More on cosmogonic myth

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In a previous mention of creation mythology I neglected to point out what may not be obvious to some: that the dominant image for what preceded the physical universe as we know it is water. The KJV’s “form, and void” may be too Greek, but the following two clauses cannot be surpassed, either as myth or as poetry. In fact, when the Roman philosopher Longinus wrote his famous treatise On the Sublime, he cited the opening of the Hebrew Bible as Exhibit A:

And the earth was without form,
and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the breath of God moved upon
the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

– changing only the KJV’s Spirit to breath (ru’ah).

Now it goes almost without saying that this imagery has an ancient pedigree among dwellers of river-valley civilizations, for example among the worshippers of Marduk, among whom the exiled composers of the core of the Hebrew Bible found themselves. (This historical circumstance explains why, as many times as it surfaces in the non-historical books of the Bible, the primordial sea-monster mythos is expunged from the Genesis account. That would have been just too close to the Marduk religion for comfort.)

What is more interesting to me is how widespread this myth is, even among people who were swidden agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers. There is obviously a profound phenomenological basis for it: Earth is the Water Planet, after all. But the true connection undoubtedly is to the waters of the womb.

(Parenthetically, I suppose that the religious significance of shedding blood, as in the act of sacrifice or in holy war, is to mimic or in fact expropriate the birth-giving power of the divine feminine. I freely admit I am poorly read on this subject, however; I invite readers to correct me on this point. My only direct evidence for this substitution was something I recall from an interview with AIM leader Russell Means, where he described the Lakota Sun Dance as men’s attempt to experience something of the pain that women go through in giving birth, through the shedding of their own blood.)

How well the ancients may have anticipated modern, scientific theories of the origins of the universe or solar system is little more than a curiosity as far as I am concerned, being more agnostic than gnostic. But I have to admit it is pretty darn nifty that the notion of precipitation, of stuff kind of gelling, figures so prominently in Genesis and in its immediate antecedent:

When there was no heaven,
no earth, no height, no depth, no name,
when Apsu was alone,
the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat
the bitter water, and that
return to the womb, her Mummu, when there were no gods —

When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, featureless, then
from Apsu and Tiamat
in the waters gods were created, in the waters
silt precipitated . . .

– The Babylonian Creation, translated by N.K. Sandars in Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia (Penguin, 1971), 73.

Apparently – my source for this is Natural History magazine, sometime in the last two years – a new theory gaining currency is that the “original” Big Bang (a ridiculous and inaccurate term) may in fact have been, in some sense, a precipitation from within a larger Whatever, and that thus there may be many other universes like our own. But whatever. I am mainly interested here in the microcosmos, and the extent to which such formless Beginning may be conceived anew within the human soul.

One can apply the traditional Christian hermeneutic of allegory to the Old and New Testaments and come up with a myriad echoes of the original watery creation: Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the parting of the Jordan at the entry into Canaan, the baptism of Jesus. Not to mention numerous references to YHWH’s power as a sustainer of creation/civilization against the waters that are always threatening to break loose.

I encourage anyone interested in pursuing this topic to read Jon Levenson’s excellent Sinai and Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible (Harper, 1985). Referring to the extra-temporal dimension of the sacred, Levenson declares that “These great founding acts, which order reality, we shall call protological, that is to say, partaking of the nature of the beginning of things, on analogy with the term eschatological, which is commonly used by biblical scholars to describe the ‘last things,’ which occur at the ‘end of time.’ According to [B.S.] Childs [in Myth and Reality in the Old Testament], ‘the present world order established by a victory in the past does not continue automatically. It must be continually reactivated in the cult’ (103).”

Levenson goes on to stress that “The perception of time cannot be disengaged from the perception of space. In fact, the mythic symbols to be analyzed exist in radically different modes both of space and of time (p. 104).” This point is essential preparation for his discussion of Zion as the cosmic mountain.

At a secular level, Sinai and Zion should interest anyone who wants to understand how Jerusalem became such a charged place, a preeminent “world navel.” I close with a rabbinical midrash translated by Levenson (118): “The Holy One (blessed be he) created the world like an embryo. Just as the embryo begins at the navel and proceeds onwards from there, so the Holy One (blessed be he) began to create the word from its navel and from there it spread out in different directions.”

There’s no place like OM!

