Review of The Alphabet versus the Goddess

Review of The Alphabet versus the Goddess

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Metaviews 051. 2000.05.19. Approximately 2172 words.

Below is a book review of “The Alphabet versus the Goddess” by Leonard Shlain. The review is written by Alfred Kracher, a geologistat Iowa State University. The book deals with the invention ofwriting and its effect on religious culture. Kracher’s review iscritical but open-ended, noting that “surely the invention of thealphabet was one of the greatest revolutions in the history ofhumankind.”

— Billy Grassie

From: Alfred Kracher <>Subject: Book Review: The Alphabet versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain

Leonard Shlain, “The Alphabet versus the Goddess.” New York: PenguinPutnam, 1998. 464 pp. Hardcover: ISBN 0-670-87883-9, $24.95;paperback (1999): ISBN 0-14-019601-3, $14.95.1.Shlain’s thesis is that the invention of writing, and in particularthe emergence of alphabet-based literacy, lead to a mind setoveremphasizing functions of the left brain hemisphere, thedestruction of images, and the subjugation of women by men. Thepervasive theme of the book is the contrast between leftbrain/male/linear thinking and right brain/female/holistic thinking.Hence the book chapters, thirty-five in all, throughout carry titlesreferring to aspects of this contrast, such as “Image/Word”,”Hieroglyphs/Isis”, “Dionysus/Apollo”, “Id/Superego”,”Page/Screen”–you get the idea.The most significant landmarks of the “Conflict Between Word andImage” (the book’s subtitle) are the emergence of a single maledeity, the concept of a sacred book (rather than sacred places andobjects), and evolution of an exclusively male priesthood. Thecasualty of this development are goddess worship, pictorialrepresentations of any kind, and the status of women.

It is a large theory, and as G. K. Chesterton has observed, “A manwarmly concerned with any large theories has always a relish forapplying them to any triviality.” Shlain’s 464-page rush through sixmillennia of human culture is a case in point. He surely overstateshis case by turning the entire history of the Western world intosupporting evidence. That does not mean, however, that his basicthesis is wrong. Regardless of Shlain’s sometimes Procrustean effortsto chop up complex historical events into patterns that fit hishypothesis, there is much plausibility to the underlying idea.

Nor is Shlain simplistic about the female/male dichotomy. Herepeatedly emphasizes that he is talking about “opposite perceptualmodes” (holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete versuslinear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract), not individualabilities, and that each individual whether male or female is”generously endowed with all the features of both” (page 1).Nonetheless, he contends, writing with its linearity and focus on oneparticular object within the perceptual field has promotedover-emphasis on the hunter/killer’s ability to concentrate on asingle goal, and suppressed the nurturer/gatherer’s propensity forregarding the entire field of view simultaneously.

Surely the invention of the alphabet was one of the greatestrevolutions in the history of humankind. Unfortunately, revolutionstend to overshoot their mark, and the emergence of literacy has donemuch more than just diminish the importance of visualrepresentation–it has been accompanied by the vilification anddestruction of images.

Thus the first time a deity expresses himself in writing, theassertion of his exclusive maleness is immediately followed by aprohibition of images–not just images of the deity, but, asoriginally articulated, against all “graven images” of any sort (Ex.20:4). Likewise, the spread of literacy that followed Gutenberg’sinvention of type printing was accompanied by the iconoclasm of theReformation.

That the Yahweh religion not merely ignored feminine attributes forthe deity, but actively campaigned to eradicate them, is beyonddispute (in all polytheist religions at least some of the deities arefemale). Sometimes this is portrayed as a “theological necessity” inorder to promote a “properly transcendent” God-concept. Notsurprisingly, necessity and propriety of the move have been thesubject of controversy. The issue is by no means of merely historicalinterest. Only a few years ago the Vatican reaffirmed its prohibitionagainst using female pronouns for God in Catholic worship.

