The history of Christianity is often the history of doctrinal dispute, arguments about what the Church should or should not believe. This history is often framed as if the Church fell into division after existing an original “pure” form, yet historically no such a pure form can be found to have existed. Like most social […]
According to one early Christian legend written no later than the 300s ce, the first rape in the history of the world was of Eve. She goes on to bear her attackers’ children, who inherit the corrupt nature of their fathers but also carry inside themselves the redemptive light of the world. This is a story with a happy ending. Eventually, Eve comes to love and be loved by an equal, and evil is thrown back into the abyss, freeing the children of the light to ascend to heaven.
Ever since I first encountered this story, On the Origin of the World, I’ve wanted to share it with as many people as possible, but it’s a tough one to introduce without help. Think of approaching it like you would John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel. Gardner pulls off a clever reversal by telling the story from the bad guy’s point-of-view, but it’s hard to appreciate if you haven’t first read the Anglo-Saxon original, Beowulf. In the same way, modern readers of On the Origin of the World are likely to miss just how clever this story is if they don’t know something about Jewish folklore.
You can find a translation of On the Origin of the World online from the Gnostic Society Library. For more context and a summary of the best bits, read on.
Demons and Fallen Angels
Dark Mirrors (2012) and Divine Scapegoats (2015), both by Andrei A. Orlov, offer a joint introduction to fallen angels, demonology, and evil in Jewish folklore. Why does evil exist? Why do we suffer and die? These are common questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Orlov’s exploration of these themes in non-traditional texts offers an opportunity for us to see the diversity of ancient ideas about it. Although beginners are likely to find the books overwhelming in detail, I recommend Orlov to intermediate and advanced students of Jewish and Christian history for his empathetic approach to stories that may seem strange and even nonsensical at first glance.
Especially intriguing is the notion that in the Hebraic universe (and related cosmologies), evil gains power through imitating the good. Rebel beings can wreak havoc on the universe by stealing from the divine. So, for example, the demons structure their realm on the angelic realm in order to steal power from it—and it works. According to Orlov,
In this inverse correspondence, one character literally takes the place of his opponent by acquiring the peculiar attributes and conditions of his counterpart. Some of these correlations stem from early biblical priestly patterns in which positive and negative actors of the cultic drama were portrayed symmetrically. (Divine Scapegoats, 2).
Think of how propaganda works. It’s fair to say propaganda influences public opinion by framing things in a way that seems good and right, regardless of what’s actually happening on the ground. Not too long ago, I shared some lessons from the work of 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Svetlana Alexievich. In her book Voices from Chernobyl, again and again Alexievich’s interviewees point to the gap between their experience and the rhetoric floating around them. Cameraman Sergei Gurin admits with embarrassment that his entire time in Chernobyl was spent filming the wrong things because he had an instinct to shoot images of what was “appropriate”:
Everywhere you went, people would say, “Ah, movie people. Hold on, we’ll find you some heroes.” And they’d produce an old man and his grandson who spent two days chasing cows off from right near Chernobyl. After the shoot the livestock specialist calls me over to a giant pit, where they’re burying the cows with a bulldozer. But it didn’t even occur to me to shoot that. I turned my back on the pit and shot the scene in the great tradition of our patriotic documentaries: the bulldozer drivers are reading Pravda, the headline in huge block letters: “The nation will not abandon those in trouble!” I even got lucky: a stork landed in a field across from me one day. A symbol! No matter what catastrophes befall us, we will triumph! Life goes on! (106)
This same mentality rules the demonic beings of Hebraic legend. They recreate what they instinctively know is the “right” order of things, and they believe in it even as evidence shows that it’s not working for them. But perhaps this is not so strange. There’s a certain power in asserting the narrative that says, “We are in control. We will overcome this disaster.” As the old truism has it, we have to believe something in order achieve it. It’s just not the power of truth, more like the power of influence. Evil beings in the Hebraic universe are doomed to the abyss in the end—and often seem know it!—but in the meantime they go on skewing the cosmos through imitation.
… in the Hebraic universe, evil gains power through imitating the good.
In the Apocalypse of Abraham, the fallen angel Azazel takes on the deposit of human sins like a garment. Meanwhile, Abraham takes his angelic robes. This is a concrete way of saying Abraham replaces Azazel. A similar story appears in Zechariah 3:1–5:
Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by. (NRSV)
As Orlov observes, “Although in Zechariah’s account, unlike in the Slavonic apocalypse, the human’s filthy clothes are not transferred to the demonic creature, the ritual of Satan’s cursing might suggest that the antagonist becomes the recipient of Joshua’s vestments of impurity” (22).
In other words, the mirroring happens both ways. Evil beings can steal power from the divine through imitation, but the divine can also condemn and render powerless evil beings by ritually burdening them with curses. Eventually the tide will turn against evil and the demons, including fallen angels, eventually will be thrown into “the abyss.”
