Partnership before sexism and war
Conventional “big ideas” accounts of human history teach us that conflict and violence are inevitable and even necessary, but overlooked clues from the ancient world provide glimpses into a society based instead on symbiotic partnership. Where did we go wrong, and how might we live otherwise?
Essay by Tao Lin
Riane Eisler was born in 1931 in Austria, and in 1939 she and her parents fled from Nazi invaders to Cuba – the only country at the time besides China that was open to Jewish refugees. They lived in an industrial slum in Havana for seven years before moving to Miami, New York, Chicago, and, finally, Los Angeles. Eisler married, had two daughters, earned a law degree from UCLA, divorced, practiced family law, published two books (one on no-fault divorce, one on the Equal Rights Amendment), and then returned to a question she’d had as a child, when most of her relatives had been killed: are intolerance, violence and war inevitable, or are there alternatives?
In The Chalice and the Blade (1987), her third book, she argued that the two underlying forms of society were not capitalist and socialist, religious and secular, or patriarchal and matriarchal, but “partnership” and “dominator”. I liked her new terms because they seemed deeper and more unitive – instead of divisive – than more established polarities like right and left, primitive and civilised, political and apolitical, East and West, masculine and feminine. Everyone had both partnership and dominator qualities – anarchists, Marxists, Christians, Daoists, CEOs, shamans, nonbinary people, women and men. The partnership-dominator continuum provided direction – towards more partnership – that many disparate groups could support.
Eisler viewed inequality – “beginning,” she wrote, “with the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female” – as the main characteristic of dominator societies. In partnership societies, the sexes are linked in a complementary way that values diversity; in dominator societies, the sexes are ranked in an irrational bias that infects all other relationships. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, gender discrimination and other intolerances develop from sexism, since sexism begins within families, wrote Eisler. If daughters, sisters and mothers are treated unfairly, the same will be done to other people, leading, ultimately, to war.
Eisler additionally argued in The Chalice and the Blade, which has sold more than 500,000 copies and been translated into around 25 languages, that humans exemplified the partnership system, living in peaceful, sex-and-gender-and-class egalitarian, nature-worshipping societies, until only around 6,500 years ago, when we fell to the dominator side of the continuum, where we’ve remained to this day: war-addicted, misogynist, nature-destroying, short-term-focused, materialistic, oppressed, depressed, neurotic, callous, amnesiac, unbalanced, with increasing wealth and other gaps, and unsustainable.
Before reading The Chalice and the Blade in 2014, I wasn’t sure what most people thought about history. I had retained little of my history classes from school. From Eisler, I learned that high school and college textbooks taught that prehistoric humans were “bloodthirsty” and “warlike”, that we have always fought wars and been ruled by men, and that civilisation began around 6,000 years ago, before which is called “prehistory”. In other words, dominator culture – in which we’re all embedded – views the start of its civilisation as the start of civilisation itself.
From 2014 to 2021, I read around 40 more books on human history, including ones by Eisler’s sources and critics, and an international bestseller recommended by Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and Bill Gates, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (2014), which in this essay will represent dominator culture’s model of history.
Eisler’s model has continued to seem more accurate, comprehensive, complex, detailed, encouraging, helpful and hopeful than the mainstream version. Zooming out to include prehistory and women, her perspective changes the human story from “confused struggle in a grim world” to “possible recovery toward a former harmony”.
In the earliest human religion, we worshipped nature as a female deity, according to Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. The Goddess religion, as she called it, seems to have predated Homo sapiens, going back at least 500,000 years to the Acheulian culture of Homo erectus, who sculpted pubic triangles, mother images and women birthing. “We actually cannot answer today the question, ‘When is the beginning?’” Gimbutas said in a 1990 lecture, “The World of the Goddess”. “Maybe it is one million years.”
Gimbutas and others theorised that humans viewed nature – which being anything not made by a person comprised almost everything – as female because only women give birth and because the male role in reproduction probably had not yet been understood. That God used to be a woman – initially a strange-seeming idea – has made increasing sense to me. Like a human woman, and like other female mammals, Mother Nature creates and cares for new life, nurturing and sustaining it with her body.
