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Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Where did the idea come from? How did this notion begin that the human body is something to be ashamed of, and can we identify who was involved in perpetuating such a mindset? I was already flowing along on this stream of thought after writing my [1]previous post about the story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis, and was given further impetus by being reminded (in a quiz panel program that I happened to be watching) that evidence for the [2]wearing of clothing can be traced back to some 170,000 years ago – but no further.

A young Muslim woman contemplates her world. What are acceptable standards of dress in a culture generally turn out to be standards which are considered acceptable by men about women. The more that men fear a woman’s autonomy, the more strident is the call for a woman to cover herself, and clothing becomes a means of control, whether in Islam, or in Jewish Orthodoxy, or elsewhere.
Since this period in human history also relates to a follow-up on ice-age climate conditions, it is a reasonable assumption that the introduction of clothing into human society had a lot more to do with basically keeping warm than it did with any notion of modesty. Protection and insulation against the cold would also have allowed an expansion into more northern latitudes, and the wearing of clothes also would have opened up new areas of culture, as specific styles or choices of dress evolved to denote social status, group identity and other cultural markers.

Neanderthalers return from a successful winter hunt: a scene which took place in what is now France over 35,000 years ago. When considering the origins of clothing, the basic need to keep warm and survive seems to have taken precedent over any connections with modesty. Painting by Zdeněk Burian.
This is compelling stuff, because it is, after all, about us. Whether we are African, European, Indonesian or some other ethnicity, this is our common story, our shared history. All of the diverse cultures which exist and have existed have evolved over time. All have a worthy story to tell, and the way things are now became that way over many succeeding generations, and either evolved further or were preserved as traditions, with these two processes often running parallel with each other. Our clothing can define us, whether that is a specific regional style or the global ethnicity of a pair of jeans. And when clothing is the social norm, discarding it can even become a powerful statement of protest.

Protesters in Brussels are forced to the ground by police during a visit by the Russian President. Nudity can be, and is, used to make a political statement. I can think of any number of ways to conclude this courageous young woman’s painted-on slogan. Who is really being shamed here? Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are still behind bars in Moscow.
(But see my added note below about their release.) 
So clothing – or the lack of it – can make a compelling statement, and send signals to others about who we are and what we stand for. And it does not necessarily follow that covering the body in some way is always modesty-driven, because many styles of covering actually serve to emphasise what is covered. But what about shame? If you who are reading this believe that you are a creation of God, how is it possible that you then presumably feel a sense of shame about what that same God has created? By inference it suggests a sense of shame in your God. This sense of shame is not a natural thing. It is not something which we have as young children. It is something that we have to learn, something that we are taught, something that is instilled into us by the authority figures and the society in which we live.

Xingu dancers before and after being included on the tourist route. Shame has to be learnt, and tourism as well as earlier missionary activity has played its part in teaching shame to indigenous cultures. The Xingu are now under considerable pressure from a variety of external forces.
This sense of shame is something other than a natural modesty. In the language of science humans are habitually bipedal – we walk upright on two legs. This simple fact means that, when naked, our genitals are ‘on view’. To avoid sending potentially confusing signals, it’s just socially more comfortable to keep things covered when sex is not the order of the day. So an appropriate degree of modesty makes social sense. It is the feeling of [3]shame, of feeling that what we have is in some way intrinsically ‘dirty’ and ‘sinful’ that is so crippling to the human psyche. Shame has to be learned, and the teacher, apparently, is religious belief.

What constitutes acceptable standards of dress can be both cultural, regional and belief-driven. Bathers (left) on a beach in Rio de Janero, and (right) on a beach in Gaza.
When it comes to our attitudes to sin, few individuals have coloured Western thinking more than Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, now located in Algeria, but then a province of the Roman Empire. Augustine lived in a world in flux: the Christian Goth Alaric had previously led his conquering army into the Roman Forum. The centre of Western civilization had been penetrated, and the society of that time had been shaken to the foundations. In his writings of the 4th-5th-centuries, what Augustine set out to do was to give early Christians a sense of their own identity, and the formulating of doctrine was the course which he set for himself.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve. Masolino de Panicale’s 15th-century fresco before (left) and after (right) restoration. The strategic wisps of foliage were added by unknown prudish hands at a later date. Evidently the artist – and his Church commissioners – had less qualms about the element of nudity.
Augustine devoted years of contemplation to the subject of sin. His conclusion was that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve was actually present in the human seed at the moment of conception. So in Augustine’s vision of things, there was no such thing as the innocence of childhood, because a new-born baby was already born [4]corrupted with the taint of the Fall, and all humanity was contaminated. Shame, therefore, was the right and proper reaction to this condition, and the phrase ‘naked and ashamed’ is now a familiar one.

