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Eve: the Mother of All Living by Anne Baring

Eve: the Mother of All Living

by Anne Baring (see credits) and Jules Cashford (see credits)

Chapter 13a from The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 486-513; copyright © Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, 1991. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.

There was a muddy centre before we breathed.
There was a myth before the myth began,
Venerable and articulate and complete.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

Wallace Stevens

The myth of Eve (read the biblical account here) inaugurates a new kind of creation myth, one that appears, from the perspective of earlier myths, to bear the distinctive mark of the Iron Age. Yet the myth has entered the Western imagination as having something timeless to say about the nature of creation and the nature of the human being, particularly the woman. In the story it is Eve’s actions that initiate the change of state from unity and harmony with the divine to separation and estrangement, which, in turn, initiates the specifically human condition of birth and death in time. The figure of Eve, however, has been removed from the framework of the myth, and the myth has been removed from its local and historical context and held up as an eternal statement, as though, indeed, it had actually been written by God and not by somebody human. Later Christian commentators interpreting the myth literally, generalized from the ‘sin of Eve’ to the character of woman, which has had serious and far-reaching implications for related attitudes to matter, earth and nature as the rejected feminine principle. On the one hand, putting the myth back into its historic context, what emerges is a different story: the demythologizing of the goddess into a human woman. On the other hand, going beyond history into art and reading the myth symbolically, beyond theologies of gender this story of exile becomes a story of the birth of human consciousness.

In Christian doctrine, however, this story of exile is known as the ‘Fall’, a term suggestive of the fall of leaves from their trees in autumn the first sign of approaching winter; and for humanity also the ‘Fall" read as the entry of death, or awareness of death, into the world. What is missing from the analogy is that the leaf falls seasonally when the life force of the tree withdraws into itself for renewal, disclosing the next year’s bud beneath, whereas humanity is deemed guilty for the ending of its life on earth, and may not reach for the fruit of the ‘Tree of Life’ lest, in the words of Yahweh, it ‘live for ever'.

As with all myths of the beginning of historical time, this is one that explores human response to toil, sickness, ageing and death - the unaccountable ending of that time. But in earlier myths a reflection on the mystery of death leads to further reflection on the mystery of life, and still further to the ultimate mystery of the source of being beyond both life and death, thereby leading the human heart to its own source beyond the opposites of time and eternity. The Genesis myth is unique in that it takes the life-affirming images of all the myths before it - the garden, the four rivers, the Tree of Life, the serpent and the world parents - and makes of them an occasion not of joy and wonder, but of fear, guilt. punishment and blame. And what or who is blamed but precisely the woman and the serpent, incarnations, previously, of the goddess and her power, bestowers then not of death but of life eternal.

As we have seen in the mythologies of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece the tree, with the serpent beside or entwined around it, was the Tree of Life of the Great Mother Goddess, and the serpent was her manifest form in time, ever dying and ever renewed like the moon, which slips from its shadow as the serpent slips from its skin. On either side of this World Tree, the Axis Mundi, sit or stand, in numerous works of art, the female and male incarnations of this central mystery, the goddess herself in recognizable human form and her consort, who, like the serpent and the moon, dies her lover and is reborn her son, in a ritual that enacts the continuing process underlying the visible cycles of life an death.

Figure 1. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

Both Figures 1 and 2 show a female and a male figure, a central tree and a serpent, yet their meanings are completely different. In Figure 1 the seated female is the Bronze Age Sumerian Mother Goddess and the serpent who coils upright behind her is the image of her regenerative power. On the other side of the tree, in identical posture, sits her son-lover, called ‘Son of the Abyss: Lord of the Tree of Life’, whose role as fertilizing the source of life is given in the bull’s horns upon his head. Since the serpent and the bull, on opposite sides of the seal, are both images of the living and dying manifestation of the goddess, a true mirror-image is created of the unification of opposites in a single vision. Further, both goddess and son-lover gesture with outstretched hand towards the hanging fruits of the Tree of Life, offering the gifts of immortality and enlightenment together - she, immortality, and he, enlightenment. Here is the perennial story of the sacred marriage of zoe and bios, enacted under many guises - Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Tammuz, Isis and Osiris, Aphrodite and Adonis, Cybele and Attis - and all of them images of reconciliation and affirmation.

Figure 2. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

In Figure 2 the female on the left, into whose eyes the serpent gazes, is no longer a goddess but a mortal woman, born from the body of the man facing her and now the daughter and bride not even of a father god but of a mortal man. Correspondingly, the man, Adam, no longer wears the horned crown of renewal, but gazes fearfully at his wife’s liaison with the serpent, and holds his hand to his ear as though anticipating the dreadful Word of Yahweh’s curse. The hand of the woman, for she has not yet been named touches the mouth of the serpent as though, prophetically, she were unable to draw herself away from her act of betraying into death the human race not yet born from her. All that remains of the goddess who was once indeed ‘Mother of All Living’ is the name she receives only when its sacred meaning has become profane. Yet Adam’s own name comes from the name for Earth, Adamah, once the body of the mother goddess in whose substance all creatures shared. Similarly, the serpent has lost his immanent divinity as guardian of the tree and lord of rebirth, and has become himself the betrayer of both these roles, which are, in essence, one. The picture is dramatic: as the fig leaves reveal, it holds the moment of appalled awareness, when those who are part of nature are set for ever apart from nature in the perception that they are ‘naked’. This is rendered in the picture as the same perception that they have broken the commandment of Yahweh, and that, as created beings, they are thereby for ever separated from their creator. Where is the image of the ever renewing source of life in which humanity can trust and find repose? Nature, and specifically human nature, is to receive the curse of the one whose Word brought it into being, and for whom no atonement from the ‘sin’ of longing for knowledge and everlasting life is enough.

In Chapter 11, the significance of this reversal of the former point of view was explored in relation to the needs of a new people in a strange land distancing themselves from the religious beliefs they found all around them. It is curious, though, that the terms of the Hebrew creation myth are not those of a mythology of the desert, from where the nomadic tribes had come, but are more those of the fertile agricultural land they found, the age-old lunar mythology of people who live close to the seasons and the soil. On the other hand, the Garden of Eden, with its four rivers that run to the ends of the Earth, is very like the vision of an oasis to the hot and weary traveller, longing for water and shade. None the less, the question still arises as to what has been achieved by inverting the meaning of those images, which, evidently, could still move the heart even though they could no longer console the mind.

