The Alphabet Versus The Goddess

A big part of my spiritual quest is an attempt to better understand the origins of religion. Along those lines, I’ve had several people recommend The Alphabet Versus The Goddess by Leonard Shlain. I finally read the book, and from the very beginning my assessment of it has been “correlation does not equal causation.”

Shlain’s basic concept is that writing in general and writing with alphabets in particular (as opposed to writing with hieroglyphs or pictograms) is a decidedly left-brain activity, whereas oral and visual communication is more balanced. This emphasis on left-brain activity changed the way humans thought about everything, which resulted in abandoning Goddess worship and egalitarian societies for God worship and patriarchy.

I’m not buying it.

Certainly, the invention of writing coincided with the expansion of patriarchy and the subjugation of women. But both also coincided with the development of agriculture, permanent settlement, and surpluses of wealth.

Based on both history and more recent observations, I think it’s a mistake to think of primitive societies as egalitarian. Men and women may be valued more or less equally, but they have clearly defined roles that are rarely reversed. My best guess is that the Neolithic advances allowed traditional men’s roles to become more valuable, which allowed some men to subjugate other men and all women.

Each chapter of the book is a contrast between a visual society/religion/movement and one that relied more on the written word. The implication is that the visual group was more feminine and more compassionate, while the written group was more masculine and more aggressive. But were the image-intensive Catholics of the 16th century any more friendly to women than the word-intensive Lutherans and Calvinists? I don’t think so.

Shlain was a surgeon, not a historian or social scientist. I’m certainly sympathetic to non-expert opinions (as a blogger, I’d better be!), but there were times when Shlain clearly made some rather amateurish mistakes. He claimed that some victims of the Witch Hunts were followers of Wicca, when it’s been shown pretty conclusively that there were no survivals of ancient pagan religion, and Wicca wasn’t invented until the 20th century.

The idea that the development of writing and alphabets drove humans toward more left-brain / masculine / reductionist thinking makes sense. But the idea that the alphabet killed the Great Mother Goddess is unproven and unlikely.
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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.