By 40,000 years ago, the primitive sculptures had become detailed statuettes or figurines – so-called Venus figurines, which range in size from thumbnail to hardcover book. The oldest known of these, the Hohle Fels figurine, believed to date to 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, was found in Germany in 2008. Instead of a head, the fig-sized, mammoth-tusk sculpture had a polished ring, probably meaning it had been suspended as a pendant. According to Gimbutas in The Living Goddesses, of the around 3,000 statuettes found across Eurasia from the Upper Palaeolithic up to her book’s posthumous publication in 1999, none had been explicitly male, instead being all female or genderlessly zoomorphic, partly shaped like snakes, birds, pigs and other animals.
In Sapiens, Harari mentions none of the female figurines from the Upper Palaeolithic; for sculptures from then, he cites only an androgynous piece, calling it a “‘lion-man’ (or ‘lioness-woman’)”, which seems like a major omission, considering that Sapiens starts its history of humans around 70,000 years ago. When dominator culture does acknowledge the female figurines, it views them as pornography or evidence of a fertility cult. The Economist called the Hohle Fels figurine “smut carved from a mammoth tusk”; Nature called it a “35,000-year-old sex object”.
I first consciously encountered the female figurines in Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which the German director filmed 30,000-year-old art in Chauvet Cave in France. The documentary, at one point, shows a replica of a limestone figurine with a characteristic hexagram of bulges around a pregnant belly, and Herzog says, “There seems to have existed a visual convention extending all the way beyond Baywatch.” I remember telling myself that maybe the figurines really were sex objects. Today, it seems more convincing to me that, as Gimbutas wrote, “a woman’s ability to give birth and nourish children from her body was deemed sacred, and revered as the ultimate metaphor for the divine Creator”.
It’s unknown how advanced humans became during the Upper Palaeolithic. British journalist Graham Hancock and others have argued that at least one sedentary civilisation, which might have been as advanced as we were in the late 1700s, was destroyed during global catastrophes around 12,800 and 11,600 years ago, caused probably by cosmic impacts or solar outbursts, with most of the damage occurring in the Americas. In Timaeus and Critias, Plato wrote that Atlantis, one of the possible civilisations, was destroyed around 11,600 years ago. The lost culture(s) may have been anywhere on the partnership-dominator continuum. They probably developed, like us, out of the older, wild stratum of humans – the nomadic hunter-gatherers who made the female figurines.
Sapiens doesn’t mention the global catastrophes – even though the Younger Dryas impact theory was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007 – an omission that allowed Harari to promote the “overkill theory”, blaming Native Americans for exterminating millions of megafauna in centuries, which European invaders actually did later on with the American bison. “Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature,” wrote Harari. According to Tending the Wild (2013) by USC Davis academic M. Kat Anderson, though, Native Americans had followed harmony-promoting rules when hunting and gathering, like “Do not needlessly kill” and “Leave some for other animals”, and over at least 11 millennia, before the Yahweh worshippers arrived, had “knit themselves to nature through their vast knowledge base”, creating massive, park-like forest-gardens in which flora and fauna were unnaturally abundant.
Whatever happened during the Upper Palaeolithic, it seems that the goddess-worshipping cultures, whose figurines have been found all across Eurasia, from Britain to China, survived and passed on their way of life, because after agriculture developed – or, more likely, redeveloped – in the Fertile Crescent around 12,000 years ago, people continued to make female figurines – and other Goddess symbols – for at least 6,000 years.
It was during this period, from 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, when peace and equality seem to have been normal and mainstream, that most of the technologies of civilisation, including farming, stockbreeding, megalithic architecture, urban planning, wheeled vehicles and writing, were invented or reinvented. Eisler called this “one of the best kept historical secrets” – that war isn’t necessary for technological advancement.
In 1952, 35 years before The Chalice and the Blade was published, British archaeologist James Mellaart noticed a giant mound in the distance while scouting Turkey for sites to excavate. From 1961 to 1963, over three seasons, Mellaart and his team excavated 3% of the 33.5-acre mound. Digging through 12 levels of buildings, they found 900 years of continuous peace; the earliest known mirrors, metallurgy, pottery, textiles and wood vessels; evidence of matrilineal (inheritance through female line) and matrifocal (husband moving to live with wife) organisation; and that, based on sculptures and other art, “The principal deity was a goddess,” as he wrote in Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (1965).
