Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Fall of Man

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo,

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Last week’s post was fun, so I think I’ll do the same thing with another passage in the Bible. With respect to the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, showing that this is not a literal description of what happened is shooting fish in a barrel, so I’m not going to bother. Any truth to the story of Adam and Eve, the snake, the fruit, and the Fall is mythic truth, not descriptive truth. So I’ll just make passing mention of the fact that the story isn’t literally true, and Darwin was right, and pass on from there to dealing with the story as myth. Because once you have dealt with the fact that we didn’t literally descend from a single couple a few thousand years ago of whom she was made from his rib and they lost immortality by eating a forbidden fruit under the manipulative urging of a talking snake, you have only begun; there is depth to this story and a lot of meaning once you get past the most obvious (and pernicious) misinterpretation.

 

Here’s the story retold in brief.

 

Man (the literal translation of “Adam”) and his wife lived an idyllic life in a garden made for them by God, who took care of all their needs. The garden had all kinds of good and pleasant things, but while they lived in it Adam and Eve were complete innocents. They had no knowledge of good and evil. They made no judgments for themselves, but did as God commanded and relied on him for all their moral choices.

 

God gave them a commandment related to their innocent status. A tree grew in the middle of the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating the fruit of this tree would give them moral knowledge and enable them to make moral judgments. God forbade them to eat of the fruit, saying, “If you eat of it, you will surely die.”

 

Now the serpent was the most cunning of the animals in the garden, and he came to the woman one day and said, “Are you not allowed to eat of all the fruits of the trees in the garden?”

 

The woman answered, “Yes, we can eat of all of the fruit except for the tree in the middle of the garden. God said that if we eat that, we will die.”

 

The snake said, “But no. If you eat that fruit, your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods, knowing good and evil and making moral judgment for yourself. God doesn’t want you to have that knowledge and that’s why he forbade the fruit. You won’t die. You’ll become gods yourselves!”

 

Well, Eve liked that idea and picked the fruit and saw that it was good to eat and that it would give knowledge of good and evil, and being persuaded, she took a bite of the fruit. She took it to Adam and persuaded him to take a bite, too. Immediately they made a moral judgment that they shouldn’t be walking around naked (well, no promises were made as to quality of judgment) and clothed themselves, and by this sign God figured out that they had disobeyed his command.

 

Having done so, and having gained the ability to make moral judgments of their own, the man and the woman were not allowed to stay in the garden any longer and pick fruit from the trees, but had to earn their food by working, and eventually return to the Earth in death.

 

That’s the story in a nutshell, and there are many layers of meaning here. It’s absolutely packed! It has to do in part with the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and civilized life. On another level, it relates to the human ability to make moral judgments rather than simply being told what to do by authority. It relates to mortality and the loss of innocence, which carries with it the awareness of death. Now, here’s the biggest single secret contained in this story:

 

The “Fall” of Man was not a fall at all!

 

On the contrary, it was the beginning of a rise, the emergence of humanity from animal nature, and everything specifically human flows from this mythic event. (Which, again, did not literally take place. Don’t get sidetracked here.) Both God and the serpent made predictions as to what would happen if Adam and Eve ate the fruit and gained the knowledge of good and evil. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17.)

 

The serpent predicted: “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.” (Genesis 3:4-5.)

 

The interesting thing is that both of these predictions came true. When they gained the knowledge of good and evil, they became mortal (or became aware of their mortality). But at the same time, their eyes were indeed opened, and they became like God, knowing good and evil. Indeed, God confirmed this: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:21.) I note in passing the implicit polytheism. But that’s not the subject of this post, so I’ll pass on.

 

As with all myths, there are an infinite number of possible interpretations to this one, but I see two main levels where it applies, one collective and the other individual.

