Does the following story sound familiar? In the beginning, a divine force created the universe by separating elements from the chaotic void: light and dark, heaven and earth. The first humans were formed from clay and lived in a paradise free of pain, sin and toil. But a clever creature tricked the humans and they fell from their perfect state into the flawed world we know today.
If you think that's the story of Adam and Eve from the Bible, you're right. But it's also a story common to other religions. Nearly every ancient culture told its own set of creation myths and they share a remarkable number of similarities, including key elements of the Adam and Eve story: humans fashioned from clay, a trickster figure who subverts the gods' plans for creation, and a woman taking the blame for sin and pain.
It appears that ancient authors from China, Egypt, Iceland, Greece, Mesopotamia and the Americas were all wrestling with the same big questions — where did we come from and why is our world the way it is? — and they used myth to make sense of it all.
"Human beings know that they're alienated from the divine somehow, but they also know that they're part of the divine and that the divine is part of them," says Eva Thury, an English professor at Drexel University and co-author (with Margaret Devinney) of "Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths."
"All of these stories are expressing that relationship, and it gets expressed in terms of whatever the society is up to at that point, whether it's putting women in their place like the Greeks or cultivating oneness with the land like the Native Americans."
Two Biblical Creation Stories — Which Came First?
Before we look at the ways in which the Adam and Eve story is echoed in other myth traditions, it's worth noting that Adam and Eve is actually one of two distinct creation stories in the Bible. Thury explains that the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) was edited together from different authors writing centuries apart.
The first creation story starts with the immortal phrase, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." In that account, which comprises Chapter 1 of Genesis, God labors for six days to create the sun and moon, the land and sea, and plants and animals. On the last day, he creates human beings in his own image: "male and female he created them."
Chapter 2 of Genesis, which contains the Adam and Eve story, seems like a continuation of the creation account from Chapter 1, but it's actually very different. In this second creation story, God forms the first man before creating any other animal, and when God finds no suitable "helper" for the man from the animal kingdom, he fashions the first woman from one of the man's ribs.
"There are two creation stories in Genesis which don't fit together at all," says Thury. "In one of them, human beings are all made at the same time, and in the second one man is made first and woman second. It probably reflects the views of the culture in which they were written."
Interestingly, many scholars believe that the Adam and Eve story from Chapter 2 of Genesis was actually written first, around 950 B.C.E. in Palestine, according to Thury. The "In the beginning" version from Chapter 1 was written 400 years later during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were living in exile. The priestly Jewish author of Chapter 1 wrote his account to directly refute the Babylonian creation myths, which credited gods like Marduk and Tiamat with creating heaven and earth.
Mankind Made from Clay
Adam isn't called by name until nearly the end of Chapter 2 (before that, he's simply "the man"), and his name is actually a clever play on words. Adam is created from the "dust of the ground" — usually interpreted as earth or clay — and the Hebrew word for "ground" is "adamah." So Adam's name is basically dirt.
This is a common theme in creation myths the world over. In China, the goddess Nüwa took a walk among the majesties of creation, but she grew lonely, so she paused along the banks of a river and began to fashion creatures out of clay. After making a few animals, Nüwa got bored, and catching her beautiful reflection in the river, decided to create creatures in her own image and name them humans.
In Ovid's "Metamorphosis," written in Ancient Rome, the gods first separated light from dark, then earth from sky, then created all of the animals before deciding to make "[a]n animal with higher intellect, more noble, able — one to rule the rest." Borrowing from older mythological sources, Ovid credited Prometheus with making men "by mixing new-made earth with fresh rainwater; and when he fashioned man, his mold recalled the masters of all things, the gods."
In one Egyptian creation myth, the god Amun commands the ram-headed god Khmun to create human beings "as a potter who molds clay on a potter's wheel." And according to Sumerian creation myths, which are some of the oldest on record, the primeval mother goddess Namma created mankind to do chores for the gods and birthed them by placing clay in her womb.
Enter the Serpent, a Classic 'Trickster' Figure
In the biblical story of Adam and Eve, God places his human creations in the Garden of Eden, and tells them they can freely eat of every tree of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for when you eat from it you will certainly die," God warns.