Mellaart and his team had unearthed the double-mound civilisation of Çatalhöyük, the most advanced known Neolithic settlement, estimated to have existed from 9,100 to 7,500 years ago. The people at Çatalhöyük had hunted birds, bears and other animals; raised cattle and goats; grown grains and vegetables; gathered fruits and nuts; sculpted a variety of clay and stone figurines; and covered their walls with colourful paintings – women carrying fishing nets, flowers with insects, an erupting volcano. Due to the recurrence of patterns and repainting of complex scenes, Mellaart suspected they had books of drawings, probably on cloth or felt.
Çatalhöyük’s US-level racial diversity (59% Eurafrican, 24% Alpine, 17% Mediterranean) “must have contributed greatly” to its “extraordinary vitality”, wrote Mellaart in The Archaeology of Ancient Turkey (1978). A fertility rate of 4.2 children per woman, combined with a relatively stable-seeming population, meant “a constant stream of emigration”, spreading technology, language, religion and art elsewhere through modern-day Turkey, west into Europe (Mellaart called Çatalhöyük “the basis” for Western civilisation), and possibly east into Asia.
In Sapiens, Harari considers Çatalhöyük for only two sentences – “By 7000 BC the town of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals. It may well have been the world’s biggest settlement at the time” – and he devotes only 239 non-consecutive words (less than a page) to the period from 6,000 to 12,000 years ago, not enough to say that every culture known from then seems to have revered nature as a goddess. The lacuna allows Harari to conclude that “patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious cycle” and that “there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood”.
Çatalhöyük’s thousand-plus buildings seemed to all be homes of similar size and storage capabilities, with a main room and one or more side rooms, according to Ian Hodder, who excavated the city from 1993 to 2018. The homes were built very close together. When one got too old, the mudbrick walls were torn down, and a new home was constructed in the same place. Over 900 years, as homes fractally accreted, Çatalhöyük became a 21-metre, oval mound the area of seven Manhattan blocks, enterable only by ladder, through roofs. People had to walk over other people’s houses to get to their own.
Houses were rectangular, with plastered floors and walls. They lacked bathrooms and windows, but had ovens and built-in furniture – one to five platforms for sitting, working and sleeping. The woman’s platform – as judged by the bones found beneath, where the dead were kept – had an attached bench, was always on the east side of the house, and was the largest, able to fit two adults. One house contained a room which was painted red, the colour of life, and had a low platform that may have been used for birthing.
Mellaart called a third of the homes he excavated “shrines” because of their abundance of goddess symbology: paintings of childbirth; sculptures of the female form; reliefs and cut-outs of breasts and pregnant deities; rows of horned cow heads, which according to Gimbutas were Goddess symbols because they resemble the waxing and waning moon and the uterus and fallopian tubes.
A greyish-green stone plaque that Mellaart found showed a couple hugging on the left and a baby-holding woman on the right, seeming to indicate that the male role in reproduction had been discovered. The discovery seems to have led to a refining of partnership: 8 of the 41 figurines that Mellaart found were male, representing, in his view, deities with subsidiary roles, as sons and consorts.
A misconception in Cynthia Eller’s The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000), Ian Hodder’s The Leopard’s Tale (2006) and other books is that Eisler, Gimbutas and others were arguing that people once lived in matriarchies, with women ruling men. Actually, the argument is that people lived in “gylanies”, a term coined by Eisler to describe societies with gender equality.
The mound-gylany was built next to a river, in the open, without defensive fortifications, on the Konya Plain – a volcano-ringed, Vermont-sized plateau – which before 17,000 years ago had been a shallow lake and by the Neolithic was filled with grasslands, marshes and woods.
Around 8,200 years ago, Çatalhöyükans began to build a new mound across the river, gradually deserting the first mound over two centuries for unknown reasons, with no evidence of destruction or war. Five centuries later, the second mound, which had grown almost as large as the first, was also abandoned for unknown reasons.
