The Wisdom of the Serpent
It is difficult to imagine a tale which has had more impact upon Western culture than the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2-3). Although neither the other writers of the Hebrew Scriptures nor the early rabbis paid much attention to this Genesis tale, the apostle Paul lifted it out of its apparent oblivion by making the fall of Adam "into sin" the whole reason for the Christian epic of redemption (Rom.5.12ff). For Paul, the Christ, the Messiah, came not to re-establish earthly, righteous, political rule as the Jews expected, but to solve the problem posed by Adam's disobedience and the subsequent fall. "In Adam's fall we sinned all," teaches Pauline theology, and so Christ came to redeem humanity by re-establishing human righteousness in a way no mere sinful mortal could. According to some theologies, Christ paid the debt which Adam had incurred, but which only a God-man had the righteousness and hence the ability to pay (see St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?).
That is the context in which Genesis 2 and 3 have been read for centuries and for many people that is the only way to read the passage. The problem, however, is that the story has too many loose ends, too many confusing subtleties to be so easily unravelled and explained. If it is to be understood as an account of why humans are all sinful, why does the word "sin" never appear in the story? And why is it that in a certain sense the serpent appears more truthful than Yahweh? Yahweh tells the man and the woman that on the day they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will surely die, but this does not happen. Instead Adam lives on to a very ripe old age of 930 years (Gen. 5:5). The serpent, on the other hand, tells them quite truthfully that they will not die, but instead promises that they will become wise, like God, knowing good and evil.
One could argue that the sort of wisdom that the knowledge of good and evil brings has been troubling and the source of human discontent, but could anyone imagine human beings without any sense of good and evil? Is that not what makes us human? Was the gaining of such knowledge then really a "fall" at all? It is perhaps significant that God himself has to admit that the couple has become ''as one of us, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3.22). In other words, God finally confesses that the serpent was correct. A good argument could be made that the serpent, far from ruining humanity, saved Adam from perpetual, blind subservience in a very restrictive garden.
Let me begin by asking an obvious question: "Who is this serpent who addresses the woman?" John Milton, of course, knew the answer implicitly. The serpent for Milton and most other Christian theologians of the past is obviously the Devil. Indeed, the whole Christian story has been seen as a struggle between God and Satan for the soul of humanity. The problem is that the concept of Satan does not emerge in the recorded thought of Israel until long after this part of Genesis was written. Indeed, when Satan first appears as a character in the book of Job he is God's emissary and tester, not his enemy. The same seems true for the other references to Satan in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Chron. 21.1, Zech. 3.1-2). To think of the serpent as Satan is, therefore, highly anachronistic. It is to impose upon Hebrew Scripture a later, Christian understanding.
Ancient peoples did not understand the serpent as some deceitful embodiment of evil. On the contrary, the serpent was, and in some cultures still is, regarded as the source of great wisdom, for the serpent can shed its skin and go on living. Like the butterfly which bursts out of its own chrysalis to new life, the serpent was often regarded as a symbol of immortality. And more, perhaps because of this intimation of new life, the serpent was frequently regarded in the ancient world as the messenger from the great Goddess and the guardian of her sacred precincts (see Eliade, Patterns 164-74; Sinha 45, 56).
If this is the symbolism intended, the tale of the Garden of Eden takes on radically new dimensions. The essential plot can be understood not as a struggle between God and the Devil, but as a conflict involving the dynamic, royal, masculine God of the heavens and the primordial Mother Goddess who for millennia had been worshiped as the Mistress of the earth. To be sure, the story is told from the point of view of the former. The serpent is reduced to being the subtlest of the creatures which the Lord God had made. The Goddess is not even mentioned by name, though she is there as the tree of life, for that is how she was so often depicted among the ancient Canaanites. Indeed, because she was represented in tree form, it is not surprising that Yahweh declared that the tree and its fruit were taboo. Usually Asherah was represented by a pole. Archaeologists have discovered a pre-Mosaic casting mould which pictured the Goddess as a tree with knobby knees and body, rooted in the earth. She is also sometimes pictured as a woman offering her breasts to the world for sustenance.
The Goddess was not a newcomer to human history. Archaeologists have discovered on the Golan Heights an image of her which can be dated to more than 220,000 years ago! From a human point of view, Yahweh, and all the other, heavenly Gods like him, are far more recent historically. Her predominance in earlier forms of the story may well be mirrored by the fact that the very name Adam is cognate with adamah, earth. In other words, humanity was originally hers.
