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Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England

Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare

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title page for The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve Stephen Greenblatt

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Copyright © Stephen Greenblatt 2017
Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio/Bridgeman Images
Endpapers: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel & P. P. Rubens, Mauritshuis, The Netherlands/ Bridgeman Images

Stephen Greenblatt has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published in the United States by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. in 2017

First published in Great Britain by The Bodley Head in 2017

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To Eden and Isaiah


In the House of Worship

When I was a child, my parents told me that, during the priestly benediction that brings the Sabbath service to a close, we all had to bow our heads and keep our eyes down until the rabbi’s solemn words came to an end. It was extremely important to do so, they said, because in these moments God passed above our heads, and no one who saw God face-to-face could live.

I brooded on this prohibition. To look into the face of the Lord, I reasoned, must be the most wonderful thing any human being could experience. Nothing that I would ever see or do in all the years that lay ahead of me would even approach this one supreme vision. I reached a momentous decision: I would raise my eyes and see God for myself. It would be fatal, I understood, but the cost was surely not too high. I did not dare to tell my parents of my determination, for I knew that they would be distraught and try to dissuade me. I did not even tell my older brother Marty, since I feared he would reveal my secret. I would have to act alone.

Several Saturdays passed before I could muster the courage. But finally one morning, standing with my head bowed, I conquered my fear of death. Slowly, slowly while the rabbi intoned the ancient blessings, I raised my eyes. The air above my head was completely empty. And I found I was by no means alone in looking about the sanctuary. Many of the worshipers were glancing around, staring out the windows, or even gesturing to friends and mouthing greetings. I was filled with outrage: “I have been lied to.”

Many years have gone by since this moment, and I have never recovered the naïve faith that led me to prepare to sacrifice my life for a vision of God. But something lives in me on the other side of lost illusions. I have been fascinated throughout my life by the stories that we humans invent in an attempt to make sense of our existence, and I have come to understand that the term “lie” is a woefully inadequate description of either the motive or the content of these stories, even at their most fantastical.

Humans cannot live without stories. We surround ourselves with them; we make them up in our sleep; we tell them to our children; we pay to have them told to us. Some of us create them professionally. And a few of us—myself included—spend our entire adult lives trying to understand their beauty, power, and influence.

This book is a life history of one of the most extraordinary stories ever told. God created Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman, and placed them, naked and unashamed, in a garden of delights. He told them that they could eat the fruit of any of its trees, with a single exception. They must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; on the day that they violated this one prohibition, they would die. A serpent, the subtlest of the beasts, struck up a conversation with the woman. He told her that disobeying the divine commandment would not lead to their deaths but rather would open their eyes and make them be like gods, knowing good and evil. Believing the serpent, Eve ate the forbidden fruit; she gave it to Adam, who also ate it. Their eyes were indeed opened: realizing that they were naked, they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. God called them and asked them what they had done. When they confessed, He issued various punishments: serpents would henceforth be forced to crawl on the ground and eat dirt; women would bring forth children in pain and would desire the men who ruled over them; and men would be compelled to sweat and labor for their sustenance, until they returned to the ground from which they were taken. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” To prevent them from eating from another of the special trees—the tree of life—and living forever, the humans, by God’s command, were driven forth from the garden. Armed cherubim were set to guard against any attempt to return.

Narrated at the beginning of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny. On the face of things, it was highly unlikely ever to achieve such preeminence. It is a tale that might captivate the imagination of an impressionable child, such as I was, but grown-ups, in the past or present, could easily see that it bears the marks of the imagination at its most extravagant. A magical garden; a naked man and woman who are brought into existence in a way that no other humans have ever been born; people who know how to speak and function without the prolonged childhood that is the hallmark of our species; a mysterious warning about death that no such newly created beings could possibly understand; a talking snake; a tree that confers knowledge of good and evil; another tree that confers eternal life; supernatural guardians wielding flaming swords. This is fiction at its most fictional, a story that revels in the delights of make-believe.

Yet millions of people, including some of the subtlest and most brilliant minds that have ever existed, have accepted the Bible’s narrative of Adam and Eve as the unvarnished truth. And, notwithstanding the massive evidence accumulated by geology, paleontology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology, untold numbers of our contemporaries continue to take the tale as a historically accurate account of the origins of the universe and to think of themselves as the literal descendants of the first humans in the Garden of Eden. Few stories in the history of the world have proved so durable, so widespread, and so insistently, hauntingly real.



