The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler

This is a book I’ve been fascinated by and slow reading over the past couple of months. Today, somewhat reluctantly, as it’s a large and in-depth work that can’t really be summarised, I decided I needed to write about it, especially as the sequel is due out and I’ve pre-ordered it, so I wanted to share my thoughts on this first. And because it’s brilliant and deserves a much wider readership.

Riane Eisler was born in Vienna, Austria. When she was a child she and her parents fled for their lives from the Nazis, first to Cuba and finally to the United States, thus she experienced three different cultures, each with their own version of truth and reality.

Very early in my life I saw that what people in different cultures consider given – just the way things are – is not the same everywhere. I also very early developed a passionate concern about the human situation.

She began to ask herself many questions:

Why do we hunt and persecute each other? Why is our world so full of man’s infamous inhumanity to man – and woman? How can humans be so brutal to their own kind? What is it that chronically tilts us toward cruelty rather than kindness, toward war rather than peace, toward destruction rather than actualization?

These and other questions lead her to re-examine the past, present and future, captured here in The Chalice and the Blade, looking at human history and pre-history and at both male and female aspects of humanity and in particular, those societies where the feminine aspect was revered.

This work gave rise to what she termed:
– the dominator model (popularly referred to as patriarchy or matriarchy) – the ranking of one half of humanity over another and
– the partnership model  – based on the principle of linking, affiliation and cooperation

Her work further suggested that:

the original direction in the mainstream of our cultural evolution was toward partnership but that, following a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption, there occurred a fundamental shift.

Hence the title The Chalice (the life-generating and nurturing powers of the universe – in our time symbolized by the ancient chalice or grail) and the Blade the power to take rather than give life that is the ultimate power to establish and enforce domination.

She reevaluates the past and present, sharing insights from research that has often been ignored or misinterpreted.

The chapters tell a story that begins thousands of years before our recorded (or written history). Of how the original partnership direction of Western culture veered off into a bloody 5,000 year dominator detour.

showing that our mounting global problems are in large part the logical consequences of a dominator model of social organisation and that there is another course which, as co-creators of our own future experience, is still ours to choose.

Both the mythical and archaeological evidence indicate that perhaps the most notable quality of the pre-dominator mind was its recognition of our oneness with all of nature,which lies at the heart of both Neolithic and the Cretan worship of the Goddess. Increasingly, the work of modern ecologists indicates that this earlier quality of mind, in our time often associated with some types of Eastern spirituality, was far advanced beyond today’s environmentally destructive ideology.

From the paleolithic, the neolithic, Old Europe, Goddess worship and the unique long lasting civilization of Crete to the invaders, the colonizers, warfare, slavery and sacrifice, we see the world and our reality through a different lens and yet once you’ve seen it, you recognize it, without realizing how it acts on us, in our homes, our workplaces, ours schools, institutions, governments.

It is so interesting to read this, originally written in 1987, over 30 years ago, in the context of our reality today. It provides a unique perspective on our history and analyzes it rigorously and yet in an easily understandable and accessible way, synthesizing information from a varieties of sources and disciplines to give us this helpful view of the influences that have been directing our progress (or lack of) suggesting the greater role that a more feminine (yin) collaborative, partnership approach might bring.

It is a seminal work in understanding the impact of repressing the positive characteristics of the feminine and demonstrating that a more partnership oriented model can reap rewards that benefit not just the individual, but the community. Despite the fact that our media is full of much doom and gloom, it is possible to look a little closer to home and see examples of people working in partnership and collaboration, of people leaving behind corporations and institutions and choosing ways of living and working that allow for greater creative expression.

She continues to ask questions, and these two that she mentions, seem fitting to what will follow:

Is a shift from a system leading to chronic wars,  social injustice, and ecological imbalance to one of peace, social justice and ecological balance a realistic possibility? Most important, what changes in social structure would make such a transformation possible?

Though this was written 30 years ago, there is a sequel due to be published in August 2019, in collaboration with peace anthropologist Douglas P. Fry Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future exploring how behaviors, values, and socio-economic institutions develop differently in these two environments, revealing connections between disturbing trends like climate change denial and regressions to strongman rule. It combines Eisler’s partnership-domination social scale with extensive evidence from neuroscience and other fields.