Indeed, the Hebrew word Adam can be translated as simply "human." Adam, as originally created, contained within "him" both male and female. Therefore, it is appropriate to speak of the man and the woman (ish and ishshah), but not Adam and Eve, in the garden. The male only claims to be the whole of Adam and therefore calls his wife Chawwah (in Greek, Eve) after they have been driven out of the garden.
Yahweh's triumph over the Goddess, which this tale describes from his point of view, marked a radical transformation of society, a transformation which has continued virtually to this day. (In many respects, this victory is reminiscent of Apollo's victory over the Pythian serpent Goddess at Delphi in Greece.) When Adam is divided into male and female, the story makes clear, the first stage of human life was matriarchy, for the male "left his father and mother to cleave unto his wife" (Gen. 2.24). In a patriarchal society, which the victory of Yahweh brings, the direction is reversed. The woman goes to live in the man's home. It is also obvious that before the "fall" the woman (later to be called Eve) takes the leading role, reasoning about her options and, in effect, deciding what the couple will do. Only after Yahweh steps in does the male claim rule over the female by naming her.
In a certain sense we should not lament overly much the victory of the patriarchy. From our historical vantage point, the transformation of theology and hence society appears to have been inevitable, probably even necessary. Certainly it occurred in many different cultures with amazing synchronicity. The triumph of patriarchy in Israel is mirrored in China, India, Europe - in most parts of the world. At the same time, however, patriarchalists should not complain, now that it is time for the Goddess to reassert herself and recover the status and the dignity which are rightfully hers.
Moreover, those lovers of the patriarchal "victory" must also be aware that the triumph of Yahweh and the patriarchy was never as complete as is usually assumed. In fact, the story about Adam in the garden is but the first skirmish in a war which continues throughout the biblical period. The essential conflict in the Hebrew Scriptures is not between God and Satan but between Yahweh and the Goddess.
Right at the beginning, Yahweh tries to isolate her. Her guardian, the serpent, is replaced by the bizarre and monstrous cherub (usually connected with political centers) who is to keep humans from the tree of Life; i.e., the Mother. No sooner does the family of humankind begin, however, than Cain, the agriculturalist, sacrifices his brother to the earth, who opens her mouth to receive Abel's blood (Gen. 4.11).
The Goddess's rites were typically bloody; demanding animal and sometimes human sacrifice. Yahweh punishes Cain by alienating him from the earth, but the problem for Yahweh continues. The Mother, whose offspring is always some form of Eros, tempts the sons of God so that they come down and co-habit with the daughters of men (Gen. 6.1-21). This leads God to decide to destroy the whole earth with a great flood. The earth is cleansed, but the conflict does not go away.
Noah's drunkenness (Gen. 9.20-21) results from imbibing of the earth's secret mysteries. Throughout the historical books and the prophets we see Israel repeatedly "going after" other deities. In particular, it is the Goddess Asherah who tempts the Israelites to be unfaithful to Yahweh. Even one of the tribes of Israel, Asher, seems to have been named after her. The great southern seaport was also given her epithet, Elath. Archaeology has confirmed through the discovery of the many images of Asherah and her sister Goddess Astarte, that the prophets did not exaggerate. The Goddess, in her several forms, remained until the end of the biblical period a major divinity for the people.
Jeremiah, an eyewitness to the final destruction of the nation of Judah in 587 B.C., laments that even then Israelites were still "baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven" (Jer. 7.18). In a sense, one could interpret the tall of Jerusalem and the end of the kingdom of Judah as the ultimate example of the Goddess's victory.
The official dogma of Israel was that Yahweh is the one God who creates and rules all. Heaven completely triumphs over earth. In the second version of the Ten Commandments, Israel is specifically commanded to "cut down their Asherim" (Exod. 34.13). In actual fact, however, Asherah did not vanish at all. There were many instances, in fact, when Asherah was worshiped as Yahweh's consort. Her image and a bronze serpent were even to be found within the temple, probably next to the ark of the covenant (2 Kings 23.4ff). At other times, however, her cult stood opposed to the official cult. Although there was much criticism and even persecution, the cult of Asherah persevered.
