Saturday, 2 January 2010
Creation Myth - A Serpent's Tale
“The serpent beguiled me and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). So claimed Eve in mitigation for disobeyiing god and consuming forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam blamed her and she in turn blamed the snake. Pretty poor show all round, with no one actually mettlesome enough to take responsibility for their actions. No chivalrous tale this. Still, that's free will for you. And at the bottom of the pile, who could the audacious snake hold to account? Overlooking the fanciful anthropomorphic notion of loquacious ophidia, it behooves one to uncover why the colubrid was chosen to be the er, well snake in the grass and not say the scorpion, or the spider, the chameleon or the komodo dragon. Which of its several traits prompted its selection as the genus most likely to, when the scribes came to set down their salutary tale ? And which species might have offered the model for the serpent, since many of these highly specialised traits are narrowly dispersed within the order. For example, only some seven hundred species are venomous and just a quarter of those pose a mortal threat to mankind. And let us agree, to have deceived Eve with words, to poison her mind with toxic thoughts, our suspect must have been mightily envenomed. “Tongues as sharp as a serpent’s bite” (Psalms 140:3).
When it went pear/apple shaped and god decided to suspend the (pioneer) Eden Project, he didn’t plump to purge it by fire. Nor tear it up and inter it through a convulsive earthquake. No, instead he pulled the plug by dousing it beneath the water of a mighty flood. To rehydrate the colloidal sediment of his creation and merely diffuse it amongst the tides. To wash it away as effluent. He was careful to preserve his intricate origami bestairy, but also opted to scoop up Noah and his family. To what purpose? Was god prefiguring the Masai, by burning off tired scrub in order to foster new germination? Nevertheless, genetically speaking, there was no new development on offer, since Noah’s kin were the tenth generation lineage direct from fallen Adam himself. Once the waters had receded, they were free to carry on reproducing as per his instruction to go forth and multiply. To swarm. To pullulate. Proceeding with their evolution, away from god’s blueprint of perfection. The Eden Project would therefore, to all intents and purposes, continue unabated.
God’s creative procedures invariably revolved around desiccation. Witness the earth coalescing from the misty and cloud-laden perch of the heavens. Then land being distilled from the roiling oceans. Next, once the sodden terrain had been wrung through the mangle, towering tree trunks and more modest flower stems, distended their exhuberant foliage towards the warm embrace of the sun. And incidentally, towards the life-enhancing rain waters, which they gleefully summoned down to perform them service. How they adsorbed the precipitation, enchaining it to transplant their sap, much like snakes swallow their prey whole and trust to their inner digestive chemistry to render them a sustaining broth. Which brings us to the next decoction, the (ex-marine) animals that humbly crawled across the humus, those that flew and those that stood firm on the ground. Each with its discrete corporeality. A delineated incarnation of solidity, which cut a swathe through space and bore down with mass. Then finally the monarch of all this brute matter, mankind himself, in the shape of Adam. The most sturdily upright and substantial of all god’s creations. And the most able. With his princess consort Eve. Yet perhaps she is not quite so condensed as he. With her milk and menstrual surges, subterranean streams and currents consigned to internal flows. Between the two therefore, already a fissure.
“For dust you are and to dust you will return”. Thus, like all god’s handiwork, Adam is hardened pith. Hung up to dry. Baked in the kiln. Adama itself means ‘red earth’ (did he extrude therefore from a parched desert soil?) Pressed and kneaded by the deft fingers of whom? Now, the habitually aloof god doesn’t strike as much of a potter, especially one without a wheel. Like his creation Adam, he would not undertake anything that threatened contamination with moist, besmirching clod. Anything that might deluge and overwhelm his staunch definition. Sully and fray his precious vinculum to life. No, this resounds more of the order of his mother Eve (or Sophia ‘wisdom’). Sat there in her field of clay, legs splayed out in the mud, joyously feeling the flow and the grain of the indeterminate pulp. Reiterating her own fluid origins, with no distinction between inner and outer, self and other. (The camouflage sported by most snakes, functions so as to break up their outline and thus make them hard for prey to distinguish against the background). Her sole extrinsic appendage, a stunted tree branch for rolling pin and pleasure stick. How she effortlessly moulds the empty vessel of Adam, in order to contain her moon blood. Then holding it to the breast and animating him with the syncopations of her heartbeat. (That wheezy hiss you can hear, is god bronchially attempting to breathe life up Adam’s nostrils). Ah, little Adam, indistinguishable from the clay cup from which he drinks, the bed in which he sleeps and the hoist as his mother shoulders him, when she goes for a dance to stretch her legs. Urtha. Udder. Mudder. Mother. (Adder ... Mamba ...?)
