Tuesday, September 22, 2009

LDS Grass-Roots Interpretations of the Eve Archetype

This was cross-posted at Mormon Matters.

Since Eve is one of the most powerful archetypes for women, it's not surprising that this story is at the root of many discussions of womanhood. Feminists have generally been dissatisfied with how the biblical Eve story has affected values and attitudes toward women over the centuries. Early exegesis of the creation story became the rationale for rules and regulations guiding women's behavior.
Because Eve was regarded as a source of sin, there was a perceived need to harness the dangerous energy represented by woman. LDS theology has attempted to redefine the symbolic Eve by picturing her as a free agent who recognized the need for a Fall and purposely "transgressed" the law in order to usher the human race into the mortal sphere. This is an attempt to connect the name of the first woman with life (Eve=Havvah=life) instead of forbidden knowledge, lust, temptation, sin, and death. Joseph Fielding Smith said:

One of these days, if I ever get to where I can speak to Mother Eve, I want to thank her for tempting Adam to partake of the fruit. He accepted the temptation, with the result that children came into this world. … If she hadn’t had that influence over Adam, and if Adam had done according to the commandment first given to him, they would still be in the Garden of Eden and we would not be here at all. We wouldn’t have come into this world. So the commentators made a great mistake when they put in the Bible … “man’s shameful fall.”

However, the archetype has not proven easy to overcome. Even the LDS continue to draw upon the Eve myth for the defining of cultural roles and for the justification of women's status in the Church hierarchy. In the temple ritual, Eve, after having partaken of the fruit, is portrayed as an adjunct to the man Adam. She promises to listen to his counsel while he is given access to the Lord. She stands by passively while he is addressed and taught by spiritual guides. It is interesting to see how this portrayal has subtly softened and shifted over the years. In the Church, as well as in other settings, the Eve archetype is slowly being reinterpreted. I have been excited to see how this has been happening at the grass roots level of Mormon experience. Lately there have been a few examples which I would like to highlight.

Brooke, at the Exponent 2 blog has written an original poem which contains an exploration of the Eve myth and its meaning to women:
Things I Tell Myself When I Eat Apples

I do not believe in the necessity
of breaking teeth to eat an apple,
only in the necessity of breaking skin.

There also cannot be one true way
to eat the apple. Or to share it.
But I'll say it again, the skin must break
(even if the skin itself is not eaten).
But there is no need to scrape your gums on it,
or break your jaw. And if you are peeling
or slicing it, be careful with that knife.

Do you hear me? You don't have to hurt yourself
to eat the apple. you don't have to eat the skin
or seeds
or stem
or bruises.
you don't even have to eat
this apple.

Follow the link above to read a fascinating discussion of the shades of meaning in this poem. Here Brooke allows Woman to escape the paradigm -- to decide for herself what parts of the apple she will consume, what effect it will have, or even if she will eat the apple at all. After reading the poem, it becomes evident that we ourselves make choices about how we will experience our religion and how we will read and interpret our archetypal stories.

An LDS artist recently displayed online a work she has created depicting Eve about to bite into an apple. This apple has teeth -- menacing teeth which are bared in opposition to her determination. Galen, the illustrator, has linked her drawing to other sketches: one of Eve slaying the angel, and a study of Alexander Louis Leloir's Jacob wrestling the angel. Taken together, these efforts betray an interest in a re-interpretation of the Eve myth, one in which Eve wrestles with Deity's intent for her. In these pictures, Eve takes strong and purposeful control over he destiny. This coincides with LDS rhetoric on Eve, perhaps even more than the woman we encounter in the Temple, or even in the Proclamation on the Family.


I first saw this image on facebook, and I immediately wrote a response to it, a poetic little quotation which I posted as my status: "The knowledge Heaven gives us hath torrid teeth. And, as Eve, we must meet it with our own determined bite, and welcome the crimson pain, and swallow the iron tang." But as I pondered these words that came out of my subconscious I realized that my take on the Eve story is a bit different than Brooke's, or Galen's. I look at the knowledge offered Eve as painful, and necessary, and difficult. I see the universal condition of women to be something which takes courage and perhaps even violence to face and to swallow. So, as much as I admire the new visions of the Eve story that I see coming to the fore through Mormon women as well as modern feminists, I can glimpse a bit of the medieval mindset in my own psyche. I'm excited about the opportunity that these two works have given me to consider the messages I've taken in, and find new ways to retell and experience them.

I thought I'd offer our women readers here at Mormon Matters an opportunity to explore their reactions to the Eve archetype. I wanted to ask if they are comfortable with the social roles women have inherited with this myth, or if they would like to reinterpret it, to tell the story another way, to picture the meaning differently. But then I realized that perhaps men aren't all that comfortable with what they've gotten from their progenitor, Adam, either. I know some men who don't want to perpetuate the myth of the male provider figure in their lives. To some of you it might be stifling or burdensome to feel you must always bear the weight of this responsibility. Others might feel uncomfortable in a leadership role, with a wife covenanted to hearken to you. What would it mean to be able to reconstruct your societal and spiritual role? Would you like to do it, and if so, how would you go about it?

Finally, since Church doctrine on the subject of men's and women's roles as relating to Adam and Eve is fairly vague and malleable, do you feel empowered to interpret the Eve (or Adam) myth in new and creative ways, as early Church leaders did? Do you feel comfortable playing with the sacred narrative, as these artists have? If you would like to share a poem or a drawing with our readers, even better! Give us a link in the comments.

No comments: