Thompson and Coelho

The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light; Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture by William Irwin Thompson (St. Martin’s Press, 1996, second edition with a Preface added to the original 1981 edition).

With a short Addendum on Paulo Coelho's The Winner Stands Alone (HarperCollins 2008)

(With an addition made on March 20,2010)

A book on the origins of religion as well as a book with a common few words in its title (The Lightness of Being) but otherwise unrelated, both reminded me of this Thompson book.  So I found the later edition in the local library and re-read large portions of it.  

I wanted to see why Thompson's book stuck in my mind so long, and why I liked it so much in the mid-1980s. That was the time when I was seriously into myth and history to see where patriarchy came from. Why would I care? I began to see that patriarchy was not something I would enjoy had I been born a woman.

I also was in the process of distancing myself from a religion that taught that patriarchy was “the Divine Order.” I also saw that the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment by this same religion was less an effort to protect women than it was an effort to protect patriarchy, which meant it was an effort to protect the “patriarchal order” or polygyny (plural wives), which is no longer practiced in this religion but still firmly believed in as an eternal reality. God is a perfected man with a myriad of wives in this religion, so protecting the patriarchal divine order was protecting God! (That’s all I’ll say on the topic here, elsewhere I have already said more.)

No wonder I loved this book. Its history of patriarchy showed it to have been a man-made order that took some time to take hold, and has unbalanced human societies in the past and does so even in the present. Thompson sees patriarchy as a contributor to the appalling situation the world’s societies seem to be heading toward in the present.

Did patriarchy displace matriarchy? No, there is no sound evidence for a true matriarchy (meaning something just like patriarchy but with women in charge) to ever have existed.

There were, and are, matrilineal societies, of course, but they ought not to be confused with matriarchy. After all, Judaism is considered to be established through the maternal line, but it is not at all matriarchal. Patriarchy crept up as labors began to be more and more divided between men and women, but that is a total oversimplification.

Thompson was not the only one I read on this subject. Among the books I read were Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, which I did not like, and Gerda Lerner’s A History of Patriarchy  which I loved even more than Thompson’s book.

Why did I not like Stone’s book? It was too glib, too easy. In one place I was offended where she suggested the practice of women serving in the ancient temple as priestesses proved a matriarchal society existed. She did not go into any details on the nature of that temple service even though her source, Herodotus, did. If you were a young woman in this society, you had to go to the temple and be a temporary priestess until you had offered your virginity to the gods. The god would be represented by a young man doing the same type of service.

Do you think you might be thrilled? It was the man who sought out his object of momentary desire, and the females that lacked sex-appeal were used by the older priests who supervised these proceedings along with older priestesses.

These older priests would, out of pity, initiate the less desirable girls, as a humane gesture to allow them to go home and resume their lives.

What about an ugly young man? Men had picking rights. Not matriarchy, not even close.

Thompson mentions Stone on page xii but says nothing either positive or negative about her work, just that he was severely criticized for not using it. I stopped reading Stone when I hit that temple priestess story as evidence for patriarchy. Was that petty of me? Sure.

Thompson delighted me, this time around, by bashing an author I myself bashed on this website, Julian Jaynes (last couple of paragrphs only). Since I read Thompson before I read Jaynes, I did not recall paying attention to his opinions of Jaynes before. Thompson’s comments are quite rude (hence quite enjoyable) actually:

On pages 88-89 Thompson is critical of Jaynes’ model for the development of language. Just a healthy disagreement between two specialists? Nope, on page 94 Thompson opines that: “The science of Julian Jaynes is disguised science fiction; the science fiction of Arthur C Clarke is disguised Gnostic mythology.”

It gets even nastier on page 136 where Thompson says Jaynes’ science is based on “psychohistorical hallucinations.” On page 196 Thompson suggests the Epic of Gilgamesh is a story written by self-conscious beings exploring “the dilemma of consciousness” about a thousand years before Jaynes says awareness of consciousness existed in humans. That is a point I made long ago on this website’s critique of Jaynes.

But there is more to Thompson than his Jaynes-bashing. On the subject of matriarchy’s existence he has this to say (pp. 149-150):

The difficulty is that when a man thinks of a matriarchy, he thinks of a patriarchy with women in the place of men; he does not stop to consider that matriarchy may be a complete mirror-image. Where patriarchy establishes law, matriarchy establishes custom; where patriarchy establishes military power, matriarchy establishes religious authority; where patriarchy encourages the aresteia of the individual warrior, matriarchy encourages the tradition-bound cohesion of the collective. . . .

I do believe that Çatal Hüyük was a matriarchy, but I do not see a matriarchy as an “Amazon state.” City-states and standing armies are to come later; what we see at Çatal Hüyük is a ceremonial center, a matrilineal culture in which exists an organized class of priestesses and priests because it is a center for the old Paleolithic religion. At Çatal Hüyük we have moved from the diffused spirituality of hunters and gatherers to the beginnings of organized religion and the emergence of a priesthood. The rule in this Neolithic town of shrines is not by force and masculine law, but by custom. . . . Custom, the collective, and a religion of some twenty thousand years of tradition is the force that holds Çatal Hüyük together. It is a question not of masculine political power, but of feminine cultural authority.

