How the Invention of the Alphabet Usurped Female Power in Society and Sparked the Rise of Patriarchy in Human Culture
A brief history of gender dynamics from page to screen.
By Maria Popova
The Rosetta Stone may be one of the 100 diagrams that changed the world and language may have propelled our evolution, but the invention of the written word was not without its costs. As Sophocles wisely observed, “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” That curse is what Leonard Shlain explores in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (public library) — a pause-giving look at the relationship between literacy and patriarchy. Without denying the vastness of the benefits literacy bestowed upon humanity, Shlain uses Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum — “the medium is the message” — to examine how the advent of the written word and our ability to read reconfigured the human brain, effecting profound changes in the cultural dynamics of gender roles.
“By profession, I am a surgeon… I am by nature a storyteller,” Shlain tells us, and it is through this dual lens of critical thinking and enchantment that he examines his iconoclastic subject — a subject whose kernel was born while Shlain was touring Mediterranean archeological sites in the early 1990s and realized that the majority of shrines had been originally consecrated to female deities, only to be converted to male-deity worship later, for unknown reasons. (Beyond the broader cultural appeal such an observation might hold for a mind as inquisitive as Shlain’s, it’s worth noting that he had just sent off his own young daughter — one very special daughter — to college and into a world still very much shaped by gender dynamics.) A major culprit in the shift, Shlain argues, was the invention of the alphabet. (He takes great care to avoid the trap of correlation vs. causation and offers a wonderfully poetic formulation of the danger of conflating the two: “Correlation … does not prove causality — the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise.”)
Shlain frames the premise:
Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. . . . One pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.
He defines the feminine outlook as a “holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world” and the masculine as a “linear, sequential, reductionist” one characterized by abstract thinking, while recognizing — as Susan Sontag did decades earlier in condemning our culture’s artificial polarities — that “every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both.” Shlain writes:
They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal. These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the tension between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.
The invention of the alphabet, Shlain argues, is what tilted the balance of power toward the masculine — a shift that took place eons ago, but one that is also evidenced by isolated indigenous cultures of the present and recent past:
Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies. Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse variety of preliterate agrarian cultures—the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world—had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.
He cites the work of legendary anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was among the first to examine the dark side of literacy in 1969:
There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing … is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.
Shlain puts it in even less uncertain terms than Lévi-Strauss:
Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West. Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.
Written language, Shlain argues, shaped both the development of the human nervous system and the social dynamics of gender relations, affecting both sides of the nature/nurture equation profoundly:
Although each of us is born with a unique set of genetic instructions, we enter the world as a work-in-progress and await the deft hand of the ambient culture to sculpt the finishing touches. Among the two most important influences on a child are the emotional constellation of his or her immediate family and the configuration of his or her culture. Trailing a close third is the principal medium with which the child learns to perceive and integrate his or her culture’s information. This medium will play a role in determining which neuronal pathways of the child’s developing brain will be reinforced.
To illustrate the mesmerism of the written word, Shlain urges us to “observe an enthralled four-year-old mastering the letters of the alphabet” — an invocation that calls to mind an anecdote my own grandmother likes to tell: One day, when I was in the first grade and we had just had our first lesson in writing the letters of the alphabet, grandma picked me up from school and made a quick stop at the supermarket on the way home. She left me with a kindly cashier while she ran inside to grab whatever she needed to buy. Upon returning, she found me perched up atop the counter, having filled an entire lined notebook with dutifully drawn letter-curves. She uses this anecdote as evidence of my hunger for learning, but if Shlain is correct, it might be more indicative of just how early children latch onto the inescapable hegemony of the alphabet. Shlain contemplates this duck-to-water uptake:
Literacy, once firmly rooted, will eclipse and supplant speech as the principal source of culture-changing information. Adults, for so long enmeshed in the alphabet’s visual skein, cannot easily disentangle themselves to assess its effect on culture. One could safely assume that fish have not yet discovered water.
He juxtaposes the written word with the visual processing of images, exploring the gender implications of this dichotomy:
Images are primarily mental reproductions of the sensual world of vision. Nature and human artifacts both provide the raw material from the outside that the brain replicates in the inner sanctum of consciousness. Because of their close connection to the world of appearances, images approximate reality: they are concrete. The brain simultaneously perceives all parts of the whole integrating the parts synthetically into a gestalt. The majority of images are perceived in an all-at-once manner.
Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence’s syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear. The use of analysis to break each sentence down into its component words, or each word down into its component letters, is a prime example of reductionism. This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below awareness. An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion.
To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former characteristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine. As we examine the myths of different cultures, we will see that these linkages are consistent.
Beyond the biological, Shlain argues, this divergence also manifests in the spiritual aspect of human culture. Returning to the historical roots of the phenomenon, he points out that while hunter-gatherer societies tend to worship a mixture of male and female deities, while hunting societies prioritize virile spirits and cultures where gathering is the primary method of survival instead place greater value on nurturing, the female domain. The parts of the world we often refer to as “the cradle of civilization” — generally, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Greece — were populated primarily by gathering-based cultures and originally worshipped female deities. But by the fifth century A.D., these objects of worship were almost entirely replaced by masculine ones, to a point where women were “prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.”
While Shlain points to influences like “foreign invaders, the invention of private property, the formation of archaic states, the creation of surplus wealth, and the educational disadvantaging of women” as partially responsible, he argues that the single most important factor was the invention of writing:
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 mindset … that was primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy.
