This will be the first part of an infrequent series that I’ll be calling Myth and Meaning. We’re going to start off by exploring the story of the Garden of Eden. Now, as with any sort of biblical exegesis that I do on this site, we’re not going to be commenting on the religious component of the stories, instead we’re looking for deeper mythic and psychological themes (and serpents- lots of serpents).
I’ll assume you’re familiar enough with the story, so we’ll jump right in. First and foremost, I’m going to argue that the Eden myth represents two distinct components of the human experience. The first, which I covered in more detail in an earlier article, is that it represents the historical emergence of the first language-speaking people. The second, which we’re going to explore here, is that the story represents the psychological experience of the loss of innocence.
In this scenario, Adam and Eve represent something similar to children. This is the state of ignorance (innocence, not the willful kind) that all people are born into. For example, because a child does not have an adequate understanding of cause and effect, we don’t ascribe malice to them when they decide to break a new toy. A good point of reference would be Luke 23:34 (KJV), “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” However, as we can see from the example of Jesus, the ignorant are capable of acting in evil, even if they do not know the consequences. If a toddler is given a gun to play with, their innocence does not prevent someone from getting shot.
This presents us with the central dilemma of the story- the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, as we know, God had one rule- don’t eat the fruit or you’ll surely die. Of course, the serpent didn’t much like that plan, so he talks Eve into doing exactly the opposite of God’s plan. You had one job, way to go. She then talks Adam into it, and we all know where this goes- they ruined the whole thing for everyone.
However, let’s take a closer look at this serpent symbolically. Historically, serpents are among the most powerful of symbols. There is the symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent who bites his own tail (similar to the Norse world-serpent, Jörmungandr), as a representation of eternity. We have also the Rod of Asclepius (one snake around a stick, the actual medical symbol, similar to the staff of Moses) and the Caduceus (two snakes on a winged stick, actually a symbol for Hermes). There is the Greek god of eternal time (not linear time, like Cronus [from who we derive the word chronological]), Aion, who is represented as a winged man with the head of a lion, coiled by a serpent.
Alchemical illustration of the Ouroboros serpent,
Aion, the Greek God of Eternal Time
More broadly, the serpent represents death and rebirth (in the shedding of skin), the guardian of secret knowledge or the sacred, and also vengefulness. What’s most interesting here is that this is a symbol that is almost universal to all cultures of the world. There’s a book that I particularly enjoyed called “The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge” that proposes that the serpent ultimately represents (as you may have guessed) DNA, and our external expressions of the symbol arise from the subconscious (and psychedelics, which ties back into my first article on Eden).
Let’s run with this concept of the serpent as DNA, or, more abstractly, the reproductive instinct. Imagine Adam and Eve are human children on the verge of puberty- women actually begin to mature sexually earlier than men, and thus are “tempted” first by the serpent (the onset of the release of sex hormones). In this scenario, God represents the parent that wants to shield his children from the harsh realities of the world, the inevitable distancing that puberty causes, and the conflicts that arise when reckoning one’s nature as a sexual being. I’d draw the conclusion here that the beginning of the understanding of sex is also the first encounter with the knowledge of mortality- you shall surely die.
At this point, we’re going to take a look at tree itself, and the fruit that grows from it. In the original text, it’s called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We can’t take this at face value, however, because “Good and Evil” here is what is known as a merism, which is a pairing of opposites that makes the meaning more broad. The implication here is that this isn’t a strictly moral knowledge, but a knowledge of everything. If we combine this with the understanding of the serpent as both the sexual force and the guardian of hidden knowledge, we arrive at a more nuanced concept than an initial reading suggests.
The act of eating the fruit can be seen as simple as the development of an individual sexuality, but we can also take it as the first act of independence and disobedience that comes as a result of the child building an identity separate from the parent. This represents the “fall” and leaving the innocence of Eden. It also represents the curses of God- men shall work the earth in toil and women will bear children in pain. These curses are more overtly sexual, as the man must support the child and the women has to birth the child, but it’s also representative of the responsibility incurred in the act of creating life. They are children no more- “and the Lord God said, behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil,” (Genesis 3:22, KJV).
Now, I’m going to propose a bit of unreliable narrator here. When they ate of the the tree, Adam and Eve realized that they were naked (again, obvious awareness of sexuality here), so they made clothes and attempted to hide from God. What does it mean to hide from God, in this context? I’d say that it’s either simply lying about the nature of reality, or simply the denial of the defiance of the parent, depending on which way we’re taking the metaphor. However, I think that this story is actually tainted by the resentment of Man for the cruelty of (truth of) the world.