This 1954 film poster assures us that Garden of Eden was ‘Photographed in COLOR at a REAL Nudist Park under the supervision and with the approval of THE AMERICAN SUNBATHING ASSOCIATION’. Apparently this eager reassurance was not quite enough, and Hollywood sensibilities demanded an extra added palm frond and the removal of the racy tag line before the poster was distributed.
These ideas of Augustine’s were radical for their time. Before this, such commentators as Clement of Alexandria were actually connecting the Fall in Eden, not so much with carnal desire and an awareness of being naked, but with the more fundamentally moral question of disobedience to God. It was Augustine who placed the emphasis on the shame of the flesh.

A spread from the May 2009 National Geographic, which was distributed in Islamic Indonesia only after the board of censorship had busied itself with a felt pen. Don’t tell me that the members of the board didn’t keep one or two uncensored copies for themselves. Photo by Mike Cheong.
For my friends in Indonesia: the uncensored spread from my own Dutch edition. When a black felt pen hides something this innocent, there is an added sense that such petty censorship also robs these women of their dignity.
Augustine’s extended attention given to this subject in his book [5]City of God makes for some weird reading, preoccupied as he seems to have been with the subject of physical sexual arousal. Augustine is clearly disturbed by the notion of genital autonomy, which he concludes is part of God’s punishment for man’s disobedience, and he laments the fact that sexual arousal apparently cannot be controlled by the intellect. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if Augustine were alive and writing today as an unknown author, we probably would conclude that he should seek counselling as a matter of [6]urgency.

In this anatomy reference work for artists published in 1920, the model’s classical pose in general and her Grecian hairstyle in particular signal that the intentions of the photograph are academic and respectable – intentions which are emphasised by the determinedly technical caption. The result is an innocuous flesh-and-blood version of a marble statue.
Instead, as we know, it has not been Clement’s ideas, but Augustine’s, which down the centuries have gone on to exert an influence upon Western society more wide-reaching and profound even than the borders of belief, and upon those who might not even be aware that their behaviour and attitudes are being influenced by what Augustine thought and wrote. That a broadcast glimpse of Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ can send a nation into an uptight spin is example enough of our troubled mindset about bodily exposure, and of the way in which the human soul has been scarred by the legacy of [7]scriptural doctrine.

Whether you believe or not that the human body is created by God does not make it of itself intrinsically shameful, otherwise we would not have to be taught that it is. That we not only have to learn this, but perpetuate the idea in our turn by teaching it to impressionable others – with all the centuries-old baggage of guilt and sin which go along with such a notion – is the true reason for shame.   

[1] Please see my post Eve's Story.

[2] No clothing exists from that distant time, but this date can be surmised from the time that head lice evolved into lice which live only on the body underneath clothing. Even humble parasites can be useful to anthropology.

[3] Launched with the interstellar spacecraft Voyager in 1977, this now-famous plaque (above) depicts humans of both sexes. Designed by astronomer Carl Sagan, and drawn by his wife Linda Salzman Sagan, it brought howls of protest from both sides of the American religious morality divide, with one side protesting the ‘indecent’ display of nudity, and the other pointing out (which cannot be denied) that the man’s penis is shown, but not the woman’s labia. Not only has the woman been coyly de-sexed: she has been reduced once more to the passive role, while it is the man who raises his hand in greeting to possible unknown alien discoverers. Now travelling beyond our solar system, Voyager will reach the nearest star system in some 40,000 years. Apparently not content with laying our religious guilt trips and sexual stereotypes on our fellow earth-dwellers, we are now transporting them to the stars.

[4] The doctrine behind this conclusion will be the subject of a future post.

