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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: mythology

In Genesis, as in life, we see what we expect to see

Stephen H. Provost

They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple, but man, I ain’t goin’ for that.
— Bruce Springsteen, Pink Cadillac

Virtually everyone knows the story of the Garden of Eden. We learned it in Sunday school, or from our parents.

We know from this story that Satan persuaded the first woman, named Eve, to eat an apple, which Jehovah had forbidden. We know that Eve then seduced the first man, Adam, into doing the same.

Except none of that is true.

I’m not saying it’s false in the sense that, “that’s just a myth, so it never happened” – that’s a different discussion. I’m saying it’s not in the story. No apple is ever mentioned. Neither is Satan. There’s no reference to the woman seducing Adam, and she didn’t receive the name “Eve” until after this all went down. Also, the divine presence in the story is Elohim, not Jehovah. Most of what we thought we knew about this story, it turns out, is a mixture of commentary and assumption that we simply accept as fact because it’s become part of our popular culture.

A god by any other name ...

How did it get that way?

When the story was written, the deity credited with creation was named Elohim – a Canaanite word meaning “the gods.” Plural. That, however, didn’t square with the worship of the Hebrew god Jehovah (singular), in Judeo-Christian tradition that became dominant later on. The name Jehovah, or Yahweh, doesn’t even appear in the Book of Genesis, which was written in its earliest form before this deity was widely worshipped.

When the worship of Yahweh became not only dominant, but exclusive, something had to be done to reflect that. The creation story was already so widely known that it couldn’t simply be erased from the public consciousness. So, it was reinterpreted. “Elohim” was suppressed, and the word itself was passed off as just another name for Jehovah. Both are translated as simply “God” in our Bibles, even though they’re entirely different words.

As to the apple, it’s never named as such in Genesis. The text only mentions “fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden.” There weren’t even any apples growing in the Middle East at the dawn of civilization (the first were cultivated in Kazakhstan, far to the northeast).

Bruce Wayne is Tony Stark

This brings us to the serpent, a central player in the little drama. The snake is never named as “Satan” in the story. This Satan first appears in the Book of Job, and is applied to a figure who is not a tempter, but an accuser.

In fact, satan (lowercase) is not a name at all; it literally means “the accuser,” and appears in 10 out of 12 Old Testament references as “the satan.” It could have been applied to one figure in one place and an entirely different figure somewhere else. To assume that “the satan” referred to the same individual every time it occurs would be the equivalent of inferring that “the actor” always referred to, say, Bill Murray. Or that every reference to “the painter” meant Picasso.

a5de8f529ae6640fd227313750e7e2c8--original-sin-snakes.jpg

How thorough has this transformation from general accuser to specific person been? If you were sitting  behind me at my computer as I write this, you’d know: Every time I lowercase the word “satan,” my software responds with a squiggly red underline, indicating that I’ve got it “wrong.” The word, in the opinion of Microsoft Word, should always be capitalized as a proper noun!

It is only in the Book of Revelation, written thousands of years after the folktale that served as the basis for the Eden story, that “Satan” is referred to as “that ancient serpent.”

The satan was further identified with another character, Lucifer, which meant “light-bringer” and was just another name for the planet Venus, the morning star. According to the Book of Isaiah, however, Lucifer had “fallen from heaven” to “weaken the nations.” The author had, perhaps, heard a reference to Venus descending toward the horizon (falling) and/or appearing to fade as the sun rose. He then equated that with a moral failing or fall.

(For more on this, see my book Forged in Ancient Fires: Myth and Meaning in Western Lore.)

It’s not hard to see how this Lucifer became conflated with the serpent, who had himself fallen in the Eden story when he was cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust. The serpent was also a light-bringer, in the sense that he promised enlightenment to the woman if she were to eat the fruit: “You will be like the Elohim, knowing good and evil.”