Bare Bones

Why does the story of Adam and Eve—it occupies only about a page and a half out of 1078 in the modern edition of the King James Bible that sits on my desk—work so brilliantly and so effortlessly? You hear it at five or six years old, and you never forget it. The crudest schematic cartoon conjures it up at once, not perhaps in every detail but in its basic outline. Something in the structure of this narrative sticks; it is almost literally unforgettable.

In the long centuries since it was first told, it accumulated an enormous apparatus of support: teachers endlessly repeated it; institutions rewarded believers and punished skeptics; intellectuals teased out its nuances and offered competing interpretations of its puzzles; artists vividly represented it. But the narrative seems somehow independent of these complex elaborations, or rather everything that followed in its wake seems to have drawn upon an inexhaustible original energy, as if its core were radioactive. Adam and Eve epitomize the weird, enduring power of human storytelling.

For reasons that are at once tantalizing and elusive, these few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires. It has been both liberating and destructive, a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness, a celebration of daring and an incitement to violent misogyny. The range of responses it has aroused over thousands of years in innumerable individuals and communities is astonishing.

Ancient rabbis looked into the mirror and tried to understand God’s intentions: What were humans that the Creator of the universe should have been mindful of them? Why were they created at all? Poring over the words of the sacred text,1 they concluded that the original obligation to “cultivate the ground” did not refer to agricultural labor; it referred rather to study, precisely the Torah study in which they themselves spent their days and which they regarded as their most exalted purpose in life.

Early Christians dwelt for the most part not on Adam’s primordial study habits but rather on the devastating loss of Eden caused by his disobedience. The reflection that came to them from the story’s depths was of sinfulness and its consequences. They followed Paul in tracing the tormenting, universal, inescapable fact of death back to the actions of the first humans, lured into evil by Satan. But they found consolation in their faith that a new Adam—Jesus Christ—had through his suffering and death undone the damage caused by the old Adam. The messiah’s sublime sacrifice, they fervently hoped, would enable the faithful to recover the innocence that had been lost and to regain Paradise.

Islamic mufassireen (or Quranic exegetes) dwelt less on Adam’s sinfulness than on his role as the original prophet of God. The Qur’an, dating from the seventh century CE, resembled early Christian texts in its identification of Satan (or Iblis) as the proud, deceitful angel who lured the first humans into disobedience. Later commentators specified that the form the malicious tempter took was not a serpent but a particularly beautiful camel: “She had a multicolored tail, red, yellow, green, white, black, a mane of pearl, hair of topaz, eyes like the planets Venus and Jupiter, and an aroma like musk blended with ambergris.”2 As a consequence of their inconstancy, Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, and their descendants must always be vigilant: “O Children of Adam! Let not Satan seduce you as he caused your (first) parents to go forth from the Garden.” But Islamic tradition characterized the wrongdoing that led to this expulsion as an error rather than as a heinous crime transmitted to all posterity. In the wake of his expulsion, Adam took up his role as caretaker of the earth and as religious teacher. He was a figure of prophetic illumination, the first in the line that led to the supreme Prophet, Muhammed, who would guide humanity back into the light of Allah.

Throughout Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, a wide array of specialists teased out the implications of Adam and Eve’s fate. Buried in the story, they found every urge to immerse themselves in ceaseless study; every nuance of the evil they sensed in their own hearts; every penitential impulse to mortify their flesh and crush their rebellious pride; every longing for prophetic inspiration; every dream of perfect cleansing at the end of time and a return to oceanic bliss. Ascetics, brooding on the temptations of the flesh, studied the verses for hints of alternative ways that the first humans might have been intended to reproduce. Physicians pondered the possible health benefits of a vegetarian diet of the kind our species enjoyed in the Garden. Linguists tried to determine the language that Adam and Eve spoke and to detect the traces of it that might be left. Natural scientists reflected on the ecological significance of a lost world in which relations between humans and other animals were far different from our own and in which the environment was unwavering in its gentle abundance. Among Jews and Muslims, experts in religious law probed the story’s doctrinal and legal implications. In all three monotheistic communities, philosophers debated its ethical meanings. And in the Christian world, visual artists gleefully embraced the invitation to depict the human body in all of its glory and shame.

