The Myth of the Fall and the Doctrine of Original Sin
by Anne Baring (see credits)
This is one seminar from a course of twelve devoted to exploring and healing the soul. We publish it here with permission of the author.
Read Genesis 2 and 3.
The purpose of this seminar is to explore the effect of another powerful myth on our attitude to the different aspects of the feminine principle - above all on the body.
Last time we explored the influence of the myth of Marduk and Tiamat and the profound change it reflected in human consciousness as the solar god defeated and killed the mother goddess. The Myth of the Fall belongs to the same phase of the separation from nature when the image of the Great Father replaced the Great Mother and when spirit, mind and man began to be seen as superior to nature, body and woman and when the first slowly came to be associated with good and the second with evil. lt describes the change of state from (unconscious) unity and harmony to separation and estrangement. The Myth of the Fall is one of the most powerful myths of separation and has had an immense influence on the Judeo-Christian view of life. It has largely structured the negative attitude to woman and the relationships between men and women in Christian civilisation. Its negative effects have never been recognised by the Christian Churches, let alone acknowledged by them. In my view it constitutes the shadow aspect of Christian teaching, one that has done immense harm to the human psyche. It lies at the root of our present mechanistic view of nature and matter.
The myth of the Fall has been taken literally as divine revelation and this has fostered a concept of human nature as innately flawed. The myth stands at the beginning of our cultural inheritance and so powerful is this long mythological conditioning that it is very difficult to become aware of the assumptions derived from it, let alone to challenge them. The relevance of this myth to ourselves today is that the deeper layers of the soul which for so many thousands of years had known a life of participation with creation through the image of the goddess, and through an instinctual, if unconscious perception of the wholeness and unity of life governed by divine law, were now forcibly deprived of that image. The earlier revelation where the whole of life was perceived as an epiphany of the goddess was gradually forgotten; only the mystical traditions of the three patriarchal religions kept it alive, transmitting the archaic vision to Kabbalah and Hassidism in the Judaic tradition and to Alchemy in the Christian and lslamic traditions. It is through their influence that the older image of the sacred marriage and the older holistic perception of life is re-emerging into full consciousness in many different places at the present time.
Instead of taking this myth literally and treating it as something fixed in our re1igious tradition, could we understand it historically, as the expression of a catastrophe endured at a specific time which was interpreted not unnaturally, as a divine punishment for which the goddess was made the scapegoat? And further, could we understand it psychologically, as an expression of humanitys experience of itself at the moment of initiation into a new phase of consciousness? Then it can be read as a description of the breaking of unconscious unity or fusion with life, and the perplexing awareness of duality. The guilt Adam and Eve suffer is not moral guilt, in the sense of having done something wrong, but tragic guilt, whose roots lie in the structure of existence itself, and lifes own evolutionary impulsion. The growth of consciousness entails sacrifice and loss. Guilt is the feeling that arises with the experience of loss and separation, and this myth was invented to describe it, but there is no-one to blame and nothing to be blamed for. Human nature is not intrinsically flawed or sinful. It is simply that consciousness has become separated from the root and rhizome of the soul and doesnt understand what has happened.
Since it is deeply harmful to people to tell them that they are flawed, or in a state of sin from the time they come into the world, people will unconsciously try to get rid of this intolerable burden by off-loading their sense of self-hatred and guilt by projecting their unconscious feelings in the form of negative projections onto other groups or other people. These are named and identified as something nasty that needs to be got rid of; eliminated. Hence the dark side of Christian history with its persecution of the Jews, Muslims or any group named as heretical. Even now we can see how easily negative projections can be activated in our society, as with the present demonising of people who hunt. There is no awareness of the shadow aspect of our attack - i.e. that we are blameless and the other deserves blame.
The myth of the Fall comes originally from the Old Testament and it is possible that it was first imagined after some dire catastrophe had happened to the Jewish people - possibly the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of the northern province of Israel in about 750 bce. We know that in the child, a deep conviction of guilt is formed when some trauma has been experienced in early life. We can apply this understanding to a specifc historical event which gave people the need to explain some catastrophe that had befallen them in terms of a punishment by God.
