Garden, Snake and Tree

Dating from more than 2,000 years before the final version of the Garden of Eden story, we have this seal from the Sumerian civilisation in what is now southern Iraq (the same part of the world from which the ancestors of Abraham, the ‘father’ of Israel, are said to have come from). Beginning from the left, there is a serpent or snake; a seated female figure; a tree with fruit dangling below it; and a seated male. It’s all fascinatingly (or for some, disturbingly) familiar. It’s another reminder that the Bible didn’t drop from the skies, but emerged from the age-long and widespread historical culture of the Ancient Near East.

What story is the seal telling us? It’s a picture of divinity, since the female figure is a goddess and the male figure a god. It’s about life and death, the snake being a creature that can shed its old skin and live afresh with a new one (the snake being mythologically linked to the moon, which does the same on a monthly basis). It’s about fertility, and the bearing of fruit after the barrenness of winter. It suggests neither patriarchy nor matriarchy, but male and female complementarity, and presents a positive and attractive picture. There’s no hint of temptation or deceit here, nor any threat of expulsion.

It recalls the ancient times of the great Goddess, the Earth Mother, who represented the ongoing continuance of life, since from her all life came, and to her all life returned in death, from which fresh life arose. The snake or serpent was the symbol of the dying and rising god, who is both husband and son of the goddess, and who represents that ongoing cycle of life and death linked, in agrarian societies, to the death of vegetation in winter, and its rebirth in spring.

The Hebrew version of this myth (which belongs to the ‘J’ source) dispenses with its fertility aspect, and is entirely patriarchal. It’s the man who precedes, and ‘gives birth’ to the woman, and she will thereafter “be subject to” him. It’s also dualistic in its focus on opposites. There’s disunity and ‘friction’ between the divine and the human, the man and the woman, the humans and the animals (represented by the snake), and humans and the natural world which will now “produce weeds and thorns”. The ‘beatitude’, the mutual delight and complementarity suggested by the seal, seems a distant dream. The Hebrew deity is one who demands unquestioning obedience, on pain of expulsion from any and every ‘garden of bliss’.

Being a story, there is an arguable lack of logic in the Genesis story. It has echoes of the common mythological theme of the gods creating humans to do ‘the daily work’ of the world (Adam’s task being “to cultivate and guard” Eden). The gods, however, wanted humans to ‘know their station’ and not aspire to usurp the place of the gods. And so in Eden, after the humans exercise freedom of choice in disobeying the divine decree, they’re well on the way to “become like one of us” (“us” being Yahweh’s assembly of fellow divine beings), and so the brakes must be applied sharply to deny them the possibility, like gods, of living forever. A burning, whirling sword is set to prevent any possible access to the “tree of life”. The unanswered question, of course, is why there was such a tree in addition to a “tree of good and evil”, which was surely inviting what inevitably came to pass. 

I have to confess to a preference for the ‘sunshine’ of the Sumerian version, rather than the ‘storm clouds’ of the ‘J’ version in Genesis. Happily, however, I take note of Carl Jung’s idea that imaginative stories arise from the human ‘collective unconscious’, which provides templates for the content of such stories, and which has an inborn ‘balancing’ dynamic (‘enantiodromia’ if you feel a google coming on). And so the text also contains images which can echo a different story. 

Despite her ‘birth’ from Adam, it is recognised that it is Eve who is “the mother of all human beings”, a pale copy of the Great Goddess, but a copy all the same. And despite her origin from a ‘spare rib’, there is a recognition that man and woman are ‘bone of the same bone, and flesh of the same flesh’. Let’s feast on that, and put the ‘spare rib’ in the bin where it rightly belongs. 

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