The most powerful myth of mankind

The most powerful myth of mankind

Adam and Eve in paradise © N.N. (CBA)

It has influenced Western culture like no other story: the story of Adam and Eve. Best-selling author Greenblatt describes how it shaped ideas about guilt, sexuality and curiosity.

Take a man, a woman, a snake and a tree: from these ingredients and a few lines in the Book of Genesis of the Bible, according to the account of the US best-selling author Stephen Greenblatt, probably the "most powerful myth of mankind" has developed.

"This story," writes the Pulitzer Prize winner, who comes from a strict Jewish family, "has shaped for centuries how we think about crime and punishment, about morality, death, pain, work, leisure, community, marriage, sex, curiosity, sexuality, and about the nature of being human."

Journey through theology, philosophy, literature and art

In his book "The Story of Adam and Eve," which will be published on Monday, the Renaissance expert invites readers on an exciting journey through theology, philosophy, literature and art. Roots in Babylonian times, Jewish myth and text with truth claims in Christian times: at least since the Enlightenment in the 18. In the twentieth century, according to the author, history has again lost its claim to explain the world. From Voltaire to Mark Twain to Darwin: "The story of the fall of man did not simply stop breathing. It only slowly dwindled the number of those who still believed her."

Greenblatt digs deep into the history of myths: the narrative of the first Fall originated in the Babylonian exile of the Jews in the sixth century B.C., where the enslaved encountered the sacred texts of the Babylonians. A whole heaven full of capricious and vengeful gods was stretched out there: Gods who created people out of clay and destroyed them again in a flood – out of jealousy, or simply because they got too noisy for their liking.

All this awakened in the Jews a longing for their own myth of origin, for a story that could answer the question of why God had not prevented the enslavement of his people. The difference: The Jewish God was a single, just ruler who did not destroy out of arbitrariness, but punished out of just moral indignation. Adam and Eve had to atone because they were disobedient and wanted to be like him.

Greenblatt makes us want to read Genesis again closely. How can it be that God forbids his creatures to know the difference between good and evil? And how could he threaten Adam and Eve with death, who lived in the state of innocence and could not know what that meant??

"Human sin is a sexually transmitted disease"

Despite all the contradictions: Until well into the early modern era, the church claimed that the creation story was literally true. The interpretation of the church father Augustine (354-430) proved to be particularly influential: According to his interpretation, Adam and Eve passed on the guilt to all mankind by way of sexual desire. "Human sin," Greenblatt writes, "is a sexually transmitted disease."

Fine arts and literature also gave the story great influence. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was obsessed with the idea of perfectly depicting the first humans created perfectly by God. For his 1504 copperplate engraving "Adam and Eve," Milton transferred the ideal proportions of the ancient figures of the gods to the biblical figures.

Greenblatt also deals intensively with the British author John Milton (1608-1674) and his work "Paradise Lost," the most detailed account of paradise in world literature. With this poem of several thousand lines, he succeeded in creating a "grandiose literary interior view of a marriage" using the example of Adam and Eve, writes Greenblatt.

But already in Milton's time the myth was more and more disenchanted. When Columbus returned home in 1493 with the news that he had discovered people in the West Indies walking around unashamed and completely naked, the question could not be suppressed: Were these people also descendants of Adam and Eve? And why had God spared them from shame?

The philosopher Voltaire turned his criticism of the narrative into a general criticism of the belief in God: why did he not want man to know good and evil, he asked. The Christian god outed himself as a ruler who tried to keep his sheep in ignorance.

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