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

Book by Leonard Shlain

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on February 3, 2005.

Who killed the goddess?

And why is it that there are so many men who are frantic about seizing political and economic power, subjugating women, and forcing on others their particular male-god-dominated religion?

Might understanding these issues help us understand why the dominionists who founded the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks, and now control the White House and Congress, are so in love with war and hateful toward social programs that help women and children?

Although he doesn't address the political questions in the third paragraph above, Leonard Shlain takes on the first two - and gives his readers the ability to suddenly understand that third question - in his book "The Alphabet Versus The Goddess."

The origins of violence, male dominance, and hierarchy have long been the subject of analysis by a spectrum of people and institutions ranging from the religious to philosophers to psychologists to biologists.

The theory put forward in the Bible, for example, suggests that it's God's will that men dominate women because of a mistake that the first woman, Eve, made, and that violence came from that act and showed up in the First Children when Cain killed Abel. As time went on, God got into the act, encouraging, perhaps most conspicuously Joshua, to commit acts of mass murder, even killing non-combatant women and children after having killed all the men in several communities. (Read the Book of Joshua if you want to see blood and guts that would make Bruce Willis blanch.)

Marija Gimbutas ("Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe" and other books) and Riane Eisler ("The Chalice and the Blade" and other books) suggested that there was a time in Europe when people lived tribally and in peace, and societies were matriarchal and matrilineal. They propose, more or less (this abbreviated form of explanation hardly does them justice - I recommend their books), that when humans began to herd animals and kill them for meat, we became inured to killing those we had become close to. The easy next step was killing people.

Daniel Quinn ("Ishmael" and other books) suggests that it all began with agriculture itself, particularly the cultivation of grain. Because somebody could "lock up the food," that person had the power of life and death over others, and thus were born the first kings. Interestingly, Peter Farb ("Man's Rise To Civilization") points out that the only Native American tribes that can be documented to have had a sophisticated system of slaveholding were those in the northwest where the salmon ran twice a year, producing two huge bulges in the food supply which had to be smoked and locked up (although Farb doesn't draw any conclusions from this, nonetheless his "Man's Rise" is one of the most brilliant ethnographic overviews of Native Americans ever written, and his research and thinking heavily influenced my book "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight").

Psychologists and philosophers from Aristotle to Freud to Erickson have questioned whether social constructs, unconscious urges, or childrearing techniques may cause societal violence, hierarchy, and patriarchy. The debate - nature, nurture, family, culture - continues to this day.

For example, of the most brilliant of all the modern thinkers to examine neurological development and its stages, Allan Schore ("Affect Regulation and the Development of the Self," a book I cite extensively in my book "The Edison Gene") demonstrates in a massive work with over 2000 footnotes how physiologically and psychologically delicate and malleable our brains our, particularly in utero and during the first two decades of life - and how learning, particularly learning to read and write, change the way our brains are organized.

Into this debate steps San Francisco physician Leonard Shlain, with his book "The Alphabet Versus The Goddess."

Shlain suggests that the idea for the book came to him during a trip to Greece, although others such as Walter Ong ("Orality and Literacy," which is not in Shlain's bibliography) and Robert Logan ("The Alphabet Effect"), had previously tilled the field by some years. Nonetheless, Ong and Logan are difficult, academic reads, and Shlain has produced an eminently readable and fascinating story of another possible origin of what many consider to be the triune curse of humankind: war, hierarchy, and patriarchy.

The basic premise of Shlain's book is that we are naturally wired to be cooperative, nurturing, and probably matriarchal in social organization. Evidence of this - particularly evidence of the worship of goddesses along with gods - is widespread around the ancient world, and among indigenous peoples today.

But, Shlain says, when we teach abstract alphabets - the type where the letters are not pictures of the meaning conveyed - to children at an early age, we cause the abstract/male side of their brains to rise up and take over, suppressing the intuitive/holistic/female side. Males are particularly susceptible to this, although women like Ann Coulter (assuming she actually was born as a woman) demonstrate that it can happen to females, as well.

Shlain is a surgeon, and he goes into some length about the brain and brain development, although in a way that's palatable for a general audience. Indeed, his oversimplification for a mass audience has been one of the main points for which he is criticized: The old left-brain/right-brain theory is nowhere as simple as it was presented when first rolled out a few decades ago.

Nonetheless, Shlain's neurobiology isn't terribly in error, and his history is pretty startling. He documents how society after society across the world and across the arc of "civilized" history, suddenly became violent, patriarchal, and hierarchal after the mass introduction of alphabetic writing.

For example, he points out how Europe, during the largely illiterate dark ages, exploded into Mary worship (she was more often worshipped during that era than was Jesus) and an obsession with the Holy Grail (which he notes bears a connection to the first cup the Greeks he says was shaped after the breast of Helen of Troy, and is receptive and thus feminine).

Once literacy began to expand across Europe, an orgy of witch-hunts, pogroms, and inquisitions came about, leading to the murder of literally millions of women. (This continued in major cities like Boston in the United States right up to the late 1600s, and goes on in remote locations around the world - as does violence toward women, patriarchy, and hierarchy pretty much everywhere in the "civilized" world - to this day.)

Shlain repeats this example throughout the book, in culture after culture, nation after nation, era after era. It's fascinating, even when it gets repetitive.

Although Shlain doesn't mention Rudolph Steiner or the Waldorf Schools that Steiner created in the 1920s, there is an interesting parallel. Steiner said that children didn't come fully into the physical world until around the age of seven, and therefore shouldn't be "forced" to learn to read before that time. Similarly, Jean Piaget suggested that before seven, children were living in a semi-dream state. Joseph Chilton Pearce refers to it as the "magical child" period (also the title of one of his books).

Overall, Shlain's book is a brilliant start at trying to understand the problem that we see so clearly in the testosterone-driven war-obsessed behaviors of George W. Bush and the men and women around him - as well as previous tyrants and despots who used high-sounding language to justify mass killing and seemed to be in love with the process.

It points to the individual but, more importantly, illuminates the society that produces that individual, and gives us pause to consider where humanity has been, where it's going, and how we may get there intact.

(After you read it, if you find the topic as fascinating as do most who are exposed to it, then pick up copies of "The Chalice and the Blade" by Riane Eisler, "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn, and "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," which I wrote. All three also tackle our environmental and political problems in a cultural context and bring more light to bear on the issues Shlain raises.)

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