 

Dawn of Civilization

 

On a collective level, the story of the Fall is about the beginning of civilized life. For most of the time that our species was on the planet, we lived like animals according to our instincts. We traveled in small bands, hunting and foraging for food rather than farming or herding, and living a simple life without nearly as much hard work to it as would afflict us in civilized times. It was in many ways an idyllic existence and the Garden of Eden is a fair mythic depiction of it. The story of the Fall reflects the loss of this pre-civilized lifestyle in such language as this:

 

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

 

(Genesis 3:17-19.)

 

Personal Awakening: Start of the Journey

 

The more important interpretation, however, is individual rather than collective. The Fall of Man happens in mythic time, which means it is not a single historical event but something that pervades all of time and is reenacted repeatedly. For each of us, it is the beginning of the journey, the first step on the path to self-awareness, awakening, and enlightenment. The Fall is not an error. It is necessary.

 

What exactly is involved in “the knowledge of good and evil”? This does not refer to factual knowledge or the kind of question we can use the scientific method to answer objectively, but to moral knowledge, the kind of question that relates to value rather than fact, and that can be answered only by an assertion of the will, a decision, a judgment. A creature without the knowledge of good and evil makes no moral judgments. Either he accepts everything reality offers without discrimination between what is desirable and what is undesirable, or else he defers all such judgments to an authority and assumes no responsibility for them himself. And of course, the authority’s first command is to do exactly that: make no moral judgments. Do not eat of the fruit in the middle of the garden. Do not gain the knowledge of good and evil. Leave all that to me.

 

To disobey this command is the first step on the Great Path. To make judgments of value for oneself is to assume the role to which we are entitled. The consequences are hard, because one must also face the possibility of error and live with the outcome, rather than letting another shoulder that responsibility. It means facing one’s own fallibility and, in a metaphorical (or sometimes literal) sense, one’s own mortality. Having eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, it is a long, hard journey to reach a point where this dichotomy can be transcended and, identifying with the Cosmos in mystical perception, achieve that higher octave of innocence. From the innocence of ignorance, through the burden of judgment and individual awareness, to the innocence of full understanding, that’s the journey of enlightenment (in one metaphorical conception), and there is no way to pole-vault from one state of innocence to the other; one must navigate the maze in between.

 

 

 

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Slaves In Egypt?

The Israelites Leaving Egypt

The Israelites Leaving Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religions all employ myth for the purpose of communicating what can’t be communicated directly. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as one remembers that that is what is being done. (See the earlier post on this blog, Logos and Mythos, for an exploration of this subject.) The problem is that all too often, the authorities within the religious community don’t remember what is being done and come to regard the myths as literal truths. When that happens, the first casualty is rationality, but intellectual freedom and even the ability to achieve genuine spiritual enlightenment follow into the ranks of the slain or grievously injured in short order.

Myth is a fine tool for spiritual awakening, but the confusion of myth with fact is its bane.

I’m going to talk today about a perfect example of this problem. The myth in question is one of the origins of the Hebrew people, or of today’s Jews, which story is found in the Book of Exodus in the Bible. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all, if orthodox, believe the story in Exodus as literal description of what happened, with its main characters of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Pharaoh, and its historical background consisting of over 400 years during which the entire Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt.

That bears repeating, this historical background idea: an entire ethnic group, consisting of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of individuals, were enslaved, men, women, and children, for over four centuries in a small (by modern standards) agricultural civilization on the Nile River. This is not a small, easily-overlooked historical event. This is vast. The only thing comparable to it from history we know to be real was the enslavement of Africans in the New World. That was not the enslavement of an entire ethnic group, but it was enslavement based on ethnicity, it occurred on a large scale, and it lasted for some 300 years — three-quarters as long as the enslavement of the Hebrews was supposed to have lasted. African slavery is massively attested in the records of the United States and other American nations, as well as those of slave traders elsewhere in the world. Its consequences, good and bad, have been enormous. It made immense fortunes of wealth. It transported large numbers of people to the New World who would otherwise probably not have come. It has enriched the culture of American nations while hideously scarring their political landscape. It resulted in at least one military conflict with dreadful casualties and destruction. What’s more, it has had an effect on the descendants of those enslaved almost too great to be stated. These people live in the Western Hemisphere today rather than in Africa, speak English or Spanish or French or Portuguese instead of an African language, and are culturally American rather than African, all because of their ancestors having been brought to the New World in chains.