Seduced by the link between book religion, male deity, and theprohibition of images, Shlain reads a virulent misogyny into the Adamand Eve story (Gen. 2-3). Shlain associates the Yahwist source ofGenesis (J), presumptively the oldest of its four distinct traditions(J, E, P, and R), with the emergence of universal alphabet literacyfor the first time in history.

Considering the historical setting, the alphabet association may notbe unreasonable. But with the exception of Shlain and a few of hisfeminist sources, J is almost universally regarded as the mostsensitive author of the four strands, sensitivity to womenconspicuously included. So much so, in fact, that the ideaoccasionally surfaces that J may have been a woman herself (forexample in Bloom & Rosenberg, “The Book of J”, Grove Weidenfeld 1990).

This is unlikely. But given J’s presumed antiquity, which puts thistradition closest to the oral sources of the Hebrew Bible, Shlain’sown thesis would be quite compatible with the sensitivity towardwomen that many interpreters have seen in J. Shlain’s insistence onJ’s misogyny is therefore difficult to understand.

Feminist theologians are themselves divided over the interpretationof the Adam and Eve story. Rosemary Ruether, for example, would agreewith Shlain, both in considering pervasive misogyny a characteristicfeature of Middle Eastern creation myths, and in postulating a stronginfluence of these misogynist myths on Genesis 2-3.

Shlain is in good company when he regards the slaying of Tiamat inthe Babylonian “Enuma Elish” as archetype of violence against women.But with regard to Genesis, Phyllis Trible would demur. Her feministposition leads her to a revisionist interpretation (“God and theRhetoric of Sexuality”, Fortress 1978) that claims to findmale-female equality in the same Genesis passage that Shlain reads asthoroughly misogynist.

Shlain, however, presents only one side of this controversy, andgives no indication that he is aware of differing interpretations.This one-sidedness unnecessarily detracts from the credibility of histhesis.

Given Shlain’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Genesis as well asmany other historical facets, it is not surprising that the book hasreceived a mixed response. “Pseudoscience claptrap” scoffed TheSkeptic Magazine (see METANEWS of 16 Sep 1999) in announcing a reviewby Tim Callahan.

Now Shlain’s thesis may be flawed, unverifiable, or even entirelywrong, but one thing it is assuredly not is pseudoscience. Onecharacteristic of pseudoscience is that it invariably tries toinsulate itself from being falsified by placing itself outside thecontext of established disciplines. There is no indication of thisanywhere in Shlain’s book.

Perhaps a true Skeptic has to hold on to a firm belief that literacycannot have a dark side. Not being the capital-S kind of Skepticmyself, I am skeptical about this creed. Shlain’s quotation fromWilliam Irving Thompson, a decidedly right-brain kind of thinker,makes good sense: “Even a positive thing casts a shadow…its uniqueexcellence is at the same time its tragic flaw” (p.1).Shlain wants us to know that even literacy, arguably the mostimportant accomplishment in the ascent of human reason, has its darkside, which is rooted in its overemphasis on left-brain functions. Ificonoclasm and misogyny are the results, it would be folly to denythe shadow side of an excessively left-brain mode of thinking.

Whatever its flaws, “The Alphabet versus the Goddess” reminds us ofone very important insight that is often lost beneath enlightenmentmythology: Persecution and repression are not necessarily the resultof ignorance. This can be seen clearly by comparing one of Shlain’sprime examples, the witch hunts in the 16th and 17th century, to anevent which Shlain mentions only in passing, the bubonic plagueepidemic of the mid-1300s.

That earlier upheaval also led to persecutions of minorities,particularly Jews, who were suspected of “well poisoning” and othernefarious ways of spreading the black death. By and large, the rulersof the time tried to quash this pogrom of ignorance, although in themidst of social upheaval caused by the epidemic their success wasmostly limited.

For example, in contrast to the enthusiastic papal endorsement of the”Witches’ Hammer” 150 years later, Pope Clement VI issued two bullsagainst the persecution and gave sanctuary to Jews within his Avignonestate. Although the true nature of infectious diseases was to remainunknown for another 500 years, scholars at the time of the 14thcentury plague mostly rejected popular attributions of blame toparticular persons and groups (Marks & Beatty, “Epidemics”,Scribner’s 1976).

