One of the most eye-opening and consciousness-raising books I’ve ever read is the revolutionary The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by brain surgeon, Dr. Leonard Shlain. Shlain proposes the thesis that since the invention of writing and then the alphabet, Western culture has progressively moved into a left-hemisphere masculine mode of thinking which is intolerant of right-brain feminine thinking and values. Most of what follows is in his words.
The Great Goddess began to lose power at the watershed moment when oral pre-history turned into written history. Her consort, once weak and inconsequential, rapidly gained size, stature, and power until eventually he usurped her sovereignty. The systematic political and economic subjugation of women followed, and slavery became commonplace. The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, initiated a fundamental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. This change in mind-set fostered patriarchy. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature triad of Western culture.
Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image. God worship, masculine values, and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.
In Europe during the high Middle Ages (1000 — 1300 B.C.) women mystics and women’s spirituality were an accepted fact of life. But within the church a small group of highly educated and determined men began to “wrestle this dynamic medieval culture away from its feminine orientation toward masculine values” that focused on sexuality and literacy. The misogyny of the Church reformers was blatant.
In 1073, believing that the corruption within the church was the result of priests who broke their laws of celibacy, Pope Gregory VII assumed the papacy and authorized the laity to withdraw support from any priest who did not renounce his wife and children. This precipitated a social revolution in which women and children were abandoned to the horrors of starvation, prostitution, servitude, murder and suicide. Damian, a fanatical reformer, described women as “Satan’s bait, poison for men’s souls, the delight of greasy pigs, inns where unclean souls turn in.”
Shlain writes that the values that typify the right brain include empathy with the plight of one’s companions, generosity toward strangers, tolerance of dissent, love of nature, nurturance of children, laughter, playfulness, mysticism, forgiveness of enemies and nonviolence. These aspects, in both men and women, express the feminine gatherer/nurturer side of human nature.
In contrast, people tend to exhibit left-brain attributes when absorbed in work, goals, focus, power, and money. Cruelty, argument, violence, a disregard for nature, and lack of concern for the lame and the halt round out the list – in short, all those attributes that tend to make a man or woman a successful hunter/killer.
The Gospels that contain the words of Jesus Christ overwhelmingly accentuate the values of the right brain. Yet, the leaders of the Reformation ignored the teachings of the very book they passionately defended as the revealed truth. Why? Luther was an abused child; Calvin’s mother died when he was young.
Shlain notes that the European witch craze from 1460 – 1648 A.D. was the result of the ballooning up of the left hemisphere’s hunter-killer attributes, which was inflated by the rapid expansion of printing press-generated alphabet literacy. Hysteria is unmanageable fear expressed by emotional excess; many men associate it with women, but no superstition that any group of women has ever believed has come close to the level of credulity and psychosis that seized the most educated elite male during the witch craze. The witch craze assumed its most monstrous proportions in Germany, the birthplace of the printing press.
The vast majority of women had no protection. Conducting oneself in a docile, silent, and unobtrusive manner, avoiding female friendships, and sticking close to home and husband was the only way to avoid the glowing pincer’s grasp. Modern men have been known to ask why so few women in the last centuries made stellar contributions to the arts and sciences. Most men have never had to fear sticking out from the crowd far enough to elicit the heart-stopping accusation of “Witch!”
In sum, every society that has acquired alphabet literacy has become violently self-destructive a short time afterward. This madness has been associated with a virulent misogyny and spelled trouble for images, women’s rights, goddesses, and right-brain values. The process of writing and reading initially reinforces left-brain values to the detriment of right-brain values.
Stay tuned: In Part II I’ll share Shlain’s insights on how television and computers impact the brain.
Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Jean’s new Nautilus Award-winning The Soul’s Twins, is at Amazon and Schiffer’s Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.