In the realization of the bitter realities of nature, Man decides to blame God. This spins the story as if God is himself cruel in the punishment of his children, but I think the figure of God here is actually just telling Adam and Eve how it’s going to be– actions have consequences. In this forced perspective given by the story, we find the first instance of the Judeo-Christian demonization of reality (which is expanded on in Gnosticism). The idea that Man is cursed implies that Man is a victim, and the acceptance of victimhood is the root of the denial of responsibility. Paradise is, of course, guarded by an angel with a flaming sword- you cannot return to ignorance without being destroyed by the guardian.
Denial of the True is the surest road to the grave- a la “the wages of sin is death.”
That bit of the story, the resentment, is the same resentment that Adam would pass on to Cain, which would lead to his killing of Abel. Because, in some sense, life is inherently harsh and unfair, our first response to the dark facts of reality is denial (which is interestingly enough, also the first stage of grief). We hide from God (reality; the true), attempting to cling to the innocence we can never reclaim.
However, just as the Knowledge of Good and Evil may be seen as a curse, it also lights the narrow path to redemption. From John 3:14-15 (KJV), we hear Jesus say “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
This is where things get significantly more complex.
As we know, after his temptation of Adam and Eve, God curses the serpent: “upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.” Now, in Hinduism there is a concept called “kundalini,” which means variously “coiled one, serpent power (kundalini shakti), or serpent fire.” The idea of kundalini is essentially that there is a concentrated energy or force coiled at the base of the spine, and that, when properly activated, rises through two channels that alternately encircle the spine towards the crown of the head or the space between the eyes, leading to a form of enlightenment.
If you’re familiar with the site, you’ll know that I’m not terribly into these sorts of mystic, supernatural ideas- I’m convinced that this is a metaphor for something else. If we compare this idea against the idea of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, we can start to see a theme. This is further reinforced by the Greek serpent-rod symbols, with the spine serving as the rod in this instance.
My theory is this: the serpent, cursed to crawl by God, represents the low, base animal nature of unconscious, instinctive sexuality. This is the serpent coiled at the base of the spine (at the foot of the tree). However, as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness (elevated his instinctual, animalistic impulses to a higher level), the challenge presented to Man is to harness this energy and raise it to its proper place (in the service of the rational mind). Napoleon Hill called this process “transmutation” in (interestingly enough) Think and Grow Rich, which is a term that originally came from the aims of alchemists.
The fantastic Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that the “magnum opus,” or great work, of alchemy, turning lead into gold, was a metaphor for the elevation of the unrefined human nature towards the pursuit of spiritual perfection. When you start to see this theme, you’ll realize that most religions (at least the esoteric traditions, like Jewish Kabbalah, the Gnostic Christians, Sufi muslims, etc) seem to have this spiritual transmutation as their central theme. Most of them state the goal as (re-)union with God, in some form or another.
I have a few problems with this notion. Fundamentally, this seems to be an attempt to “re-enter Eden,” or return to innocence. You’ll see that in all of the religious traditions I’ve listed, the individual always takes on a (traditionally) feminine role, with the aspirant “submitting” or “surrendering” to God. The greatest example of this being Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in Luke 22:42 (KJV), “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”
My central issue here is this- because, as God says in Eden, “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil,” we now bear the responsibility of God, in a sense. Cast out of Eden to fend for ourselves, Man is required to do what is required to survive- to reproduce and provide for his offspring, and to ensure that life continues. This desire to submit wholly to God seems to be something approaching an abdication of that responsibility- if we’re imagining God as the parent, then this submission would be akin to asking your parents to run your life even after you became an adult.
What this exemplifies is one of the primary existential horrors- the burden of choice. As we are alive, and (presumably) desire to continue to life, we are forced to make choices to continue living. The horror comes from the fact that (just as Man fell from Eden,) we are capable of making choices that cause pain, to our self or others. If a murderer breaks into your house, will you choose to become a killer to save your family, or will you turn the other cheek in an attempt to retain your “innocence”?
To tie this all together, I think the deepest meaning of the Eden myth is that it directly represents the transition from the unconscious innocence of childhood into the cruel reality of self-consciousness and adulthood. This is an experience that all people experience at some point in their lives, but many try so desperately to avoid the ramifications of. Fundamentally, it’s our introduction to cause and effect, choice and consequence. It seems that this begins with the first decision made by the child independently from the parent, which is inevitably an act of defiance with unintended consequences. However, just as all children must go on to become adults, they must also learn to develop a personality and sense of agency as an individual.
If you’re stuck on the theological issue of my criticism and analysis of this myth, you’ve missed the point. What I have tried to do here (and what I often try to do with this site) is to use this story to illustrate a more fundamental truth of our being- our first introduction to the harsher realities of this life. Many subjective understandings can only be conveyed with metaphor- “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In all things, seek the pattern of the deeper truth. Do not let the myth get in the way of the message.