[5] Augustine's text can be read online at: City of God.

[6] Note added September 7 2013: Apparently I am not the only one to view Augustine in this way. The author Laurence Gardner describes these doctrines of the early Church as 'an unhealthy sexual paranoia'. It is worth remembering that nowhere in scripture is the concept of Original Sin actually mentioned.

[7] The connection of guilt with religion is ruthlessly underscored in the language of my own country of the Netherlands. Due to the influence of Calvinism here, the Dutch words for pubic hair and a woman’s labia are schaamhaar (shame hair) and schaamlippen (shame lips) respectively, with schaamstreek (literally: region of shame) being the term for the groin. Language can itself have a powerful influence upon our attitudes and the way in which we perceive things.

Melissa A. Toups, Andrew Kitchen, Jessica E. Light and David L. Reed: Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early Clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa, in vol. 28, issue 1 of Molecular Biology and Evolution journal. 
Robert Metcalf: Unrequited Narcissism: On the Origin of Shame. University of Colorado, Denver, September 2006. Studies in the History of Ethics.
Elaine Pagels: Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Alfred Fripp, Ralph Thompson and Innes Fripp: Human Anatomy for Art students. Seeley, Service & Co., 1920.
Josef Augusta and Zdeněk Burian: Prehistoric Man. Paul Hamlyn, 1960.
Mike Cheong’s blog is at Garden of Eden artwork by John J. Lomasney.

‘Putin protest’ photos by FEMEN. In this second photo of the sequence (right), one policeman kneels on the woman's back while another prepares to force her hands behind her back to cuff her, which is what a third photo shows. I thought that my neighboring country of Belgium was a democracy. The Ukranian-based protest group FEMEN also protests against such religious issues as church dogma and sharia law, which has in turn prompted counter-protests against FEMEN's demonstrations by Muslim women wearing determined smiles and signs which say DO I LOOK OPPRESSED?. But oppression can at times move in subtle ways. How did such clothing cover-up doctrines originate in the first place, and who introduced them? If anyone can conclusively establish for me that these religious dress codes were not originated by men (either independently or in the name of their god), then I will publish their comment here. The current Iranian law for adultery specifies that prior to stoning men are to be buried up to their waists (thus leaving their arms free), and women up to their shoulders (with their arms also buried). Anyone who can manage to extricate themselves before dying is spared. Do the math.

Note added January 2014: Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (seated left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (seated right) were released late last month, but as they only had two months of their sentence left to serve, they concluded (as I do) that their 'early' release was a sop to the West in the light of the coming winter Olympics in Russia. Pussy Riot have now disbanded but plan to continue together to raise awareness of injustice within the Russian political and judicial system.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Eve’s Story

She will be born of the newly-formed flesh of man. The first rains in creation have fallen, turning the dry earth into malleable clay, and into that clay the breath of life has been infused. Adam, the first man, emerges from the primal soil. Adam, the giver of names. But naming the beasts of the field and tending to Paradise are surely not the only tasks for which he is destined. Adam needs the companionship of another self.

And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. Gen.3:20
Deep, deep into an inner void Adam descends, unaware of the momentous event which unfolds while he remains in that place of unknowing, unaware of the way in which his own flesh is being moulded and shaped, as the soil had in turn been shaped for his own creation. Flesh of his flesh, Adam, the namer of all things, calls her Woman, and she is intended to be his companion in Paradise. But it is not to be.

But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Gen.2:6
Enter the silver-tongued serpent, whispering words that slither into Woman’s very soul: words which meet with no resistance, for resistance is not in the cosmic plan. To know good and evil, to tread a realm intended only for the footfalls of gods: this, and nothing less, is on offer. How sweet the fruit, but how bitter the aftertaste. The serpent ensnares Woman, Woman ensnares Adam, and a new awareness emerges. It is not the glorious pathway to the gods. It is the stony road to a soul-deforming shame.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Gen.2:7
Eden is home no more, a cold world awaits, and a bright sword of flame bars any return. Only at the last moment, before being driven from the gates of Paradise, before the world beyond this perfect sanctuary is entered, before time and mortality become new realities, does Adam perform one more act of naming. He calls his wife ‘Eve’.

