Back to Home Page or Contents Page or Past and present beliefs or Index
Sin and Rebellion: Archetypal Transgressions Against the Gods
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being (Carl Jung).
Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense...Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? (Carl Sagan).
The human condition has eternally been a mystery and a burden to the race. The problems of suffering, sickness, unequal social conditions, pain, and of course, the ultimate mystery, death, have long held sway in the consciousness of homo sapiens. Organized religious belief systems have come and gone, each in turn providing a personal, unique interpretation for the human condition, the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular with its rich internal mythos embedded in the chapters of Genesis has provided one of the most extensive and lasting "meaning of life" stories, a tale that is further developed and mythologized in the New Testament. The organization of the church, of course, took place in the Middle Ages, and it is from that beginning that we recognize "organized religion" to this day. However, the major canon of the church in its interpretation of meaning and purpose is no more unique than any other traditional institution. The key to the above paradigms lies in a supernatural interpretation and world view, the archetypal transgressions against the gods, primeval patterns of human experience that fork like the branches of the great towering Yggdrasil, the Norse world tree, for it is from a supernatural and mythological world view that humanity has examined and explained its place within the realm of the gods.
All this, of course, assumes a world influenced by the supernatural, (a world view that science has been eradicating since the time of Galileo) and the beliefs and practices connected together in regard to supernatural beings and supernatural power has culturally developed as a universal. Religion is a different story. Religion is an offspring of supernaturalism that ascended to supremacy during the medieval period so that:
Christian supernaturalism was conceptualized within the framework of religion as the scientific truth about the world and humankind. Christianity established an epistemological link between science and supernaturalism by conceptualizing religion as the framework to explain natural phenomena and to explain the nature of the relationship between God and humankind. In such a view, the religious framework of Christianity was aligned with scientific naturalism, and non-Christian supernaturalism was aligned with superstition (Pandian 163)
Of course, in this mythical conception, original sin stands at the pinnacle as the definitive explanation of the mysterious human condition. Augustine of Hippo brought about the shaping of Western thought in regard to "Original Sin," for it is with this influential early church father, his introspective conscience, his reading and interpretation of Paul that has shaped and molded the interpretative perspective of Christianity and much of Western culture. His reading of Romans in regard to the Fall of Adam where Augustine interprets the meaning as being the narrative of Adam's transgression against God, and how this sinful, willfully committed guilt has been inherited by the human race as the corruptive "Original Sin" of human will that separates and divides all humanity from God, the "introspective conscience of the West "(O'Donnell). This experience can, of course, be interpreted from a purely archetypal perspective, one that provides deep illumination upon the dim, shadowy recesses of the psyche for "[t]he cosmic dimension of some archetypal symbols is the sure guarantee of their universality. It reveals the significance of their being rooted in nature" (Moreno 250).
However, original sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, though enormously powerful in the west, is not the only interpretative branch of ontology, for the concept of sin and salvation is an archetypal psychological manifestation dealing with the ancient and world wide belief in supernatural deities that rule the cosmos and hand down laws constructed to enforce a proper relationship between the gods and humanity that will ensure the preservation of the universal order and maintain a balance and harmony within human civilization (Brandon). Thus, the archetypal idea of transgression against the gods is ancient, a primal worldview that most likely recedes into the dim mists of prehistory, a narrative facet that will be illuminated by a discussion of a representative sampling of "sins" against the gods: the extremely ancient epic of Gilgamesh, the middle ground represented by Greek mythology in the story of Prometheus as a type of trickster parallel to Lucifer, and the Judeo-Christian tale of the Fall.
The relationship of humanity to the preternatural realm of the gods has always been a perilous and uneasy one, for the gods are unpredictable and can at any moment wreak disaster upon the race. This is the case concerning the earliest known written work that details the relationship between humanity and the supernatural, the story of Utnapishtim, the Faraway, in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. The poem dates back to around 2500 B.C.E., the action taking place in and around the ancient city of Uruk, present day Iraq. Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk and after futile quests for the meaning of life, he is faced with the impending horror of his own mortality when his best friend and ally, Enkidu, is marked to perish by the god Enlil. Vainly searching for meaning and ever lasting life, he goes on a journey to Dilmun, a type of primordial Eden, to seek out Utnapishtim survivor of the great Flood and the only human being to have ever been granted immortality by the gods. To achieve this goal he must pass through the mountain of Mashu, a type of descent into the underworld, face dangerous guardian beings, and finally be ferried across the Waters of Life and Death to the east, the land of Dilmun.