From another perspective we can also understand it as a myth about the birth of consciousness with all that this entails, for each of us repeats this human experience as we move from infancy to early childhood, moving gradually out of the containing matrix of the mother (the Garden of Eden) into separation and self-awareness and therefore duality (the Fall). If there is a sudden loss of the mother during this time, the catastrophe evokes in the child a feeling of guilt, the feeling that it must have done something wrong in order to have been punished by the loss of the person with whom it had a deep instinctual bond. (Why am I punished? I must be bad).
The birth of consciousness brings duality - awareness of oneself and the other,and awareness of having to choose between alternatives, eventually responsibility for choice. The idea that we have free-will and the possibility of choice stems from this myth so it marks an immensely important stage in the evolution of human consciousness. But it also says that we made the wrong choice, with disastrous consequences.
Thirdly, this myth can also be understood as telling the story of a state of original wholeness, which is forgotten in the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It may tell the story of our fall from one dimension of consciousness into another, from the Garden of Eden or primary soul-world into the secondary world of physical manifestation where we enter into bodies that cause us to experience suffèring and death. (I will explore this further in seminar 6 on the reunion of body, soul and spirit). But the fruit of the Garden has been ingested and continues to live on inside us as the memory of the former state of union that draws us back towards it.
Finally, it can be read as the story of the demythologising of the Great Mother or goddess into a human woman who is blamed for bringing suffering, death and evil into the world. It is possible that it was formulated by priests as a means of getting rid of the older religion by defaming the goddess (negative projections!). The title Adam gives to Eve in this myth is actually the former title of the Great Mother - Mother of All Living. The Genesis myth takes the life-affirming images of the garden, the Tree of Life and the serpent - all inseparable from each other in the mythology of the earlier era - and weaves them into a story about fear, guilt, punishment and blame. The Great Mother who once held both the living and the dead within her being now, as Eve, becomes the cause of death coming into the world. It really is a complete reversal of the former mythology.
Cranachs wonderful painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden gives the feeling of relationship between human beings, animals and the natural world that is henceforth to be lost as a result of Eves taking the apple from the serpent.
The myth of the Fall is essentially a tragic myth, a myth about what it felt like to become separate from nature, a myth about loss and the feeling of having been somehow punished or cursed. But, unfortunately, it has been taught and accepted by generation after generation as divinely revealed truth transmitting the idea that the grief and pain of the human condition came about through a sin of our primal ancestors, principally the sin of a woman, Eve, and that we have all been contaminated by that sin. It has entered the Western imagination as having something timeless to say about our nature and the nature of woman in particular. It has been responsible for the misogyny which has caused women an immense amount of suffering. As the story stands, it is Eves response to the serpent that initiates the change from unity and harmony in the divine world to separation and estrangement and introduces evil, suffering and death into the world. Yet it could also be understood as a story about the human response to the instinctive prompting (the serpent being an image of instinct) to move into a new phase in the evolution of life. This new phase entails great suffering just as the birth of a child entails suffering for both mother and child, yet it is part of the evolutionary life process which has brought us from the creative explosion of that first instant of the birth of the universe and will ultimately return us to the source from which we came. In this case, we owe a debt of gratitude to Eve for listening to the serpent and daring to take the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. (However at the time the myth was formulated, when human consciousnes was very fragile, it could not have been understood in this way).
From this perspective, there is no moral guilt. No-one did anything wrong. But there is tragic guilt in the sense of our having to carry the burden of loss and non-comprehension of what has happened during the phase of separation from nature. Understanding the myth in this new sense could help to remove the intolerable hairshirt of guilt that has been fixed on the Christian psyche by the interpretation given to the myth by the early Christian Fathers.
Their interpretation deprived the deeper layers of the soul of a life of participation with the natural world and the instinctual perception of the unity of life which had been understood for thousands of years through the image of the goddess. It is the beginning of our treating nature as something unregenerate, far removed from ourselves that we are empowered to control and dominate.