Above all, ordinary people—people who had listened to the story told from the pulpit or seen it depicted on walls or heard it from parents or friends—turned to it again and again for answers to the questions that baffled them. It helped to explain or at least to reflect back at them what was most disturbing in sexual intercourse, marital tension, the experience of physical pain and exhausting labor, the devastation of loss and mourning. They looked at Adam and Eve, and, like the rabbis, priests, and Muslim exegetes, they grasped something crucially important about themselves.

The story of Adam and Eve speaks to all of us. It addresses who we are, where we came from, why we love and why we suffer. Its vast reach seems part of its design. Though it serves as one of the foundation stones of three great world faiths, it precedes, or claims to precede, any particular religion. It captures the strange way our species treats work, sex, and death—features of existence that we share with every other animal—as objects of speculation, as if they were contingent on something we have done, as if it could all have been otherwise.

We humans, the story goes, were uniquely made in the image and likeness of the God who created us. That God gave us dominance over all other species, and He gave us something else: a prohibition. The prohibition came without explanation or justification. But at the beginning of time it was not necessary that our first ancestors understand; it was necessary only that they obey. That Adam and Eve did not obey, that they violated God’s express command, caused everything that followed in the lives of our whole species, from the universal phenomenon of shame to the universal fact of mortality.

An insistence on the story’s literal truth—an actual Adam and Eve in an actual garden—became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy. This insistence lies at the center of my own fascination with the story of Adam and Eve. How does something made-up become so compellingly real? How does a stone statue begin to breathe or a wooden puppet learn to stand up on its own and to dance without strings? And what happens when fictional creatures behave as if they were alive? Are they fated, for that very reason, to begin to die?

For generations pious men and women struggled to make good on a theological proposition, attempting to treat the tale of the naked man and woman and the talking snake as a strictly accurate account of the events that initiated life as we know it. Philosophers, theologians, priests, monks, and visionaries, along with poets and artists, all contributed to this massive collective effort. But it was only in the Renaissance—the age of Dürer, Michelangelo, and Milton—that brilliant new technologies of representation finally succeeded in conferring a convincing sense of reality upon the first humans and in bringing their story fully to life.

This stupendous achievement, one of the great triumphs of art and literature, turned out to have unanticipated consequences. Adam and Eve were brought together with strikingly life-like pagan statues that art-hunters unearthed from the ruins of Greece and Rome. They were examined and judged by moral standards applied not only to the distant past but also to living contemporaries. They were compared to hordes of newly encountered naked men and women in the Americas—people who appeared strangely immune to the bodily shame that all humans after the Fall were supposed to feel. Precisely because they now seemed so real, Adam and Eve raised difficult questions about language acquisition at the beginning of time, about sexual relations, about race, about mortality.

The sense of reality renewed in intensified form painful questions that had always hovered around the ancient origin story: What kind of God would forbid his creatures to know the difference between good and evil? How would it have been possible for those creatures to obey without such knowledge? And what could the threat of death mean to those who had never experienced death and could not know what it was? Authorities in the church and state reacted harshly to skeptics who insisted on asking these questions, but it proved impossible to quell a disturbance that had its roots in the very success at making the mythic first humans seem so real. With the Enlightenment, doubts multiplied and could no longer be silenced. What lay ahead was the clear-eyed skepticism of Spinoza, the penetrating gaze of Charles Darwin, and the mocking laughter of Mark Twain.

NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS throughout the world proudly possess objects called holotypes.3 Also known as type specimens, these are the singular, officially recognized physical examples of an entire species. This creature in the case before you in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, is for the entire scientific world the designated representative of the rough-skinned newt (Triturus similans Twitty); that cranium at the Centre National d’Appui à la Recherche in N’djaména, Chad, is the unique type specimen of the extinct primate Sahelanthropus tchadensis. The enterprise of identifying and collecting these examples began as early as the eighteenth century. The type specimen of the gray wolf, Canus lupus, described in 1758 by the great zoologist and botanist Carl Linnaeus, is in the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, along with a large number of other holotypes that he and his devoted students first identified. (Since he based his description on a self-examination, the type specimen of our own species, Homo sapiens, is none other than Linnaeus himself.) The United States National Herbarium in Washington houses some 110,000 holotypes of plants. Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology possesses holotypes of 364 mammals, 174 birds, and 123 reptiles and amphibians. On display in the “wet collections” in the Natural History Museum in Berlin, there are innumerable jars filled with preserved sea creatures floating in ethanol. Some of the jars are marked with red dots, indicating that they contain holotypes.

