Another Look at the Modern Dilemma
A Review Essay by Willis Harman


Many have undertaken to analyze for us how humanity has reached its present impasse, wherein we have ever-increasing technological knowledge and power, and ever-increasing tendency to get into trouble with it. Some would trace our problems back to the scientific and industrial revolutions, which set the Western world, and eventually most of the planet, on the course that led to computers and space travel, nuclear weapons and biotechnology, toxic chemical pollution and progressive extinction of species. Others (particularly historian Lynn White Jr.1) go back some centuries further, and find the roots of our ecological and related crises in the rise of Christianity with its mandate to the first man and woman (in Genesis 1:28) to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Riane Eisler, in The Chalice and the Blade, finds the origins of modern global problems even earlier, in a great cultural shift that took place in eastern Europe over five thousand years ago. This was the rise of what she calls a dominator model of society following the Indo-European in-migrations that poured over the societies of Europe and the Middle East beginning around 4000 BCE. This structuring of society that came to characterize the Western world was responsible for its success in coming to dominate the planet; it also is largely responsible for the potentially lethal dilemmas that now face humankind. In this interpretation of our past, it follows that only another profound cultural shift (which may be taking place) can provide the solution to our global problems.

Eisler explains the fundamental questions that drove her to this study: "Why do we hunt and persecute each other? Why is our world so full of man's infamous inhumanity to man-and to woman? How can human beings be so brutal to their own kind? What is it that chronically tilts us toward cruelty rather than kindness, toward war rather than peace, toward destruction rather than actualization?"

One important aspect of any society, but particularly our own, is technology. Thus although the word itself does not appear in the index, in a way Eisler's book is very much about the technologies we devise and the ways we use them.

Technology-Hero or Villain?

There can be little doubt that our use of technology and our future are tightly intertwined. Technology is hero or villain, depending on how you look at it. But of course that isn't the real issue. Humankind has reached the point where one can hardly imagine any technological goal that we could not accomplish, if we chose to devote the necessary resources and time. The question is: What is worth doing? And there modern society has been extraordinarily confused.

A measure of our confusion is that we continue to try to solve the problems that have been brought about or exacerbated by our use of technology-with more technology! The most egregious example is Star Wars, but there are others: attempting to cure ecological insults brought about by our use of technology through an "environmental control industry"; dealing with illness caused in part by modern lifestyles through interventions that further impair the natural healing and defensive systems; seeking technological cures for chronic poverty and hunger that are themselves the consequences of industrial society impinging on other cultures.

In another writing,2 Eisler adopts a somewhat broader than usual definition of technology: Technology is a dynamic process of using tools, resources, bodies and minds to achieve human-defined goals. Focusing on ends rather than means, there are four basic categories of technology:

1) Technology of production. This includes farming, weaving, manufacturing, construction, and other ways in which tasks are carried out to sustain and enhance human life.

2) Technology of reproduction. This includes birthing procedures, birth control techniques, replacement of bodily parts (for example with prosthetics, artificial organs, organ transplants), in vitro fertilization, etc.

3) Technology of actualization. These include social technologies such as public education, democratic political processes, art forms, actualization workshops, etc., as well as personal technologies like meditation for spiritual growth, biofeedback training for self-healing, and so on.

4) Technology of destruction. This is technology aimed at destroying and dominating. These range from the techniques of individual combat to vast systems for delivering nuclear warheads.

Simply classifying in this way makes it clear that it is the human choices of life-destroying versus life-enhancing technologies that constitute the problem. But that leads to the next question: What determines these choices?

Most of us do not feel that we are making life-destroying choices. (We may fed that someone else is, and thus we feel forced into a national policy like "nuclear deterrence".) We are part of a social matrix that results in the choices being made, so the question becomes relevant: What kind of social organization would give priority to technologies of production, reproduction, and actualization?

The Hidden Side of History

Riane Eisler mainly takes a historical and archaeological approach, although there is some reference to anthropological findings. Because history has been written, and archaeology has been carried out, in a society that until very recently has placed women in an inferior position and glorified masculine types of achievement such as victory in war, the story of our origins has been biased. Only with the rise of feminist scholarship have we begun to realize that there is a "her-story" as well as "his-story".

It appears that, contrary to popular impression, the earliest artifacts were not technologies of destruction. The first artifacts, developed long before large game was hunted and warfare began, were technologies of production: containers for carrying, storing, and sharing food; devices for carrying babies; techniques for softening food for infants to eat. As one looks from proto-history to prehistory, the most striking thing about the Paleolithic era is the enormous emphasis on technologies of actualization, including cave paintings, figurines, and other artistic renderings of the life-giving powers of the universe.

Two forms of power are defined by Eisler-actualization power, emphasized in partnership society, and domination power. The solution to our problems lies in substituting the former for the latter.

The agrarian revolution of Neolithic times docs not seem to have been primarily characterized by warfare, slavery, and the subjugation of women, as some earlier scholars had indicated. The most recent archaeological findings reveal Neolithic societies in Europe and the Middle East, lasting for many thousands of years, with standards of living higher than those of some of the poorer nations of the modern world. "We see here not only the domestication of plants and animals to produce the surpluses to ensure a sustained food supply. We also find sophisticated technologies of production, such as advanced stone and metal tool making, great strides in the making of clothing, pottery, rugs, and jewelry, and highly developed construction technologies, including even town planning. Above all, what we find is an emphasis on technologies of actualization, evidenced by a rich, and highly revealing, artistic tradition." There is a remarkable lack, in this Neolithic art, of images of armed warriors, scenes of battles, slaves in chains, and similar scenes characteristic of later art. There is a general lack of fortifications in the Neolithic remains. And while they used knives, axes and spears for hunting and farming, there is no indication that they were used routinely for war. The social organization seems to have been basically egalitarian; differences in status and wealth were not marked. Women were not subordinate to men; "there were…women priestesses, women craftspeople, and…, the supreme deity was conceptualized as female rather than male." The primary principle of social organization seems to have been linking by mutual trust and caring, rather than ranking and dominating based on force.

This original direction in development appears to have been interrupted about 5000 years ago by a pastoral but violent people scholars call Indo-Europeans, who appeared on the scene from the arid steppes of northeastern Asia. Little is yet known about how they developed their form of social organization, in which the primary principle was the use of force for ranking-of men over women, and of strong men over other men.

The Minoan civilization on the island of Crete seems to have been one of the rare places where a social structuring on the basis of partnership rather than domination, linking rather than ranking, survived into historical times. This civilization used remarkably "modern" technologies of production and construction; they had "the first viaducts, the first paved roads, and even the first indoor plumbing in Europe. Here technologies of actualization flourished into a uniquely beautiful and rich art. And here the supreme power was still viewed as the life-sustaining and enhancing power of the 'feminine' Chalice rather than the death-wielding power of the 'masculine' Blade." There was in this society, according to one authority, "a love of peace, a horror of tyranny, and a respect for the law".

The example of Minoan Crete, says Eisler, illustrates a fundamental principle-that the way a society structures "the most fundamental of all human relations-that between the male and female halves of humanity-profoundly affects the totality of a social system, including its technological direction…A social system in which the larger and stronger male half of humanity dominates the female half-and to maintain this dominance is systematically taught to equate masculinity with conquest and aggression-will in its social priorities emphasize technologies of destruction." Contrariwise, in a social system where male-female diversity is not equated with inferiority or superiority, "feminine" values such as caring, compassion, empathy, sensitivity, and gentleness can operationally be given social priority. In these societies based on a partnership model, life-enhancing technologies can have precedence.

Looked at in this way, we see that our potentially lethal global problems-the possibility of nuclear holocaust; the global arms race; widespread systemic poverty; and dangerous interferences with the Earth's life-support systems-are not solvable under a social system based on domination, "for they are the direct consequences of a dominator model of society at our level of technological development."

The Deeper Significance of Feminism

This line of reasoning casts the feminist movement in a very different light. It is not primarily another movement for civil rights, for equal opportunities and equal pay for equal work; nor even primarily a movement for raising feminine "consciousness". It is the most fundamental of all the social movements, underlying the peace and ecological movements, hunger projects, and civil rights movements-because it is a movement away from the hierarchical, aggressive, dominator kind of social organization which is associated with all of our most serious problems, and a movement toward a caring, partnership organization that can give us a better chance to have a viable global future.

Two forms of power are defined by Riane Eisler-actualization power, emphasized in partnership society, and domination power, pre-potent in dominator society. The solution to our problems lies, she claims, in substituting the former for the latter.

No doubt there will be scholarly challenges to Eisler's thesis as regards some details. Yet overall it would seem to have considerable face validity. As she says, the real issue is that "in our high technology age, a dominator society is fundamentally maladaptive, threatening not only our species but all life forms on this planet. For how can the population explosion be arrested as long as women are denied access to birth control technologies, as long as they themselves continue to be viewed primarily as technologies for reproduction? How can environmental pollution and degradation be arrested as long as men continue to identify with the manly' conquest of nature rather than the women's work' of environmental housekeeping? Most critically, how can we survive in a world still ruled by the Blade at a time when we have the ultimate technologies for ending all life."

The Transformative Power of Communication

If we are transforming from a dominator to a partnership model (or must so transform), the change cannot be brought about by violence. This cannot be the classical revolution of the history books, for technologies of destruction can only replace one dominator system with another. It must be, fundamentally, a transformation of human consciousness.

