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HUMAN HISTORY:
RECLAIMING OUR PAST AND FUTURE

Riane Eisler

Evidence from archeology, anthropology, DNA studies and other disciplines shows that for many thousands of years – much longer than the fifty centuries of recorded history – both art and life were pervaded by a belief in the unity of all life, the vitality of nature, and partnership between female and male. This evidence not only alters the old view of human nature; it also indicates that the environmental, new spirituality, and gender, social, and economic equity movements are deeply rooted in the human psyche.

THE STONE AGE


In French caves where European Stone Age art was discovered, archeologists found many images of female carvings. These wide-hipped, full-bellied, generally faceless figurines were dubbed Venuses or strange pornography by early archeologists. In fact, these stylized carvings honor woman’s life-giving powers and reflect a worldview uniting the spiritual and the natural.

For example, the “Venus of Laussel” was carved about 25,000 years ago at the entrance (or vaginal portal) of a French cave sanctuary. It indicates not only that woman's life-giving powers were revered, but that woman's menstrual cycles were not viewed as a "curse" but, like the cycles of the moon, sun, and seasons, celebrated through sacred rites -- as among the long- isolated contemporary foraging BaMbuti of Africa. In her right hand she holds a crescent moon notched with thirteen markings: the number of lunar cycles in a year. Her other hand points to her vulva, as if to inform us on the relationship (before artificial lighting) between the cycles of the moon and women's menstrual cycles.

In these millennia-old caves we also find images of female and male sexual organs; an example is a stone engraving from Isturitz in the French Pyrenees of a phallus inside a vagina. So while the life-giving power of woman’s body was a central theme, the role of men was understood as part of a belief system in which sexuality was central to the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration of life - including human life.

THE NEOLITHIC

In the next phase of human cultural evolution, the Neolithic or early farming age, we find a multitude of female figures representing the life giving-and sustaining powers of the universe. And often we find the coupling of the female and male.

An example is a carving of a woman and man embracing and, next to them, the woman with a child in her arms. The first panel of this frieze, excavated in Çatal Hüyük (a large Turkish Neolithic site), is probably an early representation of the hieros gamos or “sacred marriage” – a rite of sexual union that survived into historic times, as we can still read in the Hymns of Innana from Bronze Age Mesopotamia. The second part (the mother and child) seems to be a precursor of the thousands of Virgin and Child figures in later European Christian art. However, in this 8,000year-old relief, the child was clearly the result of the sexual union between the woman and man (probably two deities), rather than an allegedly non-sexual divine insemination.

Another find from Çatal Hüyük is a female figure seated on a throne, flanked by felines, giving birth. 

Neolithic art also deals with the opposite side of the natural cycle: death. For example, images of vultures probably reflected the practice in Çatal Hüyük of "exposing the dead" to vultures before their bones were buried under the sleeping platforms of their survivors – possibly in the hope that their spirits would be returned in one of their children.

While female images were important religious symbols, sometimes they are blended with animal imagery, as in the many so-called bird and snake Goddess figures of the Neolithic, again signaling the unity of life in nature.

OUR PAST AND PRESENT


Excavations of Çatal Hüyük and other early Neolithic houses and burials indicate a generally egalitarian social structure. Specifically, archeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Çatal Hüyük, notes that “even analyses of isotopes in bones give no indication of divergence in lifestyle translating into differences in status and power between women and men, with neither burials nor space in houses suggesting gender inequality.” Nor are there indications of warfare; Çatal Hüyük shows no signs of destruction through force for 1,000 years.

Much of the art we celebrate idealizes violence, including sexual violence, as in Athenian vases and paintings of gods such as Zeus raping women

New studies of society identify these three interconnected elements of a more equitable, gender balanced, and peaceful culture as the configuration of a partnership system. They also identify the configuration of the unequal, male-dominated, chronically violent and warlike cultures that came later as that of a domination system.

The more partnership-oriented societies of our prehistory were not ideal. But their view of human relations was very different from what came later, when conflict and separation, winning and losing, dominating and subduing, conquering and controlling, in short, force, fear, and violent disconnection, became central themes in both life and art.

The heroes we read about in our history classes, such as Theseus, Hercules, and Perseus, represent the violent men who took over the ancient world after a period of great disequilibrium in our prehistory. Indeed, much of the art we celebrate idealizes violence, including sexual violence, as in Athenian vases and paintings of gods such as Zeus raping women. Moreover, birthing depictions are notably absent from this art.

Women were now barred from positions of power, often merely possessions of men. The gaps between those on top and bottom were enormous, and, as St. Augustine wrote, for anyone to challenge their status was “like a nose wanting to be an eye.” Even modern science, as the historian David Noble wrote in his book of the same title, came out of “a world without women,” and I should add, a world without children. And today, modern technologies in service of domination and conquest, be it of people or nature, threaten our very survival.

Nonetheless, there are also powerful partnership trends: the environmental and gender, racial, and economic justice movement all challenge the same thing: a tradition of domination. A growing number of scholars challenge the view that warfare, inequality, and male dominance are innate in humans. And many women and men are working for a more equitable, caring, and sustainable way of living and loving: a truly spiritual world in which the so-called feminine, such as caring, caregiving, and nonviolence, are no longer devalued, be it in women, men, or anyone in between.

In short, a worldview is emerging that in key respects reconnects us with our earlier more partnership-oriented cultural roots. An understanding of these roots will help us in the essential task of building a better future.