Each holotype has been designated as such by the person who has discovered a new species and then named and described it, according to certain formal criteria, in a scientific paper. In successfully publishing this paper and depositing the specimen in an appropriate collection, the discoverer is said to have “authored” the species. The holotype thereby becomes the official specimen, acknowledged by the scientific community; each is the particular, concrete touchstone from which the key features of an entire species may be derived. To date, almost 2 million species have been identified. It is estimated that there are close to 9 million species on earth.

The Genesis story imagines that God brought each beast of the field and fowl of the air one-by-one before Adam to receive its name, in something of the way that scientists assign names to their holotypes. The text did not specify the language Adam used or how long this process took or when it occurred. Bible commentaries traditionally posited that it happened on the same day that man was created,4 since it was only in the wake of this feat of naming that God created woman. (Most commentators were loath to believe that Adam lived alone without a mate for a very long time.) Some commentators wondered if the more noxious insects could somehow have emerged and received their names after the six days of creation, as a consequence of man’s sin and not as part of the original plan. Others worried a bit about the fish, since the Bible only mentions creatures of the land and air. “Why were not the fishes brought to Adam?” the English clergyman and amateur scientist Alexander Ross asked in 1622,5 and then proceeded to answer his own question: “Because they do not so much resemble man as the beasts: secondly, because they could not be such a help to man as the beasts: thirdly, because they could not live out of the water.”

There are more species in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in the Bible. But whoever created the story thousands of years ago understood, as modern science has understood, that you can only firmly grasp the whole of a species through a single representative of it. The human of the first chapter of Genesis is in effect the holotype of humanity. God authored this creature and carefully introduced him—naked, of course—on earth as the type specimen. When you contemplate Adam, you contemplate both a particular, individual figure and the entirety of humankind.

In Adam, the Bible story affirmed, you encounter not only the representative but also the very earliest instance of the species, the progenitor of all those who followed. Here too modern scientific collections have their equivalent, in this case not holotypes but rather fossils of those who are said to be our progenitors. The most famous of these is the creature known as “Lucy,” an individual Australopithecus afarensis female who lived about 3.2 million years ago whose bones—several hundred pieces of them—were found by the American anthropologist Donald Johanson in Ethiopia in 1974. Johanson and his team jokingly nicknamed the skeleton after the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which they happened to be playing over and over again on a tape recorder in their remote camp.

The magic of a particular name has given this immensely distant and indirect ancestor—now preserved at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa—her special appeal. She was three feet seven inches tall, with a small brain like a chimpanzee, far distant from the modern humans who only emerged in Africa more than 3 million years after her species roamed the earth. But, crucially, she did not swing from the trees. Instead, she walked on two feet. No one claims that Lucy was the direct ancestor of all humanity, but there is very strong evidence that our species, Homo sapiens, bears a significant relation to Lucy. Hominins, the taxonomic tribe that includes modern humans and our closest extinct relatives, evolved from such bipedal primate mammals.

The implications of this evolutionary process are enormous, and they have been hotly contested. It had once seemed possible to tell a straightforward story: We homo sapiens are at the end of a long branch of the great tree of life. Examining our successive extinct ancestors, we could follow that branch back very slowly toward the trunk and trace the stages through which we passed in order to reach our current (and, of course, splendid) state. Now as more and more fossils are discovered—Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo naledi, and so forth—the overarching story becomes steadily less simple. Our ancestry, one evolutionary biologist recently wrote, resembles less a branch than “a bundle of twigs—one might even think it looks like a tangled bush.”6

In a room on the fifth floor of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, David Pilbeam, a renowned paleoanthropologist (that is, someone who studies the kinship lines that connect our species with our near relations) kindly agreed to show me some of these “twigs.” Before I arrived, he had set out bones (or plaster or plastic casts of bones), some in cardboard boxes on the formica-top tables, others assembled into skeletons and posed on little wheeled platforms. Each of the bones represents a leap back into the past, measured in millions of years before the present.

A replica of Lucy was there, in a cellophane-covered cardboard display box reminiscent of something delivered by a florist for a grand occasion—a funeral, I suppose. There is in truth not much of her to see: fragments of her skull and part of her lower jaw, a few ribs, the sacrum and part of her pelvis, pieces of her legs and arms. On a rolling dolly, a more complete model of an Australopithecus was reconstructed next to her. Nearby was the skeleton of a chimpanzee, and Pilbeam pointed out the subtle differences between its structure and that of Lucy. Subtle indeed: without his expert guidance, I would have missed almost all of them and failed to see that one is an ape and the other is my forebear.

