for fostering patriarchy.

 

The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages. Attesting to its gravitas, multitudes still read it three thousand years later. The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheis­tic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objec­tive science, the signature triad of Western culture. I propose that the profound impact these ancient scriptures had upon the development of the West depended as much on their being written in an alphabet as on the moral lessons they contained.

 

Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image. God worship, masculine values, and men’s domina­tion of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like mascu­line and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish. In this book we will explore what this has meant throughout the human past, and in later chapters will consider, what it says about the present and portends for the future.