How the Alphabet May Have Destroyed Goddesses


EXCERPT: Once upon a time, goddesses reigned supreme [...] But the age of the goddess waned. Masculine gods, formerly relegated to the roles of divine sons or lovers, rose to prominence, and the high goddesses fell to subservient roles in their respective pantheons.

What brought about the change? Some historians and anthropologists have looked to larger cultural shifts in the ancient world, such as the 10,000 B.C.E. agricultural revolution. [...] Other commentators have pointed to the growth of civilization itself. [...] But what if the change were more internal? What if the root cause for a shift from a more egalitarian, goddess-centered culture to one of patriarchy and misogyny stemmed from the acquisition of written language?

That's the central argument in the 1998 book "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" by American surgeon, author and inventor Leonard Shlain (1937-2009). [...] while the hypothesis might not win you over, it will certainly make you rethink the power of literacy and patriarchy.

One of the key questions Shlain poses is this: What if written language, especially alphabetic language, fosters a patriarchal outlook in the mind? "The alphabet," wrote Shlain, "through its emphasis on linearity and sequence, caused the left side of the brain of those who learned it to hypertrophy, resulting in a marked cerebral dominance of one lobe over the other. Metaphorically, the mind listed to one side, as one carrying an unevenly distributed load."

Shlain's hypothesis builds off, in some ways, Robert K. Logan's alphabet effect hypothesis, which proposes that a communication medium is an active force in creating new social patterns and perceptual realities. This is also the central idea of Marshall McLuhan's famous expression "the medium is the message." But why exactly would written language lead to the abandonment of goddesses and the subjugation of women? [...]

Feminine outlook (right brain): holistic, simultaneous, synthetic and concrete worldview
Masculine outlook (left brain): linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract worldview

The idea is that since written language is inherently linear, sequential and reductionist, it fostered left brain dominance in ancient literate cultures....


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