This Christmas I got lucky, as on my list of possible presents was the book by Riane Eisler The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. I’d seen references to this memorable title and author name in many other works. First published in 1987, this has been a hugely influential book. So what was all the fuss about?
I soon got stuck in and became entranced by a story of human development. It begins in Old Europe maybe 10000 years ago, a land of peace and plenty, well organised, with advanced technologies of the day. All people were equal, creativity and arts flourished, and peace reigned. The feminine was ‘worshipped’ as the source of new life. There was plenty for all. It was a veritable Garden of Eden, the source of the myth in the bible.
The residents were what we might call pastoralists, but around the edges of Old Europe were the nomads who move around from place to place. In hard times, perhaps climate change, they could not resist invading the land of peace. These people were shaped by hardship and became increasingly masculine and warlike. Women were secondary. When they took over an area with violence these people eventualy settled and were influenced themselves to adopt more peaceful ways.
Successive waves of invaders led, over the years to periods of war and hardship, followed by periods of peace and creativity as the invaders were absorbed. In the warlike years the masculine dominated; in the peaceful years the pendulum swang the other way and culture flourished. But the ‘equal’ civilisation of Old Europe effectively died out when Minoan Crete (‘Atlantis’) was destroyed by natural disaster (the flood) around 1400BC.
The undercurrent of the feminine always remained, underneath the masculine domination. Jesus Christ himself, and other prophets before him, came in warlike times and preached the other way. In the end, the mighty Roman Empire adopted Christianity and masculinised the religion, treating the true texts of old, such as the gnostic gospels, as heresies.
If you travel through Europe today, you see visual evidence of this process. So many towns, villages, bastides, fortresses, castles build on high land that can more easily be defended from invaders.
This lens represented by the symbols of the chalice and the blade helps us to understand our history and these two aspects of humanity. Throughout her book, Riane Eisler refers us to all the latest archeological research (at that time), giving convincing evidence.
The story is compelling, and we find ourselves still in masculine-dominated times, where the established order uses ‘culture wars’ to try to maintain this dominance, while invaders from the East again threaten a Europe that has been at peace since the last great war.
How the story will play out is anybody’s guess. But the essential challenge to each of us individually is clear – to reinstate the chalice on a par with the blade in our own lives.
The current paperback includes an epilogue where Eisler comments on developments over the last 30 years since the original publication. Eisler uses the example of the demise of the Soviet Union under Mikhael Gorbachov and the subsequent reinstatement of the old regime under Vladimir Putin to illustrate the struggle that is going on in the world. A key insight is that the various fundamentalisms at work today, both religious and political, and the related populisms, are all evidence of the dominant ‘masculine dominated’ ideology trying to maintain its control. Our desperate need today is to move from this ‘dominator’ mindset to one of ‘partnership’. If we cannot achieve this the dominator mindset appears to be impelling us to destruction.
The consonance of Eisler’s ideas with Iain McGilchrist’s much later Left Brain/Right Brain analysis in The Matter With Things is notable. The right brain of oneness and partnership has been usurped by the dominant left brain of rationality.
The Chalice and the Blade remains an important contribution to understanding where we are today. Do read it.
Featured image is of Ardagh Chalice in the National Museum of Ireland, via Wikimedia Commons
2 thoughts on “The Chalice and the Blade”
You’ve done a marvelous job of summarizing a description of how humans should be living and how men who embraced power have been tearing it down for centuries/millennia. This narrative by Riane Eisler is not dissimilar to the underlying philosophies of most indigenous Peoples, who also include respect for the natural world and do not see themselves as the dominant species in nature. One can but weep for what could be. Thanks for such an excellent review, Barry.
Thank you, Jane. As ever, we live in hope.
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