Bill Moyers: What do you make of it - that in these two stories the principal actors point to someone else as the initiator of the Fall?
Joseph Campbell: Yes, but it turns out to be the snake. In both of these stories the snake is the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live.
Bill Moyers: Why?
Joseph Campbell: The power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. The serpent sheds its skin to be born again, as the moon its shadow to be born again. They are equivalent symbols. Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life.
Furthermore, the serpent represents the primary function of life, mainly eating. Life consists in eating other creatures. You don’t think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal. But what you’re doing is eating something that was recently alive. And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the birds picking around — they’re eating things. You see the cows grazing, they’re eating things. The serpent is a traveling alimentary canal, that’s about all it is. And it gives you that primary sense of shock, of life in its most primal quality. There is no arguing with that animal at all. Life lives by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn, like the moon. This is one of the mysteries that these symbolic, paradoxical forms try to represent.
Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the mythological Serpent King is the next thing to the Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow — the falling skin.
The serpent was revered in the American Indian traditions, too. The serpent was thought of as a very important power to be made friends with. Go down to the pueblos, for example, and watch the snake dance of the Hopi, where they take the snakes in their mouths and make friends with them and then send them back to the hills. The snakes are sent back to carry the human message to the hills, just as they have brought the message of the hills to the humans. The interplay of man and nature is illustrated in this relationship with the serpent. A serpent flows like water and so is watery, but its tongue continually flashes fire. So you have the pair of opposites together in the serpent.
Bill Moyers: In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer.
Joseph Campbell: That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.
Bill Moyers: Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?
Joseph Campbell: No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. The closest thing to it would be perhaps Pandora with Pandora’s box, but that’s not sin, that’s just trouble. The idea in the biblical tradition of the Fall is that nature as we know it is corrupt, sex in itself is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam and Eve? Without that knowledge, we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life. Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this temporal world. Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden — no time, no birth, no death — no life. The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor. The Garden is the serpent’s place. It is an old, old story. We have Sumerian seals from as early as 3500 B.C. showing the serpent and the tree and the goddess, with the goddess giving the fruit of life to a visiting male. The old mythology of the goddess is right there.
Now, I saw a fantastic thing in a movie, years and years ago, of a Burmese snake priestess, who had to bring rain to her people by climbing up a mountain path, calling a king cobra from his den, and actually kissing him three times on the nose. There was the cobra, the giver of life, the giver of rain, as a divine positive figure, not a negative one.
Bill Moyers: But how do you explain the difference between that image and the image of the snake in Genesis?
Joseph Campbell: There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess, and associated with the Goddess is the serpent. This is the symbol of the mystery of life. The male-god-oriented group rejected it. In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.
Bill Moyers: It does seem that this story has done women a great disservice by casting Eve as responsible for the Fall. Why are women the ones held responsible for the downfall?
Joseph Campbell: They represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman, and so it is woman who brings us into this world of pairs of opposites and suffering.
Bill Moyers: What is the myth of Adam and Eve trying to tell us about the pairs of opposites? What is the meaning?
Joseph Campbell: It started with the sin, you see — in other words, moving out of the mythological dreamtime zone of the Garden of Paradise, where there is no time, and where men and women don’t even know that they are different from each other. The two are just creatures. God and man are practically the same. God walks in the cool of the evening in the garden where they are. And then they eat the apple, the knowledge of the opposites.
And when they discover they are different, the man and woman cover their shame. You see, they had not thought of themselves as opposites. Male and female is one opposition. Another opposition is the human and God. Good and evil is a third opposition. The primary oppositions are the sexual and that between human beings and God. Then comes the idea of good and evil in the world. And so Adam and Eve have thrown themselves out of the Garden of Timeless Unity, you might say, just by that act of recognizing duality. To move out into the world, you have to act in terms of pairs of opposites.
There’s a Hindu image that shows a triangle, which is the Mother Goddess, and a dot in the center of the triangle, which is the energy of the transcendent entering the field of time. And then from this triangle there come pairs of triangles in all directions. Out of one comes two. All things in the field of time are pairs of opposites. So this is the shift of consciousness from the consciousness of identity to the consciousness of participation in duality. And then you are into the field of time.
Bill Moyers: Is the story trying to tell us that, prior to what happened in this Garden to destroy us, there was a unity of life?
Joseph Campbell: It’s a matter of planes of consciousness. It doesn’t have to do with anything that happened. There is the plane of consciousness where you can identify yourself with that which transcends pairs of opposites.
Bill Moyers: Which is?
Joseph Campbell: Unnameable. Unnameable. It is transcendent of all names.