As much as I would like to say I’m a thoroughgoing pagan, albeit one with synchretist tendencies, there are certain times of the year when one religion wins out over another. For me, Yule, the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere), is inextricably linked with Christmas. Not surprising, since the early Church deliberately chose the date of December 25 because many gods and goddesses of other religions in the region had their birthdays celebrated on that date, including Ishtar (the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, and war), Sol Invictus, and Mithras. No sense wasting a holiday that was already well established.
One reason I love Christmas/Yule so much is the music. Not the gooey sweet Christmas songs that you hear on the radio, but the cold, strange carols from the Middle Ages, or centuries-old folk songs. Each year I seem to get a new favorite. Last year it was the fifteenth-century carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” (sorry, Adamus!):
Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond:
Foure thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
And all was for an appil,
An appil that he tok,
As clerkès finden
Wreten in their book.
Ne had the appil takè ben,
The appil takè ben,
Ne haddè never our Lady
A ben Hevenè Quen.
Blissèd be the time
That appil takè was!
Therfor we moun singen,
Sorry, that was written in middle English. (I remember learning to pronounce middle English in college: our two practice passages were “Adam Lay Ybounden” and the prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Middle English sounds rather like Icelandic, at least to my ears. It’s a real kick getting your mouth around those deliciously odd vowels.)
You probably don’t need a full translation, but a few words here and there might help. Adam here stands for humankind, and the bondage is sin and death; the reference to four thousand winters is the supposed length of time between creation and Christ. Clerkes are clerics or scholars; Queen of Heaven was a name of the Great Goddess that was later given to the Virgin Mary. “Blessed be the time that apple was taken, so we may sing, Deo Gratias” (or thank God).
The problem, of course, is that they got it all wrong.
It wasn’t an apple.
The so-called Forbidden Fruit wasn’t an apple (as the popular imagination thinks), wasn’t a grape, fig, or citron (as traditional Judaism posits), and wasn’t a pomegranate (as recent “experts” have claimed). It was—take a deep breath, boys and girls—a symbol!
Shocking, I know.
In the philosophical novel Ishmael, the story of eating the forbidden fruit is described as a metaphor for the loss of quality of life caused by the change from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural based society. Good, but no dice.
Genesis explicitly calls it the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It stood opposite the Tree of Life in the garden. The two trees represent the tension between unity, seeing all things as interconnected (the Tree of Life), and dualism, seeing things as right or wrong, black or white (the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Paradise is here depicted as the state of living in unity with all things; eating the fruit of dualism—seeing all things as separate, and ourselves as alone—is indeed death.
In other words, God wasn’t saying, “I’m giving you a test to see if you can keep from disobeying one command.” He’s saying, “Don’t see the world as good vs. bad, because that will kill you.” The concept of “knowing” good and evil can be best understood as being emotionally entangled in the struggle of determining the difference between them.
So they’re naked, enjoying that sense of unity with nature, unity with God, unity with each other. Everything is perfect, and there is no possibility of shame. When they eat the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, suddenly there is naked vs. clothed, appropriate vs. inappropriate, justified vs. ashamed. It’s not that they were ashamed of their eating of that fruit; it’s that once they ate, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked.”
Before they ate of duality, there was nothing but we’re-perfect-as-we-are; afterward, they hid their genitals (they only made loincloths, so apparently it was OK for the woman to be bare-breasted). Genitals symbolize intimacy. Intimacy is comfortable when you’re in a state of union. When you are two, and separate from the world, you need to hide your vulnerabilities from the eyes of others.
That desire to hide ourselves from others extends to hiding from God. What’s next in the story? “When they heard the sound of YHWH walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, the man and the woman hid from YHWH’s presence among the trees of the garden. YHWH called to the man: ‘Where are you?’ ‘I heard you walking in the garden,’ replied the man. ‘I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.'”
And what is God’s response? He says, “Who told you of nakedness?”
The very concept of nudity should have been foreign to them. He knew they had tasted the fruit of Good vs. Bad.
Now, the serpent is a very interesting character in this story. Here’s how he’s introduced: “Now, the woman and the man were both naked, though they were not ashamed. But the snake was even more ‘naked’: the most cunning of all the animals that YHWH had made.” That’s a pun: The Hebrew word for “naked” (literally, “smooth,” as unclothed skin) is the root of the word for “cunning” (literally, “smooth,” as in the phrase “smooth operator”).
In the ancient world, serpents and dragons were guardians of two things: great treasure, and secret knowledge (which is what treasure symbolizes). The Hebrews had no concept of a “devil.” Even at the time the Book of Job was written, which was very late in the chronology of the Hebrew scriptures, Satan is depicted as the prosecuting attorney of the angelic court; “satan” literally means “adversary.” There was no notion, certainly not at the time Genesis was written, of a fallen spirit who wants to tempt the faithful into sin.
So when the woman says “We can’t eat or touch this fruit or we’ll die,” this serpent, this guardian of hidden knowledge, simply says, “Die? You won’t die! God knows well that on the day that you eat it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil!” And of course he’s right: the death YHWH was talking about was the experience of separateness, the shattering of unity, not physical death. It really wasn’t deception at all.
Now, remember, this story is written by us: people who ONLY know good and evil, black and white, separation, and who yearn for unity. We hunger for that paradise where we can eat of the Tree of Life and forget that there is such a thing as “sin.” Sin, after all, means “missing the mark,” falling short, failing. If there is no separateness, there is no failure, and there is no sin. It is humanity’s deepest desire—to get back to that place of union with the divine, with nature, with one another.