I must state by way of a disclaimer that I make no claims to be an authority on the Bible, western religious history, or ancient Near Eastern mythology (although, even with my admittedly limited research in these areas, the symbolic content of the Biblical origin myths appears rather obvious). I also make no claims as to the accuracy or provability of the symbolic interpretations offered here: I still have much reading and research to do before I could take such an aggressive stand (hence, this document is entitled "Notes for Research", as opposed to "Indisputably Correct Interpretations"). Its primary purpose is to get my ideas about the symbolic content of the stories down on paper and to analyze their interrelationships; and to make some tentative interpretations on what they are saying about the cultural shifts in the ancient Near East as recorded in mythical tradition.
Clash of two cultures: indigenous (largely agrarian) and foreign invasion (largely pastoralist). This is reflected more explicitly in elements of CAIN/ABEL myth, involving denigration of indigenous agriculturalists' culture and religion:
--God figure's rejection of agriculturalist's grain offering.
--Deity's acceptance of pastoralist's animal/blood sacrifice; establishes pattern of preference for blood sacrifice.
--Message: Pastoralists' religious practice and understanding superior to those of the agriculturalists.
--Parallel myth/message: Sumerian tale of marriage of Inanna, who attempts to choose between a farmer and Dumuzi the shepherd. Everyone, including her parents, gives preference to the shepherd, who is eventually chosen by Inanna. Represents same message of superiority of pastoralist culture, allegedly favored by deities. Historical reality: myth reflects shift to invader/pastoralist supremacy as ruling class, shift to patrilineal/patriarchal social structure and patriarchal/sky god-oriented religious ideology, and religious authority restricted to elite male priesthood.
--Murder of brother by Cain the farmer: Could symbolize: (1) Denigration of agriculturalists as murderous fratricidal savages; (2) Denigration of indigenous culture and religion relating to rejection of grain offering: "If you do not do what is right, sin is lurking at your door" (Gen. 4:7); (3) Metaphor for real or threatened historical uprising by one or more subjugated indigenous groups, possibly trying to re-establish influence of their religious practice (foreign converts to indigenous belief system could have been involved, fighting on side of indigenous peoples); or (4) Indigenous culture and religious practice maintaining their dominant position, or regaining dominance, in some regions, at the expense of invaders’ influences; indigenous culture/religion (re)gaining ground, to the consternation of pastoralist priesthood caste, when they discovered this situation.
--Exile of agriculturalist: could mean (1) Further elaboration of hybrid Indo-European ANCESTRAL EXILE motif; (2) Agriculturalists' revolt put down by force or by order of pastoralist priesthood; (3) Actual exile or displacement of agrarians, at least those participating in revolt; (4) Overthrow and displacement of agriculturalists' religious belief and practice; see Gimbutas on cessation of temple building in areas of most intensive Kurgan takeover (Note that the Biblical story does acknowledge the indigenous origins of cities, musical instruments, metallurgy, other technological developments in the region, as invented by "descendants of Cain").
--Innocent blood crying for justice: Indo-European/pastoralist emphasis on honor lost and regained. Emphasis on honor and justice for their own people, probably at the indigenous peoples' expense. Most innocent blood in fact probably that of indigenous people, especially at the outset of the invasions (they had little if any experience with weapons, organized attack or defense, organized leadership knowledgeable in defense against outside attack). Further message of deity being on the side of the pastoralists, as well as further legitimizing of pastoralists' claim to conquered territory. The reference to Abel’s blood “crying out from the ground” reflects Indo-European view of earth as associated with death (as in locus of underworld), and emphasis on formalized burial rites (lacking for pastoralist murder victim in Biblical story) and social hierarchy (violated by agriculturalist rising up against “favored”, i.e. pastoralist, segment of the new society). Strangely, the agriculturalist’s murder of his brother the pastoralist is said to turn the earth against him, forcing him to take up a pastoralist’s nomadic way of life, “wandering the earth forever” (more hybridization of indigenous and pastoralist ideas?)
