Today is International Women’s Day, the day we remember and honour women for who they are and what they bring to the world. For me, it’s a day to take stock and notice how we, as a society, are honouring the divine feminine principles. Although we’ve come a long way, the journey towards balance between the masculine and feminine is far from over. And to understand where we’re going requires us to understand where we’ve been. This pondering led me to a question: ‘Who mugged the Goddess’?
On a trip to Malta a few years ago, I visited many UNESCO world heritage sites and was struck by what remained of the ancient society that lived there between 6000 and 9000 years ago. Some of the oldest artifacts on earth have been found on Malta. We toured through ruins of many ancient temples made of giant stones with round curves; I noticed the structures had beautiful curved shapes and lacked sharp corners. The museum featured artifacts discovered in and around the temples; carved figures of the feminine form, many showing the miracle of birth and creation that came through women. It would appear that the inhabitants of this ancient civilization lived in harmony with nature and each other as no fortification or weapons were found.
Other areas around the Mediterranean reveal similar ‘pre-history’ cultures, with women seemingly the center of spiritual life. Although not much is known about the role of men, various artifacts would suggest that men women worked together in all aspects of life. Then, over a relatively short period of time, the Goddess disappeared. Shrines originally devoted to various forms or aspects of the Goddess were reconsecrated to honour male deities. Her role in myths changed from being the ‘creator’ or great Mother to lesser, more supporting, roles. And in a final act of subjugation, Zeus, the all-powerful male god even began to create life when the goddess Athena sprang fully formed from his brain. This mythological example may highlight Greek culture, but it was the same in other societies as well.
What Happened to the Goddess?
So, what happened? Why did the Goddess disappear and, really, does it matter to us today? It does matter. It matters because over thousands of years, the fates of the Goddess and that of women in society have been intertwined. As the Goddess disappeared from society, so did women’s status and power. Knowing the answer may help us to better navigate our evolution into the 21st century and help us come to a greater balance, both within ourselves and within our society.
Numerous explanations for this phenomenon have been suggested, but one of the most compelling I’ve found is by Dr. Leonard Shlain, a surgeon and neuroscientist, in his groundbreaking book, “The Alphabet versus the Goddess”. Shlain posits that when a society becomes literate, with an alphabetic language, it causes a rapid unbalancing of the brain and psyche towards the left hemisphere – the part of the brain that analyzes, organizes, describes, judges and separates. It is the part that is logical, rational and linear.
It’s impossible to know if people living in these pre-literate societies had brains that were right hemisphere dominant or were balanced between the two hemispheres. Regardless, the act of learning to read and write using alphabet-type letters (i.e., symbols or letters that don’t have meaning except when combined with other letters) requires concentrated use of the left hemisphere. Understanding abstract meaning requires analysis of a linear sequence and cannot be grasped or understood in a holistic, right-brain way. Looking through this lens, Shlain examines vast periods of history for a variety of cultures around the world and discovers some striking similarities.
A rapid shift to left-brain dominance in a majority of people of a society, he observed, led to a shift from Goddess worship to a single, imageless (primarily) ‘male’ God, the reduction or banning of images (representative art, statues, etc.), the decline or elimination of women’s rights and religious intolerance. It’s as if the society experiences a temporary ‘madness’. In culture after culture, this basic pattern has been repeated.
For women in Europe the effect was intensified and the results even more devastating. The invention of the printing press in approximately 1440 led to an acceleration of literacy rates. One result was the ‘witch craze’ or the ‘burning times.’ Others call it a genocide against women and when the history is reviewed, this characterization is not an exaggeration.
Before I began to learn about this period of history, I would have accepted that most women who were burned, tortured or killed had, in some way, brought it upon themselves. No doubt this belief came from the historians who propagated it. Shlain disputes this notion stating that,
“Whole lifetimes were consumed in abject terror of the coming of the witch hunter with his chains. … At the height of the witch craze, women were killed for being women.”
At this time, women had no protectors or champions as those sympathetic to their plight were viewed as accomplices and subjected to the same fate. In fact, it was even worse. Not only did they not protect women, but virtually all sectors of the intelligencia supported the witch hunts. University professors, lawyers, judges, doctors and men of all professions looked upon women with suspicion and added intellectual fuel to the fire.
The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was one of the first mass-produced books and was used as the instruction manual for the witch hunts. Shlain puts forward a bold suggestion: that the accelerated literacy rates from the development of the printing press, bore greater responsibility for the witch hunts and resulting insanity, as opposed to the content of the book itself. He noted that women in other societies who lived in reasonably close proximity to the European nations avoided the madness. Russian women were protected by rampant illiteracy while those in the bordering Muslim countries were spared by the cultural preference for calligraphy over the printed word, which had the effect of slowing literacy rates.
Indeed, it was a dark time for women, Divine Feminine principles and the Goddess. Shlain asserts:
“The slumber of countless women was no doubt restless and troubled, filled with remembered or imagined fiends coming at them with instruments of torture. This anxiety, penetrating deep into the psychic female marrow, cannot be accounted for in dry, statistical analysis.”
The burning times lasted five generations – that’s an awfully long time. According to Shlain, it was the rise of science that ended the insanity, but unfortunately science did not view women or women’s values in a positive light either. Shlain asserts that the resurgence of women’s rights in the last century can be attributed to the rise of image and electromagnatism. “An image is worth a thousand words” and the photograph did for the image what the printing press did for the written word. Together these two forces began to strengthen the right hemisphere of the brain and began the process of returning society to a balance between left and right brain hemispheres, between masculine and feminine, and between men and women.
Fast Forward to Today
I would assert that the legacy and scars of this period of history endure on the psyche of women and men today. It manifests differently for everyone and some women seem to be unaffected while others, like myself, seem to have been deeply affected. Standing out from the crowd in any way is met with unexplained internal anxiety. As a society, left-brain values still dominate over those associated with the right brain, but I am optimistic about the many signs of change.
For women and men, I see a need for great healing. We need to heal those deep wounds to our psyche. We need to create a safe place where our right-brain principles and gifts can be honoured and shared, by men and women. And of course, the place to start is within ourselves. Honour your intuition, your caring, your nurturing, your relationships, your knowing, your divine wise self within.
To all those who suffered, I am deeply sorry for your pain. You bore the cost of the amazing technological advances that we now enjoy. Today, and always, I wish you eternal peace and love.