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

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

4.2 10
by Leonard Shlain

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This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that


This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the Goddess, images, and feminine values. Writing drove cultures toward linear left-brain thinking and this shift upset the balance between men and women, initiating the decline of the feminine and ushering in patriarchal rule. Examining the cultures of the Israelites, Greeks, Christians, and Muslims, Shlain reinterprets ancient myths and parables in light of his theory. Provocative and inspiring, this book is a paradigm-shattering work that will transform your view of history and the mind.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The advantages of a literate society are self-evident, but is there a dark side to language? In this extraordinary book, Shlain, a surgeon and the author of Art and Physics (LJ 9/1/91), argues that when cultures acquire literacy, the brain's left hemisphere dominates the right--with enormous consequences. Alphabetic writing, Shlain believes, "subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook" at the expense of feminine values. Focusing on Western cultures, Shlain surveys world history and religion to illustrate how alphabet literacy fosters extremes of intolerance. Indeed, a subtheme of the book is that overreliance on the left hemisphere "initially leads a society through a period of demonstrable madness." Such aberrations as group suicide, religious persecution, and witch-hunting are the result of a dominant linear, reductionist, and abstract method of perception. While admitting that "correlation does not prove causality," Shlain presents a forceful case based on a wealth of circumstantial evidence. An absorbing, provocative, and, ironically, highly literate work that should receive considerable review attention; recommended for most public and academic libraries.--Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray Coll. Lib., Springfield, IL
Proposes, rather than argues closely, that the shift from apprehending the world from images to writing--especially alphabetic--contributed largely to the suppression of goddess worship and the decline in the status of women in society. Shlain is a neurosurgeon, and begins by explaining how reading and looking at pictures or listening to speech use different parts of the brain and indeed can influence the development of children's brains. Then, rejecting the linear, sequentialist, reductionist thinking he associates with both writing and masculine values, he offers a long series of essentially independent essays, each evoking an example of his thesis. They range from the first writing of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians through classical and medieval times to the Reformation and eventually the rise of television, with glances at China and Japan. Some of the material has appeared in The Utne Reader Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Continually engaging, although on the whole quite woolly, this monumentally ambitious tome treats all history as one great struggle between the verbal and the visual.

For California surgeon-cum-scientific-storyteller Shlain (Art and Physics, 1991), human history to date amounts to the tale of how a masculine, verbal mode of thinking, the linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract mode controlled by the left side of the brain, has dominated the feminine, visual, and holistic mode that finds its home on the brain's right side. After a brief preliminary excursion into primatology, Shlain traces logocentrismþs long campaign to squash the sensuous. The Hebrew patriarchs, Buddha, and Confucius; Luther, Marx, and Hitler: all of these historical figures share both writerly wordiness and male chauvinism. Shlain declares again and again that there is something inherently anti-female in the written word that attracts men who traffic in ethereal abstractions of the mind. As literacy spread, Shlain claims, so did patriarchy. Yet Shlain ends this story on a positive note; he argues that in the century since photography and feminism simultaneously emerged (no coincidence, of course), humanity has gotten in touch with its feminine side (thank goodness for goddess!). Indeed, ours is a new golden age characterized by right-brain values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature (that's "mother" nature). Shlainþs scheme begs obvious questions, which he occasionally acknowledges but never satisfactorily answers. What about women's writing? What about the inevitable links between words and the images that words can't help but evoke? And why, when we think of oppressive regimes, do we think not of books but of visual phenomena like surveillance and public spectacles? (Shlain's argument that Nazi propaganda was fundamentally a verbal phenomenon, with radio its most important medium, seems particularly tendentious).

Still, if Shlain crosses over the line into crankiness (in his preface, he aptly likens himself to a dog worrying a bone), he does nevertheless furnish a fascinatingly elaborate idea for readers to chew over.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Compass Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


But of all other stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind must have been his who conceived how to communicate his most secret thoughts to any other person, though very far distant either in time or place? And with no greater difficulty than the various arrangement of two dozen little signs upon paper? Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of man.