The human squab flexes his fledgeling legs and manages to plant himself erect in the soil. Now sufficiently leavened, some words come to his ear on the wind. God’s chittering, dangling him the opportunity to wreak his own beauty. “Mother, you have discharged your destiny and I thank you. Now there is much work to be done. Since we are to sow this field with trees and flowers and fashion their canopied bunting in order to exalt God’s divine majesty”. (And coincidentally thinks Eve, lacing and adulterating my pottery clay with their snaggly roots, while also covering the traces of little Adam when he could but crawl through the dust). “God? Have you forgotten that I am his Mother as your own?” (Further whispered prompting from off-stage). “Serpent ! Eve was carved from my rib. ‘Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’. I pledge the Father my troth.” “Did he bear your vessel as I did ? Did he fill your hollowness with life?” “No, I will be the one to fill your empty belly, give you being and purpose”. “Then Eve is pressed into Hell ! Would but the earth swirl and swallow me whole”. (That can be arranged muses God, scratching his scraggly beard). “No, it is Eve who is misconceived. You can no longer summon up any of your fecund magic, as I wield the sole power of nomination. For I am to become Father to a great family, that all other nations will seek to follow. You are to become my wife and to suckle and nurture our progeny.”
Though, as with all the cast of characters involved here, she bore no knowledge of molecular biology, Eve somehow intuited that this might not be so. For if she had indeed been cloned from her husband, then their conjoining would be incestuous, with all the genetic consequences for their offspring. The degeneration would begin immediately. Eve smiled to herself, while she further hatched a plan to thwart her husband’s ambitions, even adopting some of the things he himself had the bare faced temerity to utter to her. Redeploying God’s devious distancing tactic of insinuation. If she could just conjure her enchantments for one final time and coil her gnarled branch. Utilise her skill with pigements and draw from Nature’s palette around her. And to convey the power of speech, she needed to fabricate a tongue. Now, what shape should it take on? She cast around her at her husband’s prototypical tools. “A hoe? Unsuitable. A trowel? Laying it on a bit thick perhaps. A rake? Hardly. But that twin-pronged fork fits the bill. Perfectly. Perfidiously. It reminds me of how my son stands so pincered upon the ground”.
The shall we say nebulous geographical co-ordinates of the Garden of Eden present our first and major obstacle to determining the possible genus of snake. References to the Tigris and Euphrates probably place it somewhere in South-East Mesopotamia, the future cradle of Ur civilisation, the kingdoms of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad. Yet Eden is a specially created garden, distinct from what, savannah? Bush? Scrub? Desert? The last two evoke notions of aridity, which is probably not the primary impression god was striving after with his canvas. It is of course quite possible that they were verdant areas in their own right, but through man’s colonisation and exploitation have since been rendered considerably less lush.
The first snake family under scrutiny (suspicion?) are the vipers (viperidae), since they possess sufficient variation to inhabit any of the above terrains and are widely found throughout the Saharan/ Middle Eastern loci. There are the Levant and Palestinian vipers, (vipera lebetina & vipera palaestinae) which are in the right neighbourhoods. Or else there’s the puff adder, (bitans arietans), a deadly snake that isn’t shy like most snakes and will hiss a warning. Then there is the desert horned viper (cerastes cornutus) a snake found in the Sahara, which has a sidewinding form of movement so that no part of its body is in contact with the blazing hot sand for too long. This snake burrows under the sand during the day and hunts at night, which might rule it out of the Eden scenario. Only, it has two horns on its head which might have prompted the diabolic imagery. That and the forked tongue, with which the snake neither speaks, nor even hisses (this is actually reverberating airflow through the respiratory tract). Rather the forked tongue is the snake’s means of scenting, as it projects out into the air.