Maybe they moved west to join the Old Europeans, a non-mound gylany centred in southeast Europe that shared their religion and was already a millennium old.
Born in Lithuania in 1921, Marija Gimbutas immigrated to the US in 1949 with a doctorate in archaeology. In the 1950s and 1960s, she translated archaeology texts at Harvard, wrote books on European history, taught at UCLA and excavated sites in Bosnia and Macedonia. “I came to a point when I had to understand what was happening in Europe before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans,” she said in an interview. “It was a very gradual process. I did not know then that I would write about Neolithic religion or the Goddess. I was only trying to answer this question.” In the late 1960s, she realised that a culture existed that was the opposite of all that came after, and in 1968 she named it Old Europe.
Gimbutas estimated in The Civilization of the Goddess (1991) that Old Europe lasted from at least 8,500 to 5,500 years ago. Based on their grave goods, elder women seem to have been the most respected members of Old European society, which was comprised of many different matrilineal, matrifocal, sedentary cultures (including Vinca, Varna, Sesklo and Bükk), and eventually covered most of Europe. In Sapiens, Harari writes, “Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war”, but there were no signs of war over at least two millennia in Old Europe and no art depicting warriors, war, torture or people attacking each other – common after prehistory – has been found from there, Çatalhöyük or any other Neolithic or Palaeolithic culture.
While reading Sapiens, I noticed a sentence that Gimbutas or Eisler could have written: “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.” Harari gave only one example, “studying how Europeans came to dominate Africans” helped us understand that, “there is nothing natural or inevitable about the racial hierarchy”. This essay offers another: studying prehistory helps us understand that long-term peace is possible.
Old Europeans invented writing 7,500 years ago, around two millennia before the Sumerians, according to Gimbutas. The still-untranslated script, which looks like a more naturalistic Chinese, was based on a core of 30 abstract symbols. The vulva-derived V – which appeared at least 300,000 years ago, long before being used in a script – had at least 25 variations, made by dots, strokes, crosses, repetition and rotation. Sumerian writing was used for economic, legal and administrative reasons. Old European writing, which was found in rows and clusters on pottery, pendants, figurines and other items, was used “only within the context of an increasingly sophisticated worship of the Goddess”, whom Gimbutas called “nature herself”.
It may seem hard to imagine a writing system being invented solely to better discuss, describe, contemplate and worship nature. But we should remember that to support its Army, Navy and four other armed forces, the US has something called the Intelligence Community, 17 huge, highly-funded and dysfunctional organisations (including the CIA, FBI, NSA and TFI), each with unknown levels of secret, compartmentalised parts that lack oversight and probably, to varying degrees, control the non-secret parts as well as the armed forces, the newest of which, Space Force, was created in 2019: humans have a lot of time and energy.
Before her death in 1994, Gimbutas estimated that over 100,000 Old European figurines, counting the damaged ones, had been found. She documented more than 20 female – and 5 male – figurine types that differ in posture, facial features, masks and headgear. She estimated that only around 3% of Old European symbology had been male. “The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life,” she wrote in The Language of the Goddess (1989).
Birth, Gimbutas felt, was probably one of the most sacred events in the Neolithic. Like at Çatalhöyük, people in Old Europe built what Gimbutas called “birthing shrines”, special rooms where women gave birth, but instead of smallish houses in a dense city, Old Europeans lived in spacious, two-to-five-room houses in sprawling, communal towns that eventually reached up to 10,000 people and were organised around multistorey temples, where clothing and ceramics were made.
Old Europeans sculpted life-sized statues, foot-sized figurines and miniature replicas of a variety of objects, including stools, tables, lamps and entire temples. More than a hundred clay, one-and-two-storey, hand-to-forearm-sized temple models have been found. Many of these mysterious, inscribed models are shaped like animals, most often birds and snakes. A rectangular, two-room model that was found in Thessaly contained eight miniature, schematic people.
In a poem titled “Tea with Marija”, literature professor Starr Goode wrote about visiting Gimbutas at her home in the Santa Monica Mountains. Goode asked, “What were they, our ancestors?” Gimbutas replied, “They were like us – only happy.”
