In most creation stories the same themes tend to emerge, namely: separation, categorisation and what Levi-Strauss likes to call the ‘tension between the raw and the cooked’, or, in other words, the essential conflict between sedentary civilisation and hunter/gatherer models of life.
Genesis deals fairly curtly with the first two of these (separation and categorisation), taking care of it all within a handful of verses. It’s almost as if the authors felt that this story was already known and, looking at Sumerian/Babylonian/Egyptian myth there’s good reasons to believe that this is the case. The undeniable cross-propagation of these cultures meant that there was already a template of sorts for creation. In all of these cultures there is a sort of organiser god, one who is not necessarily tied to a single idea or aspect of nature, but who resonates with the role of administrator or scribe. Generally, this god sits around in some kind of no-space/time and, for reasons which are usually obscure, goes about separating light from dark, water from earth, and so on. Hard on the heels of this sorting endeavour comes an account of the first man. And yes, it usually is a man.
In understanding the parallels between this kind of god and the function and legitimacy of government in ancient civilisations, I think the etiological purpose of creation stories is pretty obvious. What’s less obvious, though, is whether or not the creators of these stories actually expected them to be believed as literal truth. This is another subject on which people much cleverer and more erudite than myself have spent years shouting at each other about, which makes me a little hesitant to add my own two cents. For what it’s worth, though, my own reading has nearly persuaded me that they did not. What we’re looking at for a great part of history is alien mentality. The world as we see it is necessarily very different from that perceived by ancient and proto-historical peoples. I think that looking at the way Classical Greeks and Romans talked about their own myths, as well as the relationship with magic and mysticism still existing amongst less developed cultures, should reveal to us that there are many ways in which to interpret and understand truth, and that the literal interpretation of myth and magic is a view more likely to be found amongst questionably sane modern Westerners than anywhere else.
A note about alien mentality: Anthropologist Nigel Barley tells an excellent story from his first field assignment in Africa. He became aware that the people he was studying simply had no concept of photography as a representation of self. He noticed that all of their ID cards had the same picture. The idea of individuality or a sense of self being transferrable or recordable in this way was completely alien to their existence. When testing this idea, he handed one person a photograph of a lion. He looked at the photo, turned it over, and then said, “I do not know this man.” His brain was either incapable or simply refused to understand representation in photographic form. If such variation in psychic landscape can exist synchronologically, then it surely follows that it must exist across time as well.
Anyway, we move from the suspiciously familiar creation story to the much abused tale of Adam and Eve. Frankly disgusting attempts to co-opt this story by fundamentalists, anti-equality groups, and other loonies are, I think, so far wide of the point they may as well stop talking about the story entirely. It’s the elements of the story, appreciated in context, which are important. Sure, on one level, this is an implausible fairy tale about God, a dysfunctional couple and talking animals in a garden, but this is really the least important level. What we’re talking about here is the advent of civilisation, and the deep problems this causes to the human psyche. The fruit of knowledge is such a widespread trope it deserves a post all to itself, but that’s not one I’m qualified to write. For the purposes of this article, however, suffice it to say that knowledge in the mythical sense is about self-awareness. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s generally agreed that self-awareness, or a sense of self, isn’t something we humans have always had. This means there must have been some point in time when humans somehow acquired it, and there’s a compelling argument to be made that most stories which contain the knowledge trope are attempts to interpret the dim memory of this. If you want to look into this idea further, Professors William Propp and Steve Tinney do a much better job than me of explaining it.
Leaving the megalithic topic of knowledge aside, though, understanding that this is what the Adam and Eve story is about tends to clarify the rest of it. What we’re left with, then, is a heavily symbolic account and exploration of the pros and cons of the advent of sedentary civilisation. Paradise is not so much a physical location as a state of being. Prior to the Neolithic revolution, humanity existed in what some call ‘a state of nature’. This is Levi-Strauss’ idea of ‘the raw’. Hunter gatherers may spend quite a bit of their day wandering around looking for things, but what they don’t really do is work. It’s not until farming, and all the other paraphernalia of civilisation that come with it (trade, disease, etc.) that humanity becomes familiar with the idea of work. If we look closely at the ‘punishments’ handed out to Adam and Eve, they’re mostly identifiable as the simple consequences of civilised agrarian life. Many scholars, in fact, like to deviate from the Augustinian narrative of crime and punishment and see this story as an account of humanity’s involuntary trade-off of awareness and surplus for freedom and the psychic immortality which comes with an ignorance of death. I’d also like to make a note about contextualising the symbols in a story this old. It’s very important that we don’t apply modern values to ancient symbols – the snake is a prime example. The erroneous association of the snake with Satan is very much a product of our own modern view of snakes. In the ancient world, all the way down to late antiquity, snakes are symbols of wisdom, knowledge and longevity/immortality, and are overwhelmingly not seen as evil. Which puts a completely different complexion on things, if you think about it.
Looked at in this way, and understanding the heavily symbolic nature of the story elements, this myth actually has value as a kind of mnemo-narrative of our deep, deep history. If nothing else, it tells us that ancient peoples preserved a memory, however corrupted, of a key moment in the history of human civilisation. And also that they were wont to think about it in very much the same terms we do today. Compare the anguish with which the sufferings of civilisation are recounted with our own modern fetishisation of pristine/tribal societies. In both cases we see a nostalgia for a simpler, less cultivated consciousness and mode of life, and an attempt to understand and come to terms with the bargain we made all those millennia ago.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about that favourite hobby horse of both atheists and creationists alike – The Flood.