The most fundamental change from earlier myths, as suggested in Chapter 11, is the new and absolute distinction between the creator and creation, with the result that the ‘flaw’ in creation is rendered equivalent to a flaw in the nature of the creatures: death is ‘their’ fault; in fact, to be doctrinally specific, it is ‘her’ fault. Comparing this to other creation myths, it seems as if, instead of wrestling with the ambivalence due to created beings imagining their own creation, the absolute perfection of the deity is insisted on to the detriment of human nature (rather in the way that a child in conflict with a parent creates the omnipotence of the parent, on whom its whole world depends, by blaming itself).

A more general question also arises as to whether images and symbols have an inherent meaning proper to them so that they cannot be simply inverted without violation. For Yeats, images are ‘living souls’: (1) they have a specific life of their own. For Jung, also, symbols cannot be consciously devised or undevised but are the 'spontaneous products' of the Collective Unconscious.(2) Consequently, the images of the myth of Eve have a past and present life of their own whatever story is woven around them. Campbell makes the important point that the opposition between image and word leads to a feeling of what he calls ‘nervous discord’:

There is consequently an ambivalence inherent in many of the basic symbols of the Bible that no amount of rhetorical stress on the patriarchal interpretation can suppress. They address a pictorial message to the heart that exactly reverses the verbal message addressed to the brain; and this nervous discord inhabits both Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, since they too share in the legacy of the Old Testament. (3)

Figure 3. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

The abundance of the apple tree, the climbing fruits and the happily resting animals in Cranach’s painting (Fig. 3) convey all the joy of the Goddess of Fertility with her son-lover and her creatures, and in other pictures Cranach draws the goddess Venus holding the tree and the apple with the same gesture as Eve. But responding not to the life of the images themselves but to their Christian interpretation, we name the scene as ‘innocence’ before the ‘Fall’ (noting only now how implausibly the lion lies down with the lamb, doe and stag), and the feeling of excitement the painting calls forth has to be tempered with the reminder that it is ‘unrealistic’.

The Deposing of the Mother Goddess

The story of Eve is in part the story of the displacing of the mother goddess by the father god. Both Eve’s name, Hawwah, and Yahweh’s are taken from a form of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’, pointing to a common derivation. The meaning of her name is then ‘Life’ or ‘She who gives Life’, as Adam’s subsequent naming of her as the ‘Mother of All Living’ registers. The figure of Eve is still transparent to her former role, so that her deposition from mother goddess to human woman - from creator to created - can be clearly seen through the images. Demythologizing a goddess is a subtle process whereby the numinosity that once belonged to her is withdrawn and clothes another figure, in this case Yahweh. By contrast, Eve becomes the opposite of what she was, not a giver of life but a cause of death. In so far as she was formerly also creation or nature herself, this demythologizing process extends to the whole of nature, which becomes, like her, fallen and cursed. Consequently, death, once a phase in the totality of being wherein the dead return to the womb of the Mother Goddess for rebirth, is now a final and absolute punishment that she, or her reduced earthly counterpart, brought upon the world.

Figure 4. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

To return to Campbell’s question, how are ‘heart’ and ‘brain’ set against each other in the myth of Eve? How damaging to the unity of the psyche is it, for instance, that when Yahweh forms Eve from Adam’s rib, this is an act contrary to the rest of nature, in which birth takes place through the female? This tale of the rib once had the opposite meaning as a myth of a mother goddess creating life, for behind the meaning of Eve’s name and the manner of her birth lies a Sumerian story that draws them together.

Figure 5. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

The Sumerian word for ‘life’ was ti, which also meant ‘rib’. Ninhursag, the Sumerian mother goddess, once healed the rib of Enki, god of the sweet waters, by creating Nin-ti, a goddess of childbirth, who made the bones of infants in the womb from the ribs of their mothers.(4) The Sumerian name Nin-ti could mean either ‘the lady who gives life’ (the traditional title for a goddess) or ‘the lady of the rib’. The Yahwist writer of Genesis 2 and 3 was undoubtedly aware of this double meaning, since in selecting the rib version of it he still accords to it the magic of birth. But in the Sumerian tale the unity of the mother and child carries the analogy of sharing bones as an image of birth, while in the Hebrew myth nature and the goddess are sacrificed to the miracle of Yahweh’s inventive mind. (The Greek tale of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus has a similar inversion.) Furthermore, the Hebrew word for ‘rib’, tsela, meant ‘stumbling’, so providing the occasion for a jolly pun, since Eve receives her name immediately after she herself has ‘stumbled’ on behalf of humanity, the first but not the last fallen woman.

‘And Adam called his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.' The reduced reference of this ancient title means that Eve will be the mother of all living human beings - the first mother of the human race - not, as was its original meaning, mother of all that lives. So, from the perspective of the mythic tradition, she who was once the giver of all names is now named herself at the moment of exile by the man whose rib she has and whose rib she is. It would not, perhaps, be necessary to emphasize the inversion in the story if it had not been seized on with such 1iteralness by generations of interpreters who found in it the irrevocable signature of divine intention.

The original word for ‘woman’ in Hebrew was ishshah, which meant ‘taken out of man’.(5) Echoing this biblical order of priority, even the Old English word ‘wo-man’ means ‘wife to man’. Adam’s use of the title of the old mother goddess at this point, only after Yahweh’s curse, serves to transfer the curse from this woman, Eve, to all the living to whom she will be mother, so that because of what she ‘did’ she gives birth ultimately to death: before Eve’s ‘sin’ there was no death; after it and because of it death, pain and travail came into being.

The story of the rib also suggested that the serpent’s subtlety was not misplaced in approaching the woman first, for, with the total loss of the old symbolism, the woman, made from a rib of the man created by Yahweh, is that much less likely to obey the divine commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit. This was a theme expounded with endless elaboration by both Jewish and Christian commentators, who took the tale of the birth of Eve from Adam’s rib as a divine statement that woman was a secondary creation, made of inferior substance, further from the image and likeness of God, and less capable, therefore, of moral choice. This will be explored later, but, in the language of the old mythology, it is worth remembering that Adam, her husband, was once her son, and Yahweh (whose first pictorial likeness was of a god with serpent legs; see Fig. 9) is her own son turned father.(6)

While the images of Eve place her in the ancient tradition as a mother goddess, her story - how she is born, what she thinks and says and does defines her as a human woman. Yet it is not so simple. For, though a mere woman, the role she is given to play is a mythic one; in fact, a new version of the old role of the Mother Goddess who brings death to humanity, but with a crucial difference. In the former mythologies the Mother Goddess who brought death was also the Mother Goddess who gave birth to all creatures first, so that the two phases of existence could be unified in one goddess who cares for both, the Great Mother. Here, the former unity has been split and the two roles polarized, so that the father god takes over the role of creation while the human woman is responsible for destruction. It is as though an archetypal image - in this case the goddess - cannot be displaced without consequence, as if it has to find expression elsewhere, here in a vessel too frail to hold its numinosity, a human woman. Since Eve can incarnate only one dimension of the original archetype, the bringing of death, humanity is left without an image of reconciliation to the whole, where once birth and death were related mythically through the ‘body of the goddess’.