He turns to the world’s major religions for evidence of the pattern:
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.
What is especially interesting is that Shlain was writing in 1998, when the internet as we know it — a medium that lends text and image seemingly equal gravitas — was in its infant stage. The golden age of web video was nearly a decade away, as was the invention of the smartphone camera and its constant connection to the web. Could it be that the world wide web, especially the image-heavy ecosystem of social sharing, would emerge as an equalizer of gender dynamics? To be sure, the cultural and biological changes Shlain examines in relation to the invention of the alphabet unfolded over millennia — so whatever equalizing effects the web might have, they wouldn’t be fully detected for many generations.
Indeed, Shlain acknowledges that certain developments in the history of modern media challenged the dominance of the written word:
World War II was a firestorm for modern civilization, but the conflict also marked the beginning of yet another massive shift in global consciousness. The combining of two “feminine” influences, photography and electromagnetism, was chiefly responsible for this change. In 1939, Philo T. Farnsworth invented television. After the war ended, television spread rapidly — literally house to house. One after another, living rooms were illuminated by the glow of fuzzy electronic pictures. The tube was an overnight sensation, and soon the amount of time people spent watching images flit on and off the front of the glowing box began to surpass the amount of time people spent reading linear rows of black letters.
With this new narrative form came new modes of cognitive processing:
Comprehending television required an entirely different hemispheric strategy than that used in reading. Viewers called forth their pattern-recognition skills to decipher the screen’s low-definition flickering mosaic mesh. The retina’s cones need bright light to scan a static page of print, but television brings the eye’s rods into play. They see best in dim surroundings and can detect the slightest movements. As people watched more and more television, the supremacy of the left hemisphere dimmed as the right’s use increased. For 750, 000 years, families had gathered around lit hearths whose flames supplied warmth, illuminated darkness, encouraged camaraderie, and encouraged storytelling. Campfires had been an essential ingredient for the evolution of oral epics. In 1950, a new kind of fire replaced the hearth; and it encouraged a different set of social qualities.
Shlain points out that when a person reads a book, his or her electroencephalogram (EEG) brain wave patterns differ significantly from those registered when that person is watching television — a finding made all the more remarkable by the fact that these patterns deviate negligibly when the content of the book or TV program is varied. Watching television generates the same slow alpha and theta waves as meditating — patterns representing a “passive, receptive, and contemplative state of mind” — while reading generates beta waves, typically registered when the mind is concentrating on a task. Shlain ties this back to the question of balance in the human spirit:
Task-oriented beta waves activate the hunter/killer side of the brain as alpha and theta waves emanate more from the gatherer/nurturer side. Perhaps Western civilization has for far too long been stuck in a beta mode due to literacy, and striking a balance with a little more alpha and theta, regardless of the source, will serve to soothe humankind’s savage beast.
Television, being a flickering image-based medium, derails the masculine-left-linear strategy, just as in parallel, the written word had earlier disoriented the gestalt-feminine-right one.
In one of the final chapters, Shlain does consider how the invention of the computer, if not the internet, plays into these male/female modalities:
The computer … converted the television screen from a monologue to a dialogue by making it interactive. And features peculiar to computers shifted the collective cultural consciousness of the men and women who used them toward a right-hemispheric mode, which in turn has further diminished male dominance.
The computer was originally designed to aid scientists, most of whom were male. Since the 1970s, therefore, males have rushed in droves to learn what their fathers and grandfathers contemptuously dismissed as a skill for women and sissies — typing. Unlike all the scribes of past cultures, men now routinely write using both hands instead of only the dominant one. The entry into the communication equation of millions of men’s left hands, directed by millions of male right brains tapping out one half of every computer-generated written message, is, I believe, an unrecognized factor in the diminution of patriarchy.
One particularly curious phenomenon Shlain points to as evidence of this shift is the seemingly sudden rise of dyslexia:
Dyslexic children, predominantly male (9:1), have difficulty deciphering the alphabet. One credible theory proposes that it is due to a failure of hemispheric dominance. Ninety percent of the language centers traditionally reside in the left hemisphere of right-handed people. In the right-handed dyslexic, the distribution of language centers may be more on the order of 80/20 or 70/30. Although we cannot be sure that dyslexia was not always among us, it seems to have erupted at the very moment that an entire generation was devaluing the left hemispheric mode of knowing. Perhaps television is the agent equilibrating the human brain’s two differing modes of perception.
And yet such theories highlight our culture’s toxic polarity between intellect and intuition. Shlain makes the same argument for dyslexia that Temple Grandin has been championing about autism — that rather than a “disease” producing an abnormal or lesser mind, it is an evolution producing a different mind:
The very concept of “brain dominance” is presently under scrutiny, as many dyslexics are talented artists, architects, musicians, composers, dancers, and surgeons. The idea that logical, linear thinking is better than intuition and holistic perception was a script written by left-brainers in the first place. Our culture has classified dyslexia as a disability. But as culture becomes more comfortable with its reliance on images, it may turn out that dyslexia will be reassessed as another of the many harbingers that announced the arrival of the Iconic Revolution.
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is a fascinating read in its entirety, certain to pull into question a great many of our cultural assumptions and perceived givens.
Published March 17, 2014