That is the kind of effect we should expect from a historical event of that magnitude. And because we should expect that kind of effect, and because it isn’t there, I find it impossible to conclude anything but that the Hebrew people were never slaves in Egypt, and that the events of the Exodus therefore never took place.

In the first place, if it had happened we should find in the Egyptian records plenty of evidence for the existence of an ethnic community of slaves over four centuries. This would have been a remarkable occurrence, the more so since Egypt was not a major slave-owning nation until Alexandrian times. The great temples and monuments appear to have been built not by slaves but by free laborers. If there had been an enslaved ethnic community in Egypt for that length of time, something would have recorded regarding who owned all these slaves (Pharaoh, the priesthood, private individuals) and what they were used for. In all the archaeological evidence unearthed to date, however, there is not even a mention of an ethnic group thousands of individuals strong kept in the country in bondage for centuries.

In the second place, if the Israelites conquered Palestine fresh from four centuries of slavery in Egypt, we should see lasting effects of this lineage in the culture, politics, and language of ancient Israel as well. If the ancient Israelites had recreated and revived Hebrew to be their language, as the modern Israelis have done, there should be a tremendous linguistic influence from Egyptian on ancient Hebrew, just as today there are a great many words in modern Hebrew that come from Russian, German, English, Arabic, and other modern languages. But we find no such linguistic influence. Ancient Hebrew is linguistically related to other Semitic languages of the time, especially those of Caanan, Akkad, Babylon, and Phoenicia. It is not related in any significant way to Egyptian. As a written language, ancient Hebrew used an alphabet, while ancient Egyptian used ideograms and pictograms initially and evolved this system into a syllabary over time. The political and religious traditions and institutions of ancient Israel were radically different from those of Egypt as well. There were no traditions of divine absolute monarchy in ancient Israel. The authority of the monarchs was always limited and subject to challenge, the potential for revolt high. The ancient Israelis were religiously distinct from the Egyptians, too, not only in the obvious way that the Israelis were (supposedly) monotheists, but in other ways; the religion of ancient Israel lacked the concept of life after death that was so central to Egyptian religion, and the taboos and religious laws of Israel (as recorded in the Torah) reflect their roots in the customs of nomadic pastoral people rather than those of settled farmers such as lived in Egypt.

All of this is too much to overlook. There is only one reasonable conclusion: the enslavement of Hebrews in Egypt, and the events of the Exodus that liberated them, never happened. The Exodus is not history. It is myth. (An additional tidbit of evidence is found in the Golden Calf story. In this passage, Moses had disappeared up the mountain to obtain the Law from God, and the people were getting restless. Where was Moses? Had he abandoned them? Many of them decided that Moses and his God were a lost cause and turned to the worship of an alternate deity. But why was this alternate deity not Isis, Horus, Ra, Osiris, or another of the Egyptian pantheon that these supposed recently liberated slaves would have known all about and probably been used to worshiping on a daily basis back in Egypt? Why did they make up a god that nobody knew?)

Why was this myth, the story of the Exodus, written? Why was it told? Now that’s a good question, and I believe the answer arises from the period when it was told, which was around the time of the Babylonian captivity, after the kingdom of ancient Israel had been destroyed, and prior to its recreation under Persian rule. The Hebrew people were not in bondage as slaves at that time, but they were in forced resettlement, made to live in Babylonia against their will. They were experiencing a religious crisis. The religion of ancient Israel was not anything that properly deserved to be called Judaism. It was a tribal cult in which the Hebrew God, Adonai or JHVH, was one deity among many in the world, not a universal deity as the Jewish God is today. This God was easy for them to abandon, as the diatribes of the prophets in the Bible show that they frequently did. Moreover, this God was not something to be worshiped in spirit wherever one found oneself; rather, he had a location, and that location was Palestine, especially Jerusalem, more especially the Temple. How can we worship the God of our fathers in a foreign land? the captive Hebrews cried.

