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--The Times Literary Supplement
"An important addition to the literature of women's studies."
-Publishers Weekly,starred review
"A fascinating 'biography' of the women of Western Myth, folklore, and legend.. . . Norris illuminates how persistent ideas of woman as both life- and death-giving, attractive and dangerous, innocent and knowing have changed over time."
-Library Journal,starred review
"A valuable book, essential reading for anyone interested in tracing the ways in which the story of Eve has influenced Western understandings of gender."
-Carolyn See,The Washington Post
"Norris' touch is at once playful and wise.. . . [She] is a consistently deft and imaginative critic."
-Lillian S. Robinson,The Women's Review of Books
`I taste of death and knowledge when, as story-teller,
I adventure into the past'
THOMAS MANN, Joseph and His Brothers
* * *
In the beginning
Uniquely for the Israelites, in the beginning there was God. The first chapter of Genesis describes a supreme artist-magician, a pioneering deity with the imagination to dream up the universe, the adroitness to manufacture its separate parts, and the self-confidence to approve the work when completed. Day after day, God speaks each new component of the heavens and earth into existence and sees that it is `good'. What are the origins of God? Unlike the gods of the Egyptian and Babylonian pantheons, He does not emerge from a coupling of the sky and earth, or from primordial waters. He simply is, one and alone; and His authority to be and to do, and the authenticity of His works, are unequivocal. His creation is orderly and all-encompassing, moving from the dark waters of the formless deep to a universe teeming with plant and animal life, and culminating, on the sixth day, with the invention of the first human couple:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
In Hebrew, the `man' whom He creates is 'adam, meaning `humankind' or `people', a generic term which is then differentiated into the two genders, the man and the woman, who are given joint authority over the living world.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
After the cosmic grandeur of its opening, the second chapter of Genesis dwindles to a reassuringly small-scale narrative, an admonitory tale of disappointed hopes, domestic discord and divine retribution. As this second story begins, it tells of a time during the Creation when the heavens and earth are already in place, but all plant life is in stasis, waiting for rain and for `a man to till the ground'. A versatile craftsman, God shapes a man out of dust and breathes the breath of life into his nostrils, `and man became a living soul'. Having created His labourer, God plants a garden `eastward in Eden', which the man is told to tend. It is not a difficult assignment, for the trees are fruitful, and the garden itself well irrigated by four rivers that flow out of Eden into the surrounding lands — the River Pison, which skirts Havilah, land of gold and bdellium and other precious stones, the Gihon and Hiddekel, which wind respectively into Ethiopia and Assyria, and the great river Euphrates. And now we enter the familiar world of fairy tale, with its promises and threats, its simple heroes and beguiling villains. For, like Psyche's magic palace or Cinderella's fairy gown and pumpkin coach, God's gifts come with a penalty clause which, if violated, will spell disaster. God instructs the man that he may eat freely of every tree in the garden, except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, `for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die' (Gen. 2:17).
Recognizing that the man will become lonely, God sets about making `an help meet for him', but although He originates every variety of bird and beast and brings them to His gardener to name, no suitable companion is found. During this process of naming, the man himself acquires a name, Adam, the Hebrew word for humankind used in Genesis 1, but perhaps also a reference to the clayey substance, the 'adamah, from which he was formed. Finally, God puts Adam into a deep sleep, and removes one of his ribs from which He makes a woman and brings her to Adam. This time, all is well — Adam immediately recognizes her, `bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh', and names her `Woman, because she was taken out of Man'. Here together, in the garden, `they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed' (Gen. 2:25).
Enter — that same day? many days later? the narrator does not tell us — the villain, the wily serpent, `more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made'. This is the familiar talking animal of folk tale, and he reveals his cunning by his first, seemingly innocent comment to the woman. `Well, is it true?' is his opening gambit; `Has God said you are not to eat of every tree in the garden?' The Hebrew text uses a rhetorical device known as aposiopesis, which leaves it to the listener (or the reader) to complete the speaker's thought: `Even though God said: You are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden ...!' Invited to gossip, the woman explains the prohibition, adding an embellishment of her own, `Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.' `Die!' exclaims the serpent, `You will not die!' And he points out that God is well aware that if she and Adam eat the fruit, far from dying, they will become themselves like gods, `knowing good and evil'. This is the reason for His taboo. The woman does not argue: she shrewdly assesses the fruit's attractions and eats and, good provider that she is, gives some to her husband, who also eats. Just as the serpent had foretold, they do not die, but immediately acquire wisdom, of a sort: they perceive that they are naked and stitch themselves fig-leaf aprons or, in the more ambitious manufacture of the Geneva Bible of 1560, `They sewed figge leaves together, and made themselves breeches.' History begins with needlework.