Even a positive thing casts a shadow.... its unique excellence is at the same time its tragic flaw.

--William Irwin Thompson

    Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse." The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse.

    There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be characterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women's power in the culture. The reasons for this shift will be elaborated in the coming pages. For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook; linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine. Although these represent opposite perceptual modes, every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both. They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal.

    These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the tension between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.

    In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan proposed that a civilization's principal means of communication molds it more than the content of that communication. McLuhan classified speech, pictographs, ideographs, alphabets, print, radio, film, and television as distinctive information-conveying media, each with its own technology of transmission. He declared that these technologies insinuate themselves into the collective psyche of any society that uses them, and once embedded, stealthily exert a powerful influence on cultural perceptions.

    McLuhan's aphorism, "the medium is the message" is the leitmotif of this book. Robert Logan, the author of The Alphabet Effect, expounded on this idea:

A medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information but rather an active force in creating new social patterns and new perceptual realities. A person who is literate has a different world view than one who receives information exclusively through oral communication. The alphabet, independent of the spoken languages it transcribes or the information it makes available, has its own intrinsic impacts.

While McLuhan, Logan, and others have explored many of the effects that alphabetic literacy has had upon Western history, I wish to narrow the focus to a single question: how did the invention of the alphabet affect the balance of power between men and women?

    The proposition that the alphabet has hindered women's aspirations and accomplishments seems, at first glance, to be antithetical to historical facts. Western society, based on the rule of law and constitutional government, has increasingly affirmed the dignity of the individual, and in the last few centuries Western women have won rights and privileges not available in many other cultures. Most people believe that the benefits that have accrued to women are due primarily to a high level of education among the populace. But a study of the origins of writing in less complex times thousands of years ago reveals how writing, first, and then the alphabet, altered the balance of power to women's detriment.

    Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies. Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse variety of preliterate agrarian cultures--the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world--had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.

    Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was one of the very few scholars to challenge literacy's worth.

There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing ... is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.

Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West. Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.

    The key to my thesis lies in the unique way the human nervous system developed, which in turn allowed alphabets to profoundly affect gender relations. The introductory chapters will explore why and how we evolved in the manner we did. In later chapters, I will reinterpret a number of myths and historical events, making correlations based on circumstantial evidence. Correlation, however, does not prove causality--the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise. As we examine various sets of facts, I will appeal, therefore, to the court of what archaeologists call competitive plausibility, and I will ask the reader to consider with me which of the hypothetical explanations of historical events is the most plausible.

Although each of us is born with a unique set of genetic instructions, we enter the world as a work-in-progress and await the deft hand of the ambient culture to sculpt the finishing touches. Among the two most important influences on a child are the emotional constellation of his or her immediate family and the configuration of his or her culture. Trailing a close third is the principal medium with which the child learns to perceive and integrate his or her culture's information. This medium will play a role in determining which neuronal pathways of the child's developing brain will be reinforced.

    To observe an enthralled four-year-old mastering the letters of the alphabet is to witness the beginning of a lifelong method central to the acquisition of knowledge. Literacy, once firmly rooted, will eclipse and supplant speech as the principal source of culture-changing information. Adults, for so long enmeshed in the alphabet's visual skein, cannot easily disentangle themselves to assess its effect on culture. One could safely assume that fish have not yet discovered water.

    Imagine that you came of age in a non-literate culture and were unaware of the impact the written word could have on your life. Suppose that as an adult you then found yourself in a literate society confronted by others who seemed to possess magical powers. Your reaction probably would not differ much from that of Prince Modupe, a young West African who, in his autobiography, related his encounter with the written word:

The one crowded space in Father Perry's house was his bookshelves. I gradually came to understand that the marks on the pages were trapped words. Anyone could learn to decipher the symbols and turn the trapped words loose again into speech. The ink of the print trapped the thoughts; they could no more get away than a doomboo could get out of a pit. When the full realization of what this meant flooded over me, I experienced the same thrill and amazement as when I had my first glimpse of the bright lights of Konakry. I shivered with the intensity of my desire to learn to do this wondrous thing myself.