GARDEN MYTH: Hybridized myth (with both indigenous and Indo-European elements) to legitimize Indo-European/pastoralist conquest of the Near East (Parallel myths include Marduk/Tiamat battle, Indra/Vrtra battle myth of Indo-Aryans, Persian light vs. dark conflict [Ahuramazda vs. Ahriman], Epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna and the Huluppu Tree. Later parallels: St. Patrick vs. Irish serpents, St. George vs. Dragon, possibly Beowulf vs. Swamp Creatures [Grendel and his mother] and a Dragon. Modern literary parallels include Tolkien's The Hobbit, featuring a quest against a dragon).
Biblical version of Garden myth (written down between c. 900 BCE and c. 400 BCE) was created and used to pressure tribal acceptance of central kingship and official monotheism in Israel. However, this story has hallmarks of much older invasion/ conquest myths, plus hybridized Indo-European motif of human ancestors exiled from paradise/land of the Gods/Sky- or Star Kingdom for some "original sin" (as found in Persian astral cults, Zoroastrianism, etc.). Clues as to elements of indigenous culture can be found or inferred from pro-pastoralist reversals and denigrations/demonizations (e.g. of Cain's sacrifice, Eve's dialogue with serpent, etc.). In this story, the exile is from an "earthly paradise" and state of innocence. Often Indo-European myths place earth and physical life as place of exile ("Gosh, what a comedown!"), as opposed to humans' original home in mountains, skies, among the stars, other "high places" among the deities. Hence, human's whole purpose in life is to "find our way back to the stars" (see Carl Sagan, "we are made of star-stuff", etc.). To Indo-Europeans, all goodness, sacredness, everything of value was in the sky; earth was a dead swamp, place of exile and death. Judaism balanced and closed the split somewhat by emphasis on both Creator and Creation as being "good"; however, Christianity early on re-emphasized split between Creator/Creation, Heaven/Earth, Spirit/matter, with all goodness in sky/heaven; earth/matter/sexuality portrayed as evil, exilic state (especially as God, Christ and Mary all seen as devoid of all sexuality). This is probably under Hellenistic, Gnostic, Greco-Persian influence; essentially a cave-in to mainstream Hellenistic ideology in preference to the Jewish concept of the goodness of all Creation (probably because missionary message was most readily accepted by Gentiles attending synagogues, and because of mainstream Jewish vs. Nazarene-Messianic Jewish conflicts).
To return to the GARDEN:
Serpent: Totem of Female Deity, and keeper/guardian of sacred knowledge. Here represents indigenous belief system itself, targeted by invading pastoralists' belief system and priesthood caste (both represented by God figure). Serpent, First Woman, and Tree all widely known totemic/mythic symbols of Divine Feminine/Creatrix.
Trees of Life and Knowledge: repositories of sacred knowledge or wisdom, in both physical and subtle reality; also represents indigenous belief and practice, or elements thereof.
Woman sharing fruit with man: in indigenous culture, spiritual seeking was open to ordinary people, not merely elite caste of priests or priestesses. Represents establishment of women's spiritual authority and status as seekers and bringers of sacred knowledge to their people--knowledge of love, sexuality, moral law ("knowledge of good and evil"), etc. Women had access to sacred knowledge through entry into subtle reality via shamanic journeying and meditation, visionary/mystical exercises, possibly even prophetic trance states accessed through small doses of snake venom or other consciousness-altering substances (see Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman). Also represents lay people seeking spiritual wisdom and revelatory experience outside the authority of a religious establishment and the mediation of ordained clergy.
Serpent as "most subtle of creatures": guardian of sacred knowledge positioned in subtle or non-ordinary reality (see Totemic Designation, above).
Nakedness vs. shame: Indo-European spin on cultural shift: when "eyes were opened", shift to Indo-European ideology occurred; in their view, a form of enlightenment. Relating to exile myth: exile occurred through a Promethean theft of knowledge by human ancestors. From indigenous point of view: shift from positive to negative view of sexuality, from lesser to greater consciousness of one’s body; an absorption or imposition of a form of knowledge that denigrated the physical and sexual. Curiously, this is blamed on indigenous practice of seeking sacred knowledge (rather crude pastoralist reversal). Also, cultural shift appears to alienate people from the Divine; invaders’ gods are to be feared and hidden from, not “walked with”, or interacted with in an immanent, intimate relationship also involving nature.
