A myth is always true; else it is not true myth.
– Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
Creation myths are traditional stories that express beliefs about origins. They explain natural phenomena using archetypes, symbols, and language of a particular region and time period, and provide a glimpse into the worldview of the people who originated the myth. Thus, “decoding” the myth requires some knowledge and understanding of the “code” that is derived from four sources: frame of reference (region-time); cultural context; intention; and language and symbols.
Taking these factors into account helps us approximate what the myth was intended to convey, and avoid distortions introduced by taking the content of the myth out of its original context. In this article, we will explore the well-known Garden of Eden myth from the book of Genesis using the “source code” to “decode” the myth.
Frame of Reference
The four rivers mentioned in this creation myth (Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus) are locations of the large fertile river valley civilizations of the ancient world. They also refer to the borders of the Persian Empire established by Cyrus the Great (6th century BCE). This myth is historically dated around the period of the Babylonian exile, which ended when Cyrus liberated the Jewish people from captivity. Jews revered Cyrus as a messiah, and the myth draws heavily upon Persian worldviews and beliefs, which are essential to understanding the significance of its language and symbols. In addition, prior myths and those of other regions (e.g., Indus Valley, India) are also relevant to the region and time frame of reference.
Persian mythology identifies a Divine Trinity: Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom), Mithra (mitra, “friend,” in Sanskrit), and Anahita (water goddess), who directs rivers from heaven to flow on earth, enabling the flourishing of life (hence, “living water”).
In the Indian creation myth of samudra-manthana (churning of the primordial waters), the mythical Serpent-King, Ananta (an-anta, “without end”), is the means used to draw out gifts, including the kalpa-vruksha (wish-granting tree) and a-mrit, the nectar of immortality (mrit/mrit-ya = “mortal”/“death”; a-mrit = “im-mortal”).
In other ancient creation myths, the mythical Serpent symbolizes fertility and renewal of life. Thus, in various creation myths, the Serpent symbolizes both the fertile, creative, feminine aspect of divinity, as Serpent-Queen (sarpa-rajni, Sanskrit; shah-maran, Persian), Rainbow-Serpent (Australian aboriginal), and Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcoatl, Aztec), as well as the world without end or the ever-renewing circle of life (as in an-anta above, or the Greek ouroboros).
The intention behind the planting of the Garden of Eden is disclosed in its name: Eden translates to “pleasure” or “delight” in Hebrew and Aramaic. All that is created and placed in the Garden of Eden is good, and together it is very good.
In Indian mythology, creation is viewed as Divine Play (Ram-lila) or Divine Dance, with God as the Lord of the Dance (Nata-raja). These intentions indicate a joyful divine artist, delighting in creating new forms and celebrating the self-expression of various forms.
Translation is fraught with many challenges and pitfalls, including missing the significance and spirit of certain words and phrases, choosing between less-than-ideal options when there is wordplay or multiple meanings in the original language, and differences in use of words over time.
Identifying the root words in the language of origin overcomes some of these errors. For instance, we currently use the word myth to point out what is not true, whereas in the ancient world, myth (from the Greek mythos and Sanskrit mithya) “embodies the nearest approach to Absolute Truth that can be stated in words,” as the philosopher Ananda K. Coomaraswamy writes.
In the Eden myth, the Persian words baghan (bagh in Indian languages, gan in Hebrew) and paradaieza (paradisum in Latin, “paradise” in English) refer to gardens and walled orchards, respectively, the most famous of which were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the gardens of Sennacherib that predated the Eden myth, as well as Persian orchards at the time of Cyrus. The words ish and isha refer to the male person and female person respectively, and their two-as-one, interdependent, eternal relationship to each other, ishq, is difficult to translate without losing the multiplicity of meanings.
According to ancient Persian tradition, the ruler must govern for the benefit of all in his dominion, care for and cultivate a relationship with them, and be responsible for their well-being. Thus, the duties of a ruler maybe defined as beneficent governance (“dominion” in Genesis 1); relationship (“care and cultivate” in Genesis 2); and responsibility (“rule over” in Genesis 3).