Then along comes the serpent, more cunning than other animals (and the only one that can talk, apparently), and asks Eve what God said about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When she repeats the prohibition against eating its fruit, the serpent scoffs, "You will not certainly die ... For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
So Eve, seeking wisdom, takes a bite of the forbidden fruit and gives some to her husband, Adam. As the serpent promised, they don't die and their eyes are indeed opened to the existence of good, evil and shame (they were naked!). But as punishment for breaking God's commandment, they are expelled from the garden into our fallen world of pain and toil.
Later Christian theologians cast Satan in the role of the serpent, but to the ancient authors of Genesis, the snake represented an even older mythological figure: the trickster. In mythology, a trickster is a slippery figure who inhabits both the heavenly and earthly realms and refuses to play by anyone's rules. Loki is the infamous trickster of Norse mythology and Anansi is the trickster of many African myths.
"A trickster being involved with the creation of the world as we know it is a very prominent theme," says Thury, citing the example of Raven in Native American creation myths of the Pacific Northwest.
Raven is at once a shape-shifting trickster and a creator god, creating land by dropping grains of sand into the sea, and the rivers by spitting out stolen water. But his gifts to mankind are achieved by deceit. He brings light to the world, for example, by pretending he's a newborn baby and crying incessantly until the ancient "grandfather" releases the stars, sun and moon.
In classical Greek mythology, Prometheus is the top trickster. Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gifts it to the humans he fashioned out of clay, enabling the rise of civilization. Prometheus is punished for his treachery, condemned by Zeus to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity.
Compare Prometheus to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Both broke the rules of all-powerful gods in order to bring light and knowledge to mankind. And both were punished for it. Prometheus had his liver eternally consumed and the serpent was damned to wallow on its belly and be hated by humans.
Blame the Woman (Of Course)
Prometheus wasn't the only one punished for stealing fire. Zeus was so steaming mad that he delivered the ultimate curse on mankind: women. According to the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod, Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, and filled her with "lies and persuasive words and cunning ways." He set Pandora loose on mankind armed with a "cask" or box containing a dark weapon.
"Before this time men lived upon the earth apart from sorrow and from painful work, free from disease, which brings the Death-gods in," wrote Hesiod in Theogony. "But now the woman opened up the cask, and scattered pains and evils among men. Inside the cask's hard walls remained one thing, Hope, only, which did not fly through the door. The lid stopped her, but all the others flew, Thousands of troubles wandering the earth."
Hesiod was writing in the eighth century B.C.E. as part of a Greek culture that "didn't think very highly of women," says Thury, "so woman is seen as a punishment. Woman is what brings evil into the world."
The biblical story of Adam and Eve was written a century earlier in a culture that wasn't nearly as chauvinistic, yet Eve is blamed for eating the forbidden fruit and for getting them expelled from paradise. When God asks Eve, "What is this you have done?" she responds, "The serpent beguiled me, and I ate."
Eve is punished with pain in childbirth and also to be ruled over by her husband, which appears to offer divine justification for a rigidly patriarchal society. (Adam was punished too for listening to his wife and eating the fruit as well. He is sentenced to toiling for his daily bread.)
Paradise Lost, Again and Again
In many myth traditions, the first humans are immortal and live in a world free from sin, pain, work or death, but that paradisiacal spell is quickly broken.
In Ovid's "Metamorphosis," the first age is described as "an age of gold: no law and no compulsion then were needed; all kept faith; the righteous way was freely willed."
But after Saturn is banished to Tartarus, the ruthless Jove takes over (the Roman version of Zeus) and creation passes through successively darker ages: silver, bronze and finally iron. "And this, the worst of ages, suddenly gave way to every foul impiety; earth saw the flight of faith, modesty and truth — and in their place came snares and fraud."
We also see this in the African creation myth known as The Origin of Death, where there was once a time before death and disease in which "Everybody was well and happy." Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a man died. The people didn't know what to do, so they told a worm to ask the gods how to respond. The sky gods told the worm to instruct the people to place the dead body in the fork of a tree and "throw mush at it" until it comes back to life. After that, there would be no death.
But here again a trickster intervened. A lizard named Agadzagadza heard what the sky gods said and ran ahead of the worm to tell the humans a lie, that they should wrap up the body and bury it in the ground. Which they did. When the worm finally arrived and told the humans to dig up the body, they "were overcome by laziness" and refused. And death has been here ever since.
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