Thus a central theme of the book is the transformative power of communication. The imposition of a dominator system on previously peaceful societies was accomplished not only by the sword, but also by the pen. The imposition and maintenance of a dominator society would have been impossible in the long run without a reprogramming of the human mind to view men's use of force or the threat of force to dominate or destroy as "divinely ordained", "natural", and above all, "manly".

"The priests (who were often also the scribes) of antiquity served the ruling castes. It was their job to use the media of communication to manufacture and disseminate a dominator worldview. Backed up by armed might, these men exercised complete and monolithic control over all media. Deviations from the officially sanctioned worldview were punishable by death through torture-and presumably even after death and for all eternity by vengeful gods. Thus the [basic images] of domination were implanted in the deepest recesses of our collective unconscious, as hallowed and immutable truths…

"The old pyramidal universe-where a male god (and his earthly representatives, the kings and high priests of old) rules over all men, who in turn rule over women, children, and the rest of nature-was challenged in bits and pieces by progressive modern ideologies such as republicanism, socialism, and feminism." Only recently have the outlines of the replacement partnership model begun to be clear.

If we are transforming to a partnership model, the change cannot be brought about by violence. It must be, fundamentally, a transformation of human consciousness.

The mass media still largely reinforce the old in-group versus out-group dichotomies, justifying violence and inhumanity. But not only do the mass media have well-demonstrated mind-enslaving capabilities. They also have potentiality as instruments of transformation," as technologies to free our minds, to re-awaken our consciousness, to help us regain our empathy-our sense of connection with other humans and nature…. At a time when one more war could be our last, these modern mass media provide the technological capacity to exponentially accelerate the major transformation in human consciousness that can take us from a dominator to a partnership mentality."

The Promise of Partnership Society

Clarification of these two basic models of social relationships-dominator and partnership-transcends and is more useful than conventional polarities between political left and right, capitalism and communism, religion and secularism, and even masculinism and feminism. All the modern, post-Enlightenment movements for social justice, be they religious or secular, as well as the more recent feminist, peace, and ecology movements, are parts of an underlying thrust for the transformation of a dominator to a partnership system.

Eisler's vision: "Gradually, as the female half of humanity and the values and goals that in andocracy are labeled feminine are fully integrated into the guidance mechanisms of society, a politically and economically healthy and balanced system will emerge. Then… our species will begin to experience the full potential of its evolution." Eisler does not say, in this book, how such a transition can be expected to occur although she does promise to address the issue in two further books. She does, however, conclude with a brief sketch of the changes she envisions as we resume humanity's "interrupted cultural evolution".

One of the most dramatic consequences of this shift will be that we will live free of the fear of nuclear annihilation. And as women gain more equality, so birthrates may balance better with resources, thus overcoming the Malthusian "necessity" for war, famine and disease. As we trade the conquest of nature for environmental housekeeping, we will rid our planet of energy shortages, natural resources depletion, and chemical pollution. "Indeed," says Eisler, "as billions of dollars and work hours are re-channeled from technologies of destruction to technologies that sustain and enhance life, human poverty and hunger could gradually become memories of a brutal andocratic past."

There will be more openness and trust in woman-man relations, in our families and our communities. With a social structure based on linking instead of ranking, institutions will become less hierarchical, allowing for diversity and flexibility; and many new institutions will be more global "as the consciousness of our linking with one another and our environment firmly takes hold". The economic order will be drastically reshaped, more in line with our partnership-model prehistory, and caring for others will be a most highly valued and rewarded activity.

Eisler also foresees the development of a new mythology based on the transformative mysteries of the Chalice. This mythology will not, however, represent a psychic reversion to the past. "On the contrary, by intertwining our ancient heritage of gylanic [linking female and male] myths and symbols with modern ideas, it will move us forward toward a world that will be much more rational, in the true sense of the word: a world animated and guided by the consciousness that both ecologically and socially we are inextricably linked with one another and our environment."

The Prospect

How realistic is this vision? Riane Eisler assures us that the process of unraveling and reweaving the fabric of our mythical tapestry into a new pattern, in which such "masculine" virtues as "the conquest of nature" are no longer idealized, is well underway. Part of this change is unconscious; part is occurring through various social movements that appear on the surface to be about more specific social and political issues. If she is correct, we may expect to see the feminist movement expand to become a broad movement involving both sexes and directed toward the basic transformation of human consciousness.

It is a most attractive prospect, if we can believe it; and Eisler's analysis helps make it more believable by highlighting an alternative view of human nature and human evolution. Perhaps Eisler is right, and after the bloody historical detour through dominator society, both women and men will at last find out what being human can mean.