Thompson then discusses the emergence of patriarchy as something made possible by and caused by female successes in agricultural production, creating a surplus, making larger villages –urbanization- possible and at the same time making the contributions and products of the male hunters less important. Some men adapted by becoming traders in this changing society, but others resisted this realignment of the male role in society and clung to their hunting mystique, a sort of religious need to commune with the animal world and separate from women while practicing this ‘religion.’

Addition: a (female) reader of this review objected to the above statement's suggestion that patriarchy was caused by women, that it was their fault. Being a male myself, I did not see it that way.  I saw it as a natural marginalization of the hunting contributions of men through the development of technology (agriculture, growing both plants and domesticated animals) that made hunting no longer really necessary to group survival.  Men reacted to their technological marginalization by developing their own religion, centered around the sacred hunt, giving them enhanced ceremonial importance.  The new religion was a male-God dominated religion (Thompson cites some ancient words by men making fun of the female gods still being worshipped by women, calling them powerless compared to their pantheon).  This was the beginning of the eclipse of the Great Goddess religion that had heretofore dominated with a priesthood of both men and women and a pantheon with both male and female gods and goddesses, but both were woman dominated.  As above, so below, and with the takeover of the new male-centered religion came its imitation in social structures: men in charge at all levels, patriarchy.

BUT, according to 'real' historians this whole discussion is BOGUS.  In A History of Women (I) From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints (Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Ed., BelknapHarvard, 1992), pages 36-38 discuss why the existence of a Great Goddess religion is a persistent myth, a very persistent one, but a fantasy nonetheless.  Pantheons have always had both male and female gods.  The book's entire 10th chapter is on the creation of a distant-past-matriarchy myth. Pages 458-463 are especially instructive and result in these conclusionary sentences regarding scholars (led by the 19th century Swiss 'jurist' named Bachofen) who have confused myth with history and therefore unjustifiably see a matriarchy in the distant past:

Do I find this convincing, ought I to knock Thompson down as a provider of reliable historical insight?  Maybe, but I am still impressed by Thompson's pointing out the time of the start of walled cities, Çatal Hüyük was a city with no evidence of having been sacked and burned, while a thousand years later Hacilar II was repeatedly sacked and burned (see next paragraph).  This was about the time that we have evidence for organized armies and what appear to be more male-centered religions and political systems.  In other words, no, I still see value in Thompson's insights. End of Addition.

A new way of keeping the skills of the hunter alive also developed: it had always been practiced in a limited way but now became a larger enterprise: warfare. As cities developed the raiding of them for slaves, women and food and materials became a more difficult and larger enterprise, and by 5250 BC Thompson notes that the town of Hacilar II showed evidence of repeated sacking and burning by invaders. Such things are not seen in the older layers of Çatal Hüyük, which dated from about 9,000 to about 6,500 BC (page 150). By 4,000 BC civilization had been born, and according to Thompson (page 156):

Man cut the umbilical cord to the Great Mother with a sword, and the sword has been hanging over his head ever since.

After this, the myths of subsequent civilizations are gone through, and remnants from the old Paleolithic religion are pointed out. In a discussion of the myths of Egyptian religion he has this to say about Seth, a night hunter and thus a reflection of beliefs from the time before civilization. Seth cuts Osiris’s body into pieces (pp. 232-233):

Seth not only kills the spirit by entrapping it in space and time, but he also dismembers it into the fragmentary bits that are the incarnations of little personalities that live their fragmentary life one after the other in the sublunary world. To gather up the bits and pieces of our lives on the astral plane and fuse them into one integral being who sees beyond the limits of the life of one ego is the task for both Isis and Osiris.

Somehow this notion reminded me of Rumi who said that we were but drops destined to be reunited with the ocean from whence we came. But if your losing your conscious self into the universal consciousness bothers you, don’t worry because from that ocean also come new drops. (Click here to read what Rumi really said in my favorite Rumi poem, just go to near the end of this treatise on the difficulties in translating Rumi.)

Thompson also has a favorite Rumi poem and it is a variant on my favorite Rumi poem (page 92):

Here, for example, is the great Islamic saint and poet, Lalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) on “the evolution of man:”

First he appeared in the class of inorganic things,

Next he passes therefrom into that of plants.

For years he lives as one of the plants,

Remembering nought of his organic state so different;

And when he passed from the vegetative state to the animal state

He had no remembrance of his state as a plant,

Except the inclination he felt to the world of plants,

Especially at the time of spring and sweet flowers . . .


Again, the great Creator, as you know,

Drew man out of the animal into the human state.

Thus man passed from one order of nature to another,

Till he became wise and knowing and strong as he is now.

Of his first souls he has now no remembrance,

And he will again be changed from his present soul.

