Return to Gilgamesh and the Sistine Chapel (idea)

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 proteron).

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 whole time.)

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 to run,
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 hairy,
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? The knowledge 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: http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenjm/WOTA/IMAGES/AdamEve.jpg
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).

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