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Gen.2:17
My brief [1]retelling of the Eden story in Genesis touches on elements which can be found in many folk tales and stories, from the hills of ancient Celtic lands to the walled gardens of Isfahan, which in their glory days were themselves modelled upon Paradise. The [2]template of such stories is a familiar one: the hero or heroine finds themselves in an enchanted, idyllic place. All is well, and their sojourn may be an indefinite one – as long as they refrain from one forbidden act. That act typically involves plucking a forbidden flower, or eating a forbidden food, or drinking a forbidden beverage, which would cause the spell to be broken. Inevitably, what is forbidden proves ultimately irresistible. As soon as the flower is plucked, or the food is ingested, the world around them dissolves, the idyll shatters as glass, and they find themselves back in the world of the everyday.

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. Gen.2:21-22
At first all seems normal and familiar. Then through some occurrence, or some encounter with a former acquaintance, they realise the terrible truth: within the idyll, time has stood still. But in the world itself, a hundred years (or some other expansion of time) have passed. Time in such [3]tales is as relative as it is in science. The Eden story is as powerful a story as has been written, and reflects all the elements embedded in the template. It is by means of this template, which transcends any religious faith, that we can unlock the door back into Paradise and discover the true meaning beyond the outward appearance of the Genesis story.

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. Gen.3:2-3
The story of Eden has proven to be as tragic in its consequences as it is powerful in its telling. Tragic, not in the incidents of the story, but because of the way in which the story in scripture, and its subsequent cementing into doctrine by [4]Augustine, [5]Tertullian and others, has burdened the human psyche with shame and with sin – and worse.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. Gen.3:6
The story of the Fall in Genesis is a certificate of guaranteed second-class citizenship for womankind, and so it has been applied down through all the centuries. The Book of Genesis tells us that Eve disobeyed God, corrupted Adam, and ever since that fateful sampling of the fruits of Eden womankind has been picking up the tab. The very wording of the text puts the seal on Eve’s blame for man’s loss of paradise, and underscores God’s terrible punishment to woman: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Which makes it crystal clear that the woman is to be subject to the man, and shall be considered as his inferior.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. Gen.3:7
Eve heeds the words of the serpent, succumbs to temptation, and eats the [6]forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a dire consequence pronounced by God should this act take place: that on that day humans would surely die. The serpent whispered its own enticement in Eve’s wondering ear: that humans also would become as [7]gods. Detractors of scripture are keen to point out that God lied, because even after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve lived on. But if we remember the template, they did not, and God was as good as his word.

And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. Gen.3-13
What the Eden couple sacrificed was their immortality. The first man and woman are expelled from Eden before they can eat of the fruit of the other tree – the tree of life – and so regain that immortality. For them the clock was now ticking, and a day in Eden was as a hundred years in the world beyond those guardian walls, with death waiting at the end.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. Gen.3:16
How to redeem Eve? How to undo millennia of injustice in the scriptural laying of blame at the feet of all womankind? It is possible, but to do that we will need to go deeper into the template. We will need to let go of all literal readings of this text, all the pedantry which down the centuries has been responsible for shaping scriptural doctrine. We will need to enter the very matrix where myths are born.

…and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. Gen.3:24
In the state of constancy, in the eternal Now which exists beyond the material world of the everyday, the Soul (Adam) is content. The Soul has no distractions – but also no experience – and is quite happy to let things continue in that way. But the wise Spirit (Eve) knows more. The Spirit knows that in order to progress, in order to truly fulfil itself, the Soul must gain experience of the world beyond which exists in time, of the long progression from past to future, of the mortality of the flesh, and of all the joys and sorrows which come with an earthly existence. The catalyst (the serpent) is the Need To Know. The Spirit, in her wisdom, causes the Soul to fall.

And ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Gen.3:5
But this is no mere fall into sin, or even a fall from grace. It is the fall into an earthly life, the fall into all which the Soul needs to experience. It is the fall into time. But the Soul does not make the journey alone. Clothed in an unfamiliar [8]flesh, the Soul still has its companion Spirit to guide it on its journey through life. And while death comes as the end, that death is not obliteration, but a return which the wise Spirit has always known would come, and Eden will open its gates once more.

