The Chalice or the Blade: Choices for our Future
By Riane Eisler

History as conventionally written has been literally the story of men. But if we reexamine our past, taking into account the whole of our history, a very different picture emerges.

People all over the world are today questioning matters that only a few generations ago were generally seen as "just the way things are." Everything, from politics and economics to sexual and family relations, is being re-evaluated. People are even re-examining the roles and relations of the female and male halves of humanity. And when people ask, "what does it mean to be a woman?" and "what does it mean to be a man?" They put at issue the most fundamental assumptions about our species and its future.

This questioning of "givens" -- particularly the stereotypical roles and relations of women and men--is not accidental. It is symptomatic of what systems theorists call a period of social disequilibrium a time when fundamental or transformational systems change can occur.
But transformation from what to what? What kind of a social system are we moving toward? What kind of system are we struggling to leave behind? And how does today's struggle over gender roles and relations relate to all this?

A new view of our past

We have often been told that a just and peaceful society is merely a utopia-an impossible dream. We are taught religious dogmas of "original sin" and their secular updates in socio-biological theories about "selfish genes." Not coincidentally, in both cases, these notions are embedded in stories about how male dominance is either divinely or scientifically ordained.

We are also taught that Western civilization begins with brutally male-dominant and highly warlike societies and that if there was anything before patriarchy in our prehistory it was so primitive as to be unworthy of serious alienation. For example, we have been told that European civilization begins with the Indo-European invasions - with a way of structuring society in which women and anything associated with the "feminine" is held in contempt and relegated to a subordinate and subservient position.

Indeed, history as conventionally written has been literally the story of men, with only an occasional mention of "their" women. But if we re-examine our past taking into account the whole of our history, including prehistory, drawing from a database that includes the whole of humanity--both its female and male halves-a very different picture emerges.

A good entry point into this new, and more hopeful, picture of our cultural evolution is through a fresh look at some familiar legends about an earlier, more harmonious and peaceful age. The Judaeo-Christian Bible tells of a garden where woman and man lived in harmony with each other and nature - a time before a male god decreed that woman henceforth be subservient to man. The Chinese Tao Te Ching describes a time when the yin or feminine principle was not yet ruled by the male principle or yang, a more peaceful and just time when the wisdom of the mother was still honoured.

For many people these stories are merely religious or poetic allegories. But they contain important clues to a fundamental cultural shift during our prehistory. Indeed, new archaeological discoveries (coupled with reinterpretations of older excavations) show that while the earliest cradles of civilization -- going back many thousands of years before Sumer-- were not utopian societies in the sense of perfect societies, they were societies organized along very different lines from what came later. As the British archaeologist James Mellaart reports from his excavations of Catal Huyuk (the largest early agrarian or Neolithic site ever found), their characteristic social structure appears to have been generally egalitarian. He writes how the comparative size of houses, the nature of their contents, and the "funerary gifts" found in graves show that there were no extreme differences in status and wealth.

Data from Catal Huyuk and other Neolithic sites also indicate that in these societies, where women were priestesses and craftspeople, the female was not subordinate to the male. Although the sacred union of female and male was an important religious mystery, the powers that create and govern the universe were generally depicted as a goddess rather than a god.

Finally, dispelling the notion that war is natural, there is a paucity of fortifications as well as an absence in their extensive and considerably advanced art of the scenes so ubiquitous in later art-- of "noble warriors" killing one another in baffles, of gods and men raping women, of "glorious conquerors" dragging back prisoners in chains.

But the archaeological record also shows that, following a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption, the cultural evolution of societies that worshipped the life-generating and nurturing powers of the universe - in our time still symbolized by the ancient "feminine" chalice or grail-was interrupted. There now appeared on the prehistoric horizon invaders from the peripheral areas of our globe (from the arid steppes of the north and barren deserts of the south) who ushered in a very different form of social organization. As the University of California archaeologist Marija Gimbutas wrote, these were people who literally worshipped "the lethal power of the blade" -- the power to take rather than give life that is the ultimate power to establish and enforce rankings of domination.

Human possibilities: Two Alternatives

When the first evidence of prehistoric societies where men did not dominate women began to be unearthed in the 19th century, the scholars of that day concluded that since they were not patriarchies they must have been matriarchies. But matriarchy is not the opposite of patriarchy: it is the other side of the coin of a dominator model of society. The real alternative to a patriarchal or male-dominant society is a very different way of organizing social relations. This is the partnership model, where, beginning with the most fundamental difference in our species between male and female, diversity is not equated with inferiority or superiority, dominating or being dominated.

Models are abstractions. But societies that orient primarily to one or the other of these models have characteristic configurations or patterns. These patterns, however, are discernible only when we look at the whole picture. In other words, the reason these patterns were not generally seen in the past is that scholars were looking at an incomplete and distorted picture--one that excluded no less than one-half of the population: women.

For example, from the conventional perspective focusing only on the activities and experiences of men, Hitler's Germany, Khomeini's Iran, the Japan of the Samurai, and the Aztecs of Meso America would seem to represent completely different cultures. But once we also look at the situation of women in these societies, we are able to identify the social configuration characteristic of rigidly male-dominated societies. We then see striking commonalities. First, all these otherwise widely divergent societies are rigidly male-dominant. Second, they are characterized by hierarchies of domination and "strong-man" rule, both in the family and state. Third (as is required to maintain hierarchies of domination) they are characterized by a high degree of institutionalized or socially accepted violence, ranging from wife and child beating within the family to aggressive warfare on the larger tribal or national level.

