Episode 2

The Chalice & the Blade: Our Past Our Future, by Riane Eisler

Published on: 29th December, 2020

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy. I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s episode will be a discussion of the book The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler. This book was published in 1987, and along with other female archaeologists working at the time, Eisler proposed  theories about humans’ prehistoric past that caused quite a stir in the field of archaeology and gave rise to a spiritual “goddess” movement within feminism in the 1980’s and 90’s. 


But before we dive in, I’m excited to introduce my first reading partner, Malia Morris. Hi Malia!

Malia: Hi Amy!


Malia and I are neighbors here in California, and Malia, I’m thrilled that you joined this project because you are such a brilliant thinker and an amazing person. So Malia, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background and what you like to do and your point of view that you bring to the text?

Malia: (Bio)

Amy: Can I also ask you what interested you in the project?

Malia: (What interested Malia in the project)

Amy: Thank you so much for being here! And with that, let’s dive in. Malia, can you give us some background on Riane Eisler, and some of the main points that we’ll be discussing in her book, The Chalice and the Blade. 


Riane Eisler is a social systems scientist, cultural historian, and attorney whose research, writing, and speaking has transformed the lives of people worldwide. 

She lived through the Nazi occupation of Austria when she was a child, and she writes the following about that experience:

“I was born in Vienna, and my parents and I lived there until Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. On Kristallnacht, so called because of all the glass shattered in Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses, a gang of Gestapo men broke into our home and dragged my father off. That was terrifying. But that night I also witnessed something I carried with me the rest of my life. My mother stood up to these men.” 

Riane fled from the Nazis with her parents to Cuba as a small child, and later emigrated to the United States. She obtained degrees in sociology and law from UCLA, and her lifelong questions about how and why human beings are so brutal to each other led to her work in Anthropology. 

Eisler taught pioneering classes on women and the law at UCLA; and has taught in the graduate Transformative Leadership Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Anthropology Department at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, as well as online through the Center for Partnership Studies and the Omega Institute. She is editor-in-chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies at the University of Minnesota and President of the Center for Partnership Studies, dedicated to research and education on the “partnership model” introduced by her research. 





 This book is full of information, but we chose to highlight these three points:

In multiple locations, at various times, there is archeological evidence of peaceful, woman-centered cultures. Eisler calls these societies “Partnership cultures.”

Every one of these societies was eventually overtaken by invaders that brought aggression and the institution of social hierarchies. Eisler calls these societies “Dominator cultures.”

 Eisler points out the critical need to involve women in interpreting data.

Amy: Partnership Cultures

You’ll notice that  in introducing this first point, Malia said “woman-centered cultures,”  but she didn’t say “matriarchies.” 

Definition-wise, patriarchy means “father-rule.”  (Pater in Latin, or like padre in Spanish + Archy = ruling structure, like a monarchy means the rule of one person). In practice, this “father-rule” expands to mean “males ruling over females.” The dictionary defines Patriarchy as “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” 

So a matriarchy, in contrast, would mean “mother-rule,” and would be implemented as a system in which women “hold the power and men are largely excluded from it.” 

One of the biggest takeaways that really made me stop in my tracks has been reading that Eisler, and the other historians we’ve researched so far, have all said that there is no evidence anywhere, at any time, of a matriarchy existing on this planet in the way that patriarchy has existed. 

You might see a culture that is matrilocal, meaning when a man and woman get married, they live with the bride’s family. So you trace a family’s location and sense of home through the women. For example, in the Neolithic city of Catal Hayuk, which is in modern-day Turkey and was established in around 7,500 BCE (that’s among the oldest cities in the world), you find that a woman’s sleeping platform is always found in the same place in a family dwelling, while a man’s sleeping platform changes places. So this is interpreted as a sign that a groom joined the households of the bride’s family. So that’s a matrilocal family, which does give the women some advantage and status. But it’s not the same as a matriarchal structure, where the women hold the positions of authority in government and make the rules and interpret the texts, etc.

You might see a culture that is matrilineal, or mother-line, which means you trace your ancestry through your mother. Jewish heritage is traced matrilineally, and in a handful of cultures all over the world you see certain groups who give their children the surname of the mother, not the father. There is evidence that some of these early human civilizations were matrilineal. But again, it doesn’t mean they were matriarchal.

You might see a culture that is matrifocal, which obviously means that it is more focused on women, producing art that features women and depicts goddesses and even priestesses. Even today you yourself might have a family that’s more matrifocal than patrifocal, where there are charismatic grandmothers or the family’s activities follow the interests of the daughters in the family. But that’s still not matriarchal.