Themes present in On the Origin of the World:
- Evil gets its power from imitating the good/divine.
- The good/divine can steal power back through imitation, often involving clever swaps and trickery.
- Human beings sometimes serve as the vehicle for stealing back power from evil beings.
Lilith, Mother of Demons
I haven’t personally read any book-length studies of Lilith, so I won’t recommend one here, but Janet Howe Gaines published a detailed article about her in Bible Review back in October 2001 which you can read here. Lilith has a long history in Mesopotamian religions, as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, where she appears as a demoness whom Gilgamesh chases into the desert. Since then, she has appeared in numerous stories and legends associated with wilderness. She even gets a mention in the Bible, Isaiah 34:14: “Wildcats shall meet hyenas, / Goat-demons shall greet each other; / There too the lilith shall repose.” As Gaines observes, “The Lilith demon was apparently so well known to Isaiah’s audience that no explanation of her identity was necessary.”
Lilith came to be associated both with fertility (she was said to have 100 children every day!) and with infant mortality (she devours children). Families would buy and make amulets to ward her away from their babies. Hence, much like other ancient feminine divine figures, such as Tiamat, she is associated with creativity but also chaos and death.
Much later in Judeo-Christian tradition (long after On the Origin of the World was written), medieval tales coupled Samael and Lilith as the divine rulers of the demonic world (Orlov, 300n8). Another late tale portrays Lilith as Adam’s first wife, before Eve. Lilith becomes angry because Adam wants her to lie on her back and “submissively perform her wifely duties” and in her escalating outrage speaks the name of God out loud. This gives her the power of flight, but it also reveals her “unworthiness to reside in paradise,” as Gaines puts it. Now a demon, Lilith takes up residence in the Red Sea and devours children for revenge.
The much earlier text of On the Origin of the World betrays hints of these later developments, especially the idea that Adam had two wives. For all we know, On the Origin of the World may even have inspired some of the medieval stories.
Themes present in On the Origin of the World:
- Childbirth, both its good and dangerous aspects, is associated with demonic forces.
- Lilith is associated with the wilderness, which is also where paradise was believe to be located.
- Lilith interacts with both divine and demonic powers, as does Eve in On the Origin of the World.
- Medieval stories of Lilith inventively reassigned her roles in the Hebrew mythology, including specifically with Eve, with both positive and negative associations.
Adam and Eve
Many of us grew up hearing the story of Adam and Eve, so I’ll limit this to a refresher on a few aspects of the story that are easy to miss.
There are two versions of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. The version of the story in Genesis 1:26–31 is a simple formula: God creates humankind, male and female, and blesses them. The version in Genesis 2:4b–25 is the more elaborate version involving Adam’s rib. The two versions create a gap that seems to imply Eve was created twice, opening up the possibility for later readers to invent an explanation. Was Eve created immediately after Adam, or was she created sometime later from Adam’s rib while he slept? This ambiguity plays a crucial role in On the Origin of the World.
In the biblical version of events, when Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, they do so against God’s command. The serpent who convinces them to do it is punished. Although the serpent is often associated with Satan in later Judeo-Christian mythology, this is not suggested in the original story. The humans are punished, cast out of the garden, and forced to work to survive from that time onward. The curse on Eve involves difficulty in childbirth.
The Story of Eve in On the Origin of the World
The Eve found in On the Origin of the World exists in a shadowy place built in imitation of the divine world of light and goodness. This shadow world is ruled by a demonic, lion-like being named Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth believes he is the highest power, not realizing there is a greater world beyond his own. His ignorance betrays a glimmering of awareness, however: he craves a world that replicates the world he can’t see. Offered occasional glimpses of it in the waters of chaos, he begins to recreate what he sees.
Yaldabaoth begins by birthing seven sons—princes of darkness, each of whom creates his own pantheon of demonic children and servants. But when Yaldabaoth proclaims to his new assembly, “I am God; there is no other like me,” the unseen immortal voice of wisdom cries out from above, “You are wrong, blind god! An immortal human will come and throw you into the abyss!”
Most of the princes disregard this warning, but one, Sabaoth, repents of his father’s claim and is granted wisdom from the higher powers. He comes to hate his father, darkness, and his mother, the abyss. He turns against them only to be surrounded on all sides by his fellow princes and powers of darkness. Confined to the seventh heaven, he builds an elaborate mansion and throne decorated with lions, bulls, humans, and eagles. Interestingly enough, he even has a chorus of serpents. With the guidance of a being called Sophia Zoe, whose name suggests she is a divine form of Eve (“Zoe” and “Eve” both mean “life”), Sabaoth creates models (proxies) of beings from the world of light, including Jesus and Mary, that will be used later to trick and overthrow the demonic powers.
