The Chalice and the Blade


The Chalice and the BladeOur History, Our Future, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1995.

Riane Eisler revealed in this fascinating book that we were stuck in some kind of neurotic scientism by upholding the age-old dichotomy of matriarchal-patriarchal when we describe evolutionary changes, and that in reality we are dealing with a partnership paradigm versus a dominator paradigm, the first coming close to the idea of matriarchy, the latter more or less synonymous with patriarchy.

The merit of Eisler’s approach to social history is that we can get away from extreme positions: there never was a really pure matriarchy or a really pure patriarchy in human history. When we look, for example, at the mythology of highly patriarchal tribes, such as the ancient Hebrews, we find matriarchal elements, and in highly matriarchal tribal cultures, such as the Trobriands in Papua New Guinea, we find patriarchal elements.

We therefore must conclude that we got a mix, always. In that mix, to stay with the example of the Hebrews, there is a firm patriarchal root structure with a few matriarchal elements, as in yang is a small portion of yin. By the same token, and on the same lines of reasoning, we can recognize patriarchal elements in a highly matriarchal culture such as the Trobriand islands. Already Johann Jacob Bachofen, one of the first authors on the matter, who spent a lifetime with delivering scientific research on matriarchy, found those patriarchal elements in all matriarchal cultures.

Hence, when we use the dichotomy matriarchal-patriarchal, we are arguing not from a real-life perspective, but rather from our ideological understanding of patriarchy or matriarchy, as if either of these were absolute values. But they are not. And to have come to this insight, I am indebted to Riane Eisler and her very well-researched books.

The Chalice and the Blade is a unique account, like a gigantic fairy tale, written by a woman who recounts, with a crying eye and an angry eye, the outrageous violence and destruction that has been done to the human society in five thousand years of patriarchal dominance! Eisler actually suggests nothing less than a paradigm shift in history science, and sociology. She writes in the opening pages of the book:

But if we free ourselves from the prevailing models of reality, it is evident that there is another logical alternative: that there can be societies in which difference is not necessarily equated with inferiority or superiority./xvii

This is a very important point of departure; to tackle the old dichotomy patriarchy-matriarchy actually by overcoming it. It’s new because most authors decide pro one and con the other, thus resting within an ultimately invalid either-or scheme that was descriptive only, instead of being normative. The next important difference of Eisler’s approach to the more conventional approaches is that she boldly shifts the observer. Instead of talking about patrilinearity and matrilinearity, and thus about rather secondary rules of inheritance of property, Eisler looks at the question from a relational point of view. She asks: ‘How do males and females relate to each other in either of these models?’ Well, and you clearly see the answer once you are able to lucidly formulate the question.

The answer is that in the matriarchal setting, you got a sound tenor about cooperation and participation. This is what the author then coined as the partnership paradigm. And after that you got the subordination of the female, and different vertical hierarchy levels, in patriarchy. And from here the perspective of the male to be ‘on top’ and ‘in control’ and that of the female to be ‘below’ and ‘to be controlled.’ And sexually, we know that most natives copulate with bodies kneeled in front of each other, and thus in a basically equal position, while the standard sexual position under patriarchy, and our own culture as a result, undoubtedly is the missionary position, that has got its name for good reasons – reasons that we all know about, but to a lesser level want to talk about.

This is what Eisler coined as the dominator paradigm, and the sexual positions that are predominantly used can serve as a metaphor for the social and even the anthropological positions.

And if we look at our past—at the routine massacres by Huns, Romans, Vikings, and Assyrians or the cruel slaughters of the Christian Crusades and Inquisition—we see there was even more violence and injustice in the smaller, prescientific, preindustrial societies that came before us./xiv

Another important point mentioned by Eisler is the fact that our minds are conditioned by a single-cause etiology, as it were, of our cultural birth and origins.

In short, though only twenty–five years earlier archeologists were still talking of Sumer as the cradle of civilization (and though this is still the prevailing impression among the general public), we now know there was not one cradle of civilization but several, all of them dating back millennia earlier than was previously known—to the Neolithic./11

And more generally, her research has clarified that the barbarian primal horde that ghosts in the heads of so many scientists is just another of the myths we have been fed with in school. Perhaps, yes, we became that barbarous horde under patriarchy, but that was not the source event, that was not the cradle of civilization, but a later stage that the author identifies as the truncation of civilization. She lets no doubt that the pre-patriarchal tribal cultures, and among them first and foremost the Minoan Civilization, really were early democracies in the true sense of the word:

To say the people who worshipped the Goddess were deeply religious would be to understate, and largely miss, the point. For here there was no separation between the secular and the sacred. As religious historians point out, in prehistoric and, to a large extent, well into historic times, religion was life, and life was religion. One reason this point is obscured is that scholars have in the past routinely referred to the worship of the Goddess, not as a religion, but as a fertility cult, and to the Goddess as an earth mother. But though the fecundity of women and of the earth was, and still is, a requisite for species survival, this characterization is far too simplistic./ 23

Especially fascinating is how our modern belief that government should be representative of the interests of the people seems to have been foreshadowed in Minoan Crete long before the so-called birth of democracy in classical Greek times. Moreover, the emerging modern conceptualization of power as responsibility rather than domination likewise seems to be a reemergence of earlier views./38

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1 thought on “The Chalice and the Blade”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Jason. There is one book by the same author that I haven’t reviewed yet as I have not yet ordered it. It’s ‘The Power of Partnership.’ It’s even more specific on the topics you mention in your comment:


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