In Search Of The Feminine Archetype
By Asoka Selvarajah, Ph.D
I often wonder what the world would be like if women were in charge of it instead of men. It would definitely be an altogether different place. Moreover, it’s hard to escape the sneaking suspicion that it would probably be a far better place too.
In watching the attack on New York, and the resulting military response, this masculine aspect to events is most striking. Men planned and carried out the attack on the USA. Government men around the world speak words of aggression in response, and rapidly commit masculine military strikes, depriving many innocent people of their lives and homes; all in the name of peace and the sanctity of human life. Nowhere in any of this do we see the feminine archetype present – only the masculine. Indeed, such is the domination of the masculine archetype, the feminine does not seem even slightly relevant.
In his excellent book, “The Alphabet Versus The Goddess”, Leonard Shlain provides compelling evidence for an astonishing phenomenon present in human history. His essential contention is that the rise of literacy in the form of alphabetic writing has led to an over-emphasis upon masculine left-brain thinking at the expense of the feminine right-brain. This has resulted in a decline of the feminine archetype within the cultures where literacy has been introduced. Not only has the Goddess herself declined as the primary deity, in favour of her masculine competitor, but women themselves rapidly become subjected to extreme debasement.
Shlain is not alone in this contention. In fact, he is in good company. Neither Socrates, Buddha or Christ wanted their teachings committed to writing, but instead subscribed to the oral tradition. Their teachings were only preserved in written form decades or (in the case of the Buddha) centuries after their deaths. More recently, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss stated: “There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing…is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other”.
In essence, the conflict is between Word and Image, and the way our brains accept and integrate information from both. The masculine left-brain function is primarily associated with logic, numeracy, abstraction, analysis, reduction, writing and speech. The feminine right-brain is non-verbal and its language is that of image. It controls non-logical states, views things in concrete fashion rather than abstract, and is connected to intuition. It is both creative and nurturing, and is holistic in viewing things in an “all-at-once” fashion.
Thus, the two are very different and both have valid contributions to make. Ideally, a balance of both is required. Yet, throughout history, it has been the masculine left-brain that has dominated, and this can be traced back to the profound change that writing has had upon us.
The earliest written work that continues to influence the modern world is the Old Testament. Moreover the Jews, the first race to derive their entire religious effort from the written word, soon came to display this split between masculine and feminine functions. Immediately, we see the battle between Word and Image displayed. Of the Ten Commandments, the first is that there should be no other gods besides Jehovah. The second is that there should be no graven images or likeness of ANYTHING in heaven, on earth, on in the oceans!
Thus, in the first two commandments alone, we see the function of the right-brain/feminine function completely banned. Moreover, the previous rich diversity of gods and goddesses, representing all the aspects of creation’s mysteries in which we are immersed, are replaced by an abstract, single, “male” God who is “out there” somewhere, and definitely NOT part of Creation itself. We can only learn about this abstraction through the written and spoken word (left-brain & masculine), and NOT through image and creativity (right-brain & feminine).
In addition, and in contrast to the all-inclusive nature of other religions of the time, Judaism was peculiar in being the only religion in which God had seemingly created a “Chosen People” with whom he would share himself in exclusion to all other nations upon the earth. This divisiveness is a distinctively masculine function, and contrasts sharply with the more holistic all-inclusive universal character of the feminine archetype.
Indeed, this “chosen people” characteristic was later adopted from the religions that took Judaism as their root; namely Christianity and Islam. Here too, the abstract monotheistic male god, separate from and often condemning his creation, and who gives his revelation only through the written and spoken word, was adopted in preference to the accepting embracing Mother Goddess, who speaks through the vast diversity of Creation, as well as through image and inner intuitive seeking.
These religions, in their most extreme forms, adopted intensely repressive attitudes towards women. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the founders did not necessarily display antipathy towards women themselves. However, their later male adherents definitely did display such tendencies, which has led to the repression, and even persecution, of women throughout the centuries. The most extreme example of this is the Witch Trials in both Europe and America.
It was only in the 20th century that women’s rights began to truly recover from the negative bombardment that has been inflicted upon them for millennia. Interestingly, this was also the era that brought us Television, Cinema, a huge surge in interest in Art, and more recently, Computer Graphics. This may be no coincidence, since all of these communication media are IMAGE-oriented. They stimulate the right-brain feminine side. As a consequence of these new technologies, traditional literacy has been under attack in the Western world, and has even started to decline.
The act of writing itself is now, for the first time in history, being carried out by both hands at once, through the use of computer keyboards. Thus, the left-brain/right-hand dominance is breaking down, and giving way to a more brain-balanced mode of putting words into print.
This is not so much an issue of Feminism, and of women having the right to be jet pilots. The more important issue is the welfare of the feminine principle itself. When this was debased with the decline of the Goddess and right-brain activity, women themselves were “literally” denigrated. When the feminine archetype is restored to its rightful place in our civilization, as is beginning to take place, the fortunes of women themselves must necessarily rise too.
At present, the trap women find themselves in is that they can certainly succeed in a man’s world. However, to do so, they often end up behaving more like a man than most men do! In other words, a woman in today’s world may eventually get the top position she seeks, but somewhere along the line, she has lost some, or even most, of her femininity. Conversely, a man who seeks a top job must always over-emphasize his masculine traits, and rarely reveal his feminine ones.
This demonstrates that the male left-brain archetype still dominates our culture. It does not matter what physical body you happen to have been born with, success in our culture requires the adoption of the left-brain mindset. A woman has to adopt it in order to compete equally with men. She cannot easily do so on her own terms, as a fully feminine women.
The most desperately needed place for the feminine archetype at present is the arena of international politics. Here, the absurd polarization of left-brain dominated men threatens the whole human race with potential annihilation. Absurdly simplistic analyses of extremely complex issues are trotted out, and acted upon violently, without any effort to seek to understand or empathize with the deeper issues involved. This situation is the masculine tendency for analysis and reduction carried to ridiculous extremes.
So what can we do? Decide that in your personal life, you will work to develop your right-brain qualities to their fullest extent. This can be a difficult challenge for both sexes, such is the dominance of the male archetype and the power of alphabetic literacy upon our brains. Seek to promote these qualities in your life to the fullest extent possible, and encourage others who are trying to do the same. At the same time, it should be said that people who are overly biased towards the right-brain function should develop their LEFT-brain skills. Remember that it is balance that is sought and true brain integration. Both sides have their vital parts to play. One is not better or worse than the other. They are just different.
Let us hope that this new millennium, and the raising of consciousness that all metaphysical people are hoping for, will herald the permanent reinstatement of the feminine principle in society. If this can be progressively achieved, the world must surely change beyond description. And for the better!