March 26, 2021

E is for Eden

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        For E we’re back to the Bible, and where it all began for us humans.  First, the physical characteristics: Eden is the source of a river which splits and becomes the source of four rivers called Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Phirat, the last two of which are names for the Tigris and the Euphrates.  In Eden grows every kind of tree that is pleasant to sight and good for food, as well as the infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  After the humans were cast out of the garden for disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit of that tree, cherubim were set on guard duty, along with a flaming sword that whirled around to keep everyone out.  Early depictions of Eden usually place a wall around it, although that isn’t specified in the Bible.
        Like so many of our mythical places in this year’s A to Z Challenge, many scholars have spent much time trying to prove the real-world location of a real-world Garden of Eden.  The proposals are generally in current Iraq, Iran, Turkey, or the Armenian Highlands.  And, like so many of our mythical places in this year’s challenge, I think the attempts to assign a real location to a mythological place are missing the point.  So what is the point of Eden?  It is perfect - Paradise - and it is the way things began and the way they are supposed to be.  People never have to work because everything they need is ready and waiting for them.  And yet, we’re still not satisfied.  We want the one thing we can’t have, and so spoil perfection.  And of course once we leave Eden, life is nothing but toil and suffering.
        Many cultures have stories of paradises, and we’ll see more of them as we proceed through the alphabet.  This story can also be seen as an etiological myth of why we have to work and why life is hard, and there are other cultures with myths of this sort, too.  There are also myths about how humanity will return to the Garden of Eden once more at the end of the world (or at least the righteous will.)
        And speaking of Paradise, (for an early Words of the Month feature) Hebrew borrowed the word from Persian, and it meant initially a royal garden, park, or orchard.  The Bible itself never calls Eden “Paradise,” even though it uses the word in other contexts more similar to the Persian root.  Not until the Common Era did the word come to apply to a more perfect, heavenly place.
        Lots of artists have depicted the Garden of Eden.  Most commonly it’s illustrated merely as the setting of episodes from the story of Adam and Eve, but sometimes it becomes more of a subject in its own right.  I began above with one of the most famous depictions of the Garden of Eden, which is also one of the weirdest.  Hieronymus Bosch brings his signature unsettling trippyness to the Garden, with surreal landscape in the background, some rather odd creatures, and a slightly disturbing focus on predation.  You’ll notice that most of our Edens depict creatures living in peace, but for Bosch this painting is all about sin.  The early Edens also usually include a fountain giving rise to the four rivers, but why does Bosch’s fountain look as if it was built from lobster parts?
        Regarding the issue of where Eden might be located on Earth, medieval people believed it to be in the east of the known world, and you can see Adam and Eve there on this eleventh century map.  (Don't forget that you can click on all these pictures to see them bigger.)  If you’re looking to the right, though, you won’t see Eden.  Medieval maps placed Jerusalem in the center, and East at the top.  (Another Word of the Month: that’s why we orient ourselves with maps.  The orient is the east (from Latin), and even though now we use north to figure out how to arrange the map in relation to ourselves and the world, originally we used the east.)
        Next up, two renaissance wood block prints, both frontispieces of books, and both with a similar composition.  I give you both, however, because they do include a couple of interesting differences and fun details.  The first garden is only plants, uninhabited by any animals except the humans.  The humans are shown happily picking legal plants, rather than committing their original sin, as depicted in the second, which is the more common iconography.  The plants are very specific, recognizable species, including Turk’s cap lily and prickly pear, Dutch tulip, banana, and my favorite, the vegetable lamb (just to the left of the apple tree).  The second woodcut, by contrast, is almost entirely animals, without any plants except the apple tree and some sparse grass.  The animals include a delightful variety, ranging from snails and frogs to cats and horses and elephants.  And don’t forget the unicorns, just to the right of Adam.  Unicorns are another common feature of Eden in art.
        In fact, you can find the unicorn in the next illustration, although this painting has a much smaller variety of creatures.  It does, however, play the early renaissance trick of including all the various episodes of the story in the picture: the creation of Eve on the right, the eating of the apple on the left, God spying out the hiding couple back on the right, and the expulsion from the Garden back on the left.  Right in the middle is God pointing out the one forbidden tree.
        I’ve included one last painting because it illustrates a more recent development in our interpretation of the Garden of Eden.  This is by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting known for the romantic portrayal of the American wilderness in the nineteenth century.  Here he has painted Eden as if it were one of those vast American landscapes, thus drawing a comparison between the beautiful, precious natural areas of our own modern times, and the Paradise of mythology.  Such artistic messages were an important part of the development of the National Parks system in the USA, as well as the beginnings of the modern environmental movement.  It tells us that we have Gardens of Eden right here, right now, while reminding us at the same time that paradises can be lost.
        The MORAL of the Garden of Eden:  You had one job, but you had to mess it up for everybody.
              OR:  An apple a day… oh, wait.  Apparently that doesn’t always work.
        So, what’s the one food you just wouldn’t be able to resist despite divine orders?