We need to go back to the Jewish commentaries on this myth to find the root of the negative projections directed at the figure of Eve in Christian writings for this was the foundation on which Christian writers built. In the Old Testament we find this key sentence: Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die. (Sirach 25:24) And there is also this typical passage from another source:
Women are evil, my children: because they have no power or strength to stand up against man, they use wiles and try to ensnare him by their charms...For indeed, the angel of God told me about them and taught me that women yield to the spirit of fornication more easily than a man does, and they lay plots in their hearts against men: by the way they adorn themselves they first lead their minds astray, and by a look they instil the poison, and then in the act itself they take them captive - for a woman cannot overcome a man by force. So shun fornication, my children, and command your wives and daughters not to adorn their heads and faces, for every woman that uses wiles of this kind has been reserved for eternal punishment. (quoted in The Myth of the Goddess - source given)
It was the belief that Eve was responsible for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden that became the justification tor making Jewish women subject to their fathers and husbands and this was carried forward into Christian culture, mainly through the influence of St. Paul. In his letters to the different churches, St. Paul instructed women to keep their heads covered, not to teach or speak in church and to be subject to their husbands in all things, for man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (I Tim. 2:8-14, Eph. 5:22-4, 1 Cor. 14:34-5, 1 Cor. 11:7-9)
These ideas naturally entered into the mainstream of Christian teaching and were responsible for an enormous amount of suffering as women and men absorbed these pernicious projections onto woman. Despite the fact that in the Gospels Jesus does not refer to original sin nor equate sexuality with sinfulness but, on the contrary, protects an adulterous woman from death by stoning, this became one of the foundation stones of Christian teaching. The myth became doctrine and deeply programmed the Christian psyche to regard human life, nature and woman in a negative light.
The most influentual of the early Christian Fathers wrote extensively about the myth of the Fall (Jerome, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine) and so did Luther and Calvin. All were convinced that the sexual instinct was an impediment to spirituality. They had a terror of what Tertullian called the uncleanliness of the womb and the parts of shame. Origen, perhaps the most brilliant and prolific writer of them all, castrated himself. St. Augustine, a most passionate and outstandingly gifted man, eventually repudiated his partner of 18 years, whom he dearly loved, and by whom he had had a son, because he believed chastity would be more pleasing to God. His moving Confessions are saturated with a deep distrust of the body and the belief that sexuality was the cause of his temptation to sin. He struggled desperately to understand where evil came from and because he believed that God must be wholly good and incorruptible he concluded that evil must come from man principally from his "corruptible" body. From this belief and the profound conviction of his own sin and guilt came the doctrine of Original Sin which has been one of the foundations stones of Christian doctrine. Sadly, through this doctrine the love of God was placed in opposition to the natural life of the body. Chastity and abstinence were believed to restore the lost sense of unity. Naturally men who thought this way would be frightened of and threatened by women.
Truly by continence are we bound together and brought back into that Unity from which we were dissipated into a plurality. (St. Augustine)
The tortuous and tortured reasoning of St. Augustine led to this kind of argument:
By a kind of divine justice the human race was handed over to the devils power, since the sin of the first man passed at birth to all who were born by the intercourse of the two sexes, and the debt of the first parents bound all their posterity. (p. 221, The Later Christian Fathers, Bettinson)
St. Augustine said that human nature was fundamentally flawed, that sexual desire and death were a punishment for Adam and Eves sin. Sexual desire is the proof of- and the penalty for- universal original sin which is transmitted like a virus through the sexual act.
Sexual union was only for the purpose of procreation, not for the joy to be experienced in the act itself. Infants were infected from the moment of their conception with the contamination of original sin; if they died unbaptised their souls could not be saved...Adams sin had corrupted the whole of nature itself and made it subject to death.
What we find in the writings of the early Christian Fathers is that woman, because of her descent from Eve, is imagined and described in the following terms:
1. As an inferior substance because Eve emerged from Adam.
2.As a secondary creation because Eve was created second, out of Adam.