The Fall in the West
Around 6,500 years ago, nomadic people from the steppe north of the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine and southwest Russia – people whom Gimbutas called the Kurgans after their round funeral mounds – began to invade Europe, riding their horses west and south in three main waves over 1,500 years, killing and plundering and assimilating their neighbours in what Gimbutas called “a complicated transformative process” that lead to “a drastic cultural change reminiscent of the conquest of the American continent”.
The “patriarchal and belligerent” Kurgans had lighter skin and were larger than their victims. They had invented “arms” – weapons for attacking humans – and weaponised horses. They were patrilineal, patrilocal, had only male deities, ranked men above women, and associated black with death, unlike the Old Europeans, to whom black signified fertility, soil and the womb. They were “indifferent to art”, decorating only their weapons, which they viewed as sacred. Instead of painting the skulls of their dead and keeping the bones under their beds, as was done at Çatalhöyük where homes contained up to 62 ancestors, they practiced a form of suttee, in which women were killed and buried when their husbands died.
Slavery may have been invented during these invasions, wrote Eisler. The Kurgans seem to have massacred most of the men and children, keeping some of the women as consorts, wives and slaves. Ramparts, trenches, hill forts, and other defensive structures appeared for the first time. Instead of living out in the open, next to rivers, people began to live in hard-to-reach places. The Old European language was replaced with the newer Indo-European language that around half the world now uses.
As the Kurgans destroyed Old Europe, similarly dominator-oriented, Indo-European cultures, including the Mittani, Hittites and Luwians, attacked the sedentary gylanies in the Near East and modern-day Turkey – where Çatalhöyük had been abandoned for at least five centuries but other settlements existed – supplanting nature worship with chronic war.
There are probably many reasons, including many still unknown, why people became so out of control. Humans might be so precariously balanced that a combination of small factors, like horse domestication, invoking military advantage, tipped entire societies into dominator mode. And as people began to worship the larger-so-better-at-domination sex, things deteriorated more. Ethnobotanist and psychedelics-proponent Terence McKenna, who was my introduction to Eisler, wondered if a major factor was our decreased usage of psychedelics, which he felt connected us to “the archetype of the Goddess and hence to the partnership style”.
Between 5,500 and 5,000 years ago, after more than a millennium of violent chaos, the Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations – which, Eisler wrote, “are celebrated in our high school and college textbooks as marking the beginnings of Western civilization” – emerged, blending partnership and dominator styles, with both male and female deities, but being mostly and increasingly dominator.
As the status of women decreased, myths were rewritten in support of the new reality, a process Eisler called “re-mything”. The Goddess, instead of being the self-generating creatrix of the world, was now said to have been killed, raped or subdued by new male deities. In some myths, she was reduced to being the wife of a more powerful male deity. In others, she was transformed into a war deity.
Around the start of the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty, 3,570 years ago, when Egyptian women were no longer part of the religious clergy, some people in the Near East – where a supreme deity had for millennia been “revered as Goddess – much as people think of God,” as Merlin Stone wrote in her 1976 book, When God Was a Woman – began to worship a deity named Yahweh, who punished women with pain in childbirth and rule by men. Yahweh was targeting Goddess worshippers, wrote Stone, when he said, “But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images and cut down their groves, for thou shalt worship no other god”, glossing over the Goddess’ sex by calling her Elohim, “in the masculine gender, to be translated as god”.
The first half of the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Old Testament, contains conspicuous evidence of re-mything. In Genesis, I learned from Eisler, there are two stories of how humans were created. The first says women and men were created simultaneously; the second says Eve was created from Adam’s rib.
Jesus, who preached “the gospel of a partnership society”, wrote Eisler, was born around 2,025 years ago. Teaching spiritual equality at a time when women were stoned to death for adultery, he was one part of “a gylanic counterrevolution”. The child of a divine Mother, he was “in fact still the child of the Goddess”.
When I learned that Jesus had said his word was God’s word, part of me imagined that Yahweh had calmed down over 15 centuries and decided, in his older, wiser state, to reverse his previous orders and instead promote – through Jesus – equality, empathy, nonviolence, forgiveness, and love.