Cursing of the ground: In indigenous version of the myth, the receiving of knowledge, participation in Sacred Branch rite and other fertility rites renewed the earth and all creation; failure to do so would create barrenness for both humans and the rest of nature. This story gives Indo-European reversal: practice of "forbidden" indigenous religion results in earth being cursed with barrenness. Also relating again to exile myth: humans banished from the sky to the earth where they must do constant labor. In this case, invaders' belief system declares Earth cursed and barren (place of "thorns and thistles", a "vale of tears", a place of punishment for human ancestors and their descendants: that is, no longer alive and fertile Mother of indigenous people, now an Indo-European "dead world" and locus of underground Land of the Dead). Further element of shift in cultural/ideological consciousness: to the indigenous people, Earth was a divine garden of beauty and fertility, bringing joy and abundance to life and work; to the pastoralists, it was mere barren dirt (esp. when overgrazed), with work being a chore and a burden. Hence cultural shift caused by invasions alienated ordinary people from Nature as well as the Divine. Cain the Agriculturalist’s uprising is said to exacerbate this situation: “the earth will no longer bear [fruit] for you…” (Gen. 4:12).
Humans' dominion over creation/tilling and keeping the garden: mixture of Indo-European anthropocentrism (nature made for human ownership and use); and indigenous myth of Creatrix teaching people the art of raising food and care for creation.
Pain/Sorrow in conceiving and bearing children multiplied: in indigenous society, sexuality and childbirth were sources and vehicles of joy, and were part of the instruction from sacred knowledge received by shamans or visionkeepers. Relating to the association of the Divine, goodness, sacredness and inherent value with earth and present life rather than the sky. Indigenous culture and spirituality would have portrayed the Divine as being concerned for the health and happiness of mothers and children; the Divine could be invoked to ease the discomfort of birth, death, conception, pregnancy and labor. The change from joy to sorrow in sexuality and birth is a reflection of the cultural and spiritual shift that followed the serial invasions by pastoralists; invaders’ version of Divinity could not be prevailed upon to show concern for the comfort of women in childbirth. Some Biblical translations have God figure saying, “I will greatly increase your sorrow and your labor [in childbirth]…” (Gen. 3:16; italics added for emphasis). In pastoralist reversal, this shift also blamed on indigenous spiritual practice.
Act of disobedience: the very practice of the indigenous people's culture and religion; or that they stood up against the imposition of foreign beliefs and norms, and tried desperately to hold onto the ways of their ancestors and upbringing. Defiance of the Indo-European priesthood's monopolizing of spiritual power and prohibition of access to higher knowledge by women and ordinary people not authorized by Indo-European version of deity (-ies). In later written (Biblical) version of myth, attempt to associate mythical fall from grace with polytheism (or resistance to official monotheism/ monarchy) by some Hebrew and Canaanite tribes (see the "serpent jars" found in excavations of ruined shrines dedicated to Asherah in Israel and Lebanon).
Forbidden tree/fruit: See above, prohibition on access by ordinary people to higher/ sacred knowledge re: moral law, etc. by pastoralist elite priesthood, mages or diviners. Threat of death used to bar access to knowledge (i.e. "This knowledge is too powerful for ordinary people--it will kill you!" See also account of sudden death of man who touched Ark of the Covenant). Story contains clues that indigenous beliefs held no such prohibition or threats; sacred knowledge accessible with proper training in art of negotiation with sacred totems (e.g. Tree, Serpent) in subtle reality. Threat of death could also be prohibition against indigenous people (or invading settlers) practicing indigenous spirituality on pain of death. Further message of superiority of invaders' religious belief and practice (symbolized by God figure) over that of the indigenous people.
Serpent, First Woman (Hawwah/Eve, or "Mother of All Living") and Trees: all Sacred totems of Mother Creatrix throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near East and Middle East to the Black Sea region (possibly Ninhursag the Mountain Mother, in the case of this story).
Creation of humans from clay, breath of life: borrowing from Creatrix myth of Ninhursag, who likewise created humans from clay and breathed on them, but also bathed them in her own menstrual blood (this latter point not likely to be included in any Indo-European creation myth).
Three Versions in all of Creation of Male and Female:
I. Creator simply made humans in His own image: "male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-30).
II. Eve created from Adam's rib and named by the man. Indo-European concept of female principle derived from male principle (see derivative myth of Athena born from the head of Zeus, causing him a splitting headache); indicating pastoralist view of men having ownership interests in women and nature, connoted in naming of woman and animals (Genesis 2:4-25).
