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/.

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

I read My Name is Mary Sutter when it first came out and was utterly entranced by Robin Oliveira’s depiction of the character of Mary, a midwife intent on becoming a surgeon in an era where women were totally blocked from pursuing such a thing. She was unable to achieve her ideal through formal channels, so she went to war, the American civil war, and there had the kind of experience few would wish her, unless, like Mary, you were being excluded from pursuing your desired profession and were driven to break through irrational barriers by equally irrational means.

In her research, the author learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the civil war. While Mary Sutter is fictional, she is a truly inspired character about whom Robin Oliveira had this is say:

“And through it all there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war. Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.”

Her second novel, set in Paris was the excellent I Always Loved You, reviewed here, is about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in Paris, struggling to make a name while remaining true to her art, and enduring a life-long fractious relationship with impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

When asked what made her return, in this her third historical novel, to the character of Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira said:

Over the last few years, readers have often asked me to include Mary Sutter in a new book, but I could not think of a single circumstance that would challenge her as much as the obstacles she had faced in the Civil War. Then I learned about the age of consent. I simply couldn’t leave Mary Sutter out of it, for I had finally discovered something of equal importance for her to battle.

So now it is 1869 in Albany, New York, Mary Sutter is now Dr Mary Sutter Stipps, living in Albany, New York, where she practices in a local hospital, despite most of her male colleagues despising her (because she is a woman), she also runs a home practice with her husband William Stipp and a lesser known clinic, where a lantern is illuminated on Thursdays when she opens for ladies of the night, those who are refused treatment elsewhere.

These are the conservative years after the civil war, a period of tumultuous struggle and the emergence of women’s suffrage, meaning any freedoms women attempted to gain were often fiercely opposed and ridiculed. Mary faces opposition at every turn, but refuses to be cowered and will stand up for and insist on justice for what she believes is right and good.

On the evening this story begins, a severe winter blizzard disrupts the city, children are locked in schools for two days, businesses close, the Doctors house their patients overnight, and accidents occur – two days later as people begin to reappear, Mary learns of the deaths of close family friends, the hatmaker Bonnie and her labourer husband David and the unexplained disappearance of their daughters, Emma(10) and Claire(7).

Mary and William search for the girls everywhere, implore the police and their wider networks to help and eventually must accept they’ve gone.

At the graveside, they become acquainted with lumberlord Gerritt Van der Veer, his wife Viola, and their son Jakob. From that day on the lives of the two families become intertwined, as Mary continues her relentless pursuit of the lost girls, leading her to become exposed to the deep manipulations throughout the city and its powerful, by those out to benefit themselves who will do anything to stop those like her, trying to help and heal, without discrimination or judgement.

Book One sets up the story, introducing us to Elisabeth, Mary’s niece, a violin protegé who has been studying in Paris in the company of her grandmother Amelia, who swiftly return on hearing the terrible news, though laden with their own mysterious troubles.

Mary seeks the help of the women she’s met through the clinic, women who hear and see things she and Will would never come across, suspicions begin to arise, as they become aware of a man in hiding, injured on the night the ice cracks on the Hudson River, causing flash flooding across the city.

“I trust her Mother. She’s no opportunist. If she’d wanted money, she would have asked for it then, wouldn’t she have, if she intended to lie? And besides, none of that matters, does it, if we go looking ourselves. The brothels are the single place we haven’t looked. What harm can come from looking? I can’t understand why Captain Mantel refused. Oh damn him.The police know exactly where the brothels are. it would be easy for them.”

By Book Two the story has become riveting, complex, there are elements of the mystery to resolve, a pending court case, perceived betrayals, all set against the legal and societal background of the times they lived in, there are aspects of the law that will shock the reader, we read about the 1800’s and we are reminded of the similar treatment of victims today with regard to police procedure, questioning victims and the law that appears designed to protect the accused more than the victim.

It’s too good a read to give away anything more that happens from Book Two onwards, suffice to say I could not put this down, I was up late finishing it and thought it brilliantly woven together. It’s commentary on the hardships of women and girls, of all ages and from all classes is insightful and outrageous. Women are blocked in so many directions, in particular when they possess talent, controlled, commented on, kept by men in positions of power. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and these characters provide the faint glimmer of hope that gets us through the tough parts.

“He wanted to say, It’s either hide forever or see forever. He wanted to say, You need to choose. He wanted to say, Follow me, I’ll show you…

Every inch toward courage was a decision. Every ten feet on her own would be a triumph. The line between coercion and choice for her was the line between darkness and light. He would never push her, but she needed to choose to climb this hill. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have the courage to climb onto the witness stand or perhaps even to walk down a street on her own.”

Mary Sutter oversteps the demarcated line of acceptable professions for women, she breaks the mould, though not without challenge and William and Jakob show themselves to be different kind of men, demonstrating the potential of working alongside women, not excluding them.

The price women pay when they overstep that societal and male control, is the story of the Gilded Age, and continues to play out one hundred and fifty years later. Indeed, the changing role of women in society, and what men will accept, remains one of the essential conflicts of our time.

Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels of the year.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.