The prince could not know that in his attempt to free the doomboo, the pit itself would trap him in an unforeseen way: written words and images are entirely different "creatures." Each calls forth a complementary but opposing perceptual strategy.

    Images are primarily mental reproductions of the sensual world of vision. Nature and human artifacts both provide the raw material from the outside that the brain replicates in the inner sanctum of consciousness. Because of their close connection to the world of appearances, images approximate reality: they are concrete. The brain simultaneously perceives all parts of the whole integrating the parts synthetically into a gestalt. The majority of images are perceived in an all-at-once manner.

    Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence's syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear. The use of analysis to break each sentence down into its component words, or each word down into its component letters, is a prime example of reductionism. This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below awareness. An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion.

    To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former characteristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine. As we examine the myths of different cultures, we will see that these linkages are consistent.

    Associating images with the feminine would seem to fly in the face of numerous scientific studies that demonstrate that males are better at mentally manipulating three-dimensional objects than their female counterparts. Also, numerous other studies reveal that young females are more facile with words, spoken and written, than are their male peers. Despite these studies attributing different image and word skills to each sex, I will present many cultural, mythological, and historical examples that will solidly connect the feminine principle to images and the masculine one to written words. Again, I will use the terms "masculine" and "feminine" in their transcendent sense. Every human is a blend of these two principles.

The life of the mind can be divided into three realms: inner, outer, and supernatural. The inner world of experienced emotions and private thoughts is essentially invisible to others. The outer, concrete world of nature constitutes our environment: it is objective reality. There exists also a third realm: some call it spiritual, some call it sacred, and some call it supernatural. Humans have acknowledged and incorporated this third realm into every culture ever created.

    The cosmology of any given culture is analogous to the psyche of an individual. Its myths and religion reveal how the group psyche arrives at its values concerning sex, power, wealth, and gender roles. In hunter-gatherer societies, members generally worship a mixture of male and female spirits. In general, virile spirits tend to be more prestigious in societies that place a high value on hunting; nurturing ones are more highly esteemed wherever gathering is the primary strategy of survival.

    Humankind discovered horticulture approximately ten thousand years ago. In the Mediterranean, the most extensively studied region, archaeologists have uncovered strong suggestive evidence that in all emerging agrarian civilizations surrounding the basin, a mother Goddess was a principal deity. From the outer rim of history, we begin to learn Her name. In Sumer, She was Inanna; in Egypt, She was Isis; in Canaan, Her name was Asherah. In Syria, She was known as Astarte; in Greece, Demeter; and in Cyprus, Aphrodite. Whatever Her supplicants called Her, they all recognized Her as the Creatrix of life, nurturer of young, protector of children, and the source of milk, herds, vegetables, and grain. Since She presided over the great mystery of birth, people of this period presumed She must also hold sway over that great bedeviler of human thought--death.

    Prior to the development of agriculture, male spirits embodied the attributes of bold, courageous hunters. But in the iconography of the Great Goddess, male imagery paled. Her consort was a companion who was smaller, younger, and weaker than She. A conflation of a son She loved in a motherly way, and a lover She discarded after he consummated his duties of impregnation, he was so dispensable in these ancient myths that he frequently died, either by murder or by accident. In many agrarian cultures, the yearly sacrifice of a young male surrogate in the consort's honor was a common ritual. The participants then plowed the victim's seed blood into the earth as "fertilizer" to ensure that the following year's crop would be bountiful. The clearest demonstration of the Goddess's power was Her ability to bring him back to life each spring. Whether She was resurrecting Her consort or regenerating the earth, Her adherents stood in awe of Her fecundity. For several thousand years, every people throughout the Fertile Crescent venerated a deity who personified the Great Goddess. When we speak of this area as the "cradle" of civilization, we tacitly acknowledge the superior role the feminine principle played in the "birth" of modern humankind.

