Review: The Chalice and the Blade
Christine Hoff Kraemer
Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade was one of
several books by feminist scholars released in the late 1980’s that tried to
sketch out the origins of patriarchy in order to suggest ways that it might be
ended. Like Marilyn French’s Beyond Power
and Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy, Eisler
asserts that patriarchy is built on particular symbol and value reversals – the
Great Mother Goddess, primary symbol for the divine source of being and
associated with peace and compassion, is marginalized and then discarded
entirely, while a masculine war god is raised in her place. Of these three
similar books, however, Eisler’s is by far the
shortest, simplest, and easiest to read, which may account for its continuing
popularity and multiple reprintings since its initial
publication in 1987. At the time of writing, the book has sold over 500,000
copies and has inspired a similar study of
Eisler uses the symbols of chalice and blade to stand for two competing sets of values and models of society. The chalice stands for a style of social structure that Eisler calls the partnership model, in which relations between the sexes are understood primarily in terms of partnership rather than hierarchy. The resulting society is egalitarian, peaceful, and matrifocal, centered on the nurturing values traditionally associated with mothers. Using a variety of archaeological studies, Eisler claims that such societies existed in Neolithic Europe from the beginning of the agricultural revolution until around 5000-3000 BCE, when warlike invaders from the fringes of these regions conquered them. These invaders’ social model, which Eisler calls the dominator model, is warlike, hierarchical, and organized around patterns of domination. Sex, race, class, and other characteristics are used to rank individuals in a social pecking order, which is then kept in place with the threat of violence. This model is generally associated with a male god and with the glorification of the ability to take life, in contrast to the partnership model’s sacralization of women’s ability to give life through birth. Eisler also coins more technical-sounding terms to describe the dimension of gender in these models: she calls the principle of the partnership model gylany, which is intended to invoke the linking of the two sexes, while she refers to dominator societies as practicing androcracy, the rule of men by force.
For Eisler, history is the keystone of her argument, her proof that because partnership societies existed in the past, they might be achievable again in the future (xv). She uses Minoan Crete as her primary illustration of a partnership society, and draws on archaeologists James Mellaart and Marija Gimbutas to argue that the worship of a single Great Goddess was the shared religion of all of Neolithic Europe. The following chapters turn to cultural and art history, as she examines the literature of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to find myths suggesting remnants of usurped female power. Her particular proof texts include the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is tempted to eat the fruit of knowledge by a serpent, a symbol associated with Goddess worship in several ancient cultures of the region, and the Greek Oresteia, in which the Furies are stripped of their power to punish the murder of a mother by a son when Athena sides with the gods against the goddesses.
Eisler’s ultimate aim, however, is not historical but normative. The chapters on archaeology and cultural history serve as a background for her insistence that with the invention of the atomic bomb, humanity has reached an evolutionary crossroads. Human society must turn again to a gylanic model of association and embrace its values, because to continue along the path of androcracy is likely to lead to nuclear war. The remainder of the book is devoted to what Eisler calls Cultural Transformation theory, and sketches out mechanisms by which transformation from a dominator model of society to a partnership one can be accomplished. Among her observations is a criticism of the rigid sexual stereotypes that she sees as a necessary part of a dominator society, as well as the claim that the rise of women’s status in a given society is highly correlated with its overall quality of life.
Eisler’s goals are admirable, her assertion that
history provides the proof for her arguments is dangerous due to the poor
quality of her scholarship. Much of the archeology that she relies on for her
argument has been discredited by later scholars, particularly the work of Marija Gimbutas. Even in the case
Postscript: Riane Eisler was born in
The Center for Partnership Studies [online].
W., and Ruth E. Tringham. “Archaeology and the
Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology.” Feminisms
in the Academy, eds. Domna C. Stanton and
Abigail J. Stewart.
Donaldson, Laura E., reviewer. “The Course of Co-Creation” (The Chalice and the Blade book review). Cross Currents 40 (Spring 1990): 124-6.
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade. With special epilogue
for 25th printing.
Patton, Laurie L. “The Chalice and the Blade (book review).” Anglican Theological Review 70 (July 1988): 287-290.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “The Chalice and the Blade (book review).” Daughters of Sarah 15 (May-June 1989): 22-23.
Copyright (c) 2004 by Christine Hoff Kraemer
 Although this may well be unintentional, the imagery of chalice and blade also functions as a criticism of contemporary “traditional” Wicca, in which the chalice symbolizes the feminine creative force and the blade – called an athame – symbolizes the creative masculine. One of Wicca’s central rituals is the insertion of the blade into the chalice to bless the ritual drink and to represent the harmonious union of these universal forces.