Perhaps it is time to ask with some seriousness what it was that Asherah offered that attracted so many away from Yahweh? What is the wisdom of the serpent? To answer that question, let us begin by looking at the Goddess's sometime adversary. Yahweh is surrounded by the hosts of heaven. He rules over the world, but his true throne is located in the realm above. When he appears, he descends from that higher realm. In other words, like all celestial beings he transcends the earth and stands in judgment over it. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, "God is in heaven and you upon earth" (Eccles. 5.2). To use a metaphorical ratio, God is to the world as the immortal soul is to the mortal body. Although the Hebrew Scriptures are not extreme in this regard, this metaphor, when followed out, leads eventually to a sense that the heavenly soul is everything and that the body is the enemy which must be controlled or escaped. The end of radical transcendence and disassociation is Gnostic flight.
It is the New Testament which takes the Hebrew metaphors to their inevitable conclusion. Jesus comes from above, the offspring of the Holy Spirit, and in the end he returns to heaven. And he calls his followers to renounce this world - family, possessions, even life – in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (see particularly Luke 14.23-33). He teaches his disciples to pray to the Father who is in heaven, whose will must be obeyed, whose compassion is shown by forgiving the debts owed to him. It is not surprising that many of his early followers understood Jesus as teaching the denial of the body and the supreme importance of the soul.
We know much less about Asherah, because her worship was officially repressed and with her worship whatever teaching she had to offer. Our picture, therefore, must be conjectural, based not only upon specific references to her but also upon our knowledge of goddesses in general. What we can be sure is that Asherah is a wholly different sort of deity from Yahweh. Though connected to the Moon as Yahweh is to the Sun and sometimes identified with the morning star, she is of the earth, earthly. She affirms the body and its desires; her symbol is the tree of life, an organic, growing cosmic reality. Like Yahweh she too can punish and destroy - the serpent who intimates immortality also threatens a venomous bite - but both her immortality and her mortality are of this world. To find immortality in her is to be absorbed in her perennial cycles, to know yourself as one with her body. To worship the goddess is to participate in those cycles of the seasons which constitute the rhythm of life. For Yahweh the seasons are but occasions to remember historical (or perhaps pseudo-historical) events in which he is said to have acted and revealed himself. For the Goddess, spring is spring, a time of renewed warmth, fecundity, birth.
If Yahweh represents civilization - the tribe, history, the forefathers - Asherah is nature in both its creative and destructive modes. In her is life and death. Yahweh is particular and unique; Asherah is universal and non-discriminating. Yahweh's salvation is historical and elective. The Exodus from Egypt only happens once, to one group of people. Great emphasis then is put upon remembering with gratitude what happened in the past. Asherah also provides salvation, but it is cyclical and available to all. To live in harmony with her rhythms is to find peace. Death is not her enemy but simply an aspect of her rhythm. Moreover, her salus (health) is not metaphorical and spiritual but real and practical. Paracelsus in the 16th century expressed his faith that Natura contains within her a cure for every human illness (Paracelsus 69, 76). It simply is up to the physician to find it. Her secrets, he saw, are not historical but botanical.
The wisdom of Asherah's serpent is medicinal, healing wisdom. That is why her serpents coil themselves around the caduceus, the physician's symbol. Her mysteries are the mysteries of herbs and poultices, of recipes and draughts. Jesus cures "from above", through the spirit, by faith. For him disease is directly connected to disobedience and lack of faith. For Asherah, harmony with her rhythms is also healthful, but she offers the leaves of a particular tree to ease persistent headaches, the bark of a special shrub that grows high in the mountains to cure a skin disease. Many of the mysteries of the earth, of course, are dangerous. There are poisons as well as healing draughts, though even the poisons may have some healing use if their secrets are known. The Goddess hedges in her mysteries with ritual sanctity and orally transmitted lore. Each of her gifts must be used with specially prescribed care. This is particularly true for those psychotropic substances - soma, peyote, fly algaric, jimson weed, tobacco, the water of life (whiskey), etc. - which can devour and kill but which, if imbibed with appropriate ritual, can also be revelatory. The Huichol of Mexico, who go to the land of the Mothers to hunt and collect peyote, do so with specially prescribed rituals and with a leader who knows the secrets of that land (Furst). Therefore, the result is not just a psychedelic high but a deeply transforming religious experience. Through peyote, the Mothers allow the pilgrims "to see their own lives."