[Pictures: Left panel of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painting by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500 (Image from Museo del Prado);
Mappe Mundi from Beatus de Liebana, c 1060 (Image from Biblitheque nationale de France);
Frontispiece of Paradisi in Sole by John Parkinson, 1629 (Image from The Met);
Detail from frontispiece of 16th century New Testament (Image from The British Museum);
The Garden of Eden, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530 (Image from Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden);
The Garden of Eden, painting by Thomas Cole, 1828 (Image from Amon Carter Museum of American Art).]


Olga Godim said...

I think it is not food we are talking about but curiosity. If humans were not curious about their surroundings and how the world works, if they didn't try to discover more, learn more all the time, we would still be living in caves, wearing hides, and collecting nuts for breakfast. Yes, science brought with it lots of damage, but it brought good things too. I think Eve was the first scholar, the first one who wanted more out of life than perfection (and stagnation).

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Quite right, Olga. The tree, after all, was not about "apples" but about Knowledge. But is it necessarily true that perfection = stagnation? That there can't be such a thing as a dynamic, living, growing, learning perfection? Indeed, I would argue that life requires that creativity and growth to be perfect. (But good food is really important, too.)

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

Incidentally, "paradise" is the word we use in Hungary for tomatoes...
There is a Hungarian legend that says Eve brought flowers to Earth when fleeing from Eden. She didn't want to leave them behind.

The Multicolored Diary

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Zalka, that is fascinating. I love both those Hungarian contributions to the mythology. I really love tomatoes... and that makes Eve a sort of Prometheus figure!

Lisa said...

Chocolate. Probably gooey brownies.

As others have said, it wasn't the fruit (which isn't even named as an apple, and couldn't have been in that area in that time period), it was obedience. I think it was insulting for Adam to tell Eve that not only could she not eat from the tree, but she couldn't even LOOK at it! He really didn't trust her.

JadeLi said...

I remember Joseph Campbell talking about how cultures have so many of the same stories with minor variations. Really makes me wonder about the collective unconscious. I took a dream class a few years ago and we looked at so many creationism stories, many that came from the holy men of the tribe and they got them from their dreams.

Food I'd be cast of of Eden for: cooked asparagus with butter and salt.

My "E" Jethro Tull song for today:

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Lisa, you're right about obedience, but I've never believed that blind obedience is healthy. We expected pretty strict obedience from our kids, BUT they could always ask for an explanation, and if they weren't whiney they could offer an argument as to why they thought a rule should be changed. Usually we wouldn't change, but sometimes we said, "Yeah, that's a fair point," and tweaked things.

Jade, I love asparagus, too, but I'm laughing that it's the one thing for you!

Frédérique said...

The answer is so easy to me ;) The one food I just wouldn’t be able to resist is chocolate! No way.
Quilting Patchwork & Appliqué

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Potato Chips. Can't resist them. They are my Kryptonite.

Also it was only very recently that I discovered that the Iron Butterfly song "In A Gadda Da Vida" was supposed to be "In the Garden of Eden."

Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I agree that trying to find mythical places in the real world is missing the point.

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Elementals