Meanwhile Yaldabaoth, angered by the rebellion of his son Sabaoth, births a new son—Death. This son takes Sabaoth’s old spot in the demonic pantheon. Death births male and female demons of envy, lust, sighs, curses, bitterness, and strife. Not to be outdone, Sophia Zoe counters him with angelic powers of joy, blessedness, truth, love, and peace to bring forth new and good spirits.
A beam of light shoots down from the kingdoms above, straight through all the levels of the demonic world, and strikes the earth. A vision appears within—a man, likely Jesus although he isn’t named. By now all the other demonic powers have realized that Yaldabaoth is not the highest being in the cosmos, and they laugh at him. The vision in the beam of light arouses Yaldabaoth’s feminine consort Pronoia, who births the earth, plants, animals, and a whole wealth of life including paradise.
Eve makes her entrance around this time, albeit with less grandeur. She comes to earth as a drop of light falling into pure water. She has the power to create without the help of another being, and she bears a child called Beast, who goes unnoticed by the powers of darkness.
Eve … comes to earth as a drop of light falling into pure water.
Yaldabaoth and his lackeys, worried about the human vision from the beam of light, decide to mold a figure in his image. They intend to trap him by making him fall in love with it, in hopes that they can lure him into the model. What they don’t realize is that this all plays into a plan already set into motion by the higher powers. The birth of the human one will eventually send the powers of darkness into the abyss for good.
This proto-Adam is a sorry sight. Like a golem, he exist only as bare life with no independent thoughts or desires. Worse, he can’t even get up or move. He is, in the words of the original, nothing more than an “aborted fetus” of demons. When the demons aren’t looking, wisdom breathes a soul into Adam, giving him the power to say defiantly to his makers, “I have come to destroy your work.” Yet because he still can barely move, Yaldabaoth and the rest mock him and ignore him.
Up in seventh heaven, Sabaoth and his hosts, relieved, take a day of rest, confident now that their plan will succeed.
When Eve discovers the man Adam lying on the ground, she takes pity on him. “Get up!” she says—and he does! He says of her, “You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living.’ For it is you who have given me life.” Although he calls her mother, he doesn’t love her, at least not yet.
When the evil powers realize a being of light is with Adam and is helping him, they plot to rob her of the purity that would allow her to return to her higher world above. Suspicious that Adam will not be loyal to them, they put him into a deep sleep to prevent his interference. Eve laughs at them, knowing herself to be more powerful than they are. She leaves her “likeness” (her body? a proxy?) beside Adam and flees to safety in the Tree of Knowledge.
The evil powers seize Eve’s likeness and rape her “in foul ways.” Through this terrible act, children are born as part of a divine plan to house the “light” or goodness from heaven in these corrupt bodies of Yaldabaoth’s shadow world, eventually to overcome it. Like an army infiltrating the enemy camp, human beings begin here in a dark and uncertain place. The powers offer Adam and Eve false freedom: eat of any tree in the garden save one. “If you eat of the Tree of Knowledge, you will surely die.”
Beast, Eve’s forgotten child, comes into the garden in the form of a serpent and offers Eve’s likeness counsel. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “They threatened you out of jealousy, not concern. Eat of this tree and you’ll gain wisdom, become like the gods.”
Here the story follows the Genesis tale. The humans become ashamed of their nakedness and, when confronted by the evil powers, are punished with curses for their transgression, but it’s too late for the powers to do anything about it except place guards around the trees. The humans have now wised up to their corrupt world.
But there’s one new, all-important detail: The moment Adam and Eve obtained wisdom is the moment they fell in love.
The Children of Rape
As an adoptive parent, I was particularly struck in this story by the role of the children born from the rape of Eve. On the one hand, we’re told their bodies are part of a corrupt shadow-world. They are, to put it unkindly, children of demons. On the other hand, they are vital participants in a divine plan to overthrow evil and ignorance. Within them is one small piece of the world of light. We never hear how Eve feels about these children, or how they feel about themselves, but it’s possible that the answer is simply “the human condition.”
Rape in modern culture carries with it an urgent, silencing force. To speak risks stigma, pity and uncertainty, not to mention disbelief. So I find it stunning and yet strangely appropriate that On the Origin of the World roots every human being’s personal moral struggle in this original act of rape. One could call it the feminine counterpart of Cain and Abel.
We never hear how Eve feels about these children, or how they feel about themselves, but it’s possible that the answer is simply “the human condition.”
I don’t “believe in” this story any more than I “believe in” Beowulf or The Odyssey or Gilgamesh. But the story says something real about what it means to be human. None of us likes to admit our dark moments as victims or perpetrators of violence. I don’t know about you, but the reality that we are vulnerable to both roles scares me to death. Here’s a story that is honest about that, while remaining optimistic that good will prevail—not by ignoring the shadow world but by lighting it up from within.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.
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