The Chalice and the Blade
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The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler, first published in 1987, presents a conceptual framework for studying social systems with particular attention to how a society constructs the roles and relations between the female and male halves of humanity.
Eisler proposes that the tension between what she calls the dominator or domination model and the partnership model, underlies the long span of human cultural evolution, tracing this tension in Western culture from prehistory to the present. The book closes with two contrasting scenarios for the future, thus challenging conventional views about cultural evolution up to the time of its printing. The book is now in 26 foreign editions, including most European languages as well as Chinese, Japanese, Urdu, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish.
The method of social analysis in the book is multidisciplinary in its study of relational dynamics. In contrast to earlier studies of society, this method concerns what kinds of social systems support the human capacity for consciousness, caring, and creativity, or conversely for insensitivity, cruelty, and destructiveness.
The study of relational dynamics is an application of systems analysis: the study of how different components of living systems interact to maintain one another and the larger whole of which they are a part. Drawing from a trans-disciplinary database, it applies this approach to a wide-ranging exploration of how humans think, feel, and behave individually and in groups. Its sources include cross-cultural anthropological and sociological surveys, and studies of individual societies as well as writings by historians, analyses of laws, moral codes, art, literature, scholarship from psychology, economics, education, political science, philosophy, religious studies, archaeology, the study of myths and legends; and data from more recent fields such as primatology, neuroscience, chaos theory, systems self-organizing theory, non-linear dynamics, gender studies, women's studies, and men's studies.
A distinguishing feature of the study of relational dynamics is that it pays particular attention to matters that are marginalized or ignored in conventional studies. It highlights the importance of how a society constructs the relations between the male and female halves of humanity, as well as between them and their daughters and sons, taking into account findings from both the biological and social sciences showing the critical importance of the “private” sphere of family and other intimate relations in shaping beliefs and behaviors.
New perspective on cultural evolution
The author compares two underlying types of social organization in which the cultural construction of gender roles and relations is key. Eisler places human societies on what she calls the partnership-domination continuum. At one end of the continuum are societies oriented to the partnership model. At the other are societies oriented to the dominator or domination model. These categories transcend conventional categories such as ancient vs. modern, Eastern vs. Western, religious vs. secular, rightist vs. leftist, and so on.
The domination model ranks man over man, man over woman, race over race, and religion vs. religion, with difference equated with superiority or inferiority. It comprises an authoritarian structure in both family and state or tribe, rigid male dominance, and a high degree of abuse and violence. The partnership model consists of a democratic and egalitarian structure in both the family and state or tribe, with hierarchies of actualization where power is empowering rather than disempowering (as in hierarchies of domination). There is also gender partnership and a low degree of abuse and violence, as it is not needed to maintain rigid top-down rankings.
In this book, Eisler traces the tension between these two models, starting in prehistory. It draws from many sources, including the study of myth and linguistics as well as archeological findings by the Indo-Europeanists J. P. Mallory and Marija Gimbutas and archeologists such as James Mellaart, Alexander Marshack, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, and Nikolas Platon.
Based on these findings, Eisler presents evidence that for the longest span of prehistory, cultures in the more fertile regions of the globe oriented primarily to the partnership model, which Eisler also calls a "gylany", a neologism for a society in which relationships between the sexes are an egalitarian partnership. This gender partnership was a core component of a more egalitarian, peaceful, and matrifocal culture with a focus on life giving, centering on nurture. These societies once were widespread in Europe around the Mediterranean, and lasted well into the early Bronze Age in the Minoan civilization of Crete.
But then there was a cultural transformation during a chaotic time of upheaval related to climate change and incursions of warlike, nomadic tribes. These peoples brought with them a domination system and imposed rigid rankings of domination, including the rigid domination by men of women and the equation of "real masculinity" with power and violence. This led to radical cultural transformation.
Eisler's book is not the only work describing this massive cultural shift from a perspective that pays special attention to a radical change in gender relations. Other scholars have also written about it; for example, historian Gerda Lerner details it in her Oxford University book The Creation of Patriarchy
However, Eisler does not use the term "patriarchy." Nor does she use "matriarchy" to describe a more gender-balanced society, noting that rule by fathers (patriarchy) and rule by mothers (matriarchy) are two sides of a dominator coin, and proposing that the real alternative is a partnership system or gylany.
Nonetheless, some critics have accused Eisler of writing about a “matriarchy” in prehistoric times, and, according to them, of claiming that earlier societies where women were not subordinate were ideal. Eisler does point out that the more partnership-oriented societies described in The Chalice and the Blade were more peaceful and generally equitable, but she emphasizes that were not ideal. She further makes it clear that the point is not returning to any “utopia” but rather using what we learn from our past to move forward to a more equitable and sustainable future.There are also archaeologists who question that these earlier societies were more peaceful, especially critiques of Marija Gimbutas, one or Eisler's sources. This critique fits the conventional narrative of cultural evolution as a linear progression from "barbarism" to "civilization" - a narrative Eisler challenges in light of the brutality of "civilizations" ranging from Chinese, Indian, Arab, and European empires to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union.
