Neurological Notes: The alphabet changed the sex of god

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The Independent Culture
SOPHOCLES ONCE warned, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.' The invention of literacy was certainly vast. So what was its curse? In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, I propose that the process of learning alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain, with profound consequences for culture. As a surgeon operating on carotid arteries carrying blood to the brain, I have long been intrigued by the very different functions performed by the two hemispheres. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan's aphorism "the medium is the message" provides the book's leitmotif. McLuhan proposed that the method by which we perceive information is actually more important than the content of the information we perceive.

Literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one in both sexes. This shift upset the balance between men and women initiating the disappearance of goddesses, the abhorrence of images, and, in literacy's early stages, the decline of women's political status. Patriarchy and misogyny followed.

There is overwhelming archaeological and historical evidence that early agricultural societies worshipped goddesses, women served as priestesses, and property generally passed through the mother's line. The religions of the West, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are each based on an alphabetic sacred text, and each denies the existence of goddesses, bans women from conducting a single major sacrament, and decrees that property should pass primarily through the father's line. I believe that the introduction of writing, especially the alphabet, literally changed the sex of god. The first book written in an alphabet was the Old Testament and its most important passage is the Ten Commandments. The First rejects any goddess influence and the Second bans any form of representative art.

It was during Europe's Dark Ages that the people elevated Mary to such a prominent place in Christianity. Abbesses ruled monasteries, men lived by the code of chivalry honouring women, and notions of courtly love appeared.

The invention of the printing press in the Renaissance changed the direction of culture by making books easily available. The Protestant Reformation is unthinkable without the printing press. Among the reforms they instituted, Protestants attacked holy images and demanded that Mary veneration be banned.

Despite widespread reading of the New Testament that emphasised the oral teachings of Jesus concerning love, kindness and forgiveness, ferocious religious wars harrowed Europe for the next two centuries. Paradoxically, this was also the Age of Reason. While the literate countries were bestowing on posterity the works of Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton and Bach, the men suffered a psychosis so extreme they believed their women were so dangerous they must be murdered. The witch-hunts were most virulent in the countries experiencing the steepest rise in literacy rates. Russia remained largely illiterate throughout this period and also suffered no witchhunts.

A colossal shift I call the Iconic Revolution began in the 19th century. The invention of photography and the discovery of electromagnetism combined to bring film, television and computers; all of which are based on images. The increasing reliance on right brain pattern recognition instead of left brain linear sequencing has moved culture toward equilibrium between the two hemispheres, between masculine and feminine, word and image. Since the advent of television, women are reclaiming rights they formally exercised, serving as priestesses once again, and literate cultures saturated with image information are again embracing feminine values. The medium is the message. The thug who mugged the goddess was the invention of literacy.

Leonard Shlain is the author of `The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: male words and female images' (Penguin, 29 April, pounds 16.99)