Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Dragons of Eden

Ut-Napishtim reveals to Gilgamesh the existence of a "thorny" herb (that is a herb hard to access) at the bottom of the sea, which, though it will not confer immortality, will definitely prolong the youth and life of whoever eats of it…Gilgamesh fastens stones to his feet and goes down to search the bottom of the sea. Having found the herb, he pulls a spring from it, then unfastens the stones, and rises again to the surface. On the road to Uruk, he stops to drink dorm a spring; drawn by the scent of the plant, a snake draws near and devours it, thus becoming immortal. Gilgamesh, like Adam, has lost immortality because of his own stupidity and a serpent's strike. 

Iranian tradition, also, has a tree of life and regeneration which grows on earth and has a prototype in heaven…Ahriman counters this creation of Ahura Mazda's, by creating a lizard in the waters of Vourakasa to attack the miraculous tree Gaokerena. 

The serpent is present beside the Tree of Life in other traditions, too, probably as a result of Iranian influences. The Kalmuks tell how a dragon is in the ocean, near the tree Zambu, waiting for some of the leves to fall so that he can devour them. The Buriats believe in the serpent Abyrga beside the gee in a "lake of milk". In some Central Asiatic versions, Abyrga is coiled round the actual tree trunk.

There are gryphons or monsters guarding all the roads to salvation, mounting guard over the Tree of LIfe, or some symbol of the same thing. When Hercules went to steal the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, he had either to kill or put to sleep the dragon guarding them…The golden fleece of Colchis was also guarded by a dragon, which Jason had to kill to obtain it. There are serpents "guarding" all the paths to immortality…They are always pictured round the bowl of Dionysos, they watch over Apollo's gold in far-off Scythia, they guard the treasurs hidden at the bottom of the earth, or the diamonds and pearls at the bottom of the sea…In the Baptistery at Parma, dragons mount guard over the Tree of Life. The same motif can be seen in a bas-relief in the Museum of the Cathedra of Ferrara.

The "snake-stone" offers a very good example of a symbol displaced and changed. In many places, precious stones were thought to be fallen from the heads of snakes or dragons…The origin and the theory underlying these legends and so many others are not far to seek: it is the ancient myth of "monsters" (snakes, dragons), watching over the "Tree of Life", or some specially consecrated place, or some sacred substance, or some absolute value (immortality, eternal youth, the knowledge of good and evil, and so on). Remember that all the symbols of this absolute reality are always guarded by monsters which only allow the elected to pass; the "Tree of Life", the tree with the golden apples or the golden fleece, "treasures" of every kind (pearls from the ocean bed, gold from the earth and so on) are protected by a dragon and anyone who wants to attain to one of these symbols of immortality must first give proof of his "heroism" or his "wisdom" by braving all dangers and finally killing the reptilian monster. From this ancient mythological theme, via many processes of rationalization and corruption, are derived all beliefs in treasure, magic stones and jewels. The Tree of Life, or the tree with the golden apples, or the golden fleece, which symbolized a state of absoluteness (gold meant "glory", immortality, &c.)–became a golden "treasure" hidden in the ground and guarded by dragons or serpents. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 289-91; 441-42. 

1. This analysis is very suggestive. However, it suffers from some methodological problems: 

i) Eliade doesn't date his sources. 

ii) There's the assumption that these motifs must be the result of cultural diffusion: they can't arise independently. 

iii) There's a certain straining to reduce all these stories to variations on a common theme–under the assumption that there must be some common thread. Is that, however, something Eliade is deriving from his sources or imposing on his sources? There's the danger of shoehorning the stories into a preconceived grid by treating the similarities as primary and the dissimilarities as secondary. There's a risk of comparing elements from one story with elements from another story, rather than considering how all the elements within a given story relate to each other. Do they have a common significance? Or is their significance determined by the particular role they play within the world of the story? 

iv) Adam and Eve don't "first give proof of their heroism or wisdom by braving all dangers and finally killing the reptilian monster." They were created in the Garden. They had automatic access to the prize. 

And that's not an incidental detail. The trials by ordeal are essential the quest genre. Moreover, the quest genre typically involves a male protagonist. Gen 2-3 just aren't parallel.

v) In Genesis, immortality and longevity are not interchangeable principles. Adam and Eve didn't lose their longevity. They enjoyed fabulous longevity–as did their predeluvian posterity. What they lost was the opportunity to become immortal. They lost that both for themselves and their posterity. 

vi) Are deep-sea pearls symbols of immortality? Does the golden fleece symbolic immortality? What about Apollo's gold? 

vii) Perhaps worst of all, Eliade's comparison centers on the dragon, the hero, and a tree of life, but Gen 3 centers on the Tempter, Eve, and tree of knowledge–not the tree of life. It was the tree of knowledge, not the tree of life, that was forbidden. The "snake" tempts them to break a prohibition regarding the tree of knowledge, not the tree of life. There's no textual evidence that the "snake's" duty is to guard the tree of life–or even the tree of knowledge. Eliade is forcing the story into a groove where it doesn't belong. 

2. Having registered all those caveats, does Eliade's comparison have any residual value? Oddly enough, he overlooks two texts that seem to provide supporting material for his theory:

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates (Gen 2:10-14).

“You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared. 14 You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you. 16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire (Ezk 28:12-16).

i) In both Gen 2 and Ezk 28, there's some linkage between Eden, gold, and gemstones. In Gen 2, the link is indirect. There's no gold or gemstones in the Garden. Rather, that's in outlying areas. 

In Ezk 28, the link is more direct. The difference is that Gen 2-3 is historical narrative, whereas Ezk 28 reflects poetic license. 

ii) In Ezk 28, you have the character of a treasonous guardian seraph. That, however, is different from Eliade's counterparts, for this sentinel, rather than protecting the prize, becomes the tempter. Moreover, the comparison is complicated by the fact that Ezekiel is using imagery of a primordial fall to characterize a historical tyrant. So it's not just a theological interpretation of Gen 2-3. Rather, there's some "interference", by mixing Gen 2-3 with the king of Tyre. 

iii) That said, if ancient readers were accustomed to the motif of a snake or dragon that guarded something forbidden to outsiders, do certain otherwise puzzling pieces in Gen 3 fall into place? That would explain what the Tempter was doing there in the first place. That would explain why Eve wasn't startled by the Tempter. She was used to seeing angels patrol the perimeters of the garden–maybe to keep dangerous animals from penetrating the precincts. Moreover, that made the Tempter a seemingly benign figure. 

Furthermore, a guard who betrays his position can do unique damage. Consider a sentinel that's tasked to guard the city gates. If he's bribed to open the gates to the invading army, that's an inside job. And it's far more damaging than what outside assailants could do. 

iv) However, that interpretation isn't necessarily unproblematic. It seems to make their disobedience a set-up. They'd be in no position to suspect the motives of a guardian seraph. Is it fair to punish them?

Strictly speaking, Adam and Eve are not entitled to live in the Garden. They are not entitled to immortality. They are there at God's indulgence. 

Then you have Paul's statement that Eve was deceived, but Adam as not (1 Tim 2:14). How do we account for that distinction? Perhaps it's based on the assumption that Adam experienced God firsthand, whereas Eve's knowledge was secondhand. 

So why did Adam succumb? Who knows? Perhaps he was overcome by cupidity and curiosity. A tree of knowledge! Maybe that aroused covetous feelings. And the fact that it was forbidden made it all the more enticing. 

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