In Genesis the activities of divinely caused birth and mortally caused death set immortal and mortal, eternity and time, against each other where before they could be perceived together in relationship. Now the father god gives birth through the Word, and the mortal mother of the human race gives death because of disobedience to the word of Yahweh. How else could it be understood except as a human betrayal of the divine, as an ‘original sin’, the sin that was there in the beginning of the race, that is, inherent in the nature of humanity?

John Phillips, in his book Eve: The History of an Idea, sums up:

The history of Eve begins with the appearance of Yahweh in the place of the Mother of All the Living. This shift of power marks a fundamental change in the relationship between humanity and God, the world and God, the world and humanity, and men and women.(7)

What it involved, ultimately, Phillips concludes, was ‘the rejection of the Feminine as a sacred entity'. (8)

The Garden

As suggested, the demythologizing of the goddess was a process that extended to the whole of nature in whom she had been embodied. When Eve and Adam are cursed by Yahweh, so also is the earth and her cycles of fertility: ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shall thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shall eat the herb of the field’ (Gen. 3:17-18). Where before the man was put into the garden ‘to dress it and to keep it’ (Gen. 2:15), after the curse he has ‘to till the ground from whence he was taken’ (Gen. 3:23). It is humanity’s relation to nature that is cursed. No more is heard of the ‘garden’ or ‘the cool of the day’; earth is now rendered in the hard image of the ‘ground’, or the dry, desiccated image of ‘dust’, which is to be the food of the serpent and the substance into which humanity disintegrates: ‘For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (Gen. 3:19). Human beings are to imagine themselves on their death as lifeless dust from which the breath of life has gone, no longer to share in the sanctity of all life, visible or invisible, and not even that small breath of life is to return to the Father, whose breath it once was. Yahweh has become the punishing Father, who proscribes the life he has made when he saw that it was not good.

In Hebrew Eden means ‘a place of delight’, while the term ‘paradise’, which is of Persian origin, comes later. The precision of the topography of Eden and the garden is interesting because they are obviously not to be thought of as the same. Yahweh planted the garden ‘eastward in Eden’ and there he put the man he had formed. One river went out of Eden to water the garden, where it ‘was parted, and became into four heads’ (Gen. 2:10). The garden is then situated in the land of the sunrise, symbolically exact for the dawning of human consciousness, but what of the north, south and west of Eden? Is this, then, to be the world that the man and woman are condemned to wander in, banished for ever from the source? The image of the garden with the four rivers and the one (or two) trees at the centre is clearly an image of totality, with the tree as the pivot or axis of creation, and the four rivers marking the four points of the compass or, more widely, the four points of orientation for the human mind. This image of a garden, dressed and kept by the man, is also familiar from Sumeria, where King Sargon was called the beloved gardener of the goddess Ishtar. But there the garden was the goddess herself, immanent as nature, whereas here the garden is created by the word of Yahweh and can as readily be uncreated by a curse.

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld’ through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, that is, the experience of unity.

Figure 6. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

All over the Near East, Egypt, Crete and Greece the tree was planted in the temples of the goddess, particularly the fig, palm, cypress, apple, sycamore and olive. In Egypt, the goddesses Hathor and Isis were both known as the ‘Lady of the Sycamore’, and the milky juice of the fruit was drunk as the milk from her breasts, as in the drawing on the face of a column in the burial chamber of the king’s tomb (Fig. 6).

Figure 7. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

In the eleventh-century-BC painting in Figure 7 Hathor, Nut or Isis is drawn emerging from the tree, offering food and the water of life.

The Tree of Life had also been linked with the serpent or dragon (winged serpent) for over 1,000 years before Genesis was written. In 2025 BC the cup of the Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash (see Chapter 5, Fig. 22) showed two winged dragons holding back a pair of opening doors to reveal a caduceus of uniting snakes, the incarnation of the god Ningizzida, one of the names given to the consort of the mother goddess, to whom the cup is inscribed: ‘Lord of the Tree of Truth’.

Figure 8. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

A Greek myth of c. 700-500 BC told of a sacred tree called the golden apple tree of the Hesperides. It grew at the edge of the world in the land of the setting sun and its apples were given as a wedding gift to Hera, who then placed them under the protection of a great dragon (Fig. 8). The Hesperides themselves were nymphs born from the goddess Night, shown with urns filled with the waters of life out of which the tree grows. Jason also has to encounter a great serpent guarding a sacred tree over which is hung the golden fleece (see Chapter 7, Fig. 9), so here again the motif of the serpent, the tree and the treasure of the tree reappears. Two serpents intertwined as the caduceus re-emerge as the golden wand or rod of transformation of Hermes, the god who can cross the threshold between life and death, while the single serpent falls to Asclepius, god of healing.

As we have seen in earlier chapters, the serpent was, variously, the guardian of the tree, the life-force of the rising and falling sap and, as the consort of the goddess, an image of the alternating living and dying aspects of the eternal principle embodied in the tree itself. According to which phase of life was enacted, the son-lovers were born from the tree (as Adonis), lived in the midst of it (as Tammuz) or were buried in it (as Osiris in his coffin of cedar enclosed in heather). The Sumerians of Eridu spoke of a wondrous tree with roots of white crystal that ‘stretched towards the deep, its seat the central place of the earth, its foliage the couch of the primeval Mother. In its midst was Tammuz’.(9) The ritual cutting down of the tree signified the dying phase of the totality of being, seasonally celebrated as the ‘fall’, which, far from preventing rebirth, acknowledged its perennial possibility.

Turning back to Genesis with this in mind, the tree, or the two trees and the serpent take on a different resonance. Since, on discovering not the water of life but their own nakedness, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons, this tree also may have been a sycamore fig, with its large leaves, the same tree that was sacred to the goddess Asherah in Canaan, as it was in Egypt and Crete. It was only in the Middle Ages, when Latin texts of the Bible were available, that the tradition grew up that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree, since, in another of those puns, the word for apple in Latin, malus, is from the same root as the word for evil, malum. (Bonum, as might be expected, fell by the wayside.)