Christianity, in its original, partnership form, was a threat to the previous Yahweh worshippers and to the androcratic Roman government. But with the rise of a Jesus-ignoring, Roman orthodox form of Christianity in the centuries after Jesus’ death, the Goddess religion – or “the old religion”, as Arthur Evans called it in Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture (1978), which collected evidence that the original religion celebrated minority sexualities and nonbinary sexes and genders – was “finally suppressed and nearly forgotten”, wrote Stone.
Over the next 1,700 years, various forms of dominator-infected Christianity, as well as other Yahweh-based religions, continued to violently spread with the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, colonialism, imperialism, and thousands of massacres, conquests, and invasions.
In 1776, the United States was founded on Native American land. Slavery lasted until 1865, some American women gained the right to vote in 1920, and in 2000 the head of the armed forces wrote that the military’s vision for 2020 was a joint force capable of “full spectrum dominance”.
Today, out of 195 countries and 5,000 aboriginal groups, the US has the most billionaires, prisoners, school shootings, clinically depressed people and foreign military bases; uses the most energy, pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs; sells the most weapons to other countries; and accounts for 39% of global military spending with a budget of $740 billion a year, almost quadruple second-placed country, China, which has four times the population.
The East, as represented by China, doesn’t seem to have fallen as deep into domination as the West, though it seems to have begun the same.
The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture, a 637-page anthology inspired by Riane Eisler’s work, was published in Chinese and English in 1995. I read it in English in 2019. Its 17 contributors, including students and professors of archaeology, philosophy, literature, history, law, and women’s studies, reported that Chinese civilisation also began with millennia of partnership societies.
People in and around present-day China seem to have lived mostly in caves until around 12,000 years ago, when they moved into increasingly complex, collectivist clusters of houses, according to the anthology. From 12,000 years ago to 5,500 years ago, “There was no differentiation between rich and poor, nor was there hierarchical social stratification, and human relations seem to have been governed only by the principle of equality.”
Beginning at least 8,000 years ago, Chinese people began to make female figurines that resembled those from Çatalhöyük, Old Europe, and other Neolithic sites to the west, such as Jericho in Palestine, Jarmo in Iraq and Harappa in Pakistan. The first prehistoric Chinese female figurine wasn’t found until 1979, and many more have been found since, made by the Zhaobaogou, Yangshao, Majiayao and other cultures.
Hongshan, which existed from 6,700 to 4,900 years ago, was the most advanced culture of the Chinese Neolithic. Chinese archaeologist Guo Dashun called it “the dawn of Chinese civilization”. Hongshanners lived in river valleys in an Arizona-sized area west of what is now North Korea, in large, possibly multi-family homes on terraces above rivers. They grew millet, raised pigs and cattle, hunted deer, made red-and-black pottery and sculpted jade art.
In Hongshan Jade Treasures (2012), collector David C. Anderson argued that most Hongshan art has been taken by grave robbers. Since 2001, Anderson has been buying these potentially real Hongshan pieces, which museums and mainstream archaeology view as forgeries, on eBay for what he describes as “ridiculously low prices”. His book, which calls the diversity and quality of Hongshan art “astonishing,” includes photographs of jade clouds, silkworms, fish, birds, pig-dragons (the earliest known depiction of dragons), bird-pig-dragons, bird-pigs, a bear smoking a giant pipe, turtles dancing, humans having sex, and a woman birthing a baby from the top of her head.
The best-known Hongshan site is Niuheliang, a 5,500- year-old religious complex excavated from 1983 to 1985 by Guo Dashun, who found a three-tiered, pyramidal, artificial hill; a 159-by-175 metre, walled platform that may have been the foundation of a large building; and, atop a mountain ridge, what Chinese archaeologists called the “Goddess Temple” – a semisubterranean structure containing fragments of female figurines up to three-times life-size, including a life-sized head with inset jade eyes.
According to a 1997 paper in Review of Culture by Ana Maria Amaro, the head may have depicted Nüwa, the oldest known Chinese deity. It seems to me like Nüwa developed from the Goddess, who has been called “the goddess Nature” by archaeologist Nikolaos Platon and “the goddess Universe” by mythologist Joseph Campbell, who encountered Gimbutas’ work in the 1970s.