The Babylonian captivity saw not only the creation of the Torah, but an intellectual and spiritual flowering that gave birth in truth to the religion we know as Judaism. It was in Babylon, not in Palestine, that Judaism as we know it came to exist, and it was not the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who, like Moses, may never have existed), but that of their descendants exposed at once to spiritual need and the high culture of Babylon. The story of the Exodus can be, and I believe should be, understood as a metaphor for the emergence of Judaism and the Jewish people from the bondage of ignorance in which the Hebrews had languished up to that time. It can also be understood as a myth of the individual soul’s journey from comfortable bondage to the Promised Land of enlightenment, through struggle against the tyranny of the world and through the desert of self doubt. In all of which meanings the Exodus, like much else in the Torah, is profound and powerful. But that value is lost to the extent one insists on taking it as statement of historical fact rather than mythic truth. As history, Exodus sucks. As fantasy storytelling, it is one of the best stories ever told, and one with great mythic significance.

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Fantasy Magic and Real Magic

11699922_sThere’s real magic in the world, and there are real magic users who practice the Art. I’m not going to defend that statement to the skeptical; I’ve found it’s not worth the effort, so I will simply present the claim as something I’m sure of, and you can all draw your own conclusions regarding magic’s existence, my own knowledge of it, and my sanity and rationality, as seems appropriate.

There is real magic and there are real magicians, and a hugely disproportionate number of fantasy fiction authors (although by no means all of us) are also real-world magic-users. It’s usually not difficult for me to tell which of my fellow fantasy writers are also my fellow magicians and which are not. Knowledge about magic that I know to be real creeps into their stories, and perhaps even more telling, magic as described in fiction by real mages tends to present no aspects or elements in their fiction that we know to be untrue (although wild and gleeful amusement with radical improbability is another matter).

Does that mean, however, that fantasy magic, when written by an author who is also a real-world magic user, is real-world magic and that’s all? Hell, no! What kind of fun would that be? It’s just that when writing of magic, even though we allow our whimsy, fancy, and sense of what makes for a good tale to take our fantasy magic places we only wish it would go in the real world, the way it functions in our goddess-touched lives always influences the telling, too. So we get, for example, a karmic law operating in magic in which we are impacted by our own spells and malicious spell-casting warps the mind and twists the life of the caster. Or the spell-slinging narrator makes mention of the fact that all of his props, incantations, candles, incenses, drawn circles, and so on are not technically necessary but merely serve to focus the mind, which is the thing doing the real work. Or the author slips in stuff about mystical journeys, the ambiguity of one’s own identity and the paradoxical fluidity of time. Or the powers wielded by magicians start with telepathy, perceptions of distant and future events, accelerated healing, the shaping of chance, and perhaps a bit of weather-working just for fun. (Moreover, these powers are presented accurately. For example, telepathy is shown as a sense of another person’s feelings, sensory experiences and nonverbal thoughts, and not as a telephone conversation without the phone.) From there, the sky (or the rules of narrative) limit how far out magic can reach, but one perceives that these flights into the impossible-as-far-as-we-know (sigh) take off from a launch pad of the familiar.

Now, people are creatures of ulterior motive, with more than one reason for the things that we do. Obviously when a fantasy writer, real-world mage or no, tells a story, his primary motivations are the joy in crafting the tale, along with the hope that readers will enjoy it (and buy it). As for the reason why a real mage would write fantasy as opposed to something else, well, that can be explained as arising from the same font as the parallel fact that a disproportionate share of science fiction writers are scientists or engineers, at least by training: we write of what we love. We write of what thrills us, excites us, and creates in us a sense of wonder.