Along with plants and herbs, the Goddess also produces metals and other minerals from her telluric "womb" (Eliade, Forge). The miner and the smith know her mysteries which must be handled with ritual care. Forging in the ancient world was a sacred process, not just a secular job, for the mysteries of ores and metals belonged to the Goddess. This may be the reason why the Philistines mastered the art of iron before the Israelites and why the latter had to go to their Goddess-worshipping neighbors for the smithing of iron implements
1 Sam. 13.19-21).
Perhaps most important, the Goddess is revealed in Eros, in that most powerful of earthly urges. For heavenly Gods and transcendent philosophies, Eros frequently appears as the great enemy. We must be rid of desire: Buddhism, Upanishadic Hinduism, and many forms of Christianity agree on that. Eros leads us into illusion, breaks up the patriarchal family, pollutes the mind. To the Goddess, however, Eros is not the enemy but her child, her driving power. The earth continues to restore and replenish itself through Eros. Eros must be ritualized and controlled, the way psychedelic drugs are, but it is finally the gift of the Goddess and must be revered as such. Most biblical scholars love to speak of the Goddess's so-called "fertility cult" as the reason for prophetic denunciation, and there may be some truth in that. Certainly, representatives of the cult of Yahweh repeatedly attacked what they saw as the erotic dimension of Goddess worship. Sacred prostitution by both sexes and seasonal orgiastic celebrations were roundly excoriated.
Before we join our voices with the prophets in condemning such excesses, however, we should at least note that the Goddess and her followers treated the rites of Eros as a sacred mystery rather than a secular vice, and we must ask whether her seasonal orgies were really worse than our perpetual, modern obscenities. The Goddess regards us all as creatures of the earth who are born out of Eros and live through Eros. Eros is her gift to us. When we forget that, Eros becomes mere pornography and sleaze, or worse, violence and abuse. The more the heavenly (and political) powers seek to repress earthly Eros, the more Eros takes bitter and degrading revenge.
Until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., which the prophets attributed to Israel's unfaithfulness (i.e., whoring after other gods), Israel had endured an uneasy relationship between the cults of Yahweh and Asherah. The latter was frequently condemned, but continued as an alternative tradition, in some ways keeping Israel sane. One of the joys of the Bible is that despite its formal "heavenly" ideology it remains an earthy, very creaturely book. When Israel returned from exile, however and attempted to live a righteous life quite apart from Asherah, a rather rigid and unattractive religiosity began to prevail. Judaism became a religion of the heavenly law, imposed by the King of Kings. Piety became defined as subservience to a set of rules which needed no rationale or justification but which forever seemed to multiply.
Jesus recognized the repressiveness and hypocrisy of this religious tradition, but in fact developed the heavenly aspect of biblical religiosity even further. Now not only adulterous acts but also lustful thoughts were considered sinful (Matt. 5.28). Now followers were called to be perfect as their father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5.48). If Jesus himself did not totally abandon the significance of this earth, many of his followers, particularly the Gnostics, did. The so-called orthodox kept a modicum of sanity by either overlooking what Jesus in fact taught or by reinterpreting what he said in a more this-worldly way. Few, however, listened to the wisdom of the serpent. What the serpent said was of the Devil. The Church became the ark which saved men by ferrying them out of this world to heaven. Feminine, Goddess-like images were preserved, but generally lost much earthly connection. The Virgin Mary, Jesus’ link with this earth, was bodily transported into heaven, totally alienated from Eros and the secrets of the earth. The same is true of many other goddesses who were converted into pious saints and who generally 1ost their most erotic connections. There were, however, exceptions to this rule, for goddesses like Brigit preserved something of their earthly and erotic roles long after they were converted to sainthood. They were, however, regularly attacked as remnants of paganism and were dismissed entirely by the Protestant Reformation.
One of the few intellectual movements to preserve something of the traditions of the earth within Christendom was the Hermetic movement, supposedly inspired by the writings of an unknown author or authors known collectively as Hermes Trismegistus, but in fact dependent upon Taoist forms of alchemy imported from China. Although not overtly erotic, the Hermetic tradition preserved the notion that the secrets of spiritual transformation are to be found here, in this earth, in the metals and chemicals, with which the smiths and metallurgists work. Couched in the most secret language, the Hermetic writings affirm that there is a decided and mysterious synchronicity between what happens in the material world and what happens in the inner self.
The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz combines this theme with definite but esoteric erotic ideas. Everything points ultimately to the reconciliation of opposites, to the Great Marriage of the cosmic King and Queen.
