In praise of Eve. Ivor Chipman
Updated: Jan 24
The mytheme of the tempted woman is as old as antiquity. The Greeks believed Pandora, the ‘all-gifted’, to have introduced evils into the world. Hesiod’s account presents woman as a creation to undermine man. Death and disease, misery and toil become part of his lot. Although the poet subtly shows that such hardship is no true bane, Pandora’s box (actually a jar, mistranslated by Erasmus), has still entered modern parlance as a source of great trouble, or a gift that is in fact a curse. Helen, the most famous female in ancient myth, was the ‘plaything’ of the sophistic rhetorician Gorgias, who tried to defend her in his Encomium to teach students how convincing false argumentation can be. Of course, he is exploiting only the most popular conception of Helen, as a figure of treachery. Laconians worshipped her as a goddess, and her guilt was open to speculation even in the Iliad. Yet the point stands that Eve is only the Judaeo-Christian incarnation of a much older theme, in which the root of worldly woes is embodied by a woman of legend.
The precocity of Greek thought allowed for nuance in interpreting these stories, even if consensuses prevailed. The same cannot be said of Christian judgement on Eve. Whereas Helen was a fully-fledged and complex figure in Hellenic literature, Eve appears in only two chapters of the Bible, her purpose solely to initiate the Fall and to begin the human line. Such simplicity means she is universally condemned. Although sainted in the Catholic tradition as humanity's mother, she became the excuse for an undying misogyny. The Apostle Paul, according to the patristic understandings of his letters, promoted the silence and submission of women owing to Eve’s deception and the original sin that followed. In the early 2nd century, Tertullian told his female listeners that they are the ‘devil’s gateway’ on account of their 'desertion’. Neither are plausible voices of unalterable moral truths. St Paul in Colossians 3.22 tells slaves not only to obey their masters ‘when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord’. In other words, ‘love your bondage’. Tertullian opined that one of the perks of heaven would be to sadistically revel in the torture of the damned. As far as I can find, only St Augustine transferred the blame to Adam from Eve, arguing that he willingly took the apple, whereas Eve was persuaded to do so by the crafty serpent. Yet in Christian art, Eve is most often portrayed as the temptress of Adam, despite the lack of any such seduction in the Genesis passage. In Domenichino’s 1626 painting ‘The Rebuke of Adam and Eve’, God and his cherubim reprimand Adam, who merely throws up his hands to divert the blame to his wife beside him. Even the serpent, as in the sculpture in the entrance of the Notre Dame Cathedral, frequently bears a woman’s face. Femininity became identified with wickedness, an association persistent through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and, in some ludicrous cases, right to our modern day. In 2015, the fatuous Bible-belter senator from South Carolina Tom Corbin was confronted for his combative remarks about women’s right to participate in the state’s General Assembly. “Well, you know God created man first,” he quipped. “Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.”
Of course, as anyone can see, none of this ever happened. There was no talking snake episode. Although Christians still believe Jesus died to save our sins, most, in flippant self-contradiction, do not buy into the narrative containing the origin of such sin. Yet as a literary exercise, I want to clear the name of this most reviled of characters. In Christian theology, the ‘peccatum originale’ (original sin) as formulated by Augustine is our stain. It is the mark of our lowly stature, our fall from prelapsarian purity. This concept is itself disgusting. What a grotesque idea inherited guilt is- to be told we are, in Fulke Greville’s timeless phrase, ‘created sick and commanded to be well’. It keeps us in a state not of humility but of servility, battened down by a genetic disease that is incurable but for a tortuous filicide in ancient Judaea. It is this theological concept that keeps us under divine yoke, and forces us to pine and pray as mendicant hopefuls so that we may find redemption rather than eternal punishment. Babies who die before baptism, in another bit of Augustinian cruelty, must wait in Limbo until the final judgement to be saved (as per Catholic dogma until 2004, proving the eternal to be a rather fickle concept after all). Perhaps Paul told slaves to love their human master because we ourselves, in this worldview, are coerced to love our own for hope of salvation. It means an enslavement to an ever-present, all controlling, resentful father who will never leave, and in whose hands our only remedy resides. However euphemistic and seemingly innocent modern monotheism appears, this quiet and irrational authoritarianism looms large. For this condition Eve is the scapegoat.
Yet this status quo existed before the temptation- before Eve ate an apple, for which the whole world would endlessly suffer. In the very prohibition, and the threat it imposed, we find the first signs of our subordination. Eve only exacerbated a pre-existing state of affairs. Or did she? I also do not conceive of the penalty as a penalty. Pain in childbirth aside, death is no punishment unless, which none should believe, it leads to Hell without proper propitiation. An abstraction can only have meaning when paired with an opposite to qualify it. I cannot imagine Eden actually being a happy place. I can’t imagine that God would have been best pleased for humans to live blissfully and eternally in Eden without demanding homage and worship. It does not seem to be in his literary character. This is no paradise. Christopher Hitchens used to consider North Korea a representation of heaven on earth, and it would be hell. A state of constant sycophancy is no dignified way of living, even if it comes with an otherwise 'perfect' condition. Yet still this is no envious thing. Happiness in such endless ease is diluted entirely. One knows no worse or better to make it enjoyable- it is simply all one knows. It only has meaning in relativity. Take something like beauty. Margot Robbie is only ‘beautiful’ because there are comparative examples. If everyone looked like her then she would be merely what a woman looked like, and the idea of attaching an adjective such as beauty, denoting superior aesthetic, would be nonsensical. All such ideas cannot truly survive in a vacuum, and so with life and happiness. Death gives life vitality, saving it from being a banality, a state of lingering. The idea of eternity is to me a form of torture, devaluing all the aspects of life that make it enjoyable, reducing them to infinitely repeatable occurrences without any singularity or memorability. Tolkien knew as much. In the Silmarillion Men’s mortality is cast as a gift, something to be envied and approached peacefully. The horrors of the religious mind, its ghoulish fears of fire and blood, get it all wrong in the hope of divine appeasement, or indeed, in the hope of controlling the credulous. Eve’s first rebellion gave us the most precious of all blessings, that which makes life an experience rather than an existence.
