The Chalice & the Blade

In the early 1990s I read a book that, more so than anything I had read before or since, transformed the way I look at the world and helped me distill and inspired me to pursue my life’s purpose. The book is The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, a feminist, activist and futurist with degrees in sociology and law from the University of California. Born in Vienna, Austria, her family fled from the Nazis to Cuba when she was a child, and she later emigrated to the United States where she continues to live and work today.

Her experience as a youth with Nazism infecting and eventually overwhelming her country gave her frightful insight into a basic paradigm of human society, which she calls “the dominator paradigm” (which I often refer to as “patriarchy”), represented in its extreme by the violent, authoritarian fascist German state. Eisler combines this insight with the findings of archeologist Marija Gimbutas regarding early European civilizations since 5000 BCE, who discovered in her digs evidence of cultures consistent with the dominator paradigm, but also those reflecting a very different organization, which Eisler labeled “The partnership paradigm”.

In The Chalice and the Blade, Eisler lays out the Gimbutas’ evidence for these two fundamentally different ways for organizing human society, and then reinterprets biblical and other recorded history in terms of the threading and conflict of these two paradigms through the development of our contemporary Western civilization.

Summarized briefly, the dominator paradigm is the hierarchical organization of people into a “pecking order” where each person’s place in that order is marked by having “superiors” and/or “inferiors” that encompasses gender, racial and age differences. As it is expressed in Western culture and even our contemporary institutions, man has “power over” woman, white over color, and adult over youth. This order is maintained by rules reflecting institutionalized coercion backed by violence when necessary, and in fact violence and war are generally celebrated as the height of human endeavor and willingness to die as its most profound expression. As a side note, because “power corrupts” and particularly when not shared among peers, this form of organization tends toward corruption unless it is accompanied by a strong moral code involving fear of God.

The partnership paradigm is the non-hierarchical, egalitarian or “flat” organization of people where power is exercised “with” rather than “over” others. Peer relationships between equals are featured rather than rigid codes of behavior between superiors and inferiors, and are founded on the principals of peace, love, joy and non-violence, expressed in the celebration of birth, life and sexual and other unions between people. In contrast to the dominator paradigm, this form of organization tends to be promoted and maintained by more secular ideologies of democracy, gender and racial equality, and religious tolerance.

According to Gimbutas’ findings, the civilizations that developed around 5000 BCE in the fertile valleys around the Mediterranean were agrarian, relatively peaceful, relatively egalitarian, and (based on their art and burial customs) celebrated life and the life-affirming mystery of birth. But on the eastern periphery of Europe, what is now the steppes of Russia, where sources of food at the time were scarce, a completely different civilization (more an amalgam of nomadic tribes really) emerged, that was warlike, hierarchical, with art and burial customs that celebrated war and death. These people were herders rather than farmers and were the original domesticators of the horse, using it as their greatest weapon of war. Eventually, per Gimbutas, these warlike tribes moved west and conquered the more peaceful peoples of the Mediterranean basins and Fertile Crescent.

Eisler plays Gimbutas’ theory forward into recorded history, with the superimposing of these dominator cultures over the conquered peoples’ more partnership values, thus creating the basis of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Greek civilizations that most of us read about studying ancient history in school. She analyzes classical Greek civilization in particular, portraying it as an unlikely melding of dominator militarism and male dominance superimposed over more partnership democratic tendencies and life-celebrating art. She then walks through recorded Western history showing the predominance of the dominator thread (particularly when human society sees itself in a context of fear and scarcity) but with the partnership thread always alive and striving for resurgence (when the context is seen as more one of fellowship and abundance).

Whether or not you buy Eisler’s (what I at least find compelling) reinvention of the narrative of Western history, I find her dominator and partnership paradigms a great tool for analyzing society as well as individual institutions within society. The Protestant Reformation with its more egalitarian “Be your own priest” individualist theology, marked a partnership challenge to the more dominator hierarchy of the Roman church, which spread to the political arena during the later Enlightenment of the 18th Century, with the transition of many Western countries from monarchy (dominator) to republic (more partnership) and the gradual abolition of slavery (dominator) and later to a transition from colonialism (dominator) to more self-determination (partnership) for the people of the world (at least politically if not economically). These trends are complex and I oversimplify here just to give you a sense of the potential application of these two models.

What I find particularly fascinating is Eisler’s basic premise that we humans are highly adaptable to our actual (or perceived) circumstances. In a context of scarcity and fear, say not enough food and hostile neighbors willing to fight us for that scarce resource, we tend to create a more dominator society, male-dominant and hierarchically organized with a strongman on top, and we celebrate our ability to fight and raise our martyrs as the best of our society. In a context of relative abundance when our neighbors are not seen as such a threat, we tend more to a less male-dominated, more egalitarian society that celebrates life and love.

In colonial America there was a great agricultural abundance, and after settling differences with our neighbors in England, our society experienced a flowering of the more partnership institution of democracy. Yet most Americans lived in a theological context of fear of the devil, and the vulnerability of all souls (particularly the youngest among us) to his influence. Thus a parenting institution that featured a very hierarchical family with children at the bottom (they should be seen and not heard and speak only when spoken to) and corporal punishment (spare the rod and spoil the child). Today family life (with some notable exceptions) tends to be much more of the partnership paradigm with children encouraged (or at least not routinely punished) for speaking up and corporal punishment losing favor in many family circles.

I recommend you try applying these two paradigms to the institutions and venues within your own life: your family, your workplace, a school, a religious community, etc. A more dominator organization would feature:

* A context or perceived context of scarcity and fear

* A hierarchical ranking of the people involved

* Maintenance of that ranking by rigid rules and coercion

* The application and even celebration of power over others rather than power with others

A more partnership organization would include:

* A context or perceived context of abundance and love

* A more egalitarian “circle” of people involved

* Maintenance of that circle by affirming relationships rather than rigid rules

* The application and celebration of power with others rather than power over others

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