[Additional note: I think this is important because even today in some circles people dismiss women’s concerns by saying “society isn’t a patriarchy any more” or “well my family isn’t patriarchal, in fact my family is matriarchal” because the wife is really strong-willed and runs the household, or their grandma is really spunky and the family kind of orbits who they see as a matriarch.

So one way of answering this question is to dig in on identifying the power dynamics. We can do this by asking “if there’s a conflict between heterosexual partners, can one partner play a trump card based on their gender?” Like in Fiddler on the Roof, Golde is a very strong woman, she runs the household, she tells Tevye what to do sometimes… but in the song it says “who has the right as master of the house to have the final word at home? The papa.” And you see that in the play, when there’s an impasse, a difference of opinion, Tevye can play his card that says “I am the man of the house.” Matriarchy would mean that Golde could say “when it comes down to it, I have the final word, because I am the woman of the house.”

Or in my faith tradition, which is the LDS/Mormon, families have a document on their walls that says that men and women work as equal partners, and some of my family and friends point to that to say “see, we’re equal, there’s no problem,” and they’ll say their families are “matriarchal” because the wife is really dynamic and strong. But in that same document hanging on their walls it says that the men preside over their families. So men can - and do - play that trump card. And the document has a bunch of signatures at the bottom of the authorities who issued that proclamation, and it’s fifteen men. So even if they were to change it and say “actually women can preside now,” if there’s a governing body that bestows those powers, they can also revoke those powers whenever they want. So a matriarchy would be where the woman presides over the home, and if there’s an impasse with a man, she could say “I’m invoking my status as a woman to preside over you.” And the document on the wall would have the signatures of fifteen women authors who decided the rules. That would be a matriarchy. 

A candidate for the forty-sixth female president of the United States choosing a male running mate, and everyone being so excited, like “yay! She’s going to choose a male vice president to support her!” That would be a matriarchy.]

With all of that said, however, there have been cultures - all of them really, really old cultures - that centered on a goddess and priestesses, and the power structure seems to have been egalitarian. Eisler highlights these matrilocal, matrilinear, and matrifocal societies. These are cultures of the “chalice,” as she names them, a chalice of course being a cup or a vessel. This is not only based on the female anatomy - of course the female is like a chalice and the male is a blade. But beyond that, it’s in the way these cultures seemed to structure their societies. Just as a chalice is a cup from which to drink, and to offer drink to others, so too do chalice cultures optimize for giving, for peace, and for partnership between the sexes.

In addition to Catal Hayuk, where hundreds and hundreds of goddess figurines have been found, one of the most striking examples of the Chalice, or “Partnership” models that Rianne Eisler highlights is the Minoan civilization in Crete.

The Minoan civilization thrived much later than the people of Catal Hayuk - they occupied the Crete and then later, Santorini, which are two islands just South of what is now mainland Greece, from about 2000 BCE to about 1400 BCE. (Just for a point of reference, this is during the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, a few hundred years after the pyramids were built.) This is late enough in history that the Minoans actually did leave a written record, but frustratingly, no one has been able to read it yet. Can you imagine - a possible woman-centered, egalitarian society, and there’s a record of what they wrote, but we just can’t read it!! It’s so frustrating. 

They are called Minoans because when British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans unearthed this giant palace on the island of Crete in 1900, he saw a giant maze to the side of it and thought “oh my gosh, I’ve found the labyrinth of the Minotaur that Daedylus made (in Greek mythology)! The King of that mythological city was named King Minos, so Evans called the ancient people the Minoans. 

So as these archaeologists dug up this incredibly sophisticated palace and surrounding city, they noticed some striking features. 

So here I’ll turn to The Chalice and the Blade for some descriptions.

On page 31 we read:

Well into the Bronze Age, when goddesses in other places (Egypt, Babylon) were being subsumed by male gods, the Goddess reigned supreme on Crete. It is the Goddess who rides her griffin-drawn chariot to bear a dead man to his new life. And it is the priestesses of the Goddess, not the priests, who play the central role in the ritual depicted on its frescoes. It is they who lead the procession and who extend their hands to touch the altar. (31)

And later on the same page we read:

The Cretan queen stands at the center while two approaching processions of men bear tribute to her. And everywhere one finds female figures, many of them with their arms raised in a gesture of blessing, some of them holding serpents or double axes as symbols of the Goddess. (31)

I got to go to Crete for my 40th birthday three years ago, and as I walked around the ruins and then through the museum where a lot of the artifacts are displayed, I have to say, this is not an exaggeration. There are frescoes of these beautiful, healthy, bare-breasted women with ponytails and earrings, depicted in bright colors. They are priestesses, as Eisler describes, and there are also frescoes depicting young men and women doing sports together where they did acrobatics onto the backs of bulls, both men and women, together, relying on each other in this really dangerous sport. 