Conversely, we also see striking similarities between otherwise extremely diverse societies where there is more gender equity--societies where to be considered "real men" males do not have to be dominant. Characteristically, such societies tend to be not only much more peaceful but also much less hierarchic and authoritarian. This is evidenced by anthropological data (i.e., the BaMbuti and Tiruray), by contemporary studies of trends in modem societies (i.e., Scandinavian nations such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland), and by the prehistoric and historic data detailed in The Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasure, some of which has been briefly presented in the previous section.

The larger picture that emerges from this gender-holistic perspective also indicates that, contrary to popular misconceptions; male dominance and male violence are not innate. Clearly throughout history not all men have been violent. And today many men are consciously rejecting their stereotypical "masculine" roles -- for example, the men who are today redefining fathering in the more caring and nurturing way once stereotypically associated only with mothering.

In short, the problem in dominator societies is not men. It is rather the way male identity must be defined in male-dominant societies where, by definition, "masculinity" is equated with domination and conquest-- be it of women, other men, or nature.

To maintain this type of society, boys must be systematically socialized for domination, and therefore, for violence. Male violence has to idealize - as we see in so much of our normative literature celebrating violent "heroes" (for example, the Biblical King David, the Homeric Ulysses, and modern "he-men" such as Rambo). Indeed, in these societies violent behaviour patterns are systematically taught to males from early childhood through toys like swords, guns, and violent video games, while only girls are systematically socialized for nurturing, compassion, and caring.

Not only that, in these societies sex becomes an act of male conquest and domination, as in the common description of men's affairs with women as "scoring." In addition, the family structure of these societies has to be one where men rule, women serve, and children learn early on that it is very dangerous to challenge orders, no matter how unjust.

Evolution at the crossroads

A clear understanding of these systems dynamics is today urgently needed. Ours is an age when "man's conquest of nature" is rapidly taking us to an evolutionary dead-end. It is an age when the lethal power of the blade, amplified a million-fold by megatons of nuclear warheads, threatens to put an end to all human civilization.

It is therefore not coincidental that our time, when the mix of high technology and a dominator system of social organization poses a danger to all life on this earth, should also be a time when women and men all over the world are increasingly questioning the stereotypical gender roles and relations appropriate for a dominator society. Nor is it coincidental that on the grassroots level groups working for equality, development, and peace are proliferating--even against strong dominator resistance and intermittent regressions.

For perhaps the most critical fact emerging from the new view of our past and potential future made possible by the study of society from a perspective that takes into account the whole of humanity, both women and men, is that all the modern movements for social and economic justice are neither radical nor new. Rather, such seemingly diverse progressive movements as the "rights of man," utopian and scientific socialist, abolitionist, and feminist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries and the anti-colonial, peace, ecology, civil rights and women's movements of the 20th century are part of a resurging thrust towards a social system that is not geared towards man's conquest of women, other men, or nature.

Most critically, rather than being a peripheral, or what is in male-dominant systems the same, a "women's issue," the social construction of gender roles and relations is central to the kind of future we will have. The domination of the female half of humanity by the male half is a basic template for all forms of domination, conditioning children early on to consider such relations normal. A related dynamic is that values such as non-violence, caring, and compassion can only attain social governance when those stereotypically associated with such "feminine" values are no longer subservient.

These are systems dynamics that those trying to push us back to the "good old days" when all women and most men still knew their place in rigid hierarchies of domination maintained by fear and force intuitively recognize-which is why for them returning women to their "traditional" place is a top priority. It is why for the so-called Christian right in the United States a return to the "traditional family" (a code word for a male-headed authoritarian family) is so critical - as it was for the Nazis when Hitler came to power and for the Iranian fundamentalists after Khomeini seized control. For in every case what we arc dealing with is a regression to a more rigid dominator society, which requires as a cornerstone for its foundations the domination of half of humanity over the other.

It is therefore essential that those working for a more equitable and peaceful world also become conscious of these dynamics. Indeed, the struggle for our future is not between capitalism and communism or between religion and secularism. It is a struggle about what kinds of relations we have, be it in our intimate or our international relations.

If those who still believe that domination, exploitation, and violence are "just the way things are" prevail, we face a very grim future, and ultimately no future at all. But if we recognize that a future orienting to partnership rather than domination is a viable alternative, and become conscious of the centrality of partnership gender roles and relations to the construction of such a future, there is realistic hope.


Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future. San Francisco: Harper &Row, 1987.

Eisler, Riane. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. San Francisco: Harper,San Francisco, 1995.

Eisler, Riane, David Loye, and Kari Norgaard.
Gender Equity and the Quality of Life: A Global Survey and Analysis. Pacific Grove, Calitbrnia: Center for Partnership Studies, 1995.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Myths of Gender. New York: Pergamon Press, 1984

Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper, San Francisco, 1991.

Mellaart, James. Catal Huyuk. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

Platon, Nicolas. Crete. Geneva: Nagel Publishers, 1966.

Riane Eisler is co-founder of the Center of Partnership Studies. She is the author of the Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. This article copyright, Riane Eisler, 1996

This article was published in New Renaissance, Vol. 7, Number 1 and posted on the web in August, 2000.



Site Meter