A reputable art historian once told
me that it is something of a standing joke that in the panel depicting the fall
of man in the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo has deliberately
posed Adam and Eve in such a way that her momentary distraction towards the
serpent and eating the forbidden fruit has taken her attention away from eating
a different type of fruit attached to Adam's body. Michelangelo was certainly
clever enough to have embedded this as an inside joke, as we see, for example, in
the way he puts
friends and foes into the last judgment.
Michelangelo was probably reading
his Bible correctly, however, even if he has suggestively particularized the
sexual connotation of eating from the tree
of knowledge into edenic fellatio. The trick here is to see first of all
that Michelangelo is not creating a narrative that plays out
linearly like a story--he's making us work a little harder by compacting
the action into a single scene. Eve is not just turning from having oral
sex with Adam to get the forbidden fruit; the idea of sex and the
fall are merely being put into close juxtaposition (if you insist on reading
from left to right you might think of it a bit like the literary figure of hysteron
But even more tellingly, if you examine the image at the link below,
you'll see that Michelangelo is clearly compressing action by having the same
scene show Adam and Eve twice, once before the fall, and once shortly thereafter;
serpent, tree, and angel act as a sort of pivot between the episodes. As another
sign that Michelangelo is visibly playing with "chronology" for
the sake of deeper purposes, see the sizeable dead tree trunk the tempted Eve
is leaning against. If you've been to a cemetary with monuments lately you'll
have seen that even now broken trees (and headless columns) are symbols of death.
If you work out the math you can see the message. But this is Eden, created
only a little while before--what is a tree trunk so old it is already a broken,
withered stump doing there?
The second trick in interpreting
this scene correctly is to remember that Michelangelo (and his contemporaries)
were not Biblical literalists (clearly: this compressed
scene cannot be reconstructed literally from Genesis 3: 1-7). Michelangelo felt
no fundamentalist urge to avoid metaphorical or allegorical
interpretation of scripture, and this opened up the way for a rich understanding
of the text. In 1667, Milton, too, clearly saw the connection between
sex and the fall in his Paradise Lost (9.1011-1045),
and had no problem with depicting it.
But it's not just that Adam and Eve
were naughty and that this got them hustled out of the garden, and then the
author of Genesis prudishly disguised their "sin" behind a "tree
of knowledge" allegory. The author of Genesis was seeking a way to explain
why life is so hard. He believed that a transgression against God was
involved, of course, and adapted a story which was almost as old to him as he
is to us to craft an explanation. A version of this ancient story exists in
fragmentary form in the widely-noded Epic of Gilgamesh. Interestingly, the author of Genesis turned the Gilgamesh
story on its head to adapt it to his purposes. (The Epic of Gilgamesh
was widely known throughout the ancient middle east in several versions, and
the story it tells was probably circulating as various shorter folk tales the
In the Gilgamesh, for purposes
unconnected with this writeup, a wild man named Enkidu is created by the gods from a pinch of clay (like the dust that went into Adam).
Enkidu hangs out with the wild animals, living pretty much like one of them
(the translation I am dependent upon uses the leading term "child of nature"
for him). The idea is that he is good raw material. He angers a trapper by spoiling
his traps and as a result the authorities decide to domesticate this natural
force which is hampering the labors of civilization.
Now it gets interesting. Advised
by his betters, the trapper fetches a pretty temple prostitute
(honorably serving a stint performing sex as an offering to Ishtar, goddess
of you-know-what, and presumably pretty good at it) from the big city
and brings her out to Enkidu's haunts. When Enkidu next comes to get a drink
of water she reveals herself to him (in more than one way) and Enkidu ravishes
her for six days and seven nights without leaving her body. When Enkidu
"comes to," he finds himself irretrievably altered.
A few verses :
The gazelles saw Enkidu, they started
the beasts of the field shied away from his presence.
Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
his legs stood still, though his
herd was in motion.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
but now had reason, and wide understanding.
Sex (and implicitly, domestication
through contact with woman) has wrought this change, and knowledge ('reason and
wide understanding') is the result. Enkidu has lost his (from one point of view)
edenic existence of simple pleasures, but as the story unfolds he is slowly
acculturated to mankind and civilization.
Enkidu ate bread until he was sated,
he drank the ale, a full seven goblets.
His mood became free, he started to sing,
his heart grew merry, his face lit up.
The barber groomed his body so
anointed with oil he turned into a man.
He put on a garment, became like a warrior,
he took up his weapon to do battle with lions.
Where he earlier spoiled traps, he
now stands guard over the flock for the group of shepherds who have introduced
him to the pleasures of bread and wine (civilized, processed foods,
that is), thwarting the natural predation of wolves and lions. We are so culturally
accustomed to approve a version of the Golden Age myth
which goes back to nature and some sort of primordial purity and goodness that
it comes as a genuine shock to realize that they are celebrating getting
away from nature and becoming more sophisticated and civilized--or more
human, as they would see it. Call it anti-pastoral.
And now with new eyes we can look
at Adam and Eve's rustling of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. When they
eat the fruit "the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were
naked." Naked indeed, with all of its sexual connotations: why did they
make "aprons" out of fig leaves for themselves if there were not something
they suddenly knew about in regions an apron covers which now embarrasses them?
they have earned by eating the fruit is the purpose and function of genitalia.
Sex (and procreation) brings them the immortality the serpent promised, but
a vicarious intergenerational immortality. As for themselves, when they got
the power to create life like God, they were smacked down for it with personal
mortality and banishment from a life of ease.
The Genesis account is not as explicit
but nevertheless lines up astonishingly well with the story of Enkidu; but instead
of looking at the good side of knowledge and domestication, the author of Genesis
chose to adapt the story to explain why life is hard by portraying the acquisition of knowledge as a transgression
that leads from a better state of nature to a harder one of labors and death.
How much Genesis prompts us to be sympathetic with a "back to nature"
program, and how much that program prompts us to look sympathetically on Genesis'
idea of a fall is anyone's guess. But Michelangelo was right on the mark, and
without the benefit of Gilgamesh, which was found much later.
A good image of the fresco in question:
Brandon, S.G.F. Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (1963). Brandon
sometimes goes a little too far, but this is the best psychosexual treatment
of Genesis, Gilgamesh, and their overlap I
have yet seen.
George, A. The Epic of Gilgamesh. A New Translation (1999). All Gilgamesh
quotes are from this translation.
Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible (1974).