It shows that, contrary to popular beliefs about “selfish genes” driving human behavior, how people think and feel is heavily influenced by whether they grow up in partnership or domination oriented environments. It also documents that in reality humans in the course of evolution developed a propensity for empathy, caring, and creativity, which is, however, inhibited in domination systems. It further points to interventions that can accelerate the contemporary movement toward partnership and prevent further regressions to domination.

About the Author
Riane Eisler, JD, PhD (hon), is President of the Center for Partnership Studies, Editor-in-Chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, internationally known as a systems scientist, cultural historian, pioneering attorney working for women’s and children’s human rights, and recipient of many awards. Her groundbreaking books include The Chalice and the Blade, Tomorrow’s Children, and The Real Wealth of Nations. She lectures worldwide, keynoting conferences, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. State Department, corporations, and universities. Her website is https://rianeeisler.com/.

15 thoughts on “The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler

  1. Oh I definitely want to read this. It may have been written a long time ago, but is it ever relevant now. Thanks, Claire. I would never have found it without you.

    Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, actually I heard about it after listening to Riane Eisler’s in conversation with Colette Baron Reid and then just today received via newsletter email from Rebecca Campbell who says she’s listened to it twice on audio, it may have been researched in the past but there is an audience for it right now.

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        • I’m not surprised to hear that Claire. We’re at such an important time for women, which I believe will impact humanity and the world in significant and beneficial ways. It’s as if the book was written for right now.

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        • It’s actually kind of encouraging to understand where we are in the grand scheme of things, and that the rise of the feminine is actually an adjustment, a recalibration of where we ought to be. And change comes with one person at a time, doing the inner work, becoming the role models despite what is going in in the external world that constantly attempts to distract us.
          I love that her work is being read and discussed today and that it so resonates for many, blinded and silenced until now. I see many women stepping outside of what was the norm, beginning to reconnect and share their intuitive, empathetic selves, even within those traditional structures. It’s slowly opening up, circles of support, nurturing, working in partnership not in competition.

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  2. This would make an interesting contrast to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature which argues that over time, the world has become a less violent place because of the influence of feminism.
    I haven’t read the whole book, only the introduction and the problematic chapter about rape, (see https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/11/14/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-thoughts-on-womens-rights-and-the-decline-of-rape-and-battering/). But I’d really like to see a scholarly feminist reading of it, before I ever tackle the whole 800 pages of it.

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    • That argument sounds relevant to Eisler’s work, she would agree I’m sure, she uses her research and looking back at pre-history and history to put an explanation/theory around the influences, most of us don’t know about the pre-historic era when the feminine was revered and humans lived in more peaceful times. I think what Eisler will show in the next book is that where feminine values have been nurtured and able to flourish that more of those qualities associated with partnership have been able to develop.

      She also acknowledges in her intro the contribution of feminist scholarship to the holistic study of cultural transformation – encompassing the whole span of human history and both halves of humanity – it provides the the missing data not found in conventional sources and and suggests the emerging body of data and insight is, like “chaos” theory, opening new frontiers for science.

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  3. This sounds like a very immersive, thought-provoking book. Out of interest, do you know why the sequel is coming out now, 30 years after the initial publication? Is it just a function of the passing of time or a response to specific trends/events in recent years (e.g. the perspectives on climate change you’ve mentioned above)?

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    • The author has published other books in the meantime, including a new introduction to this book. It’s not exactly a sequel (that’s a fiction term that I used not the author), it’s the result of the continued research she and others have been doing relevant to her theory of cultural transformation and The Partnership System, which has become an organisation for change.
      https://centerforpartnership.org/the-partnership-system/

      It combines the most recent findings in neuroscience to show that humans are more wired for caring, consciousness, for creativity than for what the domination system requires and teaches us from childhood on is the norm, (insensitivity, cruelty, destructiveness).

      The Chalice and the Blade is the foundation for the work that has followed I would say, it was recommended to me, without me knowing there was a book coming out, I was curious to see what else she had written and pleasantly surprised to see this follow up book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds such an important and relevant piece of work, Claire; as ever you find the most fascinating and timely books! And thank you for the conversation link too. I shall follow up with great interest 🙂

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