How the Alphabet May Have Destroyed Goddesses

Goddess statue
Why exactly did the age of the goddess wane? Abdul Kadir Audah/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Once upon a time, goddesses reigned supreme, and ancient humans worshiped the primordial powers of Isis, Aphrodite, Inanna, Nuwa and others – deities with great powers.

But the age of the goddess waned. Masculine gods, formerly relegated to the roles of divine sons or lovers, rose to prominence, and the high goddesses fell to subservient roles in their respective pantheons.


What brought about the change? Some historians and anthropologists have looked to larger cultural shifts in the ancient world, such as the 10,000 B.C.E. agricultural revolution. After all, this was the end of the hunter-gatherer dynamic. A place became something you could own, slavery became profitable and male hunters took to conquest to regain their lost status.

Other commentators have pointed to the growth of civilization itself. Anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner, for instance, has credited the tendency to align masculinity with culture and femininity with nature. As the former arises through the domination of the latter, the shift impacts femininity in general.

But what if the change were more internal? What if the root cause for a shift from a more egalitarian, goddess-centered culture to one of patriarchy and misogyny stemmed from the acquisition of written language?

That's the central argument in the 1998 book "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" by American surgeon, author and inventor Leonard Shlain (1937-2009). Joe McCormick and I explored the topic in a pair of Stuff to Blow Your Mind episodes and, while the hypothesis might not win you over, it will certainly make you rethink the power of literacy and patriarchy.

One of the key questions Shlain poses is this: What if written language, especially alphabetic language, fosters a patriarchal outlook in the mind?

"The alphabet," wrote Shlain, "through its emphasis on linearity and sequence, caused the left side of the brain of those who learned it to hypertrophy, resulting in a marked cerebral dominance of one lobe over the other. Metaphorically, the mind listed to one side, as one carrying an unevenly distributed load."

Shlain's hypothesis builds off, in some ways, Robert K. Logan's alphabet effect hypothesis, which proposes that a communication medium is an active force in creating new social patterns and perceptual realities. This is also the central idea of Marshall McLuhan's famous expression "the medium is the message." But why exactly would written language lead to the abandonment of goddesses and the subjugation of women?

In his book, Shlain argued that everyone, regardless of sex, is capable of feminine and masculine outlooks, but that these outlooks became more codified in male and female humans due to our particular evolution and hunter-gatherer past. Each outlook is also tied to a particular lobe of the human brain. Here's how they break down:

  • Feminine outlook (right brain): holistic, simultaneous, synthetic and concrete worldview
  • Masculine outlook (left brain): linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract worldview

The idea is that since written language is inherently linear, sequential and reductionist, it fostered left brain dominance in ancient literate cultures. Even the Chinese writing system, which has no alphabet, depends on linearity and abstract logograms. In other words, written language fosters the mind-set of the hunter rather than the holistic nurturer.

Shlain devotes the bulk of "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess" to discussing historical examples from around the world that support his hypothesis. But the oldest, that of ancient Sumer, presents the concept quite well.

The Sumerians are the earliest known historical Mesopotamian civilization and boasted a polytheistic pantheon full of powerful goddesses, such as Nammu and Nisba. But then around 1700 B.C.E., the god Marduk rose to prominence, slaying the primordial goddess Tiamat in the process. This date coincides with the life of Hammurabi, who gave us the Code of Hammurabi.

You might remember the Code of Hammurabi as being one of the world's oldest deciphered writings, but it's also notable for its vicious subjugation of women. One-fourth of the law related to the restriction of female rights. It prescribs brutal violence for crimes such as speaking out against one's husband or taking a second husband, which seems to have been an earlier practice.

Shlain's hypothesis is radical and perhaps unprovable, but it forces us to think carefully about the power language holds over our cognitive faculties – and question humanity's largely patriarchal history and belief systems. Why are so few goddesses revered among modern worshipers? Why is the fight for gender equality still happening in an age of unprecedented technology and knowledge?

Pointing to media advancements in audio, video and photography, Shlain expressed his hope for a new golden age of right-hemispheric tolerance, caring and respect for nature.

Just don't get impatient. It takes a while for a species to change its mind.