We have been talking about the gender dynamics of myth and doctrine in Christianity. (When I say “myth”, am using it in the sense of a psychologically active story, regardless of whether it is factual or fictional.)
One of the foundational stories in Christianity is the Garden of Eden story. Paul refers back to it constantly when he refers to Adam as the ancestor of humanity and Adam’s sin as the cause of our fallen state. (That’s what I mean by mythology – mythology is the process of encoding an insight as a story.) It sets up a mythological portrayal of one of Christianity’s core doctrines – Original Sin – but that lesson was not one that the original audience for the story would have drawn. In the thousand years between the time the story was recorded and the advent of Christianity, some new interpretations had crept in.
Let’s start from the beginning. However old the story actually is, the version we have was recorded around 3,000 years, during the time the polity we know as [ancient] Israel was coalescing. This coalescence was part of the fallout of the Bronze Age Collapse, a general collapse in the eastern Mediterranean, in which city and temple-centered polities collapsed quite suddenly. One theory is that a these societies were pretty much all slave societies and the Bronze Age Collapse was a revolt by peasant populations against their overlords. This chimes with the emphasis on liberation in the Exodus story.
This chronology happens to coincide pretty closely with the traditional date of the Exodus. (As a matter of fact, it’s not all that far from Akhnaten’s dates either.) It’s not at all clear that “the Israelites” existed as a distinct group before this time, and the story of descent from Abraham may really just be a common ancestry invented in the interest of national unity, but that doesn’t matter here.) What does matter is that 1) the Hebrews were linguistically and ethnically quite close to the people of the Canaanite kingdoms they invaded, so it was necessary to create and emphasize distinctions between the Canaanites and Israelites – assigning descent from Ham rather than Shem to the Canaanites was one way to do this, and 2) another and more thorough way to do this was to organize this new national group with an entirely new ethnic identity around a new religion that rejected the old religion of Canaan – all aspects of it.
That Canaanite religion had a roughly equal number of gods and goddesses and was part of a larger cultural regional complex. It emphasized fertility and the cycle of life in its mythology. The myth of the god we know in Greek mythology as Adonis is an example of this. Many of its mythic and cultic features show up in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) in a very negative light, which is to be expected. They were aspects of the old, oppressive order – slavery, elite dominance, human sacrifice –on whose ruins the new nation of Israel was founded. This pattern of rebranding old religious symbols as wicked is one of two ways new religions supplant old religions.
Two symbols of that religion, snakes and a certain species of fig, show up in the garden of Eden story, both in a negative light, and both were associated with goddess(es) in that religion. In eastern Meditteranean religions snakes were a female symbol. (See also the Medusa.) So go back and look at the story now.
Eve is eating off a tree, probably a fig since that the only fruit tree native to the region. She is consorting with a snake and taking instruction from it rather than from God. It ends in tears.
Why female symbols from the old religion and not male? Because Eve was female? Okay, but why focus on Eve? Odd place to find gynocentrism, but it sure explains a lot of the distrust of women and womanhood in those cultures. Perhaps it goes back to the cause and the nature of the collapse that this new religion arose in. The old goddess religions of the eastern Mediterranean were not the peaceful, nurturant lost Eden we used to hear about from the Goddess feminists; it was bloody and oppressive. And they didn’t die easily; people in Israel kept relapsing to the religion of their ancestors for centuries. The prophets bitched about that continually.
Anyway, a thousand years pass and the story gets re-interpreted. No one remembers anything about goddesses and snakes by this time. But now Christian writers are trying to articulate doctrines that their education has given them no conceptual vocabulary for, and they have to use terms and images that are going to communicate with their audiences. Along with inadequate terminology of Greek philosophy they can use for apologetics with educated people, they have the stories of the Hebrew Bible for the almost everyone else turning to the new religion, most of whom are Jews, who see it as simply a new and better kind of Judaism. (That ends in tears too.)
It’s not an easy fit. The tree gets sidelined, the snake gets identified as Satan and blamed for everything, Eve gets demonized as the path for evil to enter the world and Adam gets blamed for listening to Eve because after all he’s than man and the putative ancestor of us al – whoever actually sired Eve’s offspring – my money is on the snake, based on observed behavior.
So this is a parable of trying to use stories to present theological positions. These stories have a life of their own, like the severed head of a rattlesnake.
