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December 22, 2011

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

I’ve been reading The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (ISBN-13: 978-0140196016 Penguin), which explores changes that took place in various ancient cultures when alphabets and writing became common. This happened at various times, depending on the location, usually at the time that writing became easier to learn with the emergence of a phonetic alphabet of 30 or fewer characters and was no longer a specialized ability guarded by an elite group of scribes. In many cases literacy spread through the population along with some form of monotheism, a condemnation of imagery, for instance, “graven images,” or increased focus on logic versus intuition, the establishment of written legal codes, military expansion (which often included slavery), and the use of money. At the same time these developments occurred, in most cases women lost power and their right to own property, instead coming to be treated as property. Myths changed to show goddesses as jealous, petty, and diabolical, sometimes destroyed by a conquering god. Oral myths were replaced by sacred writings.

I’m about halfway through, so I can’t really say more about this book, or draw any conclusions from it. But it’s been so far a fascinating look back, a perspective and theory that appears in many cases true. The alphabet and writing, and the subsequent move away from goddess based culture that revered the feminine, spelled trouble for women.

I’m not sure that I agree that writing did this alone. Even if it was the catalyst, we know there are times in individual human development when some form of darkness or ignorance must be overcome due to the changes we go through. Cute babies grow into their terrible twos, and later into adolescence and, for many of us, some form of rebellion. All change brings stress of some kind, and the spread of writing has to be one of the biggest changes a culture ever goes through. We change and then we sometimes take much longer to adjust to those changes, to put them in their proper perspective. The book points out that there was in many cases an eventual adjustment, some point at which women returned to a semblance of equality. And after all, there are many benefits that have arisen from the written word, from laws, from science and so forth. We have to look at this from both sides.

Still it’s a fascinating subject. I hope to write more about it once I’ve finished the book. Warning: I’m a slow reader.

Cross-posted at Pomegranate56 on LiveJournal

File: — Barbara @ 9:50 am PST, 12/22/11

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