In Chinese mythology, Nüwa was said to have created both the universe (through transformation) and people (with clay and river water). She liked the people’s laughter, so she formed the sexes and taught them to love and reproduce. In a related myth that seems to encode both the fall from partnership and a possible recovery, it is said that when two male deities fought at some point in prehistory, causing earthquakes, floods and fires, Nüwa emerged from her home underground to repair the world.
The Fall in China
It’s unknown why the Hongshan culture ended, but in the 800 years between when it did and when the first Chinese dynasty began, mainstream Chinese society shifted to an increasingly dominator-oriented patriarchy, according to The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture. Unlike in the West, no evidence of nomadic invasions has been found. The change seems to have happened gradually, through a series of internal wars, which increased the wealth gap.
The Xia Dynasty, the first dynasty, began 4,100 years ago. It initiated the male hereditary principle, in which the ruler’s eldest son became the next ruler, and replaced “all things belong to the public” with “all things belong to the ruling family”, but remained influenced by its partnership ancestors. The Xia government and people favoured the colour black, the most modest, inclusive colour; promoted compassion and benevolence; placed rewards and harmony ahead of punishments and conflict; worshipped Nüwa; and probably practiced an early form of Daoism.
In a 1974 paper in History of Religions, Ellen Marie Chen referenced and supported Eduard Erkes’ theory that Daoism evolved from the Goddess religion of the Neolithic and Palaeolithic. Dao, the maternal source of everything, was originally represented by an empty circle – which, Chen wrote, “as the Great Round is a familiar symbol of the Great Mother” – before differentiating into yin, a feminine principle, and yang, a masculine principle. While reading Chen, I wondered if Daoist ideas – like resisting worry, excluding no one, and following nature – may have appeared on vases, statues, jewellery, walls and temple models in Old Europe five millennia before appearing in China on bamboo strips.
After the Xia Dynasty, things deteriorated further. In the Shang Dynasty, from 3,600 to 3,050 years ago, female infanticide – the drowning of baby girls – began. To “make people forget goddesses and the partnership between the sexes”, wrote Min Jiayin, The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture’s main editor, “a religious myth of a god in the form of a male” was promoted in the West while “a philosophy of exalting yang and degrading yin” spread in China. In the Zhou Dynasty, from 3,050 to 2,250 years ago, the government instituted the Rites, a set of rules that banned women from politics and said they belonged to men.
Confucius – who “despised women indiscriminately”, according to the anthology – was born in the Zhou Dynasty, 2,570 years ago. His writings “played a role similar to that of the Bible in the Indo-European culture in setting up an irrational, unequal gender relation”. But in the centuries after his death, Daoists texts – written on strips of bamboo that were bound with string and could be rolled up like scrolls – revived partnership ideas. The Daodejing, attributed to Laozi but which Chen writes is more fittingly called “the old wisdom”, suggested a return to a former egalitarian society, praised humility and gentleness and yielding, and called Dao the mysterious mother of the world.
In Sapiens, Harari asks, “If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius – who knew everything there is to know – were unable to abolish famine, disease, poverty and war from the world, how could we expect to do so?” Maybe by looking further back: both Confucius and Laozi said they went by the ancients, but Confucius looked back to merely the Eastern Zhou, around 2,770 years ago, while Laozi, who seems to have found Daoism in ancient texts while working as a government librarian, promoted returning to the Xia, 4,000 years ago, and Laozi’s student, Zhuangzi, wanted to go even further back, to the time when people “knew their mothers but not their fathers” and “had no thought in their hearts of harming one another” – the Neolithic and/or Palaeolithic.
In the Tang Dynasty, from 1,400 to 1,100 years ago, there was a society-wide partnership resurgence – Wu Zetian, the only Chinese empress, reigned for ten years; two other women almost became empress; and one emperor promoted Daoism, whose texts could be viewed as Goddess texts rewritten across languages and millennia. But in the Song Dynasty, which began 1,000 years ago, Zetian was viewed as “evil” and foot-binding became customary, while during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, from 650 to 100 years ago, women weren’t allowed to leave their homes; husbands striking wives was, according to the anthology, “generally accepted” as “required for good housekeeping”; and, for a time, “literary works with love as the theme” were banned.
The Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, affirmed in 1924 and 1926 that there should be gender equality in law, marriage, wages, education, inheritance and social issues, but inequality, war and other problems continued through habit and momentum, with, among other imbalances, only 12% of the National People’s Congress being women in 1954 (up to 25% by 2021), and the world’s second-largest military budget; at around $260 billion, it’s quadruple that of India’s, the third largest.
It seems that China, like the West, fell deep into domination, fluctuated for millennia, and in the past century has arguably gotten slightly more partnership, despite major setbacks, like two world wars.
Militaries occupy large amounts of land, using it for “bases, testing sites, toxic waste dumping, motor repair pools, and other environmentally contaminating activities”, wrote Catholic nun and antiwar activist Rosalie Bertell in Planet Earth (2000). In Bertell’s view, we should take “emergency action” to “terminate the military” by “freezing” and then gradually reducing the planet’s military budgets.
The armed forces could be reformed as special groups designed to study, praise and safeguard our lands, seas and skies. Technology, instead of being painstakingly weaponised, could be used for healing ourselves and our planet, exploring the mystery of everything and neutralising cosmic impacts, magnetic pole shifts and other catastrophes. We could live in self-sustaining villages and small towns, working on our spiritual development instead of struggling to earn money and find meaning and avoid pain, caring about our own lives and communities instead of the “news.”
In The Real Wealth of Nations (2007), Eisler wrote that dominator cultures devalue the important behaviour of caring for our children, our elders, each other, nature and future generations of life. They also hoard money and resources, grow and feed monopolies, create and perpetuate artificial scarcities and needs, destroy and plunder nature, encourage secrecy and corruption, and neglect human qualities like patience, carefulness, commitment, long-term thinking, sharing, equality and empathy.
We are all victims of dominator culture. We also all are dominator culture. We were born into it. Many of us exist in what Terence McKenna called “a dominator society of one” – which occurs when one overexpresses one’s ego – constantly oppressing ourselves and others. Everyone is oppressed by someone, and, as bell hooks wrote in Ain’t I a Woman (1981): “To be an oppressor is as dehumanizing and anti-human in nature, as it is to be a victim.” For example, men in our culture are often denied “the emotional life that would act as a humanizing, self-affirming force in their lives”, she wrote.
Our global culture seems very dominator-oriented, but individual cultures exist all along the continuum, which means we can find partnership models among ourselves. The US can look to Europe, which can look to its Scandinavian countries, where the rich are heavily taxed, new parents get months of paid leave from work, and women make up around half of parliament, and Scandinavia can look to ancient gylanies like the Mosuo people in southwest China who – after four millennia of dynasties – still worship a supreme female deity, and the Teduray in the Philippines, among many others.
While trying to shift the mainstream of our species back to partnership, we can also continue, as Eisler, Gimbutas, Mellaart and others have done since the Second World War, to reconceptualise – through research – human history from an always-violent, linear advancement to a generally peaceful process in which we’re trying to recover from an anomalous period of domination. This will help us stay calm and hopeful.
The dominator-partnership recovery could fail; we could destroy ourselves with classified, electromagnetic weapons that are much more powerful than nuclear bombs. It could succeed. Maybe it has been succeeding. Maybe it nadired with Yahweh, around 3,500 years ago, and has been slowly and inconsistently becoming more partnership since in a partnership-dominator-partnership waveform.
Over the past few hundred years, many movements – including ones by the abolitionists, feminists and pacifists – have worked on reversing our irrational biases and behaviours. But challenges to dominator traditions have often, wrote Eisler, focused on the top of the hierarchy, so that “the foundations on which this pyramid rests, and continually rebuilds itself, were not sufficiently modified”.
To change society, we need to change ourselves, it seems. If we change how we relate to each other, treat our family members, and behave in our various overlapping communities, society will also change. Maybe in the year 2600 we will look back – after a century of peace – with relief and gratitude that we woke from a 7,000-year nightmare, even though the nightmare had good parts, too.
Essay originally published in Tank Magazine,
reproduced here without permission.