In northern Babylonia the goddess of the Tree of Life was called the ‘divine Lady of Eden’ or Edin, and in the south she was called the ‘Lady of the Vine’, an understandable change of name given that the Sumerian sign for ‘life’ was originally a vine leaf.(10) However, in the myth of Eden, where there is no unifying image of a goddess, there is significantly also not one tree but two trees, or, it could be said, the one tree has become two, and now the fruit of both of them is forbidden. In earlier mythologies the one tree offered both ‘knowledge’ and ‘life’, or ‘wisdom’ and ‘immortality’ (as in Fig.1). Here, knowledge of good and evil is split apart from eternal life, so that a perception of duality is rendered absolutely antithetical to a perception of life’s unity.(11) Campbell comments that: ‘The principle of mythic dissociation, by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in the Bible is expressed in a dissociation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life.’(12)

So once again there is a confusion between the picture as we see it and the story as we hear it. The picture given is of both trees standing in the same place in the centre of the garden, whereas the story takes its meaning from the fact that they are different, and so required, presumably, to stand in two different places:

And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2-:9)

This puts the Tree of Life at the centre - ‘in the midst’- and the Tree of Knowledge somewhere else. But when Eve talks to the serpent, she tells him: ‘But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die’ (Gen 3:3). Here, the Tree of Knowledge is the tree in the midst of the garden, so on the plane of imagery the two trees are, as they always were, one. Significantly, Yahweh does not withhold the fruit of the Tree of Life until after the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge has been tasted, as though the deeper dimension of the tree is only then disclosed. Only when their eyes are opened can they see what they do not have, for then they know the distinction between mortal and immortal, where before these categories did not exist. It is then tempting but primitive logic to infer that (the tree of) knowledge deprives them of (the tree of) immortality, that consciousness of the lack of something actually takes that thing away. But it is rather that, as in all dualisms, the two terms arise together and do not exist without each other. Hence it is only epiphany, a revelation of the source of being beyond both terms, that can dissolve them.

One way of making sense of the separation of the two ‘trees’ might be to see the life in time, initiated by consciousness, as itself the opportunity to understand the meaning of eternity, the fruit of that other tree, which, now it has been pointed out, is guarded by the cherubim. The image of the cherubim holding a flaming sword that turned every way ‘to keep the way of the tree of life’ is reminiscent both of the cherubim guarding the Ark of the Covenant and the older mythic imagery of Mesopotamia and Assyria, in which on either side of the Tree of Life also stood two winged beings, in human form or as lion-birds or winged dragons. Only in Christian art were the cherubim depicted exclusively as angels of human form.

The Serpent

The serpent first appears as a serpent mother goddess in the Neolithic era (see Chapter 2, Fig. 18), and is also drawn coiling around the womb and the phallus as the principle of regeneration. In the Sumerian cities of Ur and Uruk, in the lowest level of excavation, were found two very old images of the Mother Goddess and her child, both having the heads of snakes.(13) As the male aspect of the goddess was differentiated, the serpent became the fertilizing phallus, image of the god who was her son and consort, born from her, married with her and dying back into her for rebirth in unending cycle.

As we have seen, in images of the goddess in every culture the serpent is never far away, standing behind her, eating from her hand, entwined in her tree, or even, as in Tiamat, the shape of the goddess herself. Genesis is no exception to this, unless it be that, formally, there is no goddess, only a woman of the same name. However, taking the story, not the image, the serpent, once lord of rebirth, has now turned into his opposite, the instigator of death in league with Eve. There are faint echoes of the Epic of Gilgamesh in this reversal, since there the serpent steals the herb of immortality humanity might have had, and in Genesis, from this point of view, the serpent tricks the first parents of the race into death: ‘For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). But, once the Goddess has become a woman, and the Serpent God has become a reptile, any meaningful union between them is impossible, and the images can no longer serve as a means of metaphysical exploration.

The serpent is the first to receive Yahweh’s curse and, notably, in terms that suggest that up to that point he was upright, as he is drawn on the earlier seals: ‘Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life . . .’ (Gen. 3:14). No longer is he to be the ever-rising sap of the Tree of Life, supreme among all others; now he is cursed above cattle and every beast of the field. His former vertical posture, as it would seem in the light of later developments, has been appropriated.

There is, therefore, a continuing ambivalence towards the serpent in the Old Testament, which may in part reflect the continuation of the old religion of the Canaanites and the difficulties experienced by the Hebrew priests in turning their people away from it. In the story of Moses and the brazen serpent, for instance, the serpent brings both death and life: when the people complained to Moses and to Yahweh that they had been brought out of Egypt into the wilderness to die, ‘the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died’ (Num. 21:6). When they repented, Moses prayed for them.

And the Lord said unto Moses:

Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Num. 21:8-9)

This serpent of brass stood in the temple of Jerusalem, together with the Asherah, or image of the Mother Goddess, for about 200 years, until King Hezekiah ‘did what was right in the sight of the Lord’ (2 Kgs. 18:3).

Figure 9 (a). Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

Once before, Yahweh had (strictly) not appeared to Moses as a serpent, but rather, in the precise language of transcendence, his appearance had manifested itself in the form of a serpent. Moses asks the Lord for a sign, saying:

. . . they will say, The Lord hath not appeared to thee.
And the Lord said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod
And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand. (Exod. 4:1-4)

This is the same rod with which Yahweh commanded Moses to tell Aaron to smite the waters of Egypt and turn them to blood, cause frogs to come out of the waters, and make the dust of the earth into lice. But it was only when Moses himself ‘stretched forth his rod toward heaven’ to bring down hail that the hard heart of Pharaoh relented. Later, in the desert, the Lord commanded Moses to strike the rock with his rod to release water for his people to drink (Exod. 17:5-6). (14)

Figure 9 (b). Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

The relationship between Yahweh and the serpent is somewhat baffling, given, firstly, the prohibition against graven images and, secondly, the unflagging attempts of the prophets to eradicate all trace of the Canaanite religion, in which serpents belonged to the priestesses as signs of their power of prophecy. None the less, by the second and first centuries BC seals of Yahweh appeared in which the Almighty had the legs of a serpent. ‘Serpent gods’, explains Campbell, ‘do not die.(15)

From Myth to Doctrine

In spite of the inconsistency of this myth’s point of view - in which image and word constantly belie each other - it has haunted the Western imagination for over 2,000 years, and so it is worth asking if this discordance is itself meaningful in ways other than orthodox doctrine would have it be. Here we are faced instantly with the radical dichotomy between the story taken literally as the divine word of God - what ‘God thinks’ of humanity - and the story taken symbolically, as an attempt to dramatize a dimension of human experience in order to understand what cannot be known through the intellect alone. A story, in other words, like any other story. But it is easy to underestimate how readily a story written to explore a complex metaphysical idea becomes, in the minds of those who require certainties, a concretized doctrine of belief, when, of course, its range of meanings entirely changes.

When, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this story has been taken as divine revelation, it has fostered a conception of human nature as inherently prone to corrupting and betraying all that is best in itself, as antithetical to the sacredness of life in which it also, paradoxically, feels itself held. Read literally, what the story says, in effect, is that Eve and Adam deserve to die because they broke their word to God. Reading, still literally, Eve and Adam as paradigmatic of women and men as a whole what the story says is that the human race is cursed into life in time, such that the passage from birth to death is and should be an expiation for the sin of their origin. The idea of ‘original sin’ is a concretization of this position, one that predisposes the race into a posture of justification, and one that is hopeless because it is bound to fail. With an entrance like this, playful, spontaneous being is simply not good enough.

Baldly stated, who would fall for that? Yet, as Frye has reminded us, we do not live directly or nakedly in the universe as (we suppose) other life forms do, but within a mythological universe, that is, a body of assumptions and beliefs most of which are held unconsciously, or at least invisibly.(16) We are at once the beneficiaries and the victims of our mythological tradition as we are of our linguistic and social traditions, one of the differences being that our mythological conditioning is more difficult to perceive since it is shared across frontiers that would otherwise challenge us to question our own assumptions.(17)

Figure 10. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

The myth of Adam and Eve stands at the beginning of our cultural inheritance, and, whatever our religious background, it is characteristically offered to children at an age when all stories are true. Adam and Eve do not live happily ever after, but neither is God cast in the role of the wicked wizard, so no reason is given for the unhappy ending, unless it is what happens when you grow up.(18) Even if, subsequently, we return to it as a story that tries to comprehend the meaning of suffering and death, then we come immediately upon the fact that it is the first story to introduce the idea that someone is to blame for it. The serpent is to blame for Eve, who is to blame for Adam, who is to blame for taking any notice of either of them. Sorrow and death are a punishment for bad behaviour, a notion Job resisted in spite of his comforters.

Furthermore, the story presents the longing for knowledge and for immortality - ‘ye shall be as gods’ - as itself wrong. Yet when Gilgamesh journeys to ‘the land of Dilmun in the garden of the sun’ to seek for everlasting life, he is not censured. He tells Utnapishtim, alone of all the human race to live for ever: ‘Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust and I shall die also and be laid in the earth for ever.’(19) No more than Adam and Eve does Gilgamesh receive what he is hoping for, but it is not his fault, it is ‘his destiny’.

Comparing the myth of the ‘Fall’ with this and other myths of the paradox of the soul ‘fastened to a dying animal’, as Yeats sees it,(20) we might wonder if the attributions of sin, blame and guilt are proper guides for any journeyers towards understanding to take with them, and still more how these categories lodged in the mind themselves corrupt our earthly business of hurt, pain, uncertainty and loss. Add to this the fact that Eve and Adam are not presented as characters in a narrative, as are Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, so we cannot imagine ourselves in their predicament and feel for them, but must see them apart, as a mirror held up to human nature and its flaw.

Eve and her kind, as we shall see below, have borne most of the brunt of this view, taken as a true story of how things are, and she has been doctrinally accused of being a real woman, who committed a real crime, which makes all real women like her capable of behaving in the same way. Why the ‘Word of God’ is assumed to be without irony, paradox, symbolism and all the other literary excellences available to his creatures is a matter obviously not susceptible of theological debate, since ‘He’ writes quite plainly in the literal mode of concrete fact. Revelation and literalism go ominously together. The mind that finds fault and blames - especially a blaming of oneself for a ‘sin’ that has not, in fact, been committed, so cannot be atoned - is inevitably relieved when a scapegoat has been found, for some semblance of order is thereby restored to an incomprehensible situation. Perhaps we could go further and say that someone, or a group, with an unconscious bondage to such an idea tends to look for a scapegoat on whom to project this feeling of guilt and be supposedly freed from it. In literal interpretations of this tale the scapegoat was Eve, and the reason was not hard to find: she was a woman. So runs the patriarchal syllogism of orthodox Christian thought, some centuries after Aristotle gave us the definition of tautology.

It may, indeed, not be too much to claim that this myth, read as factually true, has implicitly shaped or certainly contributed to our cultural assumptions about the relationship between men and women, the place of sexuality in human life, humanity’s relation to nature and to the divine, and so our view of human nature itself. Standing for a moment outside our mythological structures of perception, we should expect at least that a whole range of imaginative possibilities has been excluded.

Considering the human psyche as a whole from the perspective of Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious, it may be said that the deeper layers of the soul were suddenly deprived of a life of participation with creation and of an instinctual perception of the unity of life governed by divine law, which had been understood for thousands of years through the image of the goddess.

The Fall as the Myth of the Birth of Consciousness

If, however, the myth is understood symbolically - not as an incontrovertible statement about human nature but as an expression of humanity’s own experience of itself at the moment of initiation into consciousness - then the meaning changes totally. To bite into the knowledge of good and evil is then to be separated forever from the state of unconscious unity in which all life is one. Suddenly there are two things, two terms: I and you, I and them, I and it. Division polarizes; discrimination - this is not that brings with it evaluation: this is better than that; this is good, this is not good (evil). The experience of opposites results in conflict because either both are wanted and only one can be had, or only one is wanted and both are there. Now life comes with death, pleasure with pain, joy with sorrow, or the self comes without the other, the man without the woman, spirit without nature, and the human being without the divine being.