Worldview Portrayed by Neolithic Art

One of the most striking things about Neolithic art is what it does not depict. For what a people do not depict in their art can tell us as much about them as what they do.

In sharp contrast to later art, a theme notable for its absence from Neolithic art is imagery idealizing armed might, cruelty, and violence-based power. There are here no images of "noble warriors" or scenes of battles. Nor are there any signs of "heroic conquerors" dragging captives around in chains or other evidences of slavery.

Also in sharp contrast to the remains of even their earliest and most primitive male-dominant invaders, what is notable in these Neolithic Goddess-worshiping societies is the absence of lavish "chieftain" burials. And in marked contrast to later male-dominant civilizations like that of Egypt, there is here no sign of mighty rulers who take with them into the afterlife less powerful humans sacrificed at their death.

Nor do we here find, again in contrast to later dominator societies, large caches of weapons or any other sign of the intensive application of material technology and natural resources to arms. The inference that this was a much more, and indeed characteristically, peaceful era is further reinforced by another absence: military fortifications. Only gradually do these begin to appear, apparently as a response to pressures from the warlike nomadic bands coming from the fringe areas of the globe....

In Neolithic art, neither the Goddess nor her son-consort carry the emblems we have learned to associate with might- spears, swords, or thunderbolts, the symbols of an earthly sovereign and/or deity who exacts obedience by killing and maiming. Even beyond this, the art of this period is strikingly devoid of the ruler-ruled, master-subject imagery so characteristic of dominator societies.

What we do find everywhere-in shrines and houses, on wall paintings, in the decorative motifs on vases, in sculptures in the round, clay figurines, and bas reliefs-is a rich array of symbols from nature. Associated with the worship of the Goddess, these attest to awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of life....This theme of the unity of all things in nature, as personified by the Goddess, seems to permeate Neolithic art. For here the supreme power governing the universe is a divine Mother who gives her people life, provides them with material and spiritual nurturance, and who even in death can be counted on to take her children back into her cosmic womb.

For instance, in the shrines of Catal Huyuk we find representations of the Goddess both pregnant and giving birth. Often she is accompanied by powerful animals such as leopards and particularly bulls.1 (see below) As a symbol of the unity of all life in nature, in some of her representations she is herself part human and part animal.2 (see below) Even in her darker aspects, in what scholars call the chthonic, or earthy, she is still portrayed as part of the natural order. Just as all life is born from her, it also returns to her at death to be once again reborn.

It could be said that what scholars term the chthonic aspect of the Goddess- her portrayal in surrealistic and sometimes grotesque form-represented our forebears' attempt to deal with the darker aspects of reality by giving our human fears of the shadowy unknown a name and shape. These chthonic images-masks, wall paintings, and statuettes symbolizing death in fantastic and sometimes also humorous forms-would also be designed to impart to the religious initiate a sense of mystical unity with both the dangerous as well as the benign forces governing the world.

Thus, in the same way that life was celebrated in religious imagery and ritual, the destructive processes of nature were also recognized and respected. At the same time that religious rites and ceremonies were designed to give the individual and the community a sense of participation in and control over the life-giving and preserving processes of nature, other rites and ceremonies attempted to keep the more fearful processes at bay.

But with all of this, the many images of the Goddess in her dual aspect of life and death seem to express a view of the world in which the primary purpose of art, and of life, was not to conquer, pillage, and loot but to cultivate the earth and provide the material and spiritual wherewithal for a satisfying life. And on the whole, Neolithic art, and even more so the more developed Minoan art, seems to express a view in which the primary function of the mysterious powers governing the universe is not to exact obedience, punish, and destroy but rather to give.

We know that art, particularly religious or mythical art, reflects not only peoples' attitudes but also their particular form of culture and social organization. The Goddess-centered art we have been examining, with its striking absence of images of male domination or warfare, seems to have reflected a social order in which women, first as heads of clans and priestesses and later on in other important roles, played a central part, and in which both men and women worked together in equal partnership for the common good. If there was here no glorification of wrathful male deities or rulers carrying thunderbolts or arms, or of great conquerors dragging abject slaves about in chains, it is not unreasonable to infer it was because there were no counterparts for those images in real life.


  1. James Mellaart, Catal Huyuk. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
  2. Marja Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 7000 - 35OO BC. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

From The Chalice and The Blade, by Riane Eisler, © 1987 by Riane Eisler. Used with permission from Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., San Francisco.


Willis Harman was the former President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. From Professor of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford, he moved to SRI International in Menlo Park, California, where for sixteen years he did research in futures studies and strategic planning. He was the author of Global Mind Change and Creative Work, among other books. He died in 1997.