The oldest fossil in the room was that of the Sahelanthropus from Chad. It looked to me like the skull of a small ape, but, like a detective, Pilbeam observed the telltale signs that it probably stood upright and walked on two feet. If it did so, it mastered this accomplishment very early indeed; the fossil has been dated to around 7 million years before the present, that is, not very far from the time that the Last Common Ancestor split, with one line leading to chimpanzees and the other leading to us.

As I looked around the room and jumped across millions of years, I experienced something of the queasiness that has led scientists to question metaphors of human evolution as a steady and progressive development along a clearly defined branch. In one corner, apart from the tiniest of hints, our Sahelanthropus forebear seemed to belong to a different universe from our own. In the other, the full skeleton of the Neanderthal stood there, thick of bone like a gorilla, but with a cranium very much the size of ours.7

With ever greater subtlety and ingenuity, paleoanthropologists measure, scrutinize, and interpret the skeletal remains: a pelvis and spine that enable our species to walk upright, shoulder blades that help us fling lethal projectiles, the configuration of the teeth, the increasing size of the brain case. But what had once seemed a triumphal march of progress—like those cartoons that begin with an ape and end with a man sitting at a computer—now gets lost in a hundred detours and false starts, intersecting paths and dead ends. It is difficult to find the story line in a tangled bush.

Evolutionary theory is not threatened by the disappearance of the main highway. On the contrary, from the beginning Darwin insisted on the randomness of mutations, followed by the editing of natural selection, that lead to the emergence of new species. Still, it is disquieting to look around and see a wilderness of discontinuous and crisscrossing tracks. David Pilbeam once published a book called The Ascent of Man. It is not at all clear that he would do so today.

Nonetheless, most of us, including evolutionary biologists, continue to search for and construct stories of our ascent. For, as the Bible said long ago, we are the dominant species: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Our dominance is clearly linked to our intelligence, our fantastic toolmaking, our complex social and cultural life, and above all our language and symbolic consciousness. But how we developed from ancestors unable to speak, make symbols, or form abstract concepts is not at all understood. There is as yet no fully coherent, satisfying scientific story.

In the account of the creation of the human on the sixth day—“And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him: male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27)—Genesis offered the equivalent of the bare bones from which scientists derive their images of our earliest forebears. And it provided (as scientists have not been able to do) a definitive starting point. But from the Bible’s words it proved impossible to determine conclusively what the original human would have been like. Not that there lacked many attempts, based on the minutest examination of the text. In the second century CE, Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar concluded from the phrase “male and female He created them” that the original Adam was a hermaphrodite. The third-century rabbi Samuel ben Nahman interpreted the description to mean that “When the Lord created Adam He created him double-faced,8 then He split him and made him of two backs, one back on this side and one back on the other side.” Another argued that Adam originally filled the whole world, stretching from east to west; another that his height reached from earth to heaven; another that he could see everything in the universe; another that he had prophetic powers; another that the Lord first gave Adam a tail “but subsequently removed it from him for the sake of his dignity.” Adam was “so handsome that the very sole of his foot obscured the splendor of the sun.” He invented all languages and all crafts, including writing and geography. He had a kind of protective skin, a carapace, that fell off when he transgressed.

And then in the second chapter of Genesis, the creature that excited all of these speculations is gone. There are no longer bare bones or a holotype pinned to a card. Instead, there are two separate primordial human figures—the man formed out of dust and the woman fashioned from the man’s rib—and these humans are involved in a story. To understand the actual nature of our kind, Genesis now insists, what is needed is not to examine a type specimen, but rather to watch the first humans in action. We have to observe their relationship, scrutinize their choices, follow their trajectory, and ponder their history. For it is not the biological nature of humans that determined their history, but their history—the choices they made and the consequences of those choices—that determined their nature.

The Bible story suggests that something happened to the species shortly after it was authored by God. Humanity did not have to turn out to be the way it is now; it could all have been different. The image of the man and the woman in the perfect garden suggests a tension between things as they are and things as they might have been. It conveys a longing to be other than what we have become.

At the center of the Genesis origin story is the human decision to take, eat, and share the forbidden fruit. The ability of narrative to depict choice and its consequence is crucial. A good story can omit details, forgo motivation, sidestep analysis, and still remain utterly compelling. The story of Adam and Eve does not use such words as “sin” or “fall” or “Satan” or “apple.” The range of possible meanings is wide open: some surviving interpretations from almost two thousand years ago regard the serpent as the story’s hero, for championing the acquisition of knowledge denied to humans by a jealous god. What carries the weight here, as in almost all oral tales, is the action: “And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her man, and he ate.”