    Then, the Great Goddess began to lose power. The barely legible record of the earliest written accounts beginning about five thousand years ago provides intimations of Her fall. 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; coincidentally, slavery became commonplace. Around 1500 B.C., there were hundreds of goddess-based sects enveloping the Mediterranean basin. By the fifth century A.D. they had been almost completely eradicated, by which time women were also prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.

    In their attempts to solve the mystery of the Goddess's dethronement, various authors have implicated foreign invaders, the invention of private property, the formation of archaic states, the creation of surplus wealth, and the educational disadvantaging of women. While any or all of these influences may have contributed, I propose another: the decline of the Goddess began when some clever Sumerian first pressed a sharp stick into wet clay and invented writing. The relentless spread of the alphabet two thousand years later spelled Her demise. The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, into the social intercourse of humans initiated a fundamental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. It was this dramatic change in mind-set, I propose, that was primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy.

    The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages. Attesting to its gravitas, multitudes still read it three thousand years later. The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form. 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. I propose that the profound impact these ancient scriptures had upon the development of the West depended as much on their being written in an alphabet as on the moral lessons they contained.

    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 this book we will explore what this has meant throughout the human past, and in later chapters will consider what it says about the present and portends for the future.

What People are Saying About This

Richard Selzer
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is as brilliant as it is well-wrought, an intricate weaving of past and present told in a story that is never less than absorbing. A wonderful book.
Pinkola Estes
Leonard Shlain may himself be the quintessential fusion of word and image. With superb writing, he draws for us a fascinating account of the evolution of our male and female ways of knowing, of the curses -- not just the blessings -- of reverence for the word alone. As a history and science lesson, this book is a vivid, breathing page-turner. As a threshold to a new perception of our history and our future, it offers both chilling reminders and great hope. Yes, great hope.
Fritjof Capra
A bold and masterful work. I couldn't put the book down.
Michael Murphy
A tour de force, with stunning new insights about gender relations, language, and consciousness.

Meet the Author

Leonard Shlain is the author of Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light, and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. He is the chief of laparoscopic surgery at California Medical Center in San Francisco.

