The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. Leonard Shlain. Viking.

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image Book Cover The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image
Leonard Shlain
September 1, 1998

In this groundbreaking book, Leonard Shlain, author of the bestselling Art & Physics, proposes that alphabetic literacy – the process of reading itself – fundamentally rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture, history, and religion.

Making remarkable connections across a wide range of subjects including brain anatomy and function, anthropology, history, and religion, Shlain argues that, with the advent of literacy, the very act of reading an alphabet reinforced the brain’s left hemisphere – linear, abstract, predominantly masculine – at the expense of the right – holistic, concrete, visual, feminine. This shift upset the balance between men and women, and initiated the disappearance of goddesses, the importance of images, the decline of women social and political status, and a long reign of patriarchy and misogyny.

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess tracks the correlations between the rise and fall of literacy and the changing status of women in society, mythology, and religion throughout European history, and in other cultures as well. It contrasts the oral, right-brain teachings of Socrates, Christ, and the Buddha with the hierarchical and sexist forms that evolved when their spoken words were committed to writing. Marianism, chivalry, and courtly love arose during the illiterate European Dark Ages, and plummeted with the invention of the printing press and the return of literacy. The Protestant attack on the Virgin Mary and all holy images followed, as did ferocious religious wars and neurotic witch hunts. The benefits of literacy are obvious; this gripping narrative explores the dark side, tallying its previously unrecognized costs.

Shlain goes on to describe a colossal shift he calls the iconic revolution, now underway, that began in the nineteenth century: the return of the image. The invention of photography and the discovery of electromagnetism have brought us film, television, video, computers, advertising, graphics – and a shift from the dominance of the left hemisphere to reassertion of the right. Image information has gradually been superseding print information, and in the resulting social revolution women have benefited a society shifts to embrace feminine values. Shlain foresees that increasing reliance on holistic image information will move culture toward an equilibrium between left and right hemispheres, between masculine and feminine – between word and image.

A provocative, disturbing, and yet inspiring read, this book is filled with startling historical anecdotes and compelling ideas. It is a paradigm-shattering work that will transform your view of history and the mind.

Leonard Shlain is the author of Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light. He has written for many publications, and lectures widely. He is the chief of laparoscopic surgery at California Medical Center in San Francisco. He lives and writes in Mill Valley. His E-mail address is The book’s website is