Like any wealthy landowner, God comes to walk in His garden in the cool of the day, while Adam and the woman cower among the trees. It is the hour for relaxation, for easy wandering and pleasant conversation, and God calls out to Adam, `Where are you?'
I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
Adam is quick to blame the woman — God's gift to him — and in turn she accuses the serpent, who says nothing in his own defence. As if He had always known that this would happen, God does not hesitate to pronounce sentence. The serpent is cursed above every beast, doomed to crawl on his belly, licking the dust, and to perpetual enmity with the woman and her descendants. The woman too is cursed — to the pains of frequent childbirth and subjection to her husband. For Adam, there will be no more easy days among fruit-bearing trees: thorns and thistles are to be his lot, the daily struggle to wrest a living from hostile soil, and his final doom will be to return to the dust from which he was made. Death has entered Eden — marked by God's replacing the homely fig leaves with coats made of animal skins. The woman's future role is confirmed by the name that Adam now gives her — Eve, Hawwah, `the mother of all living'. But this is not all — man has indeed become as God, knowing good and evil, and the Lord is anxious that he should not now eat the fruit of the tree of life and live for ever. He drives him out of the garden and sets cherubim and a flaming sword east of Eden to guard the tree of life.
There are a number of puzzles in this apparently simple narrative, but what is most immediately striking is the reduced stature of God. Omnipotent and transcendent in the opening section of Genesis, He whirls in impenetrable darkness across the face of the deep, speaks and there is light, commands oceans and planets, and at a breath fructifies the earth with an abundance of life. No mention here of the creation of Adam from all-too-earthly clay, or Eve as the fallible rib made flesh; in this first account, man is created in God's own image, man and woman together, and they are jointly given dominion over the living world. How then to account for God's ungodlike behaviour in the Garden of Eden? Anthropomorphically described, He dwindles to just another character in the drama, still a potentate, but local rather than cosmic, and His actions are mystifying. Why did He invent a plausible talking serpent and set him loose in Eden, and why were Adam and Eve unable to resist temptation? After all, God had the power to make them perfect. Did He want them to eat the forbidden fruit, and if so, why? And He comes across as paranoid and deceitful in His behaviour over the two trees, lying to Adam about the fatal effects of eating the fruit of knowledge, and jealously banning Adam (and by implication Eve) from Eden `lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever' (Gen. 3:22). There are other difficulties. What was the serpent's motivation? Why did Adam take the fruit from Eve and how did she persuade him to eat it? This portentous negotiation is passed over in a sentence. And, most importantly, what did `the knowledge of good and evil' imply? These are just a few of the questions that have taxed the ingenuity of theologians and commentators for thousands of years.
The Hebrew narratives of the creation of the world and the loss of the Garden of Eden evolved over a considerable period, and the events described in Genesis 1-3 are believed to belong to originally separate accounts that were amalgamated and edited into the form that has survived as the canonical text. The story of the Garden of Eden, told in Genesis 2:4 to Genesis 3, is thought by biblical scholars to have been written by an author or compiler known as Y, because he uses the name Yahweh when referring to God, and to have been recorded around 1000-900 BC, although it probably existed in oral form many years before that date. The account of the creation in Genesis 1-2:3 is regarded as the work of the P, or priestly, author or authors, writing several hundred years later in the period after the Babylonian exile, probably around 400 BC, at a time when there was a much stronger emphasis on monotheism among the cult leaders. This would account for the contrast between the folkloric elements in the Eden narrative and the sublimity of the omnipotent creator in the seven-days account. Critics have often been puzzled as to why both these contradictory stories should have been preserved and brought together, but the anomalies between the two accounts of the creation of man and woman can perhaps be understood as exemplifying the chasm between the potential and actuality. The first chapter of Genesis provides a broad framework of beginnings, sets the grand scene of creation and establishes the transcendence and possibilities of God, before homing in on the realities of the human story. What was on offer to Adam and Eve was noble dominion over the animal and vegetable world; the reality was disobedience, recrimination and punishment, a squalid grubbing among thistles in an inhospitable wilderness. Both accounts would have struck a chord with their audiences.
