By Robert M. Macrae
In January 2020, weeks before COVID, I was invited to speak at a rally, Global Call for Peace, to oppose the threat of war emerging from deteriorating US-Iranian relationships. The event was ecumenical, hosted at a United Church of Canada, with prayers by an Anglican priest and members of the local mosque, and participation by the USCC community. It was soul-lifting, especially the USCC’s glorious singing.
War is horrifically destructive. Its effects span generations. War enriches an insatiable, amoral, multi-billion dollar arms industry at the expense of the weaker and more vulnerable. Collectively, against great odds, we must build trust across cultures, and learn to settle disputes non-violently.
I discussed the massive, annual, global military budgets – US$1914 billion in 2019 – as lost economic opportunities. One-third could end all causes for war for all of humanity: feed the starving, deliver healthcare, house the homeless, provide clean water, educate every child, energize humanity from renewable sources, retire debt for developing countries, stabilize our population, preserve cropland, restore damaged ecosystems, stop acid rain, reverse global warming, remove landmines, accommodate global refugees, dismantle and eliminate nuclear weapons, build and strengthen democracy.
I asked if I was crazy, naïve or hopelessly idealistic to believe war is avoidable and unnecessary. I wondered why humanity had not chosen the far-lower cost, infinitely more humane option, of peace?
Afterwards, we gathered for conversation. An attendee suggested I read The Chalice and the Blade (1987) by Riane Eisler. “Stay crazy,” he told me with an elfin chuckle, “and keep asking why seeking peace seems crazy, naïve or hopelessly idealistic.”
He reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s advice, “In this more and more closely interconnected world, we must learn to tolerate each other. If we are to live together and not die together, we must learn charity and tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
I borrowed a copy of Eisler’s book and read it. The Chalice and the Blade explains what we can learn from Neolithic societies. Neolithic people lack written histories, but we can learn from the stories embedded in their art.
Eisler considers art to be a symbolic expression of how people experience and shape reality. When we let Neolithic art speak, without projecting our biases onto it, a fascinating and hopeful story unfolds.
Neolithic art is free of images idealizing armed might, cruelty and violence-based power. There are no depictions of noble warriors, battle scenes or signs of war glorified by heroic conquerors dragging chained captives, evidence of slavery or the spoils of conquest.
Neolithic societies were egalitarian and matrilineal. Woman held power, as heads of clans, as priestesses and in other important roles. Eisler emphasizes that women did not dominate Neolithic societies, rather women and men worked together in equal partnership for the common good.
What is common in Neolithic art is a diverse array of symbols from nature, reflecting an awe and wonder of the beauty and mystery of life. The Goddess, universal in Neolithic art, is represented as: Maiden; Ancestress; Creatrix; Lady of the waters, the birds and the underworld; the divine Mother cradling her equally divine child in her arms. She is the Chalice containing the miracle of birth and the power to transform death into life through nature’s perpetual cycle of regeneration.
The Neolithic message is not to conquer, pillage and loot, but to cultivate the earth and provide the material and spiritual wherewithal for life with dignity. Neolithic art expresses the view that the primary function of the universe is not to exact obedience, punish and destroy, but to give.
Eisler argues that until western societies abandon hierarchical, unequal, male-dominated societies founded on acquisition and consumption far beyond our needs, in exchange for equality and sharing the earth’s resources sustainably and equitably, war and its crushing toll will continue without end.
War, concludes Eisler, is not the rule. It reflects a recent arrest and reversal in social development. Humanity is currently locked in infantilism, fascinated with bobbles, squabbling over toys. With such insight, a return to the peaceful, egalitarian garden of our Neolithic forbearers is neither crazy nor naïve. It’s entirely possible.
Robert Macrae is an Environmental Technology instructor from Castlegar, B.C.