3. As the ally of the serpent and the devil - because she succumbed to temptation first.
4. As the Devils Gateway (Tertullian 3rd century A.D.) through whom the devil is enabled to pursue his aims in the world through causing her to tempt men into sexual relations. (This reasoning laid the ground for the witch trials over 1000 years later)
The result was that Eve and therefore woman were equated with body, matter and with carnality (and the left hand).
Adam (who got off relatively lightly as a secondary rather than a primary sinner) and man were equated with mind and rational soul and with spirituality (and the right hand).
The image of God is in man and it is one. Women were drawn from man who has Gods jurisdiction as if he were Gods vicar because he has the image of the one God. Therefore woman is not made in Gods image. (italics mine)
No wonder it has been so difficult for women priests to gain acceptance! This belief in original sin and the profound rejection of woman, body and sexuality is still carried in the unconscious of modern man and woman and it has inflicted a devastating wound on the Christian psyche. It is a powerful thought form or complex that has not been addressed and therefore cannot be transformed.
St. Augustine immeasurably compounded a tragic situation that was already well established by the early Christian Fathers. His doctrine of original sin became the foundation stone of the Churches teaching, the necessary counterpart of its belief in redemption by Christ. It need not have been so. Contemporaries of St. Augustine taught that we were not born into a sinful state and that we had free will. If these had won the battle with St. Augustine, the history of Christianity might have been very different. For one thing, we might have been spared the polarisation of humanity into the saved and the damned and the tortures and executions that went with the belief that it was Gods will that the Church should seek out and extirpate sin wherever it could be found. No wonder people were revolted by the excesses of religion and turned with relief to science.
A modern comment on St. Augustine says: It is one of the paradoxes, and also one of the tragedies, of the western Christian tradition that the man who affirmed so strongly the presence of God in the depths of his own self...should as a dogmatic theologian have been responsible more perhaps than any other Christian writer for consecrating within the Christian world the idea of mans slavery and impotence due to the radical perversion of human nature through original sin. It has been St. Augustines theology which in the West has veiled down to the present day the full radiance of the Christian revelation of divine sonship - the full revelation of who man essentially is (Philip Sherrard, The Rape of Man and Nature, Golgonooza Press, London).
Effects of the myth
Generations of children have sat in church listening to this story. Generations have been imprinted with the idea that a woman succumbed to the temptation of the serpent and brought sin and suffering into the world and that her suffering and even her death giving birth to her children was the punishment for that original sin. They also learned that this primal woman tempted Adam to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge and thus was to blame for his fall and his being forced to toil for his living. How would this myth have influenced their view of their mothers? How did it affect the attitude of boys to girls and girls view of themselves? Would it not have set up a great conflict in their nature, making them mistrust and feel guilty about their instincts, believing that this punishing God demanded the repression of sexuality?
Generations of men and women have sat in church listening to this story, absorbing it as the word of God and divinely revealed truth. How were they affected by it? How has it programmed mans attitude to woman and womans view of herself and all the negative patterns of behaviour we still encounter from wife and child beating to paedophilia and child abuse? Conversely, what unconscious agenda might woman carry to avenge the long suffering she has endured as a result of the interpretation given to this myth?
Again, how has it affected our attitude to children? Generations of children had evil beaten out of them lest they fall into the clutches of the devil. Even in the Bulger case, there were people writing letters to the Times that children were born evil because of original sin.
As a therapist and a woman, I have been made deeply aware of the misogyny in the culture as a whole and the guilt women carry, as well as mens fear of women and womens fear of men and I have often wondered whether these stem at least in part from the psychic burden that has been carried by the Judeo-Christian psyche for 2500 years .