In addition, some archaeologists question whether the great profusion in these earlier cultures of female figurines, going back 30,000 years and perhaps even longer, indicates that they venerated a Goddess or Great Mother. Indeed, when these figurines were first excavated in the 19th century, the men who found them in millennia-old caves seemed to think they were an ancient kind of pornography, and called them Venus figures (a term still used today). But these sculptures are highly stylized, often pregnant, and sometimes with no facial features – hardly the stuff of pornography. So today this notion has largely been discarded. Instead, some archaeologists contend that these stone sculptures are dolls. But the idea that prehistoric artists created these figurines for little girls flies in the face of the fact that these are nude figures with highly accentuated vulvas and breasts—hardly what one would associate with children's play. Moreover, some of these female sculptures could not be dolls since they are not portable. For instance, the famous Venus of LaSalle is carved on the rock facade of the entrance to a cave, which, as Eisler suggests in The Chalice and the Blade, was most probably the site of ancient religious rites celebrating the life-giving and sustaining powers inherent in woman's body and in our Mother Earth.
Since The Chalice and the Blade was published in 1987, new findings support its thesis of earlier gender equality as part of a more peaceful and equitable social system. For example, writing of the Minoan civilization noted above, Greek archeologist Nanno Marinatos confirmed that his was a culture in which women played major roles in a religion where the Goddess was venerated. Marinatos also notes that this was a more peaceful culture that, unlike other "high civilizations" of that time was not a slave society, but exhibited a generally high standard of living throughout.
Further confirmation of Eisler's view of Neolithic society comes from archeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Çatalhöyük, one of the largest Neolithic sites found to date. Hodder confirms gender equity as a key part of a more partnership-oriented social configuration in this generally equitable early farming site where there are no signs of destruction through warfare for over 1,000 years.
In this 2004 Scientific American article Hodder writes—
Even analyses of isotopes in bones give no indication of divergence in lifestyle translating into differences in status and power between women and men... [which points to] a society in which sex is relatively unimportant in assigning social roles, with neither burials nor space in houses suggesting gender inequality.
Going back further, to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age, another body of research that supports Eisler's proposal that this period was also oriented to the partnership side of the domination-partnership continuum is on contemporary foraging societies, especially the anthologies edited by anthropologist Douglas P. Fry. This work is directly relevant to prehistoric times because for most of the millennia of our earliest cultural evolution our species lived in foraging groups. Fry's 2013 anthology of articles by scholars studying these types of societies documents that the vast majority of them are characterized by the more peaceful, gender balanced, and generally egalitarian configuration of the partnership model.
Data from other world regions also supports the thesis of an earlier partnership direction. For example, after The Chalice and the Blade was published in China by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a group of scholars at the Academy wrote a book showing that there was also in Chinese prehistory a massive cultural shift from more partnership-oriented cultures to a system of rigid domination in both the family and the state.
In short, despite old narratives about an inherently flawed humanity, more and more evidence shows that humanity is not doomed to perpetuate patterns of violence and oppression. We have a partnership alternative with deep roots in the earlier direction of our cultural evolution — not a utopia, but a way of structuring society in more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable ways.
- Eisler, R. "Human Possibilities:The Interaction of Biology and Culture", Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies. (2014)
- Emery F. E. and Trist E. L. 1973. Toward a social ecology: Contextual appreciation of the future and the present. New York: Plenum Press.
- Textor, R. (1969). Cross cultural summary. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files. Sanday, 1981; Coltrane, 1988 Coltrane, S. (March 1988). Father-child relationships and the status of women: A cross-cultural study. American Journal of Sociology, 93(5), 1060-1095.
- Benedict, R. (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the sword: Patterns of Japanese culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Abu-Lughod, L. (1986). Veiled sentiments. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- For a sampling of sources for this ongoing research, see e.g. Eisler, R. 2000. Tomorrow’s Children: Partnership Education for the 21st Century; Eisler, R. & Levine, D. (2002) Nature, Nurture, and Caring: We are not Prisoners of Our Genes. Brain and Mind, Vol. 3, No 1, April; Eisler, R. (2007). The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; Eisler, R. (2013) Protecting the Majority of Humanity: Toward an Integrated Approach to Crimes against Present and Future Generations.” In Sustainable Development, International Criminal Justice, and Treaty Implementation. Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger and Sébastien Jodoin, editors, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.305-326.
- Mallory, J. P.(1989) In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames and Hudson
- Gimbutas, M. (1982) The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Mellaart, James. (1967) Çatal Hüyük. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Marshack, A. (1991), The Roots of Civilization. Mount Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd.
- Leroi-Gourhan, A. (1971), Prehistoire de l'art Occidental. Paris: Edition D'Art Lucien Mazenod
- Platon, N. (1966) Crete. Geneva: Nagel Publishers
- Lerner, G. (1986). The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- These articles are good source for understanding this controversy: Marler, J. (1999). A Response to Brian Hayden’s Article: ‘An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm. The Pomegranate 10, Autumn, pp:37-47 and Marler, J. The Beginnings of Patriarchy in Europe: Reflections on the Kurgan Theory of Marija Gimbutas. In The Rule of Mars: The History and Impact of Patriarchy. Edited by Cristina Biaggi. Manchester, Conn.: Knowledge, Ideas, and Trends, Inc
- Marinatos, N. (1993). Minoan religion: Ritual, image, and symbol. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
- Hoddard, I. (2004). Women and Men at Catalhoyuk. Scientific American. January, pp. 77-83.
- Fry, Douglas, editor. (2013). War, Peace, and Human Nature: the Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mn, J. Editor in Chief (1995). The Chalice and The Blade in Chinese Culture: Gender Relations and Social Models. The Chinese Partnership Research Group, Beijing: China Social Sciences Publishing House.