God is also most definitely to blame for her transgression. Why on earth would he have put a tree in Eden, populated by beings with free will, if it had to be eternally ignored? Free will means nothing if not the freedom to use one’s will as one pleases, without risk of sacrificing your immortal soul. The free will to only act as a dictator pleases means nothing at all. It is an expression of despotism shrouded by the veils of liberty. Rosa Luxembourg put this best when talking of freedom of speech, saying that it means nothing unless it means you may speak differently. Rather than recede from his creation, God imposes himself by placing a test upon his human subjects, one which constrains their free will for only his own gratification at their obedience to him. Endlessly neglecting the tree is also an impossible demand. God must have imbued Adam and Eve with the spirit of curiosity they exhibited in tasting of the fruit, a spirit that would never have been contained forever. This is also a reflection on God’s nature if man was made in his image. The activity of the primordial couple reflects the creative spark of their maker. I can envisage God’s boredom in the primeval nothingness of pre-existence compelling him to act. The creation of the world is also cast for God as a process of discovery. The lines in Genesis 1 denoting God’s reactions to what he makes (the formula ‘he saw that it was good’ springs to mind) implies that this is an investigative enterprise. The restriction he places on human inquiry is hypocritical and infeasible. Inquiry is denied by the one who first inquired.
The clue is in the tree’s name. It is predictable that, in a major Abrahamic religion, all of which are protective of their own world-views and vicious against dissenters, the forbidden tree is that which offers knowledge of good and evil. God can be the only owner of truth, and dispense in his favour to his subjects. Any self-investigation is denied lest it undermines the divine dogma. The story is a metaphor for clerical propaganda. There is a reason why translations of Greek or Vulgate bibles into English were forbidden, and rebels such as Wycliffe persecuted. His Bible, the first major translation of holy writ into English, towered high atop the mass of literature that the Church condemned to the flames. This effectively gave a human institution a monopoly on the souls of their subjects. Revelation had to be fed to the public via the beguiling and self-serving proclamations of a small caste of religious authorities, who alone possessed the power to decode heaven’s will. Just as, after the expulsion, God placed a revolving flaming sword in defence of the tree, so the Church fought to monopolise thought. Pope Benedict VIII encapsulated this attitude in 1302: “He who denies that the secular sword is in the power of Peter does not understand the word of the Lord”. God’s ‘flock’ of human inferiors must merely follow. Yet the more accessible Biblical texts become, the more transparent become the flaws. In 1450, some 70 years after Wycliffe’s death, it is estimated that a mere 7% of citizens in Germany and Britain could read and write. An increase in literacy was conversant with a proliferation of religious scepticism. Critics were also aided by the prodigious use of the printing press, through which Luther sold 100,000 copies of his Bible translation. Hence the birth of the Reformation. It was now all too easy for societies to reject the Church that they realised were frauds. Christians merely needed to flick through the Bible to find that the concept of Limbo did not exist. Previously grieving parents, unschooled in scripture, were hoodwinked into believing that their unbaptised child would escape this prison if they paid the church a portion of their yearly wage. Now they had the capacity to recognise the sale of indulgences as theft, as Wycliffe had earlier insisted. In the same way that the Church resisted scientific advancement, a topic on which they knew embarrassingly little, so was its theological legitimacy threatened by widespread exegesis. Enlightenment continuations ensured that the secular took over from the Christian reformers as the pioneer of free thinking. We owe them a boundless thanks.
I view Eve as the first representation of this noble, rebellious tradition. I agree with Noam Chomsky in his criticism of the phrase 'speak truth to power'. Power already knows the truth but might seek to hide or distort it for their own means. The kindly paternalism of the Judaeo-Christian God is a front for his vanity. Eve exposed this by merely the expression of her individuality. The original heretic was the original sceptic, the first to truly think and search for herself. Animated by the pursuit for knowledge that differentiates us as sentient creatures, she took the first step to a liberation demanded by our dignity. Philip Pullman, who wrote the novels inspiring the TV series His Dark Materials, casts Eve in this light. In this high fantasy set in a modern multiverse, the ethereal substance dust is believed by the imperious Magisterium to be original sin created by Eve, a young girl unaware of her true identity. It is in fact man’s consciousness, and everything else that entails. Their god, the Authority, is no more than a humanoid raised to despotic heights. In an inverse of Milton’s Paradise Lost, we have the true moral of the story. The divine was made in early man’s own image as a testimony to their ignorance. Eve is in fact the first servant of the human exodus story. She embodies our intellectual and ethical awakening, our need for independence. To dispense with the cloud of illusion is to recognise our own worth, and to take responsibility for our own destinies. Eve is not an image of human downfall, but a symbol of ultimate liberation.