I’m not denying any of that. I couldn’t, not honestly, since all of this is very much a part of me. But there may be another reason why we do it, and why fantasy has made such a comeback since the mid-20th century as well. In an earlier post, I asked the question: A World With Magic, or One Without — Which is Better?, and did this in the context of a fairy offering an instantaneous boost to the world’s magic with marvelous (and disruptive) consequences. The device was fun, but no denizen of faerie is going to come along and offer us instant gratification of this kind. That’s not how it actually works.

Magic operates in the underpinnings of natural law. (This is my own theory, I hasten to add, much influenced by the theories of modern science and not something to be found in a dusty grimoire or the library of an ancient tradition.) Mathematically, it proceeds by altering the probabilities associated with the outcomes of indeterminate events. It makes things more likely or less likely than they would be without the meddling. It isn’t a form of energy; it doesn’t push, pull, heat, or explode, and it isn’t limited by the factors that limit energy such as distance or mass. (That doesn’t mean it’s unlimited, though. It has its own rules and restrictions.) But saying that it alters probabilities is just laying out the type of mathematical equation that might describe its operation; it isn’t really explaining what it does. What does altering probability mean, exactly? What does it signify that there are such things as probabilities in the world to be altered?

We’ve known since the early 20th century that events at the level of subatomic particles are indeterminate. Many of them can be described only using statistical mathematics. But that isn’t the layer of probability that magicians are (usually) able to influence. Pulling back from the subatomic perspective, and considering events we can see with the naked eye, we find that many of them suppress quantum-level indeterminacy, not by making it disappear but simply by dwarfing it with their vast size. Sure, the orbit of Jupiter is indeterminate, there being a degree of uncertainty about the position and/or momentum of the planet that is at least equal to Planck’s Constant, but considering the minuscule size of that value compared to the size of Jupiter, who cares? But it turns out that there are many events which don’t suppress quantum indeterminacy but rather bring it forward onto a macroscopic scale. These are the events described by the mathematics of chaos: turbulence, strange attractors, fractals, and the like. (Yes, I realize that chaos physicists and mathematicians often describe the operation of their calculations as deterministic and only pseud0-random, but that’s only true when the initial values are input by experimenter choice. In nature, they are input by quantum-level events, which are themselves indeterminate, making the whole edifice genuinely indeterminate and not merely a fascinating mathematical mimic thereof.)

These events are where magic usually seems to have influence, and even here, the influence is limited. But what limits it? Here we run into pure speculation, but one thing we do know is that magicians aren’t the only ones wielding magical power, everyone does, pressing upon the web of chance in conformity with our desires and expectations. There’s a kind of conservatism that moves the mind of most people regarding what’s “normal” and to be expected. In the face of a rapidly-changing reality such as we have experienced over the past few centuries, that conservatism is likely to become all the stronger in reaction. In short, a plausible hypothesis for what limits magic in the real world is that people are willing it into impotence or at least into a degree of subtlety that does not confront them with evidence of it that they cannot deny. There are a number of known facts which support this idea. We can do more, better, and stronger magic in private or among ourselves than we can in front of outsiders. In particular, we often find that when we go to work a spell or use a power with the idea of demonstrating its reality, it fails us to one degree or another, the power returning only when we give up on proving something to the masses and agree in our hearts to keep it secret (or at least deniable).

If this is true, then it could well be that fantasy writers who know about real-world magic have an ulterior (and perhaps even unconscious) motive along with the obvious surface motivation of telling a good tale. By firing the imagination of readers with magic and magic-related phenomena of fiction, fantasy may over time be diminishing the resistance of the collective conservatism to magic itself. It’s not a faerie offering us a magic blue marble to instantly transform the world, but a slower change might be preferable for reasons of safety, stability, and sanity. And the end result may well be the same.

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