Male and female

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Addendum to yesterday’s entry on feminist aggadah

Actually, Jewish feminists working to reclaim their heritage do have one advantage over their Muslim and Christian sisters: they already have an abundance of female images of the godhead to draw from. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom (Hokhmah) is co-eternal with YHWH and is represented there as a goddess of sorts. (This becomes the Christian Sophia.) In later Kabbalah, however, Hokhmah is thought of as male. As the first (or second*) manifestation of godhead – also called the Beginning – it is the point from which Binah (Knowledge) expands. At this point, Binah and Hokhmah become explicitly female and male, egg and semen (to update the imagery slightly from the no-longer-valid notions of semen as seed and womb as passive medium). Of all of Binah’s “daughters” the most famous, which surely predates this schema of the ten Sefirot by hundreds of years, is the hypostasized Divine Presence, the Shekhinah. The central focus of religious effort is to join Tif’eret – the sixth of the ten Sefirot, representing Heaven, Sun, Harmony, Compassion – and Shekhinah, associated with Earth, Moon, Garden of Eden, Justice. A kind of Jewish tantra encourages married mystics to make love on Sabbath Eve in an attempt to realize this divine union in their own bodies. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Sabbath itself is also commonly hypostasized as female.

All this is a little apart from the theme of this blog, except to show the flexibility and creativity of the Western religious imagination once it divests itself of rigid subject/object and mind/body dichotomies. And I don’t think any of it would have been possible without the prior determination of the divine’s absolute unknowability. Putting ultimate reality beyond all conceptual reach licensed the invention of the Sefirot as a kind of heuristic – in fact, it probably necessitated it, both as a focus of devotion for ordinary believers and as a mandala or source code for divine autopoiesis.

*Depending on how closely one identifies Keter with Ein Sof. Multiple versions of the Sefirot diagram (with sometimes divergent descriptions) may be found on the web. Here’s one that’s particularly well done and easy to navigate. Read especially the descriptions of The Right Side (male) and The Left Side (female). The diagram can of course be used as a map of the human body. But I can’t help thinking that there are probably many, more esoteric interpretations that have never been put into print (or at least into translation).

Feminist aggadah

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s wonderfully iconoclastic The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers UP, 1997):

“To the rest of the world the Jew is marginal. But to Judaism I am marginal. Am woman, unclean. Am Eve. Or worse, am Lilith. Am illiterate. Not mine the arguments of Talmud, not mine the centuries of ecstatic study, the questions and answers twining minutely around the living Word, not mine the Kaballah, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet dancing as if they were attributes of God. These texts, like the Law and the Prophets, are not-me . . . ” (p. 6)

“Touch me not, thou shalt not touch, command the texts. Thou shalt not uncover. But I shall. Thou shalt not eat it lest ye die. I shall not surely die.” (p. 8)

“Reader, you are supposed to ask: does God exist. Is the Holy One in that book real or imagined. And then what about Abraham, Moses, and so on, what is their status vis-a-vis ‘reality.’ Is Abraham in other words a body, a material fact, or is he a spirit, an imagined fact. I confess these questions do not interest me. For who among us, solid flesh though we are, is not partly fictional. And who among us supposes herself the inventor of her own fiction. And who is not just such an aggregation of scraps, just such a patchwork as Abraham, a basket containing millennia. Is God a myth? A set of myths? Then so am I, so are you.” (p. 13)

No doubt an analytic philosopher would laugh us both to scorn, but that’s always the way I’ve reacted to those kinds of questions, too. But here’s the part I really wanted to quote. This is from Ostriker’s commentary on the Garden of Eden:

“Between a child and a parent the initial game is hiding and showing. At first the parent takes the initiative, leading the child into the game. The child is lying flat on her back in the crib, kicking her heels rhythmically, gazing devotedly up at the face of the parent, who gazes in her usual devoted way down at her. Now the parent has the impulse to stimulate extra happiness. So she covers her face for two seconds, then removes her hands, beaming at the child, who instantly breaks into chuckles, wriggling her fat body and beating her fists and feet against the crib mattress. Every time the parent plays I’m-gone-I’m-here, the child laughs, gurgles. To laugh is to understand. To understand is to laugh. Later the child herself will play I’m-gone-I’m-here, putting her fat hands over her face, perhaps peering through her fingers but confident that she herself is invisible or rather pretending to be invisible and then opening her hands and flinging them apart to show her radiant face . . . ” (p.20)

One begins to see the enormity of the sages’ error in barring women from the garden of the text!


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Here’s one more by Celan. I hope this qualifies as “fair use.” I give it in its entirety because it may well serve as the motto for this whole exercise, and because I am hoping that maybe one or two people who are NOT lit-crit types or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school elitists will feel inspired to seek out Celan’s work.

Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.

Speak —
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.

Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.

Look around:
look how it all leaps alive —
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself gleam: in the swell
of wandering words.

(Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan, 101.)