Upon arrival in this fabled land Gilgamesh intently listens to Utnapishtim who then relates the narrative of the city of Shurrupak that stood on the banks of the Euphrates, a city that grew old as did the gods, and where the citizens of the city brought transgression against the gods:
In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, "The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel. So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind. (Epic of Gilgamesh 108)
The gods agree to send a great flood to exterminate mankind, and the biblical parallels of the story have been widely discussed; however, the point here is that this is the first recorded example of "sin" against the gods, and the terrible consequences that result. The "babel" is reminiscent of the confusion of the people after God corrupts their language in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. The story is not best interpreted read literally, but from an archetypal standpoint: rebellion against the gods, rather like Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of Knowledge after being commanded by God not to, and they, too, are "destroyed," like the inhabitants of Shurrupak for they lose the gift of immortality and are banished from the Garden just as these ancient people were banished by being immolated.
Another interesting facet of the story is also the parallel to Yahweh's covenant with Noah in the Old Testament, where God set his bow in the sky as a sign to his people that the world would never again be destroyed by water: "This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations. I do set my bow in the cloud and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you, and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Genesis 10.13,15-16). In the Gilgamesh story the goddess Ishtar comes to Utnapishtim and,
…at last, Ishtar also came, she lifted her necklace with the jewels of heaven that once Anu had made to please her. "O you gods here present, by the lapis lazuli round my neck I shall remember these days as I remember the jewels of my throat; these last days I shall not forget. Let all the gods gather round the sacrifice, except Enlil. He shall not approach this offering, for without reflection he brought the flood; he consigned my people to destruction." (112)
The jewels of heaven are the many colored gems of her necklace, glittering, iridescent, and a necklace strung around a throat, forms the semicircle of a rainbow much like the rainbow that was set in the sky after the Genesis story, but here it is the feminine aspect of divinity that forms the covenant, not the later patriarchy that superseded a much earlier and widespread matriarchal tradition. This is the first recorded covenant of the gods with the human race, and the archetypal experience of how perilous, whimsical, and capricious indeed, are the moods of the gods.
Prometheus and Lucifer
The Promethean myth is Hellenistic in origin. Prometheus is a type of archetypal trickster figure, a rebel titan who stole fire from Zeus (the gods) and brought the gift of consciousness to humanity, for that is what the fire symbolizes: divine consciousness, similar to Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge and thus being thrown into awareness. According to Stewart:
Prometheus [the name means Forethought] was a not a fool, but why else would he rebel against Zeus? He tried to trick Zeus (who knows all and sees all) with a false sacrifice. How foolish can you get? Prometheus also stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the primitive mortals on the earth. Zeus did not punish Prometheus alone, he punished the entire world for the effrontery of this rebel god. Prometheus was a god long before Zeus took the Throne of Eternity. He fought for Zeus against the devising Kronos (Cronos), but Prometheus never had true respect for Zeus. He feared that the new Olympians had no compassion for each other or the mortals on the earth below. To show his disdain, Prometheus prepared two sacrifices and, in an attempt to belittle father Zeus, he made one sacrifice of fat and bones and the other of the finest meat. The trick was, Prometheus had wrapped the fat in such a way that it looked to be the most sincere tribute of the two. Zeus saw through the trick and magnanimously controlled his anger. He warned Prometheus but did not punish him. Zeus had many plans for the reshaping of creation. After the fall of Kronos and his confinement in Tartaros, Zeus took no interest in the mortal race of men on the bountiful earth, he intended for them to live as primitives until they died off. Zeus said that knowledge and divine gifts would only bring misery to the mortals and he insisted that Prometheus not interfere with his plans. Despite Zeus' warning, Prometheus took pity on the primitive mortals and again, he deceived Zeus. Prometheus gave the mortals all sorts of gifts: brickwork, woodworking, telling the seasons by the stars, numbers, the alphabet (for remembering things), yoked oxen, carriages, saddles, ships and sails. He also gave other gifts: healing drugs, seer craft, signs in the sky, the mining of precious metals, animal sacrifice and all art.