Figure 11. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

The state before this awareness has always been imagined as a golden age of happiness ‘before’, to be regained in the return to happiness ‘ever after’, sometimes known as heaven. ‘In the beginning’ there was no man and woman but both were one, as in Plato’s original Round Man and the hermaphroditic Adam, the primary substance of earth from which man and woman both emerged in the image of their androgynous creator. The childhood garden of the four rivers and the central tree has the completeness of a pastoral fantasy in which every wish comes true. When, from the deepest promptings of intuition, a voice appears and asks ‘why?’, who would know there was so much to lose? ‘Why don’t you eat that fruit?’ ‘Oh, we mustn’t, we’ll die.’ ‘No, you won’t, it’ll be even better’, and conflict has begun. ‘Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,’ cries Faust.(21) Inevitably, the first ‘thing’ they look upon is themselves’ and in that look body and mind come apart - the meaning of ‘And they saw that they were naked’. When all the other dualisms follow after, must not the feeling be one of loss, and then regret, and then a longing to return to what can never be again as once upon a time it was? And would not the fruit taste bitter in the mouth? Then, also, consciousness would feel like a curse, and the fatal question ‘why?’ feel like a crime, as though, Prometheus-like, we had taken something that does not belong to us. And, furthermore, this ‘why?’ that exiles us from paradise is always with us until we take up the challenge of consciousness - and try to discover some answer. Erich Fromm writes:

Human existence poses a question. Man is thrown into this world without his volition, and taken away from it again without his volition . . . He has to live his life, he is not lived by it. He is in nature, yet he transcends nature . . .The very fact of being born poses a problem. At the moment of birth, life asks man a question, and this question he must answer. He must answer it at every moment; not his mind, not his body, but he, the person who thinks and dreams, who sleeps and eats and cries and laughs - the whole man - must answer it.(22)

In another book, You Shall Be As Gods, Fromm addresses the myth of Adam and Eve specifically:

Adam and Eve at the beginning of their evolution are bound to blood and soil; they are still 'blind'. But 'their eyes are opened' after they acquire the knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge the original harmony with nature is broken. Man begins the process of individuation and cuts his ties with nature. In fact, he and nature become enemies, not to be reconciled until man has become fully human. With this first step of severing the ties between man and nature, history - and alienation - begins. As we have seen, this is not the story of the 'fall' of man but of his awakening, and thus, of the beginning of his rise.(23)

Figure 12. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

Perhaps, then, a symbolic reading of the story may restore it to its rightful place at the beginning of our cultural tradition as a myth of the birth of consciousness. (Compare, in Greek culture, the myth of Prometheus.) The guilt Adam and Eve suffer from, which characteristically reappears as any new stage of awareness is reached, must then be seen not as moral guilt, in the sense of having done something wrong, but as tragic guilt, in the sense that what was done had to be done, because its ultimate roots lie in the very structure of existence itself. In tragedy, forms are shattered out of inner necessity, and out of the dynamic of that tension a new value is won. There is, therefore, no one to blame and nothing to be blamed for. Consciousness entails loss, as Masaccio’s picture of the mourning of Adam and Eve expelled from the garden shows (Fig. 12). The drama of Adam and Eve is symbolic of this particular dimension of the human condition.

But tragedy offers only one perspective. The other term of the totality of being is often called comedy; not the comedy that knows nothing of the tragic vision, but the comedy that is born out of it as its ultimately playful resolution. Then follows the restoration of those shattered forms in the joyous participation with the source, sometimes also called the mythic vision. This is the fruit of the Tree of Life, the tree that seems unattainable when first seen as other than the Tree of Knowledge, but whose gift is waiting for the moment when the contentions of life and death are dissolved and the two trees are again one. ‘Only through time, time is conquered.’(24) This is the scene of earlier Mesopotamian seals, when the images of infinite life are manifest in their own right, not viewed through the distorting lens of remorse. If ‘the god’ initiates humanity into duality and the laws of time, then ‘the goddess’ redeems that vision by releasing the mind from identification with mortality and reuniting it with the universal inexhaustible life out of which all particular lives come and go. In the metaphor that is mythology, this is the sacred marriage, when bios, once the son and now the consort, takes his place on the other side of the world tree so that the fruits of immortality and wisdom can, finally, be offered together.

Figure 13. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

In the melancholy tale that is to follow, however, we return, with startling change of category, to the literal interpretation of God’s holy word, in whose unpronounceable name wars are still waged with presumably holy deaths, and whose first (but not last) curse upon the human race fell upon the woman, Eve.

Eve in Hebrew Culture

‘Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die’ (Sir. 35:24). This interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, with its subtle generalization from Eve to ‘the woman’, permeates Judaic literature as well as innumerable theological commentaries on the Bible. A Greek text of the life of Adam and Eve,(25) translated from the Jewish Midrash, or Commentaries on the Old Testament, has the following passage spoken by Eveas Adam is dying:

Then Eve rose and went out and fell on the ground and said, ‘I have sinned, O God; I have sinned, O Father of all; I have sinned against you, I have sinned against your chosen angels, I have sinned against the cherubim, I have sinned against your steadfast throne; I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned much; I have sinned before you, and all sin in creation has come about through me.’ (26)

Adam was buried in Paradise and was promised resurrection by God, but when the time for Eve’s death came, she was buried with her son Abel, instead of with Adam as she had implored God:

My Master, Lord and God of all excellence, do not separate me from the body of Adam; for you made me from his members; but rather consider me worthy, even me, unworthy and sinful, to be buried near his body. And just as I was with him in Paradise, and not separated even after the transgression, so also let no one separate us now. (27)

A lighter story, from Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, also taking Eve as the paradigm of woman’s nature, makes the point that women are trivial and untrustworthy, like Eve, or, at the very least, good for a laugh. For when the Almighty wished to create Eve he did not know from which part of Adam’s body he should fashion her:

When God was on the point of making Eve, He said: ‘I will not make her from the head of man, lest she carry her head high in arrogant pride; not from the eye, lest she be wanton-eyed; not from the ear, lest she be an eavesdropper not from the neck, lest she be insolent; not from the mouth, lest she be a tattler; not from the heart, lest she be inclined to envy; not from the hand, lest she be a meddler; not from the foot, lest she be a gadabout. I will form her from a chaste portion of the body,’ and to every limb and organ as He formed it, God said, ‘Be chaste! Be chaste!’Nevertheless, in spite of the great caution used, woman has all the faults God tried to obviate. The daughters of Zion were haughty and walked with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes; Sarah was an eavesdropper in her own tent, when the angel spoke with Abraham; Miriam was a tale-bearer, accusing Moses; Rachel was envious of her sister Leah; Eve put out her hand to take the forbidden fruit, and Dinah was a gadabout. (28)

Expanding on this theme, he adds (more seriously): ‘Woman covers her hair in token of Eve’s having brought sin into the world; she tries to hide her shame; and women precede men in a funeral cortege, because it was woman who brought death into the world.’ (29)