[1] The complete story of the Fall, and all of the scriptural quotations used in this post, are to be found in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Genesis. Chapter 1 has a more succinct and significantly different recounting of the creation of the first two humans. In the first account, the couple remain unnamed, and appear to have been created simultaneously. As my present post focuses on the story of the Fall, I’ll discuss these intriguing differences in a future post. (Please see my subsequently-written post: Lilith: Spirit of the Night.)

[2] My use of the term ‘template’ is intended to express the idea of an original pattern – a form – which exists, and from which all subsequent versions of such a ‘proto-story’ are derived. Think of it as existing in the collective unconscious, if that is what works for you, or in some external creative matrix. A parallel would, for example, be the way in which we think about an automobile. There are many different specific models of automobiles, but if we simply use the term ‘automobile’, we still have a generic picture in mind as to what an automobile is, and how it looks.

[3] Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is a classic example of such a story, and there are many stories in folklore about those who are rash enough to enter a fairy ring and are spirited away to the fairy realm. In both of these examples time becomes relative, and appears to stand still while the protagonists remain enchanted, and a surprising number of such stories involve the partaking of forbidden food or drink of some description. In Arthur Rackham's illustration (left), the naive Rip rashly samples a clandestine draught of the dwarfs' liquor. True to folk tradition, the artist depicts Rip standing within a fairy ring of toadstools: the borders of enchantment. 

[4] Writing in the 4th-5th-centuries, Augustine concluded that the original sin of the Fall actually was present in the seed at the moment of conception, and that a child was therefore born already corrupted with the taint of sin. His writings, which have much to say on the subject, have influenced Christian doctrine for centuries. Please see my posts Sin and Other Illusions and Shame.

[5] in his writings of the 2nd-3rd-centuries, the Christian Apologist Tertullian says of womankind: ‘Do you not know that you are Eve? …You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree...’.

[6] Please see my post Forbidden Fruit for a specific identification of the fruit of Eden.

[7] There are several intriguing examples in these two chapters of Genesis in which there is an apparent referring to the plurality of gods, as in Genesis 3:22. ‘And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil..’ The serpent tells Eve as much when it says that humans would ‘become as gods’ were they to taste the forbidden fruit. My post A Simple Misunderstanding mentions the influence of polytheism on early Hebrew beliefs, and this runs as an undercurrent through these first chapters of scripture. There are other hints in the Mosaic Old Testament that the texts originally were written specifically naming a female deity (Asherah, the consort of Yahweh, depicted in the figurine, right), who later was edited out to leave a single male creator god in the texts. Intriguingly, Asherah (not to be confused with Ashtoreth, the goddess derived from Ishtar/Astarte) seems to have been a tree goddess - the tree in question being a 'tree of knowledge'. Hmm...

[8] Genesis itself is specific in its pointing to the deeper meaning of the Fall. In Genesis 3:21 we read: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.’ The ‘coats of skins’ are their new corporeal bodies. For a more complete discussion of this phrase (and more examples by artists of the expulsion of the first couple from Eden) please see my post Coats of Skins. Always radically original, the artist Max Klinger (left) gets the details right.

‘Adam’ adapted from public domain photos by Josef Zrzavy. All original ‘Eve’ photography by Hawkwood, © David Bergen Studio. Rainbow boa by Steve Gooch. ‘First rains’ photo by Hawkwood, © David Bergen Studio. Tamarind fruit: source unidentified. Fig leaf: rgbphoto. ‘Cherubim’ adapted from a painting by Edwin Howland Bashfield. Images incorporate symbols and illustrations from the 16th-century works of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, including (on the creation of Adam) characters for the planet Mars, and (on the creation of Eve) characters for the planet Venus. Foliage adapted from Albrecht Dürer’s 16th-century engraving The Fall of Man. ‘Good and Evil’ symbols are the geomantic signs for Caput Draconis (auspicious, head of the dragon, right arm) and Cauda Draconis (malevolent, tail of the dragon, left arm), redrawn from the 19th-century works of Francis Barrett. ‘Angel of Death’ adapted from a sculpture by Louis Barrias. ‘Asherah’ figurine from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. All artwork created for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

The captions beneath the images are for the benefit of those viewing this post in a non-English language!