The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Leonard Shlain
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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. 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 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 trapped words 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. The prince could not know that in his attempt to free the doomboo , the pit itself would trap him in an unforeseen way: written words and images are entirely different "creatures. 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.

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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.

Leonard Shlain 07/04/09

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The first book written in an alphabet was the Old Testament and its most the two hemispheres, between masculine and feminine, between word and image. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image . He spends + pages of the current book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, trying.

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.