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Monday, November 19, 2012

Forbidden Fruit

Readers who are return visitors here will have noticed my new blog header, which portrays Eve with the apple. But is it really Eve? And if the Book of Genesis does not name the famed forbidden fruit, then where did the idea that it was an apple come from? Perhaps more to the point: if the fruit was not an apple, is there any way of finding out its real identity?

To answer the first question: the woman in my header is actually based upon a marble sculpture (above) by the 19th-century Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen portraying Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), the goddess of love, holding the golden apple awarded to her by Paris - a beauty contest which she won against stiff competition from the two other goddesses Hera and Athena. Mind you, a persuasive bribe was on offer from Aphrodite in the form of the mortal Helen. And so a chain of events was set in motion which eventually would lead to the Trojan War, and give rise to the stirring stories which included the famed wooden horse and Odysseus' epic ten-year journey home from the war across the 'wine-dark sea'.

The gods, capricious as always, must have foreseen this snowballing of checquered human destinies which began with that golden fruit held in the hand of the victorious goddess of love. And those three voluptuous immortal beauties have made the story a predictably irresistible theme for artists, both during the flowering of art in the Renaissance and later (below, by 19th-century artist Eduard Veith). And that is something which I don't quite get. Oh, I readily understand artists being drawn to these pictorially inviting mythological subjects. What fascinates me is that these Renaissance artists were at the same time painting Madonna-and-child canvases and other Biblical themes, apparently with as much enthusiasm as they injected into their decidedly more pagan subject matter.

Clearly both themes were equally acceptable to, and popular with, the tastes of the time, and there was a market for both. So perhaps these two parallel themes in the arts might on occasion have, as it were, leaked into each other. Could this have been the reason that the unnamed fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis took the tangible form of an apple? Perhaps Aphrodite's prize had rolled a little farther than it should have, over from pagan onto more Christian canvases. It's possible. Except that the identity of the Biblically anonymous fruit as an apple can be traced back before the Renaissance through German high gothic art (the detail from Albrecht Dürer's 16th-century engraving below) and medieval manuscripts and church carvings, with the earliest depiction which I have been able to find being on a late 5th-century Byzantine floor mozaic.

But the apple has not stopped rolling. It could be that the whole thing began as a pun, because in Latin the word malum means both 'apple' and 'evil'. But Latin does not take us back to the original Hebrew texts, and some sources offer both figs and pomegranates as possible fruity alternatives. One 13th-century mural even depicts the tree as a giant mushroom, although the possible hallucinogenic implications of a magic mushroom for the fruit of the Eden story is a rabbit hole that I'll maybe save for another time [1]. Is there anywhere, then, which gives us more specific information about the identity of Eden's forbidden fruit? Well, yes there is, and it's source is apparently wholly overlooked.

Tamarind tree with fruit
Reading through Genesis does tend to leave one with the feeling that in certain passages critical information has either been glossed over or simply left out altogether. The good reason is that... it has! That sense of incompleteness in the text of Genesis derives from the fact that a book is missing from this part of the Bible, and that text is the Book of Enoch. Why the Book of Enoch never made it into the Biblical canon is a mystery to me. Not only is it [2]referred to in both the Old and New Testaments in a way which makes it clear that it was a much-respected text of those times, but it also contains passages of stirring visionary writing at least as eloquent as anything in Ezekiel. And it is the place where you can go to find the nitty-gritty information which Genesis omits - and that includes a telling description of the Eden fruit. It is the text of Enoch, the prophet who was the seventh generation from Adam and the great-grandfather of Noah, which informs us that the fruit of the [3]tree of knowledge was "like the tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended a considerable distance."
So now you know!

[1] But please see note [1] underneath my post for The Burning Bush!

[2] Elizabeth Claire Prophet: Fallen Angels and the Origins of Evil – Why Church Fathers suppressed the Book of Enoch and its startling revelations. While I don't wholly buy into Ms. Prophet's more personal ideas, I do commend her book for containing both the original translation by Richard Laurence of the complete text of the Book of Enoch, plus a comprehensive and detailed citation of parallels to Enoch's text found elsewhere in the canonical Bible.

A good introductory guide to Enoch is Margaret Barker’s: The Lost Prophet – The Book of Enoch and its influence on Christianity. Such studies can be both useful and rewarding in that they have the effect of focusing upon the reasons why certain texts became accepted as scripture while others fell by the wayside. The truth is out there – and it is often alarmingly arbitrary, turning at times upon mere individual opinions, prejudices and personal agendas – as anyone who cares enough about what constitutes their faith will discover should they take the time actually to read such texts – and I would personally consider the Book of Enoch to be an excellent place to start.    

[3] Enoch 31:3-4. Intriguingly, the Enoch text omits the 'good and evil' part of the phrase, and indicates that the tree was for 'obtaining knowledge'. 

For more about the Book of Enoch you are welcome to visit the two posts on my other blog here: 
Dude, Where's My Prophet?
Fallen Angels

Richard Laurence's complete translation of the Book of Enoch is available online here:
The Book of Enoch

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