Alphabet Versus Goddess – How Stories Shape Us

Never underestimate the power of written words. Certain words on certain documents changed and influenced human perceptions of the world, and beyond, for thousands of years. What also is noteworthy is how the awakening of our own power to read between the lines can be instrumental in understanding documented stories more deeply.

Before I even knew about media literacy, I had a consciousness-shifting experience one evening at a presentation by a maverick archeologist. He identified what was omitted, and what was misrepresented, in The Jesuit Relations. These 73 volumes, documenting the anecdotal life of Jesuit missionaries from Canada’s eastern coastal provinces to central Canada from 1610 to 1791, have been used as resources by historians and fictional writers for five centuries up to, and including, pop culture today.

But, to this day, regrettably, few people are aware what has been misrepresented. In an academic paper, as well as later journalism articles, I wrote at length about what I will identify, briefly, here. The Jesuits, similar to other Christian missionaries, had no concept of the the already-existing spiritual life and practices of Indigenous peoples. Therefore, particular descriptions of, for example, spiritual ceremonies and daily morning prayers of gratitude to Creator, sadly, were ridiculed and distorted. Instead, specific rituals were characterized by various Jesuits as anything from meaningless loud shouting to devil worship, instead of, correctly, as sacred activities.

These Jesuit writings demonstrate the destructive lack of awareness of missionaries so powerfully instrumental in diminishing and demonizing ways of worship other than Christianity. Indigenous spiritual practices, in truth, showed gratitude and respect for Creation that was experientially lived. Meanwhile, the missionary perspective continues as a form of unnamed cultural racism predominant in our systemic Western consciousness. Transforming such misguided consciousness is an ongoing project for cross-cultural and planetary healing.

The essential need of our time for the evolution of consciousness also is why I consider Leonard Shlain’s book THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS, The Conflict Between Word and Image, as so important. In my previous blog post, I outlined Shlain’s physiological description of the lateralization of the human brain. I also cited how Shlain clearly identified the functions of the right and left brain hemispheres, respectively, in relation to images and written text.

In this blog post, I want to offer a few sociological insights, citing examples from Shlain’s book, why cultural upheavals happened when human societies marginalized spiritually-symbolic images and replaced them by “The Word,” in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Indeed, Shlain writes, regarding these three religions: “Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through his revealed Word, sanctified in its written form” [Shlain, 1999, p. 7]. He elaborates:

“Around 1500 B.C., there were hundreds of goddess-based sects enveloping the Mediterranean basin. By the fifth century A.D., they had been almost completely eradicated, by which time women were also prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament” [p. 6].

The initial shift from image to writing, therefore, predated the biblical Old Testament. “Sumerians took the first step in a process that would reconfigure all human relations,” writes Shlain. “In their oldest stratum, the Sumerians venerated a supreme female deity.” But, beginning in 3100 B.C., Sumerian pictographic cuneiform ideograms progressively evolved from visual signs to stylized symbols to represent “an idea, concept, object, or action” [p. 46-7]. Regardless, their creation still integrated the right and left brain hemispheres.

When the Akkadians conquered Sumer, however, “they adapted cuneiform by inventing phonograms, symbols that stand for syllables of speech,” eventually evolving into “phonetic writing” for which they replaced previous patterns into linear arrangement. This transformation, moreover, replaced the status of the Sumerian goddess, Nisaba, perceived as the giver of cuneiform characters, with the Akkadian god of writing, Nabu.

What followed illustrates how the former reverence of the feminine principle by the Sumerians was superseded by a radically different creation myth “recited every spring in Babylon for the next thousand years,” writes Shlain. Indeed, in The Seven Tablets of Creation, the Great Goddess Tiamat is dismembered by the god Marduk. Shlain exclaims, “in the field of comparative religion, there does not exist a more misogynist and macabre story” [p. 50].

In looking up this myth, also known as Enuma Elish, I found a website showing the 1902 translation by L.W. King, where the introduction points out: “The Enuma Elish has long been considered by scholars to be the primary source material for the book of Genesis. It has also been hypothesized that this is a legend about the overthrow of the matriarchy or records of some cosmic catastrophe.”

Shlain points out another event contemporaneous with the mythic dismemberment of the Great Goddess Tiamat – the creation of the first written legal code of law by Babylonian chieftain Hammurabi. In fact, Hammurabi believed that the god Marduk had chosen him to rule over Babylon, and initiated the man-made doctrine of the `divine rule of kings’ in Hammurabi’s Code.

Various scholars have praised the merits of this first extensive written code of law. But, Shlain is not alone in identifying its shadow side. In looking up Hammurabi’s Code, I discovered another source (also used by Shlain), Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy. Lerner apparently used Hammurabi’s Code as supporting evidence for the eventual codification of patriarchal values in extensive, bureaucratic civilizations.

So, folks, think about it. Patriarchy goes back a long, long way, deeply entrenched in institutionalized religion as well as legal codes of law. Herein, as well, are the seeds of bureaucracy that plague us to this day – and questionable, given the emphasis on left brain thinking rather than the fuller, holistic capabilities of the mind. As Shlain points out: “laws press down upon the people and can be initiated and manipulated by a privileged literate elite” [p. 51].

Shlain emphasizes, however, the cognitive outcomes of shifting from image to text could not have been known in those early centuries of developing alphabetic script:

“For sophisticated neurolinguistic reasons the early practitioners could not have known, alphabets reinforced only half of the dual strategy that humans had evolved to survive. As we have seen, this strategy had three components: left brain/right brain, cone/rod, and right hand/left hand. Each tripartite half of this duality perceived and reacted to the world in a different way; a unified response emerged only when both complementary halves were used” [p. 66].