To compound his crime, Prometheus had stolen fire from Zeus and given it to the mortals in their dark caves. The gift of divine fire unleashed a flood of inventiveness, productivity and, most of all, respect for the immortal gods in the rapidly developing mortals. Within no time (by Immortal standards), culture, art, and literacy permeated the land around Mount Olympos (Olympus). When Zeus realized the deception that Prometheus had fostered, he was furious. He had Hephaistos (Hephaestus) shackle Prometheus to the side of a crag, high in the Caucasus mountains. There Prometheus would hang until the fury of Zeus subsided.
Each day, Prometheus would be tormented by Zeus' eagle as it tore at his immortal flesh and tried to devour his liver. Each night, as the frost bit its way into his sleep, the torn flesh would mend so the eagle could begin anew at the first touch of Eos (the Dawn). (Prometheus)
Prometheus rebels against the established order that would keep man as equal to or lower than the animals, for he saw in them potential, the same potential that Lucifer recognized in Adam and Eve, for the two (Prometheus and Lucifer) are easily equated, for Prometheus, like Lucifer is the activating agent, a symbol for the archetypal dawn of consciousness that was inevitable in human evolutionary development. Though both are rebel trickster archetypes who reject the current power structure, neither need necessarily be interpreted as evil. Strahan notes that: Gnostic Christianity believed Yahweh to be a demiurge, a self-deluded demon existing in matter, while the true God existed outside matter, and this demiurge created a flawed universe, and the Serpent (Lucifer) was regarded as the only wise and reliable intermediary between humanity and the true God, and once again the Serpent is a messenger archetype, a bringer of knowledge. The etymology of the name "Lucifer" means "the light bringer," and he brings the illumination of consciousness just as did Prometheus (Prometheus Connection). Another interesting aside is that the Lucifer of Judaic myth is derived from earlier Sumerian mythology, but the archetypal parallels branch across the streams of the collective unconscious.
Kurtz, likewise, interprets the promethean myth as one of rebellion and original thought, for he writes,
Prometheus serves as a symbol for those who reject the reigning theistic orthodoxies and who criticize the temptation of men and women to deify and worship the dark unknown in an effort to appease their fears of death. Prometheus is also a symbol for those who wish to use human achievements, especially technology, to improve the human condition and are willing to shape nature in order to fulfill our needs and purposes. (Prometheus Unbound)
His is a rebellion against a cruel and unjust god that would deny humanity a rightful place at the pinnacle of created nature, just as the God of Genesis is also cruel and thoughtless in exactly the same manner, where he would essentially shackle Adam and Eve to a womb like Eden and deny them growth and potentiality, keeping them childlike slaves to answer to his whims, supernaturally indentured servants for eternity, a position that is preposterous and unacceptable because they did eat of the Tree and were thrown into the fields of time and space, out of the infant womb, and into the world of experience and being, of becoming.
Prometheus demonstrates unconditional love toward the race, and if Lucifer's motives can not easily be interpreted as love based, they are at least altruistic in the sense of pointing Adam and Eve toward the path of self-freedom, and both Prometheus and Lucifer were punished for their actions: Lucifer is cursed by God above all beasts of the field, condemned to slink eternally upon his belly and eat dust, while Prometheus, at the order of Zeus, was shackled by Hephaestus, smith of the gods, to a rocky crag high in the Caucasus mountains, crucified upon a stone where a great eagle sent daily by Zeus would tear out his liver rejuvenated during the night. He is the archetypal saviour figure, like Christ, both demigods, dully punished and tortured by God for the "salvation" of man.
That "salvation is an interesting concept in itself, for it is a Christian interpretation that Adam and Eve eating of the fruit in the Garden committed "original sin" that is genetically, I suppose, inherited by all the race down through the milleniums, but nowhere in Genesis can such a statement be found. Paul is the first to suggest such a concept, an interpretation that Augustine later embraced and embellished. In Romans Paul writes:
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned
In Corinthians we find the statement:
...or as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive
(1 Cor. 15:22).