The first Eves
A beautiful woman with the milky skin and rippling golden hair of a Pre-Raphaelite `stunner' stands beside an apple tree and hands a glossy red fruit to a young man who is scratching his head as if perplexed. Both are naked except for the springing leaves of a vine that conveniently cover their genitals. At their feet, animals and birds feed peacefully together, the lion and the wild boar with the doe and the lamb, in a rural landscape which suggests tranquil abundance. Above the woman's head a snake coils half-hidden in the tree, which is heavy with foliage and inviting fruit. The woman's elegant self-possession offers an amusing contrast to her partner's lack of ease. She could be Venus whiling away a lazy summer's day by seducing a shepherd, or Aphrodite dallying with Anchises. But this nubile nymph is no classical deity; she is Eve with the gardener Adam at the pivotal moment before time began.
Lucas Cranach the Elder's version of Eve's offer of the apple was painted many centuries after the event was first recorded by the early Israelites, but it represents a view of what came to be known as `the Fall' that has persisted from the time of early Christianity to the present day. There is no mistaking the erotic subtext of this painting: the antlers of the stag resting at Adam's feet bristle up his thigh and out of his genital area with unmistakably phallic meaning, thrusting towards the delicate girl with her worldly-wise smile. But there is no heat to the couple's encounter: both seem to brood, gazing abstractedly, as if contemplating the momentous effect of the fruit that they clasp together, she offering, he taking. Even the serpent seems to hold his breath; the only movement is the distant flurry of a white horse, briskly trotting from the doom about to fall not just on the central trio, but on the whole of the natural world. There is nothing in Cranach's rendering of the scene that would be unfamiliar to a viewer schooled in the Christian tradition, but its suggestive representation of the Temptation of Adam might have surprised the ancient tribes among whom the Eden story evolved.
Like the Hebrew God, Eve is unique in the mythologies of the Ancient Near East, which typically describe the births of deities and their battles for supremacy. She belongs as much to folklore as to myth and, as is the case with so many heroines of folk tales, her origins are probably to be sought in the harsh realities of everyday life. The Garden of Eden is generally thought to be an aetiological myth, a story that justifies how things are. As an oral tradition, the narrative probably evolved during the formative period of settlement in Canaan, when, for better protection against attack, the Israelites typically would have been living in hilltop villages, probably in what became known as Judea, Samaria and Galilee. As Carol Meyers points out in Discovering Eve, her study of the everyday lives of women in ancient Israel, far from being `a land flowing with milk and honey', this was a territory characterized by poor soil in the mountains, a sparse water supply and a difficult topography of random hills and valleys. In order for communities to settle and develop, woodlands had to be cleared, terraces hacked out for crops and deep cisterns cut in the bedrock below the surface of the hilltops to meet the year-round water requirements of people and animals. Households would have been largely self-contained, and the women in this frontier period would have been responsible for feeding and clothing their families and manufacturing necessary household goods, as well as looking after livestock, and working in the fields, gardens, orchards and terraces — the day-in, day-out routines that were essential to food production in that unwelcoming terrain. At the same time, the need for labour, for more hands to help out, would have meant pressure on women to be fertile, to bear sons to defend their territory and farm the land, daughters to tend the animals and crops, to draw water, to spin and weave and bake and brew for the growing household. Psalm 127, recommended for centuries in the Prayer Book of the Church of England for use in the churching of women after childbirth, emphasizes the importance of children (and, by implication, sons) in a warrior culture:
Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.
The father of a large family of boys secured a committed labour force and on-site protection, social prestige as leader of a substantial household and the reassurance that the family name would be perpetuated. Girl children were valued as future wives and mothers, essential to the continuation of the community, but for their parents they were a mixed blessing. The mother had the work of training up her daughters to be useful, only to see them sold off as wives to benefit neighbouring households, whilst mates for one's own sons had to be bought in, although the bridal price received for a daughter could be useful in purchasing a daughter-in-law. Daughters who failed to marry were even more of a liability. For an Israelite mother, a large family meant more mouths to feed, more bodies to clothe and the recurrent cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation to be slotted in to the woman's daily routine.