Also, everywhere there are fresco paintings of nature. Dolphins, Octopuses, Flowers, Butterflies, water waves. There were no walls around the city, no fortifications or depictions of weapons anywhere.

Also, those goddesses with the snakes - I learned about this in my master’s program and I just about fell over when my professor taught us that the snake was the ancient sign of the goddess, and then when the Bible was written down, the authors were contending with some really persistent goddess-worship in their populations, so there is a school of thought that believes it was deliberate that the Bible’s authors represented Satan as a snake. They took the sacred object of the goddess and turned it into something evil. But the symbol pops up elsewhere in the Bible, as a healing symbol, like when Moses holds up the serpent on his staff to heal Israel! And it’s still a symbol of healing on the symbol of the medical profession - you’ve seen the staff with the serpents wound around it. 

Almost makes me want to get over my fear of snakes - reclaim the symbol of the goddess! But I digress.

One more important point about the Minoans, and this I saw when we went to the Minoan city of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini - they had an incredibly high standard of living for the time, with viaducts, paved roads, an indoor plumbing system, rooms that were situated to maximize the breeze and create a system of air conditioning… and all the houses were about the same size. 

Eisler writes about this on page 32:

Equitable sharing of wealth. Standard of living - even of peasants - seems to have been high. None of the homes found so far have suggested very poor living conditions.” (32)

This is a really important point in understanding the partnership model - a society that is based on the chalice or partnership model, is oriented toward giving, and nourishing all members of society, and on appreciating nature. 

*So what were some things that stood out to you from this section, Malia?


 Malia  - Then came the invasions. “Dominator model.”


By 5000 BCE we see evidence of what Mellaart calls a pattern of disruption of the old Neolithic cultures in the Near East. After flourishing, a period of cultural regression and stangnation sets in. Maria Gimbutas calls it “Kurgan waves” of Indo-European invaders in Mesopotamia happening through thousands of years apart happening over and over - pockets of goddess women centric societies were taken over by dominator tribes. 

From the Asiatic and European north. Aryans in India, Hittites and Mittani in the Fertile Crescent, Luwians in Anatolia, Kurgans in eastern Europe, Achaeans and later Dorians in Greece, they gradually imposed their ideologies and ways of life on the lands and peoples they conquered.

Other nomadic invaders: the Semitic people we call the Hebrews, who came from the deserts of the south and invaded Canaan. Ruled by a caste of warrior -priests (the Levite tribe of Moses, Aaron, and Joshua). Like the Indo-Europeans, they too brought with them a fierce and angry god of war and mountains. They too imposed much of their ideology and way of life on the peoples of the lands they conquered. (44)

Numbers 31:32-35: Among the spoils of war taken by the invaders in their battle against the Midianites, there were, in this order, sheep, cattle, asses, and thirty-two thousand girls who had had no intercourse with a man.

They all had in common a dominator model of social organization. At the core of the invader’s system was the placing of higher value on the power that takes, rather than gives, life. (48)

“The earliest known visual images of Indo-European warrior gods.” Some figures are “semi-anthropomorphic,” reports Gimbutas about the excavations of a series of rock carvings in the Italian and Swiss alps; they have heads and arms. But the majority are abstract images “in which the god is represented by his weapons alone, or by weapons in combination with a belt, necklace, double-spiral pendant, and the divine animal -a horse or stag. In several of the compositions a sun or stag antlers occur in the place where the god's head should be. In others, the god’s arms are represented as halberds or axes with long shafts. One, three, seven, or nine daggers are placed in the center of the composition, most frequently above or below the belt.”

Weapons obviously represented the god’s functions and powers, and were worshipped as representations of the god himself. The sacredness of the weapon is well evidenced in all Indo-European religions. From Herodotus we know the Scythians made sacrifices to their sacred dagger, Akenakes. No previous engravings or images of weapon-carrying divinities are known in the Neolithic Alpine region.” 

The beginnings of slavery seem to be closely linked to these armed invations. For instance, these findings indicate that in some Kurgan camps the bulk of the female population was not Kurgan, but rather of the Neolithic Old European population. (49)

Different burial practices: an exceptionally tall or large-boned male skeleton buried with the skeletons of sacrificed women - the wives, concubines, or slaves of the men who died. (The immolation of widows was practiced in India into the 20th Century) Also buried with “bows, arrows, spears, cutting and thrusting knives (protodaggers), antler-axes, and horse bones.” (50)

Question: Ask open ended question on what your thoughts of the emergence of the dominator pg 58 in my own notes 

As weapons increasingly appear in the excavations, so do chief’s tombs and houses that clearly evidence social stratification, with strongman rule...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.