Eve, the demythologized goddess, now the primal ancestress in merely human form, belongs to a whole process of patriarchal revaluation, whose intention is transparently clear in the new myths of the moon and the sun. Here are the words, written as late as the thirteenth century AD, still expressing the way in which moon and sun - symbolically, goddess and god - are redefined in a new relationship more in accord with the Iron Age’s changing priorities for women and men:

God made two great lights. The two lights ascended together with the same dignity. The moon, however, was not at ease with the sun, and in fact each felt mortified by the other . . . God thereupon said to her, ‘Go and diminish thyself’ . . . Thereupon she diminished herself so as to be head of the lower ranks. From that time she has had no light of her own, but derives her light from the sun. At first they were on an equality, but afterwards she diminished herself among all those grades of hers, although she is still head of them. When the moon was in connection with the sun, she was luminous, but as soon as she separated from the sun and was assigned the charge of her own hosts, she reduced her status and her light.(30)

Edward Whitmont, in his book The Return of the Goddess, points out that it is not only Western cultures that have rejected the feminine. He quotes from the law of Manu which forms the basis of Hindu culture

‘Woman by her nature is always trying to tempt and seduce man . . . The cause of dishonor is woman, the cause of enmity is woman, the cause of mundane existence is woman - therefore woman must be avoided.’ Conversely, ‘no matter how wicked, degenerate or devoid of all good qualities a man may be, a good wife must also revere him like a God.(31)


If Eve was charged with the bringing of death, sin and sorrow into the world, Lilith was demonic from the moment of her creation. Lilith arose out of an attempt to make sense of the difference between the two creation myths in Genesis, since in the first story, in Genesis I, male and female are created equally and together, while in the second story, in Genesis 3, the female is created after the male and out of his body. In the simple logic of legend Lilith was the first wife, who was worse than the second. Yet the figure chosen to play this role in Judaic legend was originally Sumerian, the bright Queen of Heaven, whose name ‘Lil’ meant ‘air’ or ‘storm’. She was often an ambiguous presence inclined to ‘wild, uninhabited places’,(32) also associated with Inanna in her dark aspect and her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. She first appears in a poem about Inanna, when Inanna’s tree is cut down by the hero Gilgamesh:

Gilgamesh struck the serpent who could not be charmed.
The Anzu-bird flew with his young to the mountains;
And Lilith smashed her home and fled to the wild, uninhabited places.(33)

Lil was also a Sumero-Akkadian word for a ‘dust-storm’ or ‘dust-cloud’, a term that was applied to ghosts, whose form was like a dust-cloud and whose food was supposed to be the dust of the earth. In the Semitic language lilatu was then the ‘handmaid of a ghost’, but this soon became confounded with the word for ‘night’, layil, and became a word of terror, meaning a night-demon. So Lilith, in Hebrew myth, gathered around her all the associations of night and death without repose. The Hebrew image of Lilith could have been based on the images of Inanna-Ishtar, portrayed as the goddess of the Great Above and the Great Below (see Chapter 5, Fig. 30), but understandably debased, seen from the point of view of a people forcibly transported to Babylon.

There is only one reference to Lilith as a night or screech owl in the Old Testament. It occurs in the midst of a prophecy in Isaiah. On the day of Yahweh’s vengeance, when the land will be turned into a wilderness, ‘the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest’ (Isa. 34:14).(34) Inanna and Ishtar were both called ‘Divine Lady Owl’ (Nin-ninna and Kilili). This may explain where Lilith came from and why she was described as a screech owl.

One version of Lilith’s creation in Hebrew mythology tells that Yahweh made Lilith, like Adam, from earth, but instead of using clean earth, he ‘took filth and impure sediments from the earth, and out of these he formed a female. As was to be expected, this creature turned out to be an evil spirit.’(35) In retrospect, Lilith became Adam’s first wife, whose original presence is never fully banished from his marriage to the second. What ‘went wrong’ with the first was obviously Lilith’s equality and independence, since that was the matter that was rectified with Eve. Consequently, Lilith’s assumption of the role of equal partner is treated in legend as insubordination, as, so the story goes, she would not agree to her ‘proper place’, which was apparently to lie beneath Adam in sexual intercourse: ‘Why should I lie beneath you when I am your equal since both of us were created from dust?’ she asks. Adam does not have an answer to that one, so, uttering the magic name of God, she flies away to the wilderness of the Red Sea. There she gives birth to broods of demons to the number of more than 100 a day. God sends three angels after her to bring her back but she will not return. The angels remonstrate with her and even threaten her with drowning, but she warns that she has the power to take the lives of children. In the end she agrees: ‘Whenever I shall see you or your names or your images on an amulet, I shall do no harm to the child.’(36) Henceforth, she roams all over the world, searching for the children who deserve to be punished ‘because of the sins of their fathers . . . and she smiles at them and kills them’.(37) Death is here conceived as punishment for sin.

Yahweh then tries again to provide Adam with a wife, this time making sure that she is a creation from Adam, and not one in her own right. Eve, however, is no more a success than Lilith, for no sooner is she made than she breaks the only commandment there was. As Phillips comments: ‘An independent woman can only represent a fundamental disruption of a divinely ordered state of affairs.’(38)

Consequently, the figure of this lapse of divine order was a focus for all the fearful fantasies of feeling unprotected. Lilith could appear at any moment in the night, when she, or one of her demons, might snatch away a child, striking terror into the hearts of parents of young children. She could also take possession of a man while he slept. He would realize that he had fallen into her power if he found traces of semen when he awoke, for then he would know that Lilith had had intercourse with him. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Lilith became an image of denied sexual desire, repressed and projected on to the female, who thereby becomes the seducer. Amulets guarding against Lilith’s ‘power’ were found everywhere.

Figure 14. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

In Hebrew culture, in the figure of Lilith, the Iron Age split and polarization of the Great Mother into the life-giving and death-bringing aspects is taken one stage further, for to the terror of inexplicable suffering that can strike without warning is added the new dimension of the demonization of sexuality. The myth in Genesis, even read with earnest doctrinal intention, does not name sexuality but the breaking of Yahweh’s commandment as the cause of expulsion into the human condition, nor can the knowledge of good and evil, which they gained by their act of disobedience’ be totally explained in terms of sexual knowledge. Yet both the disobedience and the knowledge soon became associated with sexuality because the first thing Adam and Eve ‘saw’ when ‘their eyes were opened’ was that they were naked. Before that they were naked and unashamed; afterwards, it is implied, they were ashamed because they knew they were naked, not because they had broken the word of their Lord God. Shameful nakedness soon became sinful sexuality, especially when the phallic serpent entered theological speculation. Sometimes the serpent and Lilith were equated, and the serpent was drawn with a woman’s body, which would have been understood as Lilith. At other times the serpent has a face like Eve’s. For this reason, sexuality, or rather a view of sexuality as ‘ungodly’, pervades legends about Lilith as the darker aspect of Eve, and also subtly underpins the character of Eve herself.