Population loss through pestilential disease, warfare and infant mortality would also have put pressure on women to produce large families. Investigations of ancient Palestinian burial sites suggest a high mortality rate for children and adolescents, while childbirth itself was risky both for mother and baby, and its pains, its fears, are a persistent theme in the Bible, as is the anxiety of infertility. Writing in times of threat and social disturbance, the prophets compare the plight of troubled Israel to the agony of a woman in labour in texts that evoke real suffering: `Like as a woman with child, that draweth near the time of her delivery, is in pain, and crieth out in her pangs; so we have been in thy sight, O Lord', cries Isaiah (Isa. 26:17), and Jeremiah is similarly expressive, `I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child' (Jer. 4:31). Failure to produce children was regarded as a lapse of duty and a mark of God's displeasure. When Sarah is unable to conceive children by her husband Abraham, she tells him `the Lord hath restrained me from bearing' (Gen. 16:2) and offers him her handmaid, the Egyptian woman Hagar, to bear children on her behalf. She is rewarded when she herself miraculously conceives and gives birth to Isaac although long past the age of childbearing. Rachel, Jacob's wife, also finds herself childless, and when she complains to Jacob, he makes it clear that it is God's doing: `Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?' Again she gives him her maid as a surrogate mother, so `she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her'. When she eventually becomes pregnant with Joseph, she says simply, `God hath taken away my reproach' (Gen. 30:2, 3, 23). Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, is barren for many years and only finally conceives when she promises God that if he gives her a male child, she will dedicate her son to God's service `all the days of his life' (1 Sam. 1:11). One can only guess at the female anxiety, humiliation and grief that underlie these simply narrated stories, but significantly it is God who imposes and lifts the curse of infertility; as in the first chapter of Genesis, nature is subject to His control.
For these early Israelites, the story of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden would have offered an explanation of the facts of life — the need to labour in the field, `cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life ... In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread'; and in childbed, `I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children' (Gen. 3:17, 19, 16). The narrative also comments on the social and psychological relationship between men and women, and again these observations should perhaps be seen as explanatory: this is why things are as they are. Later critics found plenty of ammunition for a negative evaluation of Eve in her creation from Adam's rib, her (subordinate) status as `helpmate' to Adam, and the terms of God's curse, `thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee' (Gen. 3:16), but the story suggests a more complicated response to male/female negotiations, again perhaps pointing out the discrepancy between an ideal state of affairs and everyday reality.
The idea of a person fashioned out of a rib does have an element of the ridiculous, and lends itself to interpretations of inferiority which commentators have been quick to exploit. The Rabbis used it as an excuse for all sorts of misogynous jokes, and the Yahwist writer may himself have intended a punning reference to the rib when Adam later names the woman Eve, `mother of all living'. In Sumerian, the words for `life' (til) and `rib' (ti) were depicted by the same cuneiform symbols, so that the name of the goddess NIN.TI could be interpreted as either `lady of life' or `lady of the rib', while the Hebrew word for `rib', tsela, also means `stumbling'. But in the context of the story itself, it is a logical next step for God. As He did with man, God forms the animals and birds out of dust, and brings them to Adam to be named. Naming can imply many things — possibly even that Adam had intercourse with the animals — but in the Jewish Bible it usually means lordship or possession. Here, it reinforces the important theological point that the Hebrew God operates alone: unlike in the neighbouring Canaanite and Egyptian religions, animals are to be dominated, not venerated. Adam asserts his authority over the animals, but feels no special bond with them. A later Jewish midrash or commentary on the text sympathetically records how Adam made the animals pass in pairs before him, but this only emphasized his feelings of loneliness and yearning: `Every one has a partner, yet I have none'. The decision to make woman out of man's substance is a brainwave on God's part, and Adam's response is unequivocal: in Everett Fox's vivid translation, `This-time, she-is-it!/Bone from my bones,/flesh from my flesh!' Having waited so long, Adam at last recognizes a fellow creature and he bonds joyfully with the woman. Centuries later, St Augustine interpreted the rib story as indicative of the loving union that should exist between man and wife.
