A couple of posts ago, I channeled the late Joseph Campbell and echoed his contention that myths should be considered deep unconscious poetic projections that embody profound truths rather than as demonstrably false tales from antiquated religions. Echoing Northrop Frye, Campbell believed that myths provide models that help us navigate the progression of our lives through the blooming and withering we’re all heir to, maps, as it were, handed over to us from old Tiresias to help us find our way to our ultimate destination – oblivion.
For example, the requisite trip to Hades that epic heroes like Odysseus and Dante suffer might correspond to the midlife depressions many of us undergo, journeys that though abysmal provide us with secret knowledge, in Odysseus’s case how to navigate his way back to Ithaca and in our case a deeper perspective on what it means to be human.
Take the Eden myth. It offers many interesting possibilities for interpretation. Given that it is a post-agrarian myth (besides death, Adam’s curse is tilling barren soil by the sweat of his brow), I wonder if the myth harkens back to the simpler and more organic lifestyle of hunting and gathering when our ancestors ran around naked picking berries, spearing rabbits, and living communally.
Perhaps knowledge here means the knowledge of agriculture, and if you want to fault anyone for that, why not women, who probably through their foraging discovered that seeds can be cultivated, which led to settled communities, caste systems, factories, ghettos, and ultimately reality television shows like Boy Meets Boy, Megan Wants a Millionaire, and Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
In the mid-90’s, I took two graduate anthropology courses to satisfy certification requirements. For my midterm take-home exam, I had to provide my opinion on an essay claiming that agriculture has been disastrous for most of humankind. I can’t find the essay, but here’s the first paragraph of my test essay, which summarizes the argument:
In his essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond argues that agriculture is responsible for a diminution in the quality of life for the majority of humans who have lived since its inception. Diamond argues that food foragers enjoy a healthier diet procured with less labor and that the population explosion that accompanied the agricultural revolution has given rises to epidemics of infectious diseases. Furthermore, agriculture is directly responsible for class stratification and the subjugation of women. In essence, Diamond’s essay is the Eden myth revisited: food foraging Adam takes up the hoe, and paradise is lost. Diamond could have taken it even further, I suppose, and argued that agriculture, which gave rise to industrialization, can also be traced as a root cause of an ensuing ecological disaster as cultural evolution outstrips biological adaptation. The ultimate balance of life is being destroyed as holes appear in Gaia’s ozone umbrella, oxygen-producing rain forests are slashed and burned, and the water supply disappears.*
*By the way, I received an A- on this essay, the minus probably attributable to its last paragraph: “The question of whether or not agriculture was humankind’s greatest mistake, like most questions, ultimately ends up being an existential one. If I were huddled in an inner-city tenement or wielding a pick in an Appalachian coal mine, I might prefer non-existence and rue the day agriculture came into being. Indeed, food foragers possess a oneness with nature I truly envy. However, at the present moment (which is ultimately all we ever have), I’m off for the summer, preparing to end this essay and grab my surfboard. The agricultural revolution has been kind to the people I love. Jared Diamond would, no doubt, brand me an elite, but then again, I am just a high school English teacher and have never voted for a Republican. Everything is relative. Diamond has probably never been writhing in the Kalahari Desert with an abscessed tooth. [Instructor’s only comment: I get your point, which is indeed elite by world standards].
To return to the Eden myth, Adam and Eve run around naked, pick berries, in essence live off the great bounty that Yahweh has provided, but that damn woman who always has to stick her nose into everything upsets the divine plan by discovering a way to produce food differently. Humankind now possesses the knowledge of how to cultivate the land, but it takes hard work. Eating the apple symbolizes the shift from relying on natural food to being dependent on cultivated food. Hunting is more fun than plowing, making clothes is labor, etc. We have abandoned meaningful communal simplicity for complex stratified world of civilizations.
As it happens, a very rarely encountered non-agrarian Peruvian tribe upset by incursion into their territory confronted park rangers this week. In investigating the tribe, the Mashco-Piro, I found video of another tribe, this one from Brazil.
These folks are essentially naked and so far off the grid that they don’t even have immunity to the common cold. Perhaps, Diamond was right after all. Perhaps in the very long run humanity might have had a longer lease on survival if Eve had just left well enough alone.
I’ll leave you with a passage from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Story Teller as a shaman-like wanderer from tribe to tribe who relates myths to various clans that explain their origins and ways of life:
Thanks to Tsaurinchi, the firefly seripigari, I’m never bored when I’m traveling. Nor sad, thinking: how many moons still before I meet the first man who walks? Instead, I start listening. And I learn. I listen closely, the way he did. Go on listening, carefully, respectfully. After a while the earth feels free to speak. It’s the way the way it is in a trance, when everything and everyone speaks freely. The things you’d least expect speak. There they are: speaking. Bones, thorns. Pebbles, lianas. Little bushes and budding leaves. The scorpion. The line of ants dragging a botfly back to the anthill. The butterfly with rainbow wings. The hummingbird. The mouse up a branch speaks, and circles in the water. Lying quietly, with closed eyes, the storyteller is listening. Thinking: let everyone forget me. Then one of my souls leaves me. And the Mother of something that is all around comes to visit me. I hear, I am beginning to hear. Now I can hear. One and all have something to tell. That is, perhaps, what I have learned by listening. The beetle as well. The little stone you can hardly see, it’s so small, sticking out of the mud. Even the louse you crack in two with your fingernail has a story to tell. If only I could remember everything I’ve been hearing. You’d never tire of listening to me, perhaps.
Now that’s what I call being alive.