Since my book about the Adam and Eve story, The Mythology of Eden, is just coming out, I’ll devote some of my posts over the ensuing weeks and months to intriguing questions arising from that story. I’ll start here with the mythology behind the two sacred trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the ancient polytheistic world, where everything in nature was viewed as charged with the divine, trees held a special place. They are the largest living things on earth, and can outlast us all. They attract lightning, and their wood burns. They wither and renew themselves in an annual cycle, and produce edible fruit and nuts, thus representing the life principle and regeneration. They reach to the heavens as well as down into the netherworld, thus spanning and connecting the three planes of the cosmos (netherworld, earth, and heaven). As such, they are a conduit for accessing the upper and lower divine realms, and for transmitting divine power. As portals to the divine, naturally trees had an oracular role, giving people access to divinities and to divine knowledge. No wonder they are key symbols in myths! They are right at home in the Eden story.
Sacred trees were a key feature of ancient garden complexes in the ancient Near East. Initially in early agricultural societies, sacred garden precincts arose as the estate of the earth goddess (e.g., Innana) around her shrine or temple, for she generated food and life. To partake of the first fruits of the harvest was to partake of the goddess herself and of her divinity. Sacred trees and goddesses naturally became associated with each other. Thus, in Egypt the image of the tree goddess arose, who was depicted as immanent in the tree and dispensing food and water to deceased humans so they could be reborn (see image below, and notice the (raised) serpent). In Canaan and Israel, the main goddess, Asherah, was represented by either real trees or a fashioned wooden pole, called the asherah after her, and she was venerated in such symbolic form. The biblical writers of course opposed tree and goddess veneration, and sought to destroy it.
Serpents were often depicted in myths as lurking around the bottom of trees. This was partly because they are chthonic creatures that access the netherworld, just like the roots of the tree which they resemble. Moreover, ancient peoples believed that serpents had divine powers, and so they were used in divination, in casting spells, to cure illnesses, and in seeking wisdom. In fact, this “serpent power” was the very essence of the divine power or energy itself. (Think of The Force in Star Wars. I will treat the serpent in a separate upcoming post.) And it is this divine force for which the sacred tree is the conduit. As a result, sacred tree-goddess-serpent formed a kind of trinity, which the biblical writers opposed. In fact, it seems that most Israelites considered Asherah to be Yahweh’s wife, which the biblical authors found abhorrent, so they wanted to destroy this relationship and the goddess. (More about this divorce in an upcoming post.) So we can see why the author of the Eden story said not to partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Among other things, he was alluding to sacred tree and goddess veneration, and he wanted to show the audience that Yahweh is the sole legitimate source of divinity.
In our story, however, there are 2 sacred trees, not one. Why? In the ancient Near East, the quality of divinity had 2 elements: great wisdom and immortality. The two sacred trees in the Garden were associated with each of these. This explains the main attraction of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to Eve: she desired wisdom (Gen. 3:6), and indeed received it through that tree (Gen. 3:7, 22). This also explains why Yahweh had to drive the humans from the Garden after having attained the godlike Knowledge of Good and Evil, because continued access to the Tree of Life would have rendered humans immortal and therefore essentially divine. The biblical author wanted to draw a line between the earthly and the divine, between humans and God. In the author’s view, we should have a relationship with the divinity/the divine, but not directly experience or partake of the divine directly.
The story does not specify the kinds of sacred trees or, therefore, what fruits (or nuts) grew on them. This is normal since the symbol is archetypal, but the ancient Israeli audience must have had something in mind based on their Israelite setting. Since (as I show in my book) the Eden story was in part anti-Canaanite polemic, my own suspicion is that the forbidden fruit was a grape. (The tradition of an apple is not faithfully based in the story and arose later in medieval Europe as a pun based on the similarity of the Latin words for apple (malum) and evil (malus).) This fits the characterization of the Promised Land as one rich in grapes and wine, as portrayed in the story of Moses sending spies to Canaan who brought back a large cluster of grapes as proof (Num. 13:1-14), as well as in the story of Noah’s drunkenness from the wine produced in his vineyard, leading to the curse on Canaan (Gen. 9:20-27). The Canaanite New Year’s festival, which the biblical authors opposed, featured drunken celebrations right in the vineyards, where the celebrants lived temporarily in huts constructed from verdant branches. (The holiday was later converted into the Feast of Booths associated with the Exodus.) And as in Dionysian celebrations, the inebriation itself was thought of as a divine force. (We still call alcoholic beverages “spirits.”) The forbidden fruit being a grape best fits the author’s anti-Canaanite polemic in the Eden story and beyond.
But despite the author’s efforts, the veneration of sacred trees was not eliminated. This is to be expected since the symbol is a natural product of the human psyche. Indeed, official Israelite religion co-opted the symbol, sublimating its objectionable characteristics into an acceptable form, the menorah. Earlier, the seven-branched tree represented Asherah, as famously depicted on a 13th century BCE ewer discovered at Lachish (see image below).
There were many trees in the Garden, but we must recognize the meaning of sacred trees according to the symbolism they had in that culture. This is one case where, in order to understand the myth, we must see the trees for the forest, not as usual the other way around.
© Arthur George 2014