Using this “source code,” we can decode the Garden of Eden myth with no change in language but a very different interpretation. In contrast to anthropocentric versions of the myth, we end up with a very different, “cosmocentric” interpretation that places the Great Divine (G-D) at the center of the Great Dance (G-D), and teaches us to how to fully and joyfully participate in this Cosmic Dance as members of the Sacred Body of Life.
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In the beginning, G-D brought forth all forms, and breathed them into life. In the fullness of time, G-D created a Person and placed s/he in a delightful garden, Eden. In the middle of Eden, G-D placed two trees: the tree of life that supported and sustained all forms of life, and the tree of knowledge of what is good or not to renew and sustain life. G-D told the Person to care for Eden and delight in its beauty and fruits. G-D also told the Person that because s/he had not yet entered the deep sleep, s/he was not yet ready to enjoy the fruits of the tree of knowledge. G-D cautioned the Person that if s/he ate of the tree of knowledge before then, s/he would cease to exist. S/he obeyed G-D in all these things.
G-D then put the Person in deep sleep, and created out of him/her, two forms: a Man (ish) and a Woman (isha) who would love (ishq) each other as two-of-one-flesh, members one of another. G-D took both of them into the dream world, where they saw all forms as G-D had made them.
When they were ready to partake of the tree of knowledge, G-D sent the wisest of all the messengers of the dream world, the Serpent, to the Woman. The Serpent, whose special gift was to nourish and renew life, taught the Woman the reason for G-D’s caution statement about the tree of knowledge: the fruit of the tree was good for renewing life only when consumed with her mate, and the act of doing so was called consummation. The reason it was good for life, the Serpent told the Woman, was that life would be renewed as new forms through their self-giving to each other, and in that way, they would be the image and likeness of G-D, who gives life to all forms.
Eve wanted to know if the act of consummation was death. Le petit mort (a little death), the Serpent said, which, like any other, is a part of life, not its end. But will we cease to exist? Eve persisted. On the contrary, the Serpent replied, by becoming one with, and part of, the great stream of life, they would ensure both the continuity of life and their place in it. Man and Woman’s eyes were opened to G-D’s plan for the relationship and interdependence of all parts of the Sacred Body (corpus sanctus) of Life. In obedience to G-D and the message delivered to them, they shared the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
G-D was delighted in them and blessed their union with new life. Man and Woman were new to being bearers of life, so G-D instructed them on parenthood. G-D taught Woman, now called Eve (because she became the mother of all), what to expect in birthing a child. Man, now called Adam (because he was formed from and for Earth), learned how to provide for his mate and children by caring for and cultivating the garden. Both of them now knew how to be a part of and care for creation. So, G-D sent them out of Eden to go forth, be fruitful and multiply, and make a garden of Earth. G-D also sent the Serpent to meander across Earth in the form of streams and rivers, nourishing and renewing life. Life flourished, because on Earth as in Eden, Adam and Eve obeyed G-D.
That is why to this day and for all of time, we, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, obey G-D by using the gift of our life to bring forth life and care for all life on Earth. And through birth and death, life does not cease to exist. However, when humankind sets itself over and apart from the rest of creation, humans become enemies of Earth and all other life forms. That is why humankind made in G-D’s image and likeness is called to be kind, to love and care for each other and cherish all of G-D’s creation. And G-D is with and in all, blessing us with abundant life and holding all creation in Divine Love, until the end of time.
May Earth be Eden to every kind! ♦
O’Neill D’Cruz retired once from academic clinical practice as a pediatrician and neurologist, a second time from the neuro-therapeutics industry, and now spends his time caring, coaching, and consulting from his home in North Carolina, known locally as the “Southern Part of Heaven.” He is a wounded healer who works to heal the wounded, in order that All Shall Be Well.