Hermeticists are often lumped together with Gnostics because, I suppose, both movements are esoteric. In fact, however, Hermeticists are actually the obverse of Gnostics. Gnostics seek to flee this world of foolishness and illusion to return to the soul's true home. Hermeticists seek a union of opposites - the King and the Queen – to produce harmony once more in this world, in the human self, and in society. To do this they employ the secret pharmacopeial and metallurgical wisdom of the serpent. This Western movement has parallels and clear inspiration in Taoist alchemy in China as well as possible influence from Tantrism in India. The latter is, of course, the most obvious, most successful attempt to reintegrate the Goddess into a patriarchal society and to preserve her wisdom.
Modern science, though it learned much from the Hermetic alchemists, uses nature in a very different way. Gone are the secret and sacred rituals of Hermeticism which point toward psychic and social reintegration. The world under the influence of Protestant Christianity became desacralized; science, secular; the earth, threatened with ecological disaster. Scientific discovery lost any secret, mystical dimension. Science simply exploits the world for the so-called benefit of humanity. The mysteries of the earth are dissolved and forgotten. Whatever remnants there were of the Goddess in Hermeticism have long since vanished. Nature may still be called Mother, but that is about all that is left of her Wisdom.
Despite the general decline of Christianity in the West the whole "heavenly ideology" remains basic to our worldview. Mind transcends body; reason transcends superstition. Although there may be some truth in this viewpoint, it is because of our transcendent ideology that we persist in our wars against the earth. Most particularly I think of our war on drugs, pornography, and violence. What we fail to see about these losing causes is that, because we have forsaken the wisdom of the serpent and regarded the holiness of the Goddess with contempt, we have lost control of the erotic, the psychotropic, and the violent. We have rejected her bloody sacrifices only to become addicted to violence and blood on the screen and in the streets.
The wisdom of the serpent offers holy gifts from the Goddess which must not be scorned. They are her mysteries, which should be treated with the utmost respect and ritual care. Suppression is not the answer, for it never works. When we forget the gifts are from Asherah and simply use them for our own pleasure, when all ritual control is abandoned, then Asherah takes her revenge. Eros becomes porn; the revelation of the Goddess becomes drugs; progress becomes pollution; sacrifice becomes bloody violence. The earth herself is simply raped. These scourges, as we all know, threaten to destroy our society.
One may suspect that Israel ultimately rejected Asherah, not so much because of her fertility rituals or even because of Israel's monotheism, but because she did not serve to support the tribal particularism of Israel. Yahweh, though from heaven, did. He was identified as the God of the tribe, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He fought for Israel and punished her. He entered into a marriage covenant with her on Mount Sinai. Asherah could never do that, for Natura is for all people everywhere. She has sacred places - wells, rivers, mountains - but no chosen people, no elect. Although she has many names and much particular lore, she has been worshiped around the world in curiously similar ways.
Could she be worshiped again, seriously, in Western culture? Could post-modern peoples turn from their wars of repression and their quest to justify their own nationalistic particularism to consider with awe and reverence the wisdom of the serpent? In truth, we have never really stopped paying homage to her. Officially, we are a monotheistic society, "under God," espousing the highest ideals, but, in fact, her earthly powers - Eros, violence, psychedelics - continue to haunt us. The question is whether we can re-integrate her rituals and her reverence into our social and religious life in order to control the forces to which we are addicted.
There are many powers which stand against her: the Christian and Jewish religions, which have always officially denied her; science, which doubtless would regard any recognition of her as sheer superstition; industry, which considers too great a concern for nature a detriment to its own ends; national self-interest that fears her universality. Because of these forces, there seems little chance that we will admit that Jehovah's reform, which removed Asherah from the temple and laid waste her holy places, was a terrible mistake. Until we end the demonization of Asherah, however, the consequences seem obvious and frightening. Quite simply, she will remain what we make her - a demoness - and our society will continue to be plagued by pornography, violence, environmental pillaging, and drugs.
Perhaps the Great Marriage of the King and the Queen – the reintegration of the masculine and the feminine on both a human and divine level - is, after all, the greatest hope we can have. Adam, created in the image of God, was made male and female together. Is it not time to acknowledge not only the equality of male and female in humanity, but to recognize and listen to the feminine side of the Godhead? Beyond the great antithesis there is a synthesis. But will the wisdom of the serpent be heard?
© Jay Willaims
Dr. Jay Williams is Director, Dept. of Asian Studies, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York