Indeed, how many people even today are aware of this fact, a fact that plays a major role in why stories are so potent in shaping what we think we know about the world?

Chronologically through the centuries, Shlain gives evidence how the treatment of women improved or deteriorated in conjunction with periods of transition that shifted a culture focused on oration and images to the dissemination of literacy throughout the population, most particularly in religious texts. Go to the website for The Alphabet Versus the Goddess to scroll the timeline generously provided.

Another sociological insight, aside from how the manipulation of written words fostered the origins of patriarchy, is the split that resulted between the spiritual and the religious. This split happened when `spiritual’ beliefs and practices became encoded in written dogmas and doctrines. Something significant was lost – namely, the integrity of the original teachings by Jesus, Mohammed, and also Buddha.

In The Alphabet and the Goddess, Shlain illuminates at length how and why the original oral teachings, not written down by the actual spiritual founders of the subsequent religious movements, were either unconsciously misinterpreted or very intentionally reinterpreted, in accordance with the self-serving agendas of power holders at different historic periods.

Shlain explains how the tragic ruptures of entire societies were based not simply on religious wars. But, moreover, he outlines how religious wars repeatedly involved the smashing of images and stripping away of women’s rights once again, while imposing yet another religious document on how to conduct religious worship of God. Forget religious freedom, or any comprehension abut what is authentically spiritual. Therein resides the core of the split in human consciousness.

Some of you may know the story how Siddhartha Gautama became a Buddha, an `Awakened One.’ He founded a religion in which there was no deity to revere. Shlain writes that, like Socrates, the Buddha was contemptuous of the written word, and discouraged his disciples from transcribing his words. Further to Buddha’s views:

“He taught that rituals, priests, prayers, demons, angels, devotions, sacrifices, supplications, and incantations were all worthless. He claimed that religious hierarchies were designed to benefit only priests. He resisted the temptation to promulgate a code of law, believing that all laws imposed by an authority eventually degenerate into tyranny” [p. 172].

Well, history tells us that Buddha sure got that human probability right. So what happened to Buddhism and why, through later centuries? For the original teachings were grounded in `wisdom’ and `compassion,’ “two concepts traditionally associated with the feminine principle” [p. 174], and many other feminine motifs, such as: nonviolence, equality for all, universal love, and the horizontal layering of society.

Shlain concludes that we never can know for certain how accurate are the later stories about Buddha in a doctrine “based on feminine principles but contains an abhorrence of sexuality, a suspicion of women, and a negative attitude toward birth” [p. 178]. Shlain, compassionately, points out one consistent fact in various sources: the real life Siddhartha Gautama’s mother died giving birth to him, a profoundly traumatizing event for any child.

My three closing comments are the following. First of all, I invite you to read one of my earlier blog posts, partly relating the bravery of Quan Am Thi Kinh, a historic Vietnamese woman who made possible the building of the first temple in Vietnam for women to be ordained and to practice as Buddhist nuns. My source for that little known story is The Novice, a novel written by Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, and author, who himself has faced persecution in today’s world. Thich Nhat Hanh, regardless, devotes his life to supporting actions for world peace.

Secondly, I highly recommend reading The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, about which two blog posts cannot do justice to the diligent research gathered by Shlain, and his pioneering theory. His book addresses the human family from our hominid beginnings through history to today, mapping how the shift from images to written words impacted upon every major religion and culture. Yet, ultimately, his message is one of hope for the human family.

Third, and finally, I too am hopeful. Oppression has existed throughout human history. Yet, always, sufficient numbers of human beings have risen up to transform it. Despite the biases embedded in institutionalized religion, always, certain individuals even within these institutions retain their spiritual integrity to speak out against unequal treatment caused by doctrines that benefit the privileged few at the expense of well-being for all.

The possibility to co-create a better world, always, resides within the heart and soul of each of us.

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4 Responses to Alphabet Versus Goddess – How Stories Shape Us

  1. Your last two paragraphs are the most telling for me, Sandy.

    There has to always be hope, even in the face of oppression and depression–and there is always possibility to co-create a better world for ourselves, our loved ones, and our friends.

    Without that, we might as well stay in bed, and while that might seem tempting on some days, it really is better to get up and be part of the world.

    And, as my cousins Sheena and Tim like to say, “Dream big or wake up.”

    Thank you for your writings and your teachings.

    • Thanks, Christine, for your caring words.
      I also like your cousins’ straight talking, but prefer to change it to say: “Dream big and wake up, to make a better world our reality.

  2. Thank you so much for the depth of this blog. Over very recent years, I’ve been drawn more and more to women’s wisdom and to learning about Our Place prior to the rise of androcracy. Thank you so much for the in-depth background provided here. I look forward to exploring more on your site and on this subject!
    ~Billie Willmon Jenkin

    • I appreciate your interest, Billie.
      Through the past two months I’ve written about the `sacred feminine’ and the need to revitalize it. I intend to offer new workshops on this theme and related topics in 2013.
      You also might enjoy reading May 3 and May 14 blog posts on ancient symbols and archeologist Marija Gimbutas.
      In looking up your three websites, I applaud you in working with children and adults on the development of self worth and self esteem.
      Given your work, I suggest “Say No to Bullying, Porn &…,” my Oct. 16 post where I suggest root causes of today’s pressures on youth.
      I certainly recommend my readers to check out your books and related life-affirming work at

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