Something else I want to explore here. I have always sensed there were some differences in sex-negativity depending on cultural backgrounds. I have the sense that in Northern and Western European cultures it has more to do with sneering at sexual need, but in Mediterranean cultures there is plain old real disgust at sex. Disgust versus contempt – that’s a pretty significant difference.
And I think these two kinds of sex-negativity differ becasue they have different sources. I think the stoic orientation of western and northern cultures in Europe has to do with their form of sex-negativity, that people tend to see any kind of a need as a weaknes and weakness is contemptible, or at least pathetic, in a stoic values sytem. It’s interesting that in British usage “cunt” is also a reference to stupidity, something it shares with the French sense of “con”. Both words have the same etymological origin and there semantic content is quite close. Stupidity – and by lexical association, sexual desire – are weakness and inadequacy.
On the other hand in Mediterranean cultures there is a sense that sex is a form of contamination. I think this is because fertility and sex were at heart of the old religions and the new religion demonized it along with everything else having to do with those religions. And I don’t mean the procreative sex you would expect in a fertility cult – procreative sex is the only kind the Roman church considers acceptable, and the Mosaic strictures around sex frankly look like a nationalist breeding progam (I don’t think the homphobia od deuteronomy is coincidental in any way – you find the same thing in the White Power and Aztlan movements). I mean [heteronromative] sex as a heuristic for understanding reality, gender polarity as the mechanism of life. YHWH on the other hand has no gender.
I am not going to develop this further here with examples and citations because it is a gigantic subject and one or fifty blog posts would never get beyond the surface. I am just raising the question as a point of departure for discussion. We have commenters from a range of cultural backgrounds. You all can contribute more in comments than I could pull together in months of posts. Please have at it; you can basically consider this an open thread on sex-negativity.
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probably a fig
Nah. Definitely avacado. Food of the gods.
Avocados are the food of the gods. i saw a website once that rated various fruits and vegetables nutritionally against what was available in east Africa while we were eveolving there. Oddly there is a quite a lot of foods that are as good or better for us everywhere else. The Neo-trpoics are especially rich in these foods. Strange.
I saw one of those speculative programs on TV that tried to make the case that eden was in northwestern Iran, and in fact it made a lot of sense. Now it turns out that the center of diffusion at the very beginning of the Neolithic, and they have tracked this by haplotypes. And the Eden story is also about being thrown out of the foraging life and into farming.
“Let’s start from the beginning. However old the story actually is, the version we have was recorded around 3,000 years,”
It still is kind of funny to me that anyone that takes a story written 3,000 years ago about the beginning of man, which was obviously a FEW thousand years before (lol) even remotely seriously.
The connection snakes/women is tenuous at best, as is the fruit/figs/women connection.
In the bible, it is said that Abraham abandoned the city of Ur. We know that the cities of Mesopotamia had pretty big social issues at the time, with inequality, debt and debt peonage periodically driving people out of them into life in nomadic tribes (which were a threat to the cities).
Presumably, people driven out would aggressively reject the cities values – among them, the practice of keeping a man’s wife and children as ransom, to force him to pay his debts, and the practice of prostitution (often forced from economic desperation, then as it is now). Protecting and sheltering (and in the process, disenfranching) women could easily have become a core value of various middle eastern nomads at this time, with all the negatives it implies for the male gender role.
We know that in earlier times in Mesopotamia, city society was fairly egalitarian seen with modern eyes – a number of women are named in administrative postitions, etc. At one point it must have changed. I think a plausible theory is this:
Stage A: Fairly egalitarian society, with interdependence: men slightly more emotionally dependent on women (than vice versa), and women slightly more materially dependent on men (than vice versa). Drifting towards…
Stage B: Rising incidence of debt and inequality. Creditors (and people dominating through other means) discover that men’s dependence on women can be more easily exploited than vice versa, through threatening the woman in various ways.
Stage C: The men rebel and leave, vowing that their daughters will never be subject to the disgraces and sins of the city.
It is in one sense surprising that the pastoralists of the middle easts should have such sharply segregated gender roles. In pastoralism, there is far less need for separation of labor than in sedentary plow agriculture. I think a moral reaction may be a plausible explanation.
At fifty three I’m still trying to come to grips with the notion that the most highly publicised cuckolding of all time has developed divine and holy status. Sounds like it may have happened before.