In both orthodox and apocryphal literature, Lilith’s shadow falls on women as far forward in time as the fifteenth century AD, when, in the same imagery as was employed for Lilith, thousands were accused of copulating with demons, killing infants and seducing men - of being, in a word, witches. This is a passage from the commentary on the Essenes by the early first-century-AD Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, whose philosophy, in this instance, has surrendered to his prejudice, apparently without protest:

No Essene takes a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, excessively jealous and an adept in beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued impostures. For by the fawning talk which she practises and the other ways in which she plays her part like an actress on the stage, she first ensnares the sight and hearing and then, when these victims have, as it were, been duped, she cajoles the sovereign mind.(39)

Philo had a considerable influence on early Christian thought, and in his account of the Fall it was not simply the fact of Eve’s disobedience but her mere existence that represented the ‘fall’ of ‘man’ away from the higher male spiritual principle. She was the cause of his becoming entrapped in the lower, female, material principle. Eve was, then, not merely the instigator of the Fall into sin, but herself the paradigm image of materiality conceived as a state of bondage. Lilith, called in the Zohar ‘the ruin of the world’,(40) is drawn as an image of materiality defined in wholly sexual terms.

Sometimes it seems as if Lilith and Eve have become one figure in the minds of their commentators. Jewish literature from apocryphal sources, which were not included in the orthodox canon of the Old Testament, reveals passages like the following:

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; and man, whom woman cannot subdue by strength, she subdues by guile. 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.(41)

These examples are enough to show how a myth, if literally conceived and literally understood, can create a prejudice (or sanctify an already existing one) and become a doctrine that declares itself to be divinely revealed truth. The writer of the Apocryphal Book of Ben Sirach, whose devotion to the abstract feminine wisdom of Sophia was correspondingly extreme, must share some responsibility for this process:

Give me any plague, but the plague of the heart:
And any wickedness, but the wickedness of a woman. . . . . .

I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon,
Than to keep house with a wicked woman. . . . . .

All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman:
Let the portion of a sinner fall upon her. . . . . .

Of the woman came the beginning of sin,
And through her we all die. . . . . . (Sir. 25:13,16, 19, 24)

It was the idea of Eve’s responsibility for the expulsion from the Garden, enshrined in Hebrew text and legend, that became the justification for making Jewish women subject to their fathers and husbands so that they no longer possessed even the small degree of sexual, social, political and religious autonomy belonging to women of the surrounding cultures. As Ginzberg explains: ‘And because woman extinguished the light of man’s soul, she is bidden to kindle the Sabbath light.’(43) However, it is essential to remember that the myth, and its implications, together with the patriarchal customs regarding women, were not endorsed by Jesus - quite the contrary - but they were transmitted from the Old to the New Testament through the writings of Paul, and so they entered formal Christian doctrine.

Read the continuation of this chapter in Eve in Christian Culture.

Notes and References

1. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’, in Alexander Norman Jeffares (ed.), Yeats: Selected Criticism and Prose, London, Macmillan and Pan Books, 1980, p. 65.

2. C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 8, The Structure and Dynamics of thePsyche para. 805.

3. Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology, p. 17.

4. S. H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology, p.115.

5. See Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths, p.69. They point out that Eve’s name is the Hebrew form of the goddess Heba, Khebet or Khiba who was the Hittite equivalent of Anath, who, in Babylonia, was Ishtar.

6. Campbell, op. cit., p. 31.

7. John A. Phillips, Eve: The History of an Idea, p.15.

8. ibid., p. 15.

9. Eugene Goblet d’Alviella, The Migration of Symbols, p.157.

10. ibid., pp. 153, 173. See his discussion of the ‘Symbolism and Mythology of the Tree, pp. 118- - 76.

11. See Gurdjieff’s exposition of understanding as the result of the union of Knowledge and Being. P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, pp. 64-8

12. Campbell, op. cit., p.106.

13. Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, p.49.

14 . See the symbolism of the shaman’s rod in Mircea Eliade, Shamanism.

15 . Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, p. 294.

16. Northrop Frye, The Great Code, p.xviii. Quoted in Chapter 10.

17. See Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, pp. 23-4.

18. The Ophite sect took Yahweh as evil and the serpent as good, but the level of fairy-tale interpretation remains the same.

19. N. K. Sandars, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p.106.

20. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, in Collected Poems, p. 218.

21. Goethe, Faust, trs. P. Wayne, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969, p. 67.

Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,
And each will wrestle for the mastery there.
The one has passion’s craving crude for love,
And hugs a world where sweet the senses rage;
The other longs for pastures fair above,
leaving the murk for lofty heritage.

22. Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki and Richard de Martino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis,p. 87.

23. Erich Fromm, You Shall Be As Gods, pp. 70-1.

24. T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, p.16.

25. This text, probably dating to before AD 400, was translated from an original Hebrew text in the centuries between 100 BC and AD 200. See the Introduction by M. D. Johnson to ‘The Life of Adam and Eve’, in James H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, pp 249-52.

26. Charlesworth, ‘The Life of Adam and Eve’, p. 287.

27. ibid., p. 295.

28. Louis H. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Book I, p. 66.

29. ibid., p. 67.

30.The Zohar, Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon (trs), London, Soncino press,1984, 5 vols.I,20a

31. Edward Whitmont, The Return of the Goddess, p.125.

32. 'Inanna and the Huluppu-Tree’, in D. Wolkstein and S. N. Kramer, Inanna,p.9.

33. ibid., p. 9.

34. In the Masoretic text the translation reads ‘night-monster’.

35. Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, p.230.

36. ibid., p. 224

37. Zohar, I, I9b, quoted in Patai, op. cit., p. 237.

38. Phillips, op. cit., p. 104.

39 Philo Judaeus, Hypothetica, Chapter 11, verses 14-17, in F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker (trs.), Philo, Vol. 10; quoted by Phillips, op. cit., p. 51.

40. Zohar, III, 19a

41. The Testament of Reuben from H. F. D. Sparks (ed.), The Apocryphal New Testament, p.519.

42. The lion and the dragon are both images of the Mother Goddess.

43. Ginzberg, op. cit., p. 67.

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