As for being a `help meet' for the man, which in English suggests that Eve is some kind of junior assistant, there is an argument for Eve to be seen, in the words of Milton's Adam, as `Heaven's last best gift': she is God's final creation and is formed not of dust but of the raw material of humanity, and Adam had been the crown of God's activity up to this point. In any event, a better translation of the Hebrew phrase, `ezer kenegdô, would be `a companion corresponding to' Adam, in other words a being of the same status, and the rib story confirms that Eve is part of Adam and therefore cannot be inferior to him. What the narrator seems to have been suggesting was the symbiotic relationship between man and woman which would justify a man leaving his parents and siblings in order to cleave to someone outside the immediate family circle (Gen. 2:24). This is appropriate because woman is part of man. The rib story establishes the `ideal' relationship between man and woman; the narrative then goes on to explain a social reality in which the women of Israel found themselves subordinate to their husbands.
Eve nibbled the fruit and tempted Adam, and is cursed by God with repeated and painful childbearing and subjection to her husband. The precise meaning of the text of Genesis 3:16 has been especially troublesome to feminist commentators, particularly the words translated in the King James Bible, `and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee', but however translated or interpreted, the implication seems to be that women will sexually desire their husbands and, because of or despite this, will be subject to their husband's authority. Either scenario probably more or less accurately reflected the establishment position on male/female relations in the early biblical period. Female subordination was regarded as essential to the status quo and men were repeatedly warned against the dangers of being sexually manipulated by women. Proverbs adjures them, `Give not thy strength unto women' (Prov. 31:3), and the frequent complaints in the Old Testament about the wiles and deceits of harlots suggest that the men of ancient Israel were feared to be as susceptible to the clichés of feminine glamour, to vivid make-up and provocative clothes, as the stereotypical `red-blooded' modern Western male. Proverbs tells the cautionary tale of the foolish young man who is ensnared by a wicked woman: typically she waylays him on the street corner, `In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night', a place and a time which a good woman would shun. But this wanton is `loud and stubborn', `with the attire of an harlot, and subtil of heart ... So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said unto him ... I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt./I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon./Come, let us take our fill of love unto the morning ... For the goodman is not at home'. Not surprisingly, the poor fool is unable to resist such erotic enticements, and `He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter'. It can only end in the dark chambers of Sheol, the afterworld, for this Amazon `hath cast down many wounded: yea, many strong men have been slain by her' (Prov. 7:7-27).
Whatever this alluring tale may suggest about latent womanpower, the picture the Old Testament gives of Israelite society is of a male-dominated culture. However Genesis 3:16 is interpreted, men as warriors, householders, priests and lawmakers clearly held the executive roles, although there are hints that more equitable arrangements might have been negotiated at the household level. The story of Sarah suggests one such accommodation: her handmaid Hagar is offered as a surrogate wife to Abraham and conceives a child by him, but, perhaps inevitably, she then gets uppity and is rude to her mistress. When Sarah complains to Abraham, he wisely washes his hands of the affair, leaving her to manage it as she will. Sarah `deals hardly' with Hagar, who runs away to the wilderness, where she is advised by an angel to return, suitably contrite (Gen. 16:1-9). Sarah is permitted to deal with an unruly servant, but important decisions at a social or domestic level — the institution of ritual circumcision, the slaughter of a beloved son — are taken by Abraham.
|Introduction: The Story of Eve||1|
|Part 1||The Making of a Bad Reputation||7|
|1||The Garden of Eden||9|
|2||The View Through One Painted Eye||39|
|3||Angelic Lust, Devilish Envy||83|
|4||Curious Women: Eve, Pandora and Psyche||111|
|5||The Tragic Passions of Womanhood||135|
|6||The Terrible Flesh||163|
|7||Daughters of Eve||195|
|Part 2||Fantasies of Eve||227|
|8||The Second Eve||229|
|9||An Help Meet for Adam||275|
|10||Tempting Women: Mermaids, Liliths and Lamias||317|
|11||Eve Tells Her Own Story||349|
|Afterword: Into the Future||401|
|Text and Illustration Acknowledgements||473|
Posted December 9, 1999
Eve is smart and surprisingly fun and funny. Norris has written a history of an icon--a symbol who has been the subject of myth and art and literature. No small feat, but she pulls it off. Beautiful color reproductions and just a beautiful book in general. For those interested in religion, women's history, art.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.