Whichever of these, or any other genus, all vipers have long, hollow fangs which fold up into the roof of their mouths and are unleashed like stabbing daggers, or hypodermic needles by the attacking snake. The venom jetting out through the bottom of the tooth, whose length enables it to get deeply embedded within the target’s flesh. The venom of the most dangerous family members is a mixture of haemotoxic (attacks the blood) and neurotoxic (attacks the nerves).
There is perhaps a natural human female affinity with the snake. After all, the creature’s wavy movements may recall primordial flows within woman herself. Equally, when the Edenic serpent rubbed itself up against the forbidden tree, it wasn’t just debunking god’s idle threat that death would be the outcome of even merely touching its bark. For he was appealing on a deeper emotional level to Eve. Since does not the snake rub itself against solid objects, in order to slough its old skin and what greater appeal to woman than the promise of eternal rejuvenation, if not eternal life itself? Assailing the tree, that tree, could offer all this. And lastly, it is nettlesome to determine where any snake begins and ends, since its limbless corpus can be all of a piece. Venomous snakes however, are easier to determine frontpiece from tailpiece, since as with human heads making allowances for large brains, these serpents have to afford accomodation for their venom sacs. As with the triangulated head of the viper for example. Whichever species of snake was present in Eden, perhaps he spread his venomous patter, in an attempt to shed his bulbousness and shrink his features back to where he had no discernible beginning, middle or end. To return to a concealing amorphousness. A singular inscrutability. A state of unobtrsuiveness, with which the female human can empathise with her occult inclinations.
Of course, there is the possibility that the snake in question was not venomous, but a constrictor of some sort, such as the foreboding rock python (python sebae) which can grow uîp to six metres long. I have seen a rock python consume a crocodile. Slowly. Such a leviathan as this wouldn’t really need to whisper poisonous thoughts, its sheer girth would entail it had your ear. These snakes have small spurs on their body, for tickling in courtship, or jousting with rival male suitors. But the greater significance, is that these spurs are the vestigal remains of back legs which have adapted out over evolution. Could this match God’s assertion to have stripped the snake of ambulatory limbs in order to make it crawl on its belly for punishment? A secondary consideration is the nature of constriction itself. Once enfurled within the sepent’s coils, having the very life squeezed from it, the prey attempts to exhale, at which point the crafty snake presses home its advantage a little tighter, so that the animal finds it hard to inhale again. The benighted beast dies from suffocation.
Boomslang (dispholidus typus).
The boomslang, a resident of more Southerly climes, makes the line up simply by virtue of it being arboreal. Much religious iconography makes play of having the serpent spiralled around the tree of forbidden fruit during its seduction of Eve. Either draped around the trunk of the tree like some primeval barbed wire prohibition. Or intertwined with the forbidden fruit itself, up on the branches. The boomslang is an intense emerald green so that it blends in seamlessly with foliage and like all arboreal snakes is long, thin and agile so that it can slide across branches. It’s venom is haemotoxic, that is it prevents blood from clotting, causing blood pressure to drop and the heart rate to increase in an attempt to compensate. Eventually, internal haemorrhaging may occur and it has to be said, that by volume, the venom of the boomslang is the most concentrated of all venomous sub-Saharan snakes. However, the boomslang is quite a placid snake. It’s powers of smell inform it that humans are neither threat nor food, while instinctively it must be aware that we are too large for its rear fangs to penetrate us, since anything it takes for food must fit right into the back of its mouth for its fangs to repeatedly bite until fatally envenomed.
God admonishes the serpent even before he vents his spleen on A&E. “You’ll crawl on your belly” (all the better to pick up tell-tale ground-level vibrations through my lower jaw then big guy!) and eat dust (hey, I’m nothing if not a survivor. You just watch me evolve some alternative limbless strategies. I can see it now. Increased concentration of venom to immobilise the prey; swallowing it whole, utilising my whole corpus to push it down, in the place of feeding it through with paws. Anyway, dust’s a good thing right? It’s where we all came from. Keeps one grounded to our humility. Oh and the worms and centipedes and other soil creepers are well hacked off with you, as they thought you held them in higher esteem than that. Oh and while we’re on the subject, the dromedaries asked me to inform you that they’ve got the right hump with you, for giving them a left one as well). “And there will be an enmity between you and this woman and your offspring and hers”. (Hmm, why’s that then, why not between me and her husband as well while you’re at it?)