What comes through in Chrìstian writings is a deep sado-masochism - sadism towards woman in general (which is reflected: at the extreme end of the spectrum in pornography) and masochism because this myth led men and women to cultivate a quite unnecessary sense of sin and self-blame. It is reflected in the long-held belief that physical illness (like cancer) or catastrophe (like the loss of a child) is a punishment for sin. There is a telling passage in St Augustine (who lost his own son at age 16):
God effects some good in correcting adults when they are chastised by the sufferings and deaths of the children who are dear to them. Why should this not happen, since, when the pain is past, it is as nothing to those to whom it happened? While those on whose account it happened will either be better men if they are corrected by their temporal disasters and decide to live better lives; or else they will have no excuse when they are punished at the future judgement, if they refuse to direct their longing towards eternal life under the stress of this lifes pain." (The Later Christian Fathers,p.202.)
Imagine the effect of this belief on generations of women who lost their children in childbirlh or through illness. Or its effect on men who lost their wives or wives their husbands. Not only did they have to bear the loss itself but on top of that the guilt that their sin had brought it on them.
Can you pick up the unconscious sadism and masochism in this paragraph? One of the most important things to know about the psyche is that the first thing someone who is carrying a burden of guilt and self-blame at the unconscious level does is to off-load it onto someone else by blaming, criticising or attacking that person. If you look at the blaming that goes on at every level from the political to the marital, you will realise what a lot of guilt is held at the unconscious level. (Whenever you find yourself blaming someone, ask yourself "Where am I feeling that I am bad, not good enough etc.?" or "Where have I recently been criticised by someone or, most importantly, by myself?". This will give you awareness of how you may off-load your own unconscious guilt by criticising others).
The belief system engendered by the interpretation given to the myth of the Fall justified every kind of persecution of woman from denying her the right to any property and making her subject to her husband, to the witch trials of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries: Never in the history of humanity was woman more systematically degraded. She paid for the fall of Eve sevenfold, and the Law bore a countenance of pride and self-satisfaction, and the delusional certainty that the will of the Lord had been done. (p. 162 Zilboorg, A History of Medical Psychology)
It lies at the root of the deep fear and distrust of instinct and the repression of sexuality that has so wounded the Christian psyche. Culturally, it is partly responsible for mans fear of woman and her emotionality and for the prejudice which for centuries barred her access to education and an effective place in the world in any of the professions exercised by men, including the priesthood and the healing profession. Not surprisingly, it has also given man a good reason for mistrusting his own feelings and feelings in general.
In the religious sphere, we are confronted by the violent history of Christianity which contrasts so strongly with the teaching of its Founder who spoke of love and compassion and our sonship with God. We cannot disregard the persecution of heretics, the inquisitions, tortures, burnings, the brutal repression of any group that threatened the established one. Catholics who assume the cross and devote themselves to the extermination of heretics shall enjoy the same indulgence and privilege as those who go to the HoIy Land. (Decree of the Fourth Lateran Council 1215). We have to acknowledge the long term effects of the Crusades against the Muslim infidel which are carried right through to our own time in the catastrophe of Kosovo. We need to take account of attitudes to the body and sexuality and the belief that a life dedicated to God demanded the sacrifice of sexuality and that this sacrifice was pleasing to God.
All this can be described as pathology and all this forms part of the Hedge of Thorns which I spoke about 1ast time because these habits of behaviour are deeply embedded in a belief system that has existed for some 1700 years - since the time of the early Christian Fathers. It constitutes an unconscious collective thought form which is extremely difficult to deal with because:
1. It is deeply unconscious and
2. The myth is still being carried wherever Christianity is carried.
The greatest sickness in Christian culture has been the fear of sexuality, the denigration and denial of the ecstatic, the repression of delight in life, and the devaluation and fear of women. The greatest mistake in Christian teaching has been the belief that in order to cultivate the soul we had to neglect the body and that the body and matter were not part of spirit. The body has suffered terribly from being feared and despised and, in the name of the spiritual life, made to endure every kind of misery from starvation to flagellation and the wearing of hair shirts.