But equating the serpent with Lucifer and, hence, Lucifer with the satan, is like saying Batman and Iron Man are the same character. Both are genius billionaires who disguise themselves in fancy suits decked out with loads of techno-gadgets, then go around playing vigilante to fight the bad guys in comic books. Never mind that one’s named Bruce Wayne and the other is Tony Stark. Such minor details are as easily overcome as the difference between Lucifer and Satan, or Yahweh and Elohim.

Built-in bias

None of what I’ve written here would be surprising if we’d read the story itself before we heard the modern commentary. If we had never known about the story before, had never attended a Sunday school class and knew nothing about the rest of the Bible, we would have no basis for ever even guessing that the serpent was “Satan” or that the fruit was an apple. If we encountered the word Elohim for the first time, without any modern context, we might look it up and find that it meant “the gods.” If we read a separate passage about Yahweh in Exodus, we’d assume it was a different figure.

But we see what we expect to see, because someone has pointed us in that direction. We see gospel truth, when the author intended something else entirely. The story of Eden is, at the heart of it, a fable meant to convey a moral lesson and knowledge about how the universe came to be the way it is. Such stories are called etiological or origin stories; more recently, they’ve been referred to as just-so stories.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a number of them at the turn of the 20th century. Many of the titles are similar:

How the Camel Got His Hump

How the Leopard Got His Spots

How the Elephant Got His Trunk

The Eden account is based in part on just such a story. You might title it, How the Snake Got His Slither. The story offers an explanation, however fanciful, for why the serpent doesn’t have legs and crawls in the dust. It didn’t adapt to thrive in its environment. It was cursed! The tale also purports to explain why people wear clothes (they became ashamed of being naked after eating the fruit), why women experience pain in childbirth, and why the earth in the ancient Near East was hard to cultivate (more curses, which can be fixed by anesthesia and irrigation, respectively).

You can’t fight city hall

In addition to an etiological story, however, the Eden account served as a cautionary tale. The moral of the story, translated into modern terms, would be “You can’t fight City Hall.” (Secondarily, to paraphrase heavyweight champ Joe Louis, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”) The conclusion is that all the knowledge in the world won’t help you if you find yourself fighting against the gods. Only obedience, not wisdom, will save you. This wasn’t an uncommon theme in the ancient world: The story of Zeus punishing Prometheus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humanity is a parallel example.

The moral of the story isn’t spiritual and enlightened, but pragmatic and a cynical. It also served those in power well, as they could use it to keep their subjects in line.

But because our culture is so steeped in the false context created for the original story by the priests of Yahweh, by the author of Revelation, by Sunday school teachers and others, we don’t see any of this unless we look at the story with fresh eyes – and dare to challenge the cognitive dissonance that arises when we do so.

Admitting we misunderstood something as basic as the story of our own creation can be a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s a bright side to that realization. We get to create our own awareness and, as a result, our own destiny. That’s a happy ending in my book.

Stephen H. Provost is the author of several books about myth, religion and spirituality, including Forged in Ancient Fires, Messiah in the Making and Timeless Now.

Nightmare's Eve: About My New Collection

Stephen H. Provost

A Collection of Twisted Tales

Connoisseurs of the murky and shadowy side of our existence often seem at pains to define the word “horror.” Too often, it brings to mind the B movies unleashed on us every year at Halloween. Or the grainy black-and-white “classics” they used to tuck away at the upper end of the UHF dial on weekends between midnight and 3 a.m. All bloodletting and jump scares and shaky cameras. I’ve never been much for any of that, because (for one thing) it always seemed like a wilted daisy chain of clichés and (for another) it didn’t scare me.

Jump scares startle, they don’t scare. Shaky cameras  make me queasy, and blood loses its impact when it spews out all over the place like Old Faithful.

This kind of thing, admittedly, does scare some people. Everyone’s different. But blood and gotcha scenes and monsters don’t add up to horror in my book — which is one reason I never really thought I’d write horror. It’s a bit of a surprise, to be honest.