Despite these claims a close reading of Genesis entails no support at all for such strong assertions. Genesis reads:
The Lord God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel." To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." And to the man he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Some creative interpretation, indeed, is required to forage a feast of a "curse" of "Original Sin" out of this passage. Cline makes this point quite aptly when he observes that God does pronounce various curses and condemnations upon Eve, the Serpent, and Adam, such as having to labor for food, Eve bringing forth children in pain, the Serpent slinking on its belly, but nowhere is a reference made to future progeny, nor is there a concept of "salvation" even hinted at, for all the way to the end of Malachi no reference is made of such a concept. All of the decreed punishments are plainly temporal in nature, they apply in the present to Adam and Eve only, not the future of the entire race from this point forward, and Jesus is not concerned with Adam and "Original Sin" in the New Testament (Christian Creation). This archetypal transgression against the gods has resulted in the present world view of the west, a paradigm where:
The creation myth of the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition, with its story of the Garden of Eden and of the curious events that are said to have transpired there, forms the foundation for this view. This belief holds that the transgressions committed by the first human pair brought about a "Fall" of creation, resulting in the present state of the world. The sin of the original pair passed by inheritance to all members of the human race, who are born corrupt, afflicted by the weight of this "original sin." Such evils as we find in this world, including natural disasters, plagues, and the ruthlessness of the food chain, are all somehow part of the momentous consequences of the Fall. (Hoeller)
The ancient, primal archetype of catastrophe and fall from an original state of paradise is found in all cultures, and only a handful have been touched upon. They perform an etiological function, one of attempting to provide an explanation for human misery and the inevitable mortality facing the entire race. This transgression against the gods has eternally cast the species into the flux of chaos and futility. However, archetypes are not static; they continually change and dance, much like DNA mutating to gain a favorable evolutionary advantage for a species; they entertain a metamorphoses to fit the archetypal mythopoetic present song of the culture, and as Holloway has noted:
The difference today in our myths of fall is that they come from science, which is the great narrative of our time. And the very language of fall has been replaced by the language of struggle and ascent. There never was an Eden, a perfect and innocent human state, with fully formed humans who knew no sin. Our mythic narrative today is just as epic and exciting, but it is a sort of reverse catastrophe, the emergence of consciousness from a violent and literally exploding universe. (The Myth of Original Sin)
Thus, whether we stare backward in earthly time to a lost Golden Age, or peer into the depths of time in the vast panorama of the cosmos, we find a beginning sundered from the gods, and timeless longing inherent in the human condition for a resurrection of a perfect bliss where man and the gods were one.
Comments and questions may be sent to the author at [email protected]
Brandon, S.G.F. "Sin and Salvation." Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 1 May 2003. Gale Group. 22 Sep. 2005 <http://etext.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhiana.cgi?id=dv4-31>.
Cline, Austin. "A Christian Creation and Imposition on the Jewish Scriptures." Original Sin in the Bible. 2005. About. 26 Sep. 2005 <http://atheism.about.com/od/thebible/a/originalsin.htm>.
Hoeller, Stephan. "The Mystery of Iniquity." The Gnosis Archive. Winter 1999. 26 Sep. 2005 <http://www.gnosis.org/iniquity.htm>.
Holloway, Richard. "The Myths of Christianity - 2." The Myth of Original Sin . Radical Faith. 26 Sep. 2005 <http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/holloway/myths%202a.htm>.
Kurtz, Paul. "Prometheus Unbound." Free Inquiry Vol. 14. Issue 4. Fall 1994. 23 Sep 2005 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001709766>.
Moreno, Antonio. "Ecumenism, Archetypes, and Symbols." Spirituality Today Autumn 1989: 242-258.
O'Donnell, James . "Christianity before the Reformation." 30 Jul. 2005 <>http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rels/002/lectures/lecture18.html>.
Pandian, Jacob. "The Dangerous Quest for Cooperation Between Science and Religion." Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?. Ed. Paul Kurtz. New York: Prometheus Books, 2003. 163.
Sanders, N.K., ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Revised ed. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
Stewart, Michael. "Prometheus." Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant. 19 Sep 2005. 23 Sep. 2005 <http://messagenet.com/myths/bios/promethe.html>.
Strahan, Derek. "The Prometheus Connection." Portfolio. 1994. 23 Sep. 2005 <http://www.revolve.com.au/portfolio/prometh.html>.