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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a dedicated reader with many thousands of books behind me, I have rarely put down a volume saying, "This book changed my life." By that I mean that I will never think about certain things in the same way. For decades I have wondered why religions are so damned complex and counterintuitive; why there had to be a "dominant" sex; why war, torture, and inhumanity in civilized societies. Why was the Old Testament God so self absorbed, so remote, so vengeful? Why was the New Testament Jesus transmogrified from a simple carpenter whose greatest act was dying, then disappearing from the tomb, when his living was the examplar of dignity, tolerance, gentleness and kindness? Why do people of the book (representing the world's three great literate religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) seem to be the most resistant to modernism? These questions and many more were answered in this book. The writer, whom I tried but failed to understand in "Art and Physics," captured my attention in this book immediately with his blend of religion, philosophy, human behavior, and history. I feel changed by at last being able to relate the rise and fall of civilizations to a meaningful series of developmental events. This should be fascinating reading for anyone interested in why people act like they do from the Garden of Eden to today's corporate culture. Dr. Shlain has really gotten my attention and I recommend this book to everyone I know.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm intrigued, but not surprised, by the polarized remarks elicited by this book - great books do that, and this one is no exception. The premise of Dr. Shlain's book cuts to the moral-ethical core of Western and Eastern civilizations and addresses the provocative question, why do men rule instead of women? Of course, by men he means masculine 'virtues' of agression, physical domination, might-makes-right, survival of the fittest, id-ego, and all those other explanations that we men use to justify our wants and needs. The author asks simply, why didn't feminine values (nurturing, loving, inclusion) reign supreme? The answer that he proposes is based upon the well-known split-brain phenomenon in neuropsychology, i.e., each human being harbors two distinct personalities governed by separate regions in the right and left hemispheres. The masculine left brain specializes in analytical, rational thought processes used in alphabet-based language and mathematics. The feminine right brain uses intuitive, wholistic thought processes important in metaphor-based language and image recognition (for more information, read about Dr. Roger Sperry's Nobel Prize winning studies and the related titles below). Dr. Shlain proposes that male domination corresponded with rapid development of the left brain promoted initially by the invention of the alphabet (and further expanded by progress in mathematics, writing, and the printing press). At each stage, he cites cultural changes that devalued feminine values and promoted male domination. Not since Freud has there been such a bold, innovative attempt to understand the source of the battle of the sexes. This book will be of interest to anyone unsatisfied with the standard theories couched in psychoanalytical and evolutionary perspectives. This book reaches for a higher ground of discourse between the sexes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked the book because I was able to apply some of my own knowledge of the history of the Universe (evolution) in order to understand the view of the shaping of 'man'kind. I struggled with my religious beliefs while reading the book. I no longer envision God as a man with a white beard looking down at me. This book questions the authority which the written word can have upon people (religious books for example). It does NOT question the virtues of Moses or Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad or the Tao Way. It did show me some ugly history that religious followers might not want to know. 'Witch burning' of precious but overly powerful women by a church biased toward men is just one. It makes me think abstract beliefs (combined with a powerful communication process) and masculine values that are recognized more than feminine ones, has caused some problems in the past. The author made a stiking, but logical, blow at languages that have the weak and powerless words usually in the feminine tense. I'd treat the author to lunch anytime just for thinking so originally. Even if everything in the book is not perfectly true, the major 'bones' of the communication tools affecting the way humans think is (I believe) in conjunction with the truth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A 'absolute' read for academicians, historians, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers. educators, et al. It is one of the most explanatory surveys of the evolution of the human condition (sociology) that I had the good fortune to come upon. The now obvious limitations of language as they impinge upon rationalist attempts to evaluate existential realities are here given biological,sociological and historical foundations. Millenia of distortions vis a vis 'male-female' orientations are factually and reasonably addressed with definitively substantive argumentation. The bibliography and chapter notes make this a classic research 'tool' for any student of the afore-mentioned diciplines. Additionally, it offers any person in positions of social responsiblity (government and politics) a realization of the 'roots' of generally accepted social attitudes and conditions of human behaviors. It is a 'must' read for anyone who offers to 'speak to' or 'legislate for' society, national or international. I cannot recomment it too highly.
ChefGeorge More than 1 year ago
I have given several copies of this book to my daughters and friends. The writer challenges the reader to rethink old paradigms and examine the relationship of power to knowledge. Whether it be a Higher Power or career power, power is found in knowledge and wisdom. The book moves the reader through time examining those who hold the domain of the Word and therefore power. The reader is left feeling very empowered to live in our current world and challenged to gain more knowledge. . . and therefore power. Prepare to buy this book for others, especially who those who may be on a spiritual quest or may need encouragement toward empowerment.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazingly deceptive treatise--it is well written and enchanting, but horribly derelict in correlation to reality. The author begins with a crusade and fits disparate, unproven and controversial data from unknown and suspect sources, mixes in a bit of breast beating apology, ('Don't take anything in this book to be truthful--just interesting!')and serves up a polemic. Yes, Virginia, men are different from women--but to blame literacy is a stretch. I love books so much that I could never throw one away--so I left this one on an airplane 'accidently'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I look at my bookcase and what do I see? Books by women... many books by woman. I go to the library and who do I see? Women reading...women reading books. We are a remarkably literate gender and one for whom written communication seems to come so naturally. As a budding author with a background in psychology and education I simply do not think that the author has effectively supported his rather outlandish thesis.