It may surprise you, too, if you’ve read some of my other material, say the whimsical Feathercap or the uplifting Undefeated. In many ways, Nightmare’s Eve is the antithesis of the latter, which is a series of true stories about people who overcame seemingly impossible odds. The stories in Nightmare’s Eve aren’t true — and thankfully so, because most of them involve odds that really, truly are impossible.

The essence of horror

That’s where my definition of horror begins. It’s got nothing to do with monsters or gore, specifically. It’s all about what scares you. True horror dawns when you realize that you’re somehow “on the wrong side of things” ... and there’s no realistic way that you’ll ever get over to the right side again.

Horror is being trapped, hopeless, desperate. It’s that sickening feeling that rises up from the pit of your stomach when you recognize there’s no way out. And isn’t that true for all of us, really? You’re stuck there in that body of yours, and you won’t be getting out of there alive now, will you?

But horror is about more than death, it’s about that inexorable journey toward it. Our survival instinct demands that we claw and rage against it, but our very resistance to the inevitable can make it all the more tormenting. In fighting a battle we cannot win, do we merely prolong our agony as we fall apart piece by piece, inexorably? What would be, to you, most terrifying? To lose your freedom? Or your memory? Perhaps a loved one, or your ability to separate reality from illusion. When the things we love, we count on, we take for granted are stripped from us one by one, with no hope of ever recovering them … that is the true, naked aspect of horror.

Horror is the dawning of hopelessness, in that twilight time between waking and sleep when fear and panic mount for we who find no solace in slumber. For those of beset by nightmares that visit us anew each time we close our eyes. We cannot make our eyes remain open forever, yet as we surrender to exhaustion, the Sandman shows no mercy — but throws open the doors of our inner mind to madness.

From The Twilight Zone

The stories and verse you’ll find in Nightmare’s Eve will strike a familiar cord to those familiar with The Twilight Zone. They’re stories of ordinary people in the present day, extraordinary people from the past and imaginary people from a not-too-distant future that might be. Some hope does manage to seep in, on occasion, a solitary beam of sunlight creeping through the blinds into the dusty, vacant prison that is our soul.

What will it illuminate? A way out of the maze, or another dead end?

And a maze it is, this journey, with twists sometimes ironic, sometimes terrifying ... but always unexpected.

There are tales of the occult; of two renowned and noble saints (one named Nick, the other George); of fate and vampires and space exploration. Of psychic powers and time travel; of malevolent entities and genies and dragons and man’s best friend.

This work began as a small collection of three stories: Turn Left on Dover, Will to Live and A Deal in the Dark. The first of these, also the first written, contains a character for whom I named my cat, Allie (not Alley, as in Alley Cat, as many often suppose). It takes place in a city modeled after my hometown. And if you don’t know where that is, just pick up a copy of a very different book I wrote titled Fresno Growing Up.

The collection expanded gradually over the course of about four months to include 16 tales and 10 poems. I’ll share below the table of contents to whet your appetite for a journey that isn’t for the faint of heart or heavy of foot. You’ll want to have a spring in your step for what lies ahead. Read it before bed if you dare; it’s designed keep you awake at night.

Tales

  • A Deal in the Dark
  • Will to Live
  • Just the Ticket
  • Turn Left on Dover
  • Mama
  • Breaking the Cycle
  • Virulent
  • Anatomy of a Vampire
  • The Ends of the Earth
  • The Howl and the Purr
  • Teeth
  • The Faithful Dog
  • Lamp Unto My Fate
  • Nightmare’s Eve (Rotten Robbie's Christmas Comeuppance)
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • George & the Dragon: The Untold Story

Verse

  • Certitude
  • Lost Soliloquy
  • Unwound
  • Upon Reflection
  • Merlin's LAment
  • Bleed Not
  • Lost at Sea
  • Torrent of Tears
  • A Never-Setting Sun
  • This Vale of Dreams