There must be a story to tell: this is the basic intuition not of Genesis alone but of virtually all ancient myths of origin, whether from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Siberia, China, the Great Plains, or Zimbabwe. Something happened at the beginning of time—some history of decision, action, and reaction—that led to the way we are, and if we want to understand the way we are, it is important to remember and retell this story.

WE KNOW, OR we think we know, that chimpanzees, to whom we are so closely related, do not speculate on the origin of chimpanzee disobedience, that orangutans, though they are highly intelligent, do not brood about why orangutans are fated to die, and that pleasure-loving bonobos do not tell themselves, while grooming one another, a story about how the first bonobo male and female mated. We have ample reason to be in awe of the social complexity of ants and bees and paper wasps; we marvel at the advanced language comprehension skills of bottlenose dolphins; we have built a virtual cult around the songs of the whales. But none of them, we believe, has invented an origin story.

Humans seem to be the only animals on earth that ask themselves how they came to be and why they are the way they are. We could represent this uniqueness as an achievement, a mark of distinction, as perhaps it is. But it would be easy enough to seize upon it instead as a sign that we are lost—disoriented, uncomfortable in our own skin, in need of an explanation. Perhaps the telling of an origin story is a symptom of uneasiness—we attempt to calm ourselves by telling a story. Or perhaps our species somehow got ahead of itself, having taken, quite by accident, a developmental turn that led us along a path we cannot entirely understand and that provokes our speculative, storytelling intelligence.

We have no idea when storytelling became one of our species’ characteristic accomplishments, but the adaptive usefulness of stories, as a way of transmitting knowledge as well as providing pleasure, suggests that it came early, long before the invention of writing. Five thousand years—the approximate length of humankind’s written records—seems an impressively long time, given the length of any individual human life, but in fact it is next to nothing, a mere stutter, in the long history of the stories that humans have made up and recounted to one another. Would speculative accounts of human origins have been among the earliest of these stories? It is striking that small children, unprompted by adults, will ask, “Where do I come from?” The question seems to well up in us spontaneously, and the answers have obsessed priests, artists, philosophers, and scientists for as long as we can remember.

It was only fairly recently that scholars—the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, in the late eighteenth century, are the most famous—began systematically to collect oral tales and analyze their forms and topics. These tales had passed from generation to generation, extending back beyond any living memory. Some were stubbornly local, confined to a particular family, lineage, or community. Others had evidently leaped across geographical boundaries and languages. Virtually all cultures—from Mongolia to Oklahoma and points between—turned out to have at least one and often more than one origin story. The particular version in Genesis—the story of the naked man and woman, the talking snake, and the magical trees—has every sign of being one of these oral folktales, reaching back long before the moment that it appeared in written form in the book of Genesis, evolving out of the deep past, the past to which we have almost no access.

When I try to imagine the story’s beginning, I conjure up three scenes from my life. The first and most recent was a garden in Kashan, 150 miles south of Tehran. I had been invited to Iran to address a Shakespeare congress, and I seized the opportunity to venture further afield. Kashan is a celebrated carpet city: when I was growing up, we had a Kashan rug in our dining room, and I would crawl under the table to play on a field of intricately intertwined woven flowers. But my goal was not the crowded bazaar. I wanted to see a famous late-sixteenth-century garden, the Bagh-e Fin.

The garden turned out to be a relatively small, dusty, square space with very old cedar trees lined up in rows along very straight paths walled in with brick ramparts and circular towers. The key feature was water arising from a nearby natural spring. The water was directed into straight, narrow channels and a perfectly square pool lined with turquoise tiles. At the top of the pool a two-story vaulted pavilion provided an escape from the sun.

To get there we had driven for hours from Tehran, through a miserably bleak, parched desert, a landscape of sun-baked rocks and scorched, twisted gullies stretching out all the way to the horizon. As far as the eye could see, there were no cultivated fields, no trees, not even scrub vegetation. Signs of life seemed to have been canceled as if by edict. It would have been possible in a very few minutes for the first human to name all the creatures who could be seen inhabiting this world.

