Founding mythologies


(A follow-up rough draft to my original post on Genesis).

Most women intimately know the curse of Eve – the moment in Genesis where God mandates that childbirth will always be painful before casting our founding mythlings into the wilderness. From this we draw our monthly expulsion of egg and tissue as the reminder of God’s epithet and we call it so. “The curse” being one of the many euphemisms used to describe that period of blood flow – our shame for the sin of the apple. Bad woman who sought the fruits of knowledge and so brought upon the downfall of our rather simple Adam. Then again, Adam took a bite of the apple too, didn’t he?

And we forget that as punishment for his role in the whole Eden debacle Adam also received a specific curse. More painful to our human legacy than Eve’s small burden – Adam’s curse was nothing short of civilization. For God says to Adam “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Which is where our civilization begins: the advent of agriculture.

As with our monthly bleeding, we accept civilization as part of our natural state of being. Ten thousand years is a long time after all, we can hardly be expected to remember that we once inhabited the earth as a minority population alongside much larger animal kingdoms – that before our mouths were filled with dust, they were fed by the wild in which we lived. But those who told the first stories (that were eventually written down onto those scrolls which became the Old Testament) remembered. Not only did those voices remember, but they could see the uncivilized tribes right outside their own doorsteps – and they must have felt they had some explaining to do. How else can we understand man imprisoning himself in the yoke, lashing himself to the plow? Only divine punishment could take us from there to here. We didn’t willingly choose it, did we?

But of course human transitions don’t work that way. They aren’t a punishment, nor are they a conscious choice. The movement from hunter/gatherer to shepherd to agriculturalist flowed over thousands of years as populations expanded and shrank, as the climate changed and the ice receded. It would have been as simple as nomads wandering through the same territory year after year, leaving seeds behind and harvesting their next time through. Or a particularly good cave for keeping a flock or banking food against future want. Perhaps one year the snows never came and so instead of moving on a people decided to stay. As much as we want a single, linear narrative of civilization – it takes hundreds of individual and collective decisions to add up to our steel and concrete present.

It’s safe to say if Jack and Jill Cromag could have forseen what their tendency to settle would eventually wreak on their beautiful green earth – they would have packed up and kept roaming. Such is hindsight, but here we are.

***********

Adam and Eve beget Cain and Abel. Abel, the shepherd with whom we side for his gentleness and fealty is murdered brutally by his brother, the farmer. Despite having the mark of evil delivered by the Lord, Cain is allowed to live.

Why exactly? Because Cain, embodiment of agriculture, must slay the shepherd in order for humans to get from there to here. It was not possible for our forefathers who wrote on those scrolls to envision giving up a pastoral existence for any other reason than violence or force. These changes need some acknowledgement in the form of powerful stories – which informs us that the whole project of civilization was questioned at its outset – contested as it emerged. Certainly, later wars between the “barbarians” and the “civilized” are ample evidence of exactly that. Even to this day there are some 50+ tribes extant in the world who reject modernity in so much as they can avoid it altogether. The advent of agriculture was by no means a *given*, but the emergence of certainly needed an explanation.

By the time we’d figured it out though, it was too late – as Genesis demonstrates in the story of Joseph which dominates the end of this most precious first book. Not only does this new reliance on agriculture (not to mention the rise of cities and the dispersal of peoples) leave us vulnerable to famine. We are now more vulnerable to each other. Through the power of foresight (storing food in advance of a famine) – Joseph is not only able to amass personal wealth but also to enslave all the people of Egypt who are weakened by starvation on behalf of the Pharoh. Having turned their entire existence over to the civilizing influences of agriculture, they are unable to return to another mode of living in their impoverished state. It is too late for the people of Egypt now “owned”. Let’s not forget, we mythologically regard Joseph as a good guy – a victim of personal tragedy who masters his own fortune by sucking up to power. Just as we are encouraged to identify with the business-owning class of the early-21st century, the early story of Joseph chides us that we can not get along in the world if we don’t somehow identify with our captors.

Joseph Campbell theorizes that myth is present in our society “to come to terms with the world [and] harmonize our lives with reality,” and Genesis is a collection of them to remind us that the social order we live in needs explaining. Far be it that we believe Hobbes and his “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” description of our natural state that leads us into our bargain with the beast – the very founding stories of Judeo-Christian existence (not to mention those of many other cultures) demonstrate the sense of helplessness with which humans were plucked from their wild garden and dropped into the arms of the Pharoh.

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