On page 93 Thompson indicates a reason to worry over the extinction of species: it could affect our wholeness in some future state of being? [May NOT have been Thompson’s interpretation of what he wrote, but it is a plausible interpretation I think.]

For the theosophist, the soul descending into the physical plane is something like a space capsule in re-entry: as consciousness descends, various excretions of consciousness spark and peel off. In this mythic tradition, animals are archaic excretions of human consciousness, and when humanity reascends into the spiritual realms, these projections will be reabsorbed and animals will disappear. The exoteric reflection of this doctrine is that as our technological society develops, it is eliminating countless species of animals at an astonishingly rapid rate.

I enjoyed Thompson on pages 225-228 skewering intellectual giants who at the same time are spiritually undeveloped. He calls them dangerous, likely to seek power and glory without compassion, and as being capable of leading religious warfare because they do not grasp the esoteric meaning of their own religion. They are generally not fully developed as humans but instead are just as much an “abnormality” in the exoteric sense as competitive weightlifters are in the physical sense. [See the Addendum below for more on this topic.]

Thompson says that the truly enlightened person does not isolate him or her self from humanity but instead serves and teaches humanity. Good. Hermits are not persons he admires.

He explains the title of the book on page 243 after recapitulating the universal esoteric belief in the falling of consciousness into matter and its eventual return to the place from whence it came.

Thompson’s book is very good. I like it still. But I have now read enough in this genre, and have experienced enough in this life on both the intellectual and spiritual planes, to now feel that I understand it. When I first read it in the 1980s I liked it because it was an enigmatic new revelation from cover to cover in terms of the history of societies, of our civilization, of the relations of the sexes, of the make-up of the human brain and its relation to the spiritual dimensions of the being human, and so forth. Re-reading much of it now reminds me that I have come a long way on my own path of discovery regarding my own nature: I understand this book, it is no longer an enigma to me.


Insight gained from reading Thompson’s The Time For Falling
Bodies to Take to Light
 helped in reading Paulo Coelho’s The Winner Stands Alone (HarperCollins,2008)

Thompson’s recipe for a dictator or other power-hungry type who cares next to nothing about his fellow humans is caricature of a figure with a huge intellect, a vast amount of knowledge, a superficial understanding of a religion, and significant resources. He suggests such a person is dangerous and capable of killing in the name of his religion.

This reminded me of the main protagonist in Paulo Coelho’s latest book The Winner Stands Alone. I was excited to find this book in the bookshop at the United Nations complex in Vienna, so I bought and read it. But although the story held my interest, it is a well told tale, I was really quite disappointed by this Coelho book.

Why? Usually I find some nugget in his books that serves as a lasting inspiration. Not this time.

The book describes a brilliant man, corporately successful, dehumanized by having been a military assassin in war, and superficially acquainted with the basic teachings, and the pantheon, of his own religion. He has all he could ever use in terms of money and large toys, including personal aircraft and pilots at his beck and call, but he is wholly consumed by a desire to regain one thing he once had, but lost. He kills in an attempt to get it back. Whether he succeeds or fails is for you to figure out by reading the book.

Although it is an interesting murder mystery, and well told, it taught me little about the human condition except that there is a super-rich, super-influential class that is easily stereotyped and described in terms of extravagant consumerist desires and habits. Coelho is ruthless in his description of these people who are part of what he calls the “superclass.”  

I was uncomfortable with Coelho’s denigrating description, caricaturing, of such people. Their lives could not possibly be as empty and superficial as he describes them.

So being taught how to kill surreptitiously in an armed conflict situation, mixed with superficial religious beliefs, and with lots of fiscal resources, makes for a dangerous, potentially sociopathic person? That is what Thompson said also!

So this is where I find my one nugget of insight. The person Coelho describes has all the attributes that Thompson warns about. Thompson describes the person who is intellectually gifted, has amassed great stores of knowledge and considerable worldly goods, who has an outwardly religious veneer but no personal spiritual depth, as a potentially lethal sociopath. OK.

One may argue that Coelho’s protagonist is not a superficial religious believer. In his mind he is in touch with heavenly beings, he is guided and comforted by the messages he receives from them, and he knows there is an afterlife. But my response would be that his religious understanding, as it is reflected in what he learns from his unearthly sources, is superficial and reflects the most exoteric and self-aggrandizing interpretation of the Christian religion possible. If you want to argue this point, of course you will first have to read Coelho’s book.

Do I recommend Thompson’s Book? Yes. Do I recommend Coelho’s book? It pains me to say no, so I will instead give a 'qualified’ answer. If you like just a good, though macabre, murder mystery, then The Winner Stands Alone  is for you.  If you are looking for spiritual insight or insight into the human condition that you can contemplate and use, I would recommend almost any Coelho book except this one. Coelho is a great story teller. He usually has some either overt or covert spiritual insight woven into his story.  

Maybe if you are one of the ‘superclass’ and need a serious warning about the dangers of your superficial lifestyle, this book can save your life!.  But if you are a lowly peasant like me you won't be able to relate with the key people in this story. Then it is just a good story, and that is all.

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