Leonard Shlain on How the Alphabet Triggered Patriarchy and Consequently, Madness

And what today’s ‘civilization of the image’ is doing to rewire our brains and restructure gender dynamics 


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As a hoarder of images and words, I was immediately drawn to Leonard Shlain’s book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess – a bold exploration into the interplay between words and images throughout history, and their subsequent impact on our brain’s wiring. Alluding to Marshall McLuhan’s observation that ‘the medium is the message’, Shlain elaborates with fierce conviction about how the means of communication of a civilisation actually moulds it more than the content of the communication.

He does so by tracing the birth of the alphabet and its effect on civilizations as they adopted it over time. The startling observation he makes is that alphabet literacy almost always results, at first, in madness – madness of the kind that leads to the rise of hierarchical structures based on dominance and imperialism; madness that lends diminishing roles to women in society and replaces the archaic goddesses with male gods and hence the nurturers with the warriors. He attributes these to changing dominance patterns in the two hemispheres of our brains.



The 22,000-year-old Venus of Laussel, discovered in a cave of Southern France, is representative of the mother figures found throughout the world in both present-day and archaic preliterate cultures.


While the left hemisphere is predominantly the realm of speech and action, based on masculine traits likes linearity and abstraction; the right hemisphere is the realm of ‘being’, marked by a visio-spatial perception of the world in a holistic feminine manner. Shlain argues eloquently that the left hemisphere is largely the realm of the word, and the right hemisphere that of the image. Based on this, we understand that when the alphabet gets introduced into any human civilisation, it leads to the rapid emerging predominance of the left hemisphere over the right – primarily owing to the linear act of reading or writing. When this happens, our gestaltic perceptions of reality brought on by the nurturing and emotional side of feminine being begin to be dominated by masculine authoritative traits. Hence, an increase in the age of reason is seen to coincide almost directly with an age of madness, .

To demonstrate this influence that the script of a period has had on its culture, Shlain employs a method of ‘competitive plausibility’. For instance, Ancient Egyptian society has long been noted for the heightened position it lent women in its society. This can be directly contrasted with the culture of the Mesopotamians, the very foundation of whose religions began with a violent story of the murder of Goddess Tiamat by the God Marduk, to create the universe. A notable difference between these two civilizations, is in fact their form of script. The Egyptians used hieroglyphs for writing, which essentially requires the simultaneous perception of images. On the other hand, the cuneiform used by the Mesopotamians relies on a linearity of script.



Statue of a loving Egyptian family


It is after this point in time, with the advent of literacy, that one notices a rise in three highly abstract conditions in the history of mankind: the alphabet, monotheism and codified law.  And abstractness, as we know it, belongs in the realm of the left hemisphere.

And what of the Asian cultures? One excellent example of the sense of wholesomeness that much of Asian culture has been based on can be seen in the Chinese script. Being of a vertical nature, the script calls forth a holistic range of interconnections since vertical reading necessitates this (think, for example, of reading lists). Chinese script is pictographic and the individual ‘vocables’ gain meaning only in the context of the characters they are placed beside. Chinese writing also emphasises on form (the equivalent of image) through its beautiful calligraphic efforts, while western script has always been more centred on the content rather than the form, which makes it more abstract.

To illustrate the pictorial element in Chinese script, consider the wonderful sketch below by German pedagogue Hugo Kuekelhaus, which shows how beautifully the forms of Chinese words portray their meaning. He says that this pictorial approach may have evolved as an ‘effective barrier against a tendency towards abstraction tempting Westerners so much.’


Sketch by Hugo Kuekelhaus, Inhuman Architecture (1972)


  • The Human: The sign represents a wanderer, someone walking. We meet. We continue walking.
  • Sky: The sign represents a person who takes the revered higher (being) down and testifies to it in the centre of one’s body.
  • Small: The sign represents the subtle roots of a plant germinating in the soil. The small is the big in the state of germination.
  • Woman: The sign probably developed from the shape of a person carrying a baby on the back
  • Roof: That which protects from above
  • Peace: A woman under a roof
  • You: A person holding a roof above my germinating possibilities


Shlain makes wide sweeping hypotheses regarding the changing roles that word and image have had in shaping our brains, concluding with how the left hemispheric rise of reason, and consequent ‘madness’, has resulted in the catastrophic World Wars. On the scale of the architectural profession, we might equally surmise that it resulted in the kind of ‘madness’ that, as Nikos Salingaros fervently argues in his ‘unified architectural theory’, propelled the Modernists to destroy 2000 years of knowledge at one shot, in favour of left-hemispheric abstraction.

However, one observes a gradual shift in consciousness after this onslaught of madness in the world at large. Happening parallel to this shift in consciousness, was the emergence of the two most important inventions post the heightened madness of the World War II – photography and electromagnetism (which brought about the invention of televisions). These widely promulgated what Roland Barthes called, ‘the civilization of the image’. For the first time, people could see the vastness and wholesomeness of the earth as viewed from space, or the mushroom cloud of the devastating atom bomb, and feel witness to the magnitude of these events.



Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, taken by Charles Levy.



The profusion of images brought on by the television over the next few decades quite possibly did a lot to re-wire our brains into making interconnections between the two hemispheres again (regardless of the questionable content that the medium of the television may carry). The computer further enhanced this process by creating an active dialogue between the brain and a screen of images – by necessitating vertical scrolling, the simultaneous use of both hands to type, and the proliferation of icons of representation (images) over text.

An altogether fascinating read, Shlain’s book is commendable for the sheer magnitude of the idea it puts forth and the breadth of research it draws upon to make parallels between various events in time. As an advocate for the power of the written word myself, I was captivated by this narrative on the potentially negative impacts of too much rational thought brought about by literacy. As William Irwin Thompson says,


Even a positive thing casts a shadow… its unique excellence is at the same time its tragic flaw.


Today, conversely, the profusion of images has become a pertinent topic of discussion, with the likes of Juhani Pallasmaa challenging the tyranny of the ‘optical regime’, fearing that our ‘uniquely human gift of imagination’ is threatened by today’s ‘over-abundance of images’. The exploitative use of imagery by media might possibly be colonising our mental landscapes, but as Shlain suggests, it is parallelly re-wiring the two hemispheres of our brains. Ironically, the image today is usurping the word (for less people are reading!), just as the alphabet once usurped the image (and hence the goddess)!


Jiří Kolář, Zucchero nero, 1963. Pallasmaa describes the artist’s ‘poetic imagery’ as being ‘suspended between visual and verbal, words and pictures, sentences and objects’.


The importance, in the light of this neurological event, of ‘the embodied image’ – the kind of poetic image that can evoke emotional responses from the viewer – which is primarily the role of great art — becomes evermore important. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa presents his argument towards this end in his wonderful book The Embodied Image, as such images can effectively take us back to that state of experiential being that has vastly been lost amongst the tide of abstract and impoverished images that engulf us today. One begins contemplating on the role of professions like architecture, that stand astride the space between objectivity and subjectivity, between science and art – essentially, between the two hemispheres of the brain – in catalysing such a transformation of the human species into a more emotional and connected species.

Complement this read with Iain Mcgilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary‘ on this same subject of the divided brain and the making of the western world. For some self-explorations into word-image interplay, browse through Alan Fletcher’s delightful compendium ‘The Art of Looking Sideways’ that gathers a lifetime of carefully curated drawings and thoughts, or watch the endearing film ‘Words and Pictures’.

Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s ‘Stroke of Insight’ into the wonders of the right hemisphere is equally unmissable, here presented in her TED talk:


So who are we? We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.



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Niharika Sanyal


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