By contrast, it was the ignorant who suffered during the witch hunts,and they suffered at the hands of the intellectual elite. When JohannWeyer cautiously suggested that some manifestations attributed towitches might be due to mental illness, the lawyer Jean Bodinconfidently retorted that medical science was quite capable ofdistinguishing mental afflictions from the machinations of witches(see E. William Monter, “European Witchcraft”, Wiley 1969). Whatlittle objection there was to the holocaust of (mostly) femalevictims was motivated more by compassion and human decency than anyaspirations of pure reason.

Shlain, I have said, reminds us of this, and to some of his criticsit is an unwelcome message. As for me, I rather wish Shlain hadwritten a better book to undergird his thesis. It is too bad that hehas given those who would rather not listen to the message so muchopportunity to dismiss it because of one flaw or another inhistorical scholarship.

To give critis their due, there are many things to find annoyingabout the book. Shlain’s historical overview is an exasperatingmixture of shrewd insights and plain silliness. Assertions hang inthe air without supporting evidence, such as “monasticism did more toundermine the position of medieval women than any other socialinstitution” (p.274). What, one may ask, about the shift of theintellectual center of gravity from monasteries, which came after allin male and female varieties, to the exclusively male andincreasingly secular universities?

Even more disastrous is Shlain’s brief excursion into linguistics inorder to support his contention that the grammatical gender ofabstract nouns (in those European languages that use it) reflectspervasive misogyny. I can only judge the German, which is my nativelanguage, and in that case Shlain cannot even produce a grammaticallyvalid example. Such inferences are in any case nearly impossible in alanguage like German, where gender is more often determined by someabstract grammatical rule than by the meaning of the word itself (howelse could a fashion model acquire masculine gender?).

Unfortunately this sort of superficiality distracts the reader fromfocussing on the primary message of the book. It diminishes therhetorical value of Shlain’s bold conjectures, even in those caseswhere they are imaginative and plausible. I am quite intrigued, forexample, by his idea that “the absence of woman wisdom” was asignificant factor in the decline of the Renaissance papacy(pp.314-322). Even if the details are open to dispute, this is thekind of inference that demonstrates the fruitfulness of Shlain’sbasic hypothesis for giving us new perspectives on history.

Shlain is a surgeon by profession, and chief of laparoscopic surgeryat California-Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Professionalsin the many areas of scholarship that Shlain touches on are likely tobe irked about his foray onto their turf even though he lacksacademic credentials in their respective fields. What is at issue,however, is the overall validity of the thesis. As Thomas Kuhnexplains in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” many trueinnovations in academic disciplines have been made by outsiders,those who can afford to take a fresh look, unencumbered bytraditional training.

Of course, for any one of these innovators there are dozens ofproposals by ousiders that are just plain wrong. It is too early tosay into which category Shlain falls. Personally I think that he ison to something very important, but that we are far from having allthe pieces of the puzzle yet.

Given the long list of justified criticisms, it may appear that mypositive assessment of Shlain’s book is inconsistent. Perhaps thatcomes from the fact that his thesis agrees with some of my ownhunches about the general features of cultures. I strongly believe,for example, that in oral cultures there had to be more of a balancebetween the roles of men and women. Indeed, contrary to Shlain, whosees the J author in Genesis as misogynist, J’s unique closeness tooral sources explains in my view why he shows greater sympathy towardwomen than other traditions.

In summary, I highly recommend that you read the book yourself–witha critical eye, to be sure–and form your own opinion. As the Britishliterature scholar Gillian Beer (“Darwin’s Plots”, Routledge 1983)remarked, “Reading is an essentially question-raising procedure.” Ifyou are occasionally infuriated by an overly idiosyncraticinterpretation of history, that is alright. Just remind yourself thatwhat you feel are emotions from your right brain trying to balancethe left brain act of reading.

Reviewed by Alfred Kracher

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