I think the intense pre-occupation with sexuality today is a compensation for the 2500 year (in the Old Testament) old repression of it due mainly to the belief that original sin was transmitted through the sexual act. The long repression of instinct together with the diminishing influence of the Church has led in this century to the return of the repressed, in the swing to sexual excess and the rejection of any form of moral authority. Sadly, there has been no insight into or understanding of why this has happened and why it may have been necessary in order to free the psyche from a deep negative complex. Because sexuality was split off from the sacred, it has never been brought into relationship with spirit. It therefore still has to function at an unconscious level and is still entangled with the old guilt complex and the compensation to it. Hence the sexual compulsions, pornography and sadistic fantasies as well as the lack of sexual responsibility that have taken possession of our culture and are endangering our children.
To repeat, one of the effects of the repression of the sexual instinct is the desire to punish or injure others. The outraged instinct surfaces as an uncontrollable compulsion of some kind, as in paedophilia or child abuse (which may also be rooted in physical abuse in the abusers childhood).
Another effect of the repression of the emotions and the feelings is that they have never had a chance to develop properly. The emphasis on intellect and mind has left the soul without a voice. The instinctual, feeling aspect of human nature has been devalued, equated with what is primitive, feminine and non-rational. As a result peoples feelings tend to spill over uncontrollably in all kinds of life situations. Many a woman has said to me, I dont dare speak in case I lose control and cant remember what I want to say." Fear of humiliation and ridicule has made it difficult for women to speak up and speak out, to speak in public, to be able to articulate their feelings. There is a long way still to go. And for men it is even more difficult since feelings are so threatening to them and they tend to run away into the safety of the intellect where they can be in control. Not surprisingly, women have to fight an internal critical voice which comments disparagingly on what they are doing. Until they learn to become aware of this voice, they may fall victim to it in the same way that a helpless animal falls victim to a predator.
The religions of the last two and a half thousand years, both Eastern and Western, have put the emphasis of their teaching on the rejection of human existence on earth, the rejection the body and natural instincts; the rejection of woman. They have driven a wedge between spiritual life and human life and split the human organism into two irreconcilable parts, mind and body, the controller and the controlled, the part that aspired to be spiritual and the part that was considered to stand in the way of spirituality and that was sacrificed to whatever was conceived necessary to reach the goal of spiritual attainment or enlightenment. Spirit and body were set against each other. Woman suffered terribly because she was identified with body and believed to be (and believed herself to be) the main impediment between man and God. The body suffered because it was subjugated and punished in the attempt to root out desire and delight in life. The mortification of the flesh became a phrase dear to ascetics. Woman could not be spiritual unless she renounced the world of the flesh and became a nun. The love of her family, the care of her home, the daily routine of preparing meals, the infinite services she rendered the community and her extended family were not considered spiritual but were simply part of her duty as a wife and mother.
No-one can be blamed for all this since, as Jesus said, we know not what we do. But I feel a deep anger when I think of all this long rejection and suffering and I hope this seminar has gone some way to heal it and to affirm womans value and her deep spirituality in the care and compassion and love she has demonstrated for thousands of years. To reject the love of life, the enjoyment of life, the experience of a close relationship and parenthood, the richness, challenge and marvel of life seems to me to be a negation of spirituality. Spirituality is more a rich embrace of everything that life brings, a celebration of the miraculous gift of incarnation on this planet.
To end, I would like to do a meditation on the body, to restore to it its value and its preciousness as the physical manifestation of the soul and the connecting link between nature and spirit:
Imagine your body as a vessel made of whatever material you like.
Thank it for everything it has done for you in your life, past and present.
Say to it that you are sorry it was made to suffer in the past and that you will take great care of it in future. Tell it that you love it and feel that love overflowing from your heart into every part of it.
See it as the connecting link between invisible spirit and the environment all round you: the earth, the trees, the plants and flowers, the food you eat, all the things you make with the raw materials of life.
See it made of the finest transparent substance, like a crystal or a jewel or series of jewels. See that jewel-like body glowing with light that radiates beyond itself.
|Body, Sex & Gender Section Survey|
|The Myth of the Fall|
|Eve in Christian tradition|
|Women in Church law|
|Male & Female bodies|
|Violence against women|
|Want to support our campaign for women priests?|
This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.
You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.
Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.