I’ll tell you why, because Eve has a special relationship with the serpent. And God is trying to drive a wedge between them. A wedge called Adam. Striding mightily through the landscape, janitor of all he surveyed. Hand flattened across his brow, shielding his eyes from the sun and what does he behold? Nothing. Whither Eve? He tracks lower, at ground level and sees her supine, or on her haunches like the beasts. Swaying on a rustling bed of dried, fallen leaves (leaf litter litter). He fails to under-stand. What on earth is she playing at? muses Adam. And he sees that she is not alone. Also present is her trusted sidekick stick. Her nimble fingers engaged with the stirrer, but they are not presently working away at any clay. Something from within makes Adam feel hot and bothered, he knows not what, but he does not enjoy the sensation. It threatens to overhwelm him, to melt and engulf him. To render him inchoate. In her reverie, from the corner of her eye, Eve espies his discomfort. She rises from the leaf mound, brushing herself free of them, (note to future self she muses, try the petals of flowers next time, since they might be softer and more soundless). She leads Adam by the hand down to the mound. And she ushers him into the knowledge of good and evil. The forbidden sapience. The erotic exotic. Yet again, Adam doesn’t under-stand what he feels within, there perched perilously, with just Eve’s body interceding between him and humus and loam. But he instinctively knows he likes it. He believes this to be the way forward. But when he rises up to brush himself down of his leafy investment, he notices the eye of his own retractable snake, glistening in the sunlight. And he is ashamed. Ashamed that it must not be on general view, reserved only for his wife lying back there, basking in the glow (what’s she doing now, seems to be searching for something?) Ashamed that it can display its propensity, its current vein of humour, seemingly independent of him Adam, merely by how long it stretches and unfurls. Perforce he had to conceal this rebellious member, this part of himself that would not come to heel. He veiled it off with a fig life snatched from a tree. And badgered a langorous Eve to do likewise, even though she lacked any overt outward sign of bodily sedition.
This is the Father-Son dyad trying to detach Eve from her pleasuring stick. This is the patriarchy coming between Eve and any alien cock that is not nestling under her husband’s fig veil. And also to perpetuate it down the generations, this is Papa sewing the seeds of Oedipal prohibition. Every Adam will have his own Eve, but Eve will not partake of any other seductive male member. Bellying snakes are to be put out of reach of upright (wo-)mankind. This represents the primal kiss off. When women last had any say in their own libidinous pleasure.
God’s final divide and rule imprecation, that (Her offspring) “will crush your head and yours will bite their heel”. (No, I think you're getting your metaphors all confused here oh omniscient one. My kind have no beef with humans. Accidents will happen, when we get stepped on and they get bitten, but normally we’ll just gracefully accede and yield them right of way as we go about our business in peace. If mankind goes genus-cidal on us, we’re not being singled out for special treatment. He’s inclined to do that to any species, cos that’s the way You’ve set him up. That’s the key you wound up in his back. And for what it’s worth, my cranky brethren the black mamba, can rise up and match the height of any man and bite them in the face. I think you’re muddying the mortal-divine boundaries, like with that Achilles chap, but that’s for another time. And as for our heads getting crushed, my learned oriental cousin the king cobra, (learned in the sense you don’t see too many of his magnificent kind swaying in wicker baskets, not without having first being defanged anyway), relates that where he comes from, it is customary for rivalrous males to bring their wrestling bouts to a victorious conclusion by butting the other on the head. Thus demonstrating in a simple Darwinian algorithim, that by cresting the loser, the victor must ergo be larger and therefore more powerful. No hard feelings and no serious injuries either. The loser slides off to look for another dowry, while the victor goes to advise on interior design (the king cobra is the only snake species to build a nest for its eggs). You modelled that whole breaking our heads in pieces and feeding it to the folks thing with Leviathan. You’re beginning to repeat yourself. The onset of a divine Alzheimer’s? Or more likely, a confusion in your original amanuenses.