The Chalice and the Blade
The Chalice and the Blade is a 1987 book by Riane Eisler that purports to explain the origin of "patriarchy" as the result of Bronze Age era military campaigns in Eastern Europe. It went on to become part of the body of wonderlore that "informs" Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
A feckless feminist utopia
Human societies in prehistoric antiquity were of two kinds, according to Eisler. One was a "gylany", Eisler's neologism for a society in which relationships between the sexes are an egalitarian partnership. This creates a wonderful society which is egalitarian, peaceful, and matrifocal, centering on nurture and worshipping a benevolent mother goddess. These societies once existed throughout early Bronze Age Europe. Their symbol is the titular chalice.
But they are threatened by the forces of evil patriarchy, which is hierarchical, warlike, and based on dominance and submission. In these societies, men rule by force, and women are oppressed. These people worship a male god or gods of war, vengeance, and honor. These people were the nomads of the Eurasian steppes who first tamed horses and built the first wheeled vehicles. Eisler calls this "androcracy". The symbol of these villains is the titular blade.
Eisler's book is a further development of the thesis advanced by the Indo-Europeanist Marija Gimbutas and the archeologist James Mellaart about a supposed unitary matrilineal and Goddess-worshipping culture that was claimed to be widespread throughout "Old Europe", in the Balkans, Anatolia, Crete, Malta, and the northeastern Mediterranean. According to these writers, this idyllic agricultural society was put to the torch by invading Indo-European speakers armed with superior military technologies. This narrative dates back to the nineteenth century. It is, in fact, a version of the Aryan superman myth which was the founding legend of Nazi Germany.
If true, Eisler's narrative stands as a dire warning of the fate that awaits a society that abandons hierarchy, male dominance, and violence for egalitarian pacifism. In these tales, the Aryans always retain their superhuman qualities. At the first appearance of the patriarchal conquerors, the egalitarian societies crumble and vanish like snow in the desert wind. The curious helplessness of Utopia's citizens, who consistently fail to defend their home turf against these packs of marauders far from their home bases, is remarkable. Fortunately for those who would have us admire these ancient failed egalitarian societies in the present day, the Aryan conquest hypothesis isn't true.
Actual archeology paints a very different picture of "Old Europe". At least some of the societies in the area -- which varied quite a bit thanks to the variety of the terrain -- were hellish stockade towns, armed and militarily competent if nothing else, in which short-lived slaves worked arsenical bronze. By contrast, the ancient Greeks knew the Scythian steppes and its riders, the place where Gimbutas's theory says the patriarchal invaders came from, as one of the homelands of the legendary Amazons. One in six female graves from the area is given a high-status warrior's burial, with chariots and weapons as grave goods. This may not be equality, but it beats most other records from the ancient world in gender role progressivism.
A secret tradition?
According to Eisler, the response of the egalitarians to the collapse of their utopian societies by patriarchal conquerors was to organize an underground resistance. This feminist underground kept the tradition of the sacred feminine alive until it was able once more to re-emerge. But, like secretive underground organizations can't help but do in these stories, they left scattered through art and culture a sequence of coded and hidden clues for moderns to ferret out their true meanings. Secret organizations that want to be discovered apparently act like Batman villains.
One place in which the secret goddess worshippers dropped their hints was in Gnostic Christianity, where it attached itself to the figure of Mary Magdalene as she appears in the gnostic Gospels. Eventually, the secret Goddess tradition of the early Church was demoted by the church fathers to the Virgin Mary, and her attributes were altered to enable the reassertion of patriarchal control.
Eisler is the source of Dan Brown's notion that Jesus was "the original feminist" and that originally Christians worshipped the "sacred feminine" and the "lost goddess" based on the "symbolism of the Chalice and the Blade". Until, of course, the evil patriarchs got a hold of Christianity and sent the Goddess's followers scurrying for cover. These ideas about the sacred feminine, true to form, went underground and the Chalice symbol reappeared as the Holy Grail. One problem with this interpretation of secret symbols is that the chalice as a feminist symbol is in fact original to Eisler. Originating in 1987, Eisler's chalice cannot have prefigured the Holy Grail.
Eisler's use of history is as a morality play. After the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945, she realised that humanity now faced a crossroads. According to her version of history, to continue down the warlike patriarchal path was to invite the destruction of the human species. We must become peaceful egalitarians like the failed utopias of old Europe if humanity is to have any hopes of survival. The end of the Cold War due to women finally becoming leaders of egalitarian utopias in both the United States and the Soviet Union clearly shows why creating such an invented past was totally okay in order to avoid the risk of testosterone addled males blowing up the planet. As we all know, women would never consider such an atrocity.
- Harper Collins; ISBN 0062502875
- Philip G. Davis, The Goddess Unmasked. (Spence Publishing, 1998)
- Sheaffer, Robert. The Da Vinci Code Cult: A Critical Look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Skeptic vol. 11 no. 4 (2005)
- David W. Anthony, "Nazi and eco-feminist prehistories", in Philip J. Kohl, ed., Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge, 1995; ISBN 0521558395), pp. 94 - 95.
- Amazon Warriors' Names Revealed Amid "Gibberish" on Ancient Greek Vases, National Geographic.
- And to the extent that contemporary political values are fairly applied to any ancient society.
- The Da Vinci Code, p. 248
- The Da Vinci Code, p. 237 - 238
- Eisler may have been inspired by a Wiccan ritual in which a consecrated knife -- the athame -- is dipped into a chalice as a symbol of ritual sexual intercourse. Eisler's use of the symbols is inconsistent with Wicca's, and at any rate a Wiccan origin of the symbols pushes their origin back in time all the way to the 1950s. See Vivianne Crowley, Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age (1989) (London: The Aquarian Press. p.159. ISBN 0-85030-737-6)
- Allen, Woody. My Speech to the Graduates (1979).
- Beth Grindell. Rewriting the Past to Save the Future: A Review of The Chalice and the Blade. Arizona Anthropologist 10:119-130.