The Tree – From Symbol of Life to Symbol of Death

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When one culture tries to supplant another, it often takes key elements that signify something positive in the first culture and turns them into something negative. It is a way of using stories to fight a battle, to win one for your tribe. Mythologies also are not created out of whole cloth. Tales that have been passed down orally from generation to generation from many different cultures get woven together long before they are ever written down. Thus, trying to sort out the origins of any particular tale is quite difficult. However, in the case of the trees placed in the Garden of Eden, there are some obvious parallels that show the biblical writers were trying to put down certain symbols associated with the beliefs of a people they were trying to conquer. This post will focus on the symbols of the tree, the serpent, and the woman in the Garden of Eden story told in Genesis.

On a Sumerian Seal from 2500 BCE, long before any Hebrew tribes existed in the Levant, the female goddess is pictured with a snake behind her (from whence she draws her power). Her son/consort is seated at the right side of the seal with a tree with hanging fruit between them. (See lead photo.)

In another seal from a similar period, a goddess is seen to be picking fruit from a tree. The date palm tree provided not only food to Sumerians but dates were used as an export commodity.

The goddess is pictured with a snake because of its regenerative powers. A snake hibernates during the winter and when it emerges in the spring, it sheds its skin. This power is associated with the goddess because the goddess is the symbol of birth and death. Often called the Mother Goddess and still today referred to as Mother Nature, she provided our ancestors with a sense of continuity – that even though winter came each year, it would always be followed by spring with plants renewing the land. Early man was so tied to the cycles of nature that worship of an entity associated with nature seems totally understandable. Because the woman gave birth to the tribe’s new members and her menstrual cycles paralleled those of the moon, the divine entity the tribe honored was depicted as a female. Early Paleolithic caves, such as Lascaux in France, have yielded thousands of stone figurines of a female, often pregnant, that is thought to represent this Mother Goddess.

The tree is also symbolic of nature with its roots deep in the ground with a trunk with branches reaching to the sky. The fact that trees also bore fruit and gave sustenance for humans from time immemorial makes them an ideal symbol of life and nature’s power. But as Baring and Cashford state in their epic tome, The Myth of the Goddess, with the move from cycles to linear time, “Nature lost her supreme sovereignty and humanity gathered to itself what she had lost. But this was done only at the expense of sacrificing the old human experience of belonging to a sacred earth and a sacred heaven.”[1] There is no better explanation of this reversal than In the biblical story of the Garden of Eden.

Most are familiar with the tableau. God has created a “help-meet” for his first human creation of Adam. He installs Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden, but admonishes them not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. The serpent encourages Eve to try it saying “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5 NIV) She proceeds to eat the fruit and then encourages Adam to partake of the fruit as well. The immediate result is that their “eyes are opened” and they feel naked. Adam tries to blame the serpent and also Eve. God then metes out his punishment – the serpent will now be forced to slither on the ground, the couple will be banished from the Garden of Eden, man will have to toil on a land full of thistles, and women will have severe pain in childbirth. Thus, the symbol of a life giving deity is transformed into a symbol of banishment from paradise or even death. As one Christian writer states, “If Adam passed the test of obedience, it would be the means of God’s imparting eternal life to him.” Because he did not pass the test, he and his progeny would have to face death.

In one short chapter, the writers of Genesis have taken away the power of the female by blaming Eve, the woman, for the fall of mankind. God is now a male character and females will have no power. Second, this god has condemned the serpent symbol of the goddess, thus forever damning what the seals above tried to communicate. The tree was also the symbol of the goddess. In particular, Asherah was a goddess that was worshipped by the people in Canaan. In an ancient potsherd, the words “Yahweh and his Asherah” have been interpreted to mean that Yahweh may have had a wife. (You can read my essay about that here.) The word Asherah can refer to a goddess but also a pole or tree. She was often worshipped in nature near a tree or pillar. By creating this triptyck of tree, serpent, and woman, the Bible writers have negated anything positive portrayed by the worship of a goddess. In addition, this story is used by biblical writers to explain why their god is immortal and why humans are not. St. Augustine in the 4th century CE takes this tableau to a whole new level by creating the concept of “original sin” and blaming the insatiable lust of woman as its cause. The impact of this interpretation on the story of the Garden of Eden has been used to reinforce the negative view of women in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam ever since.

Another myth, however, takes a similar issue – Why do we die? – but comes to a totally different conclusion. The Epic of Gilgamesh, coming from Mesopotamia, is thought to be the first great work of literature. It is possible, though not yet proven, that Gilgamesh was an actual Sumerian king reigning between 2500 and 2800 BCE in the city of Uruk. In this epic he sets off to find his ancestor Utnapishtim who has been granted eternal life. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh not to pursue immortality but to find this plant that will make him young again.

There is a small spiny bush that grows in the waters of the Great Deep, it has sharp spikes that will prick your fingers like a rose’s thorns. If you find this plant and bring it to the surface you will have found the secret of youth.[2]

He decides to retrieve the plant and take it back to his city of Uruk to see if it works. He refers to the plant as “the antidote to the fear of death.” And then guess who enters the picture? A snake! It steals the plant and as it leaves it casts off its skin. Gilgamesh returns to his native city of Uruk. As Stephen Mitchell explains in his introduction to his book Gilgamesh:

When Gilgamesh leaves his city and goes into uncharted territory in search of a way beyond death, he is looking for something that is impossible to find… There is no way to overcome death, there is no way to control reality.

Instead of the lesson taught in the biblical text – you could have had immortality had you obeyed, but because you didn’t, you will experience death – Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he should go live his life and not focus on his death or any life hereafter.

When I read an epic like Gilgamesh, I think of how much better off we would have been with its teachings rather than with those of the Bible. Gilgamesh returns to his city and finds it beautiful. His quest has made him learn that he is in charge of how he approaches each day and he can choose to be happy or not. There is no immortality, so he doesn’t need to spend any time thinking about it nor atone for any sin that caused him to be mortal. A much better story indeed.

 

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

September 9, 2017

 

 

[1] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, England: Arkana, Penquin Books, 1993), 485.

 

[2] Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh (New York: Free Press, 2004), 196.

About the Author Karen Garst

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