III. Creator simply made and blessed humans, who started multiplying (Genesis 5:1-2; inserted after Garden story and Cain/Abel story; suggests disjointed insertions and editing of older texts and oral accounts).
Suitable helper in First Woman: in (hypothetical) indigenous version, androgynous or female ancestor either split as twins (?) or developed both male and female aspects or manifestations. Son derived from First Mother, as opposed to Indo-European female-derived-from-male motif. Also reflects invaders’ patrilineal custom (as in paternal ancestry), and notion of humans as not in relationship to other creatures.
"Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you": Shift to Indo-European culture and ideology demoted women's status, and established male supremacy and restriction of sexuality for purposes of insuring patrilineal transmission of family name and inherited property. Clue that in indigenous culture, women and men alike were "free agents"; women were personally and sexually autonomous, sexuality was not an owned commodity. Women and men could choose their own partners, and were not necessarily bound to one person for life. Women were their own masters (not necessarily masters over men, as in a matriarchy; but status of the sexes was more or less balanced). In indigenous version of creation myth, women's spiritual authority and status in the community would have been established by the Creatrix or her totems, with the successful finding and bringing back of sacred knowledge for the benefit of the community. In Indo-European/Biblical version, the demotion of women's status is connected with the assertion of her authority as knowledge-bringer in defiance of the prohibition against practice of indigenous religion by the invaders (another denigration of indigenous belief and practice as responsible for "fall from grace"). In this version, the woman “usurps” authority, and goes “outside her proper sphere”; in indigenous society, she would have been well within her sphere and scope of authority and influence. Older Indo-European exile myths would have blamed women's self-assertion (?) for exile of humans from the Sky/Star Kingdom.
Curse against the serpent: Demonization of Creatrix totem as emblem of indigenous belief system. Women and their descendants are here charged with the responsibility for wiping out indigenous beliefs (probably by teaching the invaders' beliefs to their offspring). Reflects Indo-European view of snakes as symbols of evil, as opposed to indigenous European view of snakes as keepers of wisdom, symbols of cyclic time and regeneration of life (i.e. in shedding skin). General demotion and overthrow, attempted eradication of indigenous spirituality; alienation of people from their indigenous sacred symbols and manifestations of Divinity. Alienation of women both from Creatrix totem and their own spiritual authority and role as sacred knowledge-bringers.
Tree, Fruit of Knowledge, Humans' "eyes opened, becoming like gods": historically interpreted as humans being tempted with self-divinization. Reflects indigenous idea of Divinity being immanent, people sharing in Divine wisdom, embodying Divine principles or standing in for deities in ritual practice; woman as earthly embodiment of Divine Mother. Also, lay people having the right to access sacred knowledge and wisdom without mediation of clergy representing the Divine: anyone can represent or commune with the Divine, or have it called into them via ritual and ceremonial roles. Specific reference to rite of Sacred Branch (i.e. Sharing of Fruit of Sacred Knowledge by woman/ priestess/shaman) relating to renewal of life in Spring, sacred sexuality and connection with the Divine. General reference to human participation in the Divine, and in processes of Nature through ritual. In Indo-European cosmology, such processes controlled only by gods, participation in Divinity only open to deities, ordained priesthood, and heroes who are half-human, half-divine (Hercules, et. al.). Divinity found only in Sky Kingdom.
Exile from Garden, Sword/Angels posted barring entrance into Garden: see above references to Indo-European ancestral exile motif. Reflects post-invasion restriction of access to spiritual authority, sacred knowledge and subtle reality to "divinely authorized" elite all-male priesthood caste. Also represents psycho-spiritual barriers to sacred knowledge, as well as enforcement of restrictions by state or military forces. Also, ownership and control of land, nature, sexuality and food production by pastoralist rulers and priesthood. Reflects fear of indigenous people’s spirituality and connection with the Divine Source by pastoralist leaders and priesthood caste: “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not reach out and take fruit from the tree of life and eat. Then he would live forever” (Gen. 3:22).
© 2000 by Karen I. Olsen. Previously published as an article on the site of Themestream.com.
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