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The life of the mind can be divided into three realms: inner, outer, and supernatural. The inner world of experienced emotions and private thoughts is essentially invisible to others. The outer, concrete world of nature constitutes our environment: it is objective reality. There exists also a third realm: some call it spiritual, some call it sacred, and some call it supernatural. Humans have acknowledged and incorporated this third realm into every culture ever created.

The cosmology of any given culture is analogous to the psyche of an individual. Its myths and religion reveal how the group psyche arrives at its values concerning sex, power, wealth, and gender roles. In hunter-gatherer societies, members generally worship a mixture of male and female spirits. In general, virile spirits tend to be more prestigious in societies that place a high value on hunting; nurturing ones are more highly esteemed wherever gathering is the primary strategy of survival. Humankind discovered horticulture approximately ten thousand years ago. In the Mediterranean, the most extensively studied region, archaeologists have uncovered strong suggestive evidence that in all emerging agrarian civilizations surrounding the basin, a mother Goddess was a principal deity. From the outer rim of history, we begin to learn Her name. In Sumer, She was Inanna; in Egypt, She was Isis; in Canaan, Her name was Asherah. In Syria, She was known as Astarte; in Greece, Demeter; and in Cyprus, Aphrodite. Whatever Her supplicants called Her, they all recognized Her as the Creatrix of life, nurturer of young, protector of children, and the source of milk, herds, vegetables, and grain. Since She presided over the great mystery of birth, people of this period presumed She must also hold sway over that great bedeviler of human thought-death.

Prior to the development of agriculture, male spirits embodied the attributes of bold, courageous hunters. But in the iconography of the Great Goddess, male imagery paled. Her consort was a companion who was smaller, younger, and weaker than She. A conflation of a son She loved in a motherly way, and a lover She discarded after he consummated his duties of impregnation, he was so dispensable in these ancient myths that he frequently died, either by murder or by accident. In many agrarian cultures, the yearly sacrifice of a young male surrogate in the consort's honor was a common ritual. The participants then plowed the victim's seed blood into the earth as "fertilizer" to ensure that the following year's crop would be bountiful. The clearest demonstration of the Goddess's power was Her ability to bring him back to life each spring. Whether She was resurrecting Her consort or regenerating the earth, Her adherents stood in awe of Her fecundity. For several thousand years, every people throughout the Fertile Crescent venerated a deity who personified the Great Goddess. When we speak of this area as the "cradle" of civilization, we tacitly acknowledge the superior role the feminine principle played in the "birth" of modern humankind.

Then, the Great Goddess began to lose power. The barely legible record of the earliest written accounts beginning about five thousand years ago provides intimations of Her fall. Her consort, once weak and inconsequential, rapidly gained size, stature, and power, until eventually he usurped Her sovereignty. The systematic political and economic subjugation of women followed; coincidentally, slavery became commonplace. Around 1500 b.c., there were hundreds of goddess-based sects enveloping the Mediterranean basin. By the fifth century a.d. they had been almost completely eradicated, by which time women were also prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.

In their attempts to solve the mystery of the Goddess's dethronement, various authors have implicated foreign invaders, the invention of private property, the formation of archaic states, the creation of surplus wealth, and the educational disadvantaging of women. While any or all of these influences may have contributed, I propose another: the decline of the Goddess began when some clever Sumerian first pressed a sharp stick into wet clay and invented writing. The relentless spread of the alphabet two thousand years later spelled Her demise. The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, into the social intercourse of humans initiated a fundamental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. It was this dramatic change in mind-set, I propose, that was primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy. The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages. Attesting to its gravitas, multitudes still read it three thousand years later. The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature triad of Western culture. I propose that the profound impact these ancient scriptures had upon the development of the West depended as much on their being written in an alphabet as on the moral lessons they contained.

Goddess worship, feminine values, and women's power depend on the ubiquity of the image. God worship, masculine values, and men's domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish. In this book we will explore what this has meant throughout the human past, and in later chapters will consider what it says about the present and portends for the future.
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