Old Persian had a word for an enclosed garden like the Bagh-e Fin: they termed it a paradaesa. From Greek, which took over the term, we derive our word “paradise.” The garden I saw in Kashan could hardly count as a setting for the creation of Adam and Eve, but I could at least imagine how in a harsh, barren land the sound of the water bubbling through its channels and the sight of the massive trees could produce wonderment and euphoria. And for the first time I fully grasped the hyperbolic extravagance of the garden in Genesis, with the headwaters of no fewer than four great rivers. The storyteller had taken what was precious in the surrounding world and fashioned from it a landscape fit for humans at their most blessed. To be driven forth from that space into the miserable salt desert that surrounded it on all sides would have been the harshest of punishments.

The second of my attempts to conjure the story’s beginning occurred a few years earlier in Wadi Rum in Jordan, at a Bedouin encampment where I briefly stayed with my wife and son. It was quite cold in the desert once the sun had set, and after eating a simple meal and listening to some music played on a lute, we walked quickly to our small tent and crawled under the woolen blankets. But inevitably in the night, after having drunk so many cups of sweetened tea, I had to get up and cross to the other end of the encampment. Shivering, I lit my tiny flashlight and walked across the sand—it was a moonless night, the fire and the lanterns were out, and everyone was asleep.

When I looked up, I saw a sky implausibly, impossibly vast. It was not only full of stars, but also full of a strange feeling of depth. I turned off the flashlight and sat down on the ground and stared. I have often slept under the stars in places reasonably far from human settlements. But even distant cities throw off a tremendous amount of light. Here there was no interfering light at all; only a sense of the sheer immensity of the universe, an infinity of stars, and a need, more compelling even than the body’s imperatives, to understand who we are and where we come from.

My third attempt reaches back still further in time to a memory from my earliest childhood. We are sitting, my mother and I, at a little table in our apartment in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. It is summer, the window is open, and we can hear, from the nearby Franklin Park Zoo, the occasional roar of the lions and the screeching of the caged birds. My mother is making up a story, and it is just for me. The hero bears a name quite similar but not identical to my own. A cherished child, happy and protected, he has been strictly warned not to do only one thing: he must never, ever attempt by himself to cross Seaver Street, in order to reach the zoo whose sounds so allure him. But does he listen …?

THE HUMAN FORMED from clay became a living creature, it was written in the Bible, when a breath of life was blown into his nostrils. There is a powerful truth encoded in that mythic scene. At some moment in an immensely distant past it was a breath that brought Adam to life, the breath of a storyteller.



By the Waters of Babylon

On the big island in Hawaii, molten lava erupts through cracks in the volcano. You can walk across the black fields of twisted, cooled lava to the cliff’s edge and watch a head of burning magma force its way out, like a stupendous birth, and fly hissing into the sea. You can feel that you are present at the origin of the world, but of course the world already exists, and you know it. The whole point about stories of creation is that no one can actually claim to have been an eyewitness or to remember it or even to be part of a chain of remembrance leading back to someone who had been there.

We cannot know when someone, venturing to imagine how the universe and humankind came to exist, first told this story about what transpired in the beginning to set our species on its course. We cannot identify the person who first thought of the garden or who dreamed of nakedness without shame or who came up with the notion of the fatal fruit. There must, we know, have been a moment of inspiration, but we have no way back to it. It is lost to us forever.

There was a moment too when someone first chose to write the story down. But we have no access to this moment either, no way of knowing if the writer was a man or a woman, no clear indication of the place or the circumstances or the language, no precise or even approximate marker of the time. Some scholars think that a version could have been inscribed as early as the time of King Solomon (990 BCE to 931 BCE) and that other versions might have circulated in written form during the reigns of his successors. Since no actual manuscript traces of the story survive from these long centuries in the life of the Hebrews—all have been lost to fire, flood, and the teeth of time—the dating is speculative, sometimes wildly so. The closest we can come to an historical starting point is the moment when the story finally found its way into the book of Genesis. The precise date and circumstances are uncertain, but the fog of mystery slowly begins to lift.

Most scholars currently attribute the form in which we know the story to the sixth century BCE and think that the Pentateuch—the Greek term for the Five Books of Moses, assembled together—was probably compiled in the fifth century, roughly corresponding to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Even here the ground is uncertain. Every inch of the textual history has been fought over at least since the eighteenth century, and anything that I or those more learned than I am say about it will be contested, often vehemently, by someone else. Still, whatever its most distant origins, the story of Adam and Eve eventually became part of a sacred document, the Torah, whose author was said to have been Moses. At least then there was an author, someone of the utmost prestige to secure the account’s truthfulness. Reasonably enough, people asked how Moses could possibly have known what transpired in the Garden of Eden, so long before his time? He could, defenders of the story’s strict accuracy answered, have learned the details as they had been handed down through the generations reaching all the way to Noah and then back still further before the Flood to Adam’s third son, Seth. The Bible’s “begats” provided a list of these generations, extending to the beginning of time. The exceptionally long lives attributed to the early patriarchs—Methuselah was said to have reached the ripe old age of 969 years—conveniently reduced the number of links in the chain.

Since it was well known that stories had a way of changing in the course of repeated retelling, it was often added that Moses wrote at God’s own dictation or at least was guided in his writing by God’s spirit. That spirit could be counted on to correct any errors that might otherwise have crept in and impugned the veracity of the creation story. A work written in the second century BCE, the Book of Jubilees, went still further in an attempt to shore up the narrative’s authenticity. On Mount Sinai, it declared, God instructed an angel to give Moses a faithful account of the first beginnings.1 The angel, along with his cohort, had been an eyewitness to the creation of the world and to the scenes in the garden. Moses simply had to reiterate the impeccably accurate report that the angel dutifully provided.

But elaborations like the Book of Jubilees—which is now regarded as canonical only by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church—were as much signs of doubt as they were reassurances. They suggest that at least some of those who read the account of the garden and the first humans and the talking snake wondered about its reliability. They wanted to know how far they could trust it, or perhaps they sensed, just outside the charmed circle of belief, its possible origin in a more familiar scene of storytelling, the realm of fantasy.

The Torah could have begun, after all, at what would have seemed a far more obvious and secure historical juncture: the origin not of the first humans but of the first Jews. “And the Lord said to Abram,2 ‘Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1–2). Instead, it began with events that clearly precede any possible historical record: the creation of the cosmos and of humankind. To understand why it seemed critically important to the Jews to launch their sacred book with an account of the beginning of time, before they themselves existed, it is important to understand the disaster that had befallen them.

IN THE ANCIENT world, the fall of kingdoms was often followed by wholesale massacre of the vanquished, but Nebuchadnezzar II, the ruler of the great Babylonian Empire, thought that deportations made more sense. After the small kingdom of Judah, ruled by a venerable dynasty that called itself “the house of David,” surrendered to his armies in 597 BCE, he set up a puppet government in Jerusalem and deported a significant number of Hebrews, including the toppled king and his court, to Babylon. Across a vast gulf of time, Psalm 137 manages to convey their misery, homesickness, and rage: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down,/yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”3

The Hebrew exiles, living testimony to Nebuchadnezzar’s latest triumph, swelled the labor pool that his enormous ambitions required. After a long period of decline, Babylon was once again in the ascendant. There were irrigation ditches to dig, fields to tend, vines to dress, innumerable bricks to bake, fortifications, ziggurats, and palaces to build. The Hebrews were not the only exiles who sweated in the work gangs and dreamed of their lost home. They labored alongside Assyrians, Medes, Scythians, and Egyptians, and in the company of native-born Babylonians who had fallen hopelessly into debt. Defeat and enslavement produced in Babylon a kind of servile cosmopolitanism.

The bustling, culturally diverse city on the Euphrates was wealthy, sophisticated, and famously beautiful. Two of its legendary building projects—the immense city walls and the hanging gardens—were counted among the Seven Wonders of the World.4 In its glazed-brick grandeur, the famous Ishtar Gate, reconstructed today in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, bears witness to the city’s majesty. If the Hebrew exiles could hardly be expected to feel at home in Babylon, they were not complete aliens, for they thought of themselves as having come in the distant past from this part of Mesopotamia. Abraham, the founding figure of the Jewish faith, began his life in nearby Ur, and a return to these roots was evidently not unbearable to everyone. When the opportunity finally came to go back to Judah, a significant number of Hebrews opted to remain where they were. From the period of exile flowered a Jewish community in Mesopotamia that lasted well into the Iraq of the twentieth century.

For the pious among the Hebrew exiles by the banks of the Euphrates, the great challenge was not to give up on Yahweh. Yahweh had long been their chief god and protector. Occasionally they had been drawn to the worship of other gods as well; that was the point of Yahweh’s repeated injunction “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” But for the most part, even in difficult times, they had been able to keep Yahweh foremost in their hearts and to worship him through the ritual observances and animal sacrifices they conducted in the great Temple in Jerusalem.