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Same old soap


Playing yet another game of online hopscotch, which this time started with the Douglas Adams book The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, I just found myself reading the Wikipedia article on the Greek mythological figure Persephone (rhymes with ‘telephony’). And there was something strangely familiar about her tale of woe (I’ve removed one or two extraneous words and bits of punctuation, but 99% of the text’s the same):

Zeus permitted Hades, who was in love with the beautiful Persephone, to carry her off, as her mother Demeter was not likely to allow her daughter to go down to Hades. Persephone was gathering flowers with the Oceanids along with Artemis and Athena in a field when Hades came to abduct her, bursting through a cleft in the earth.

Demeter, when she found her daughter had disappeared, searched for her all over the earth with Hecate’s torches. She forbade the earth to produce, neglected the earth and in the depth of her despair caused nothing to grow.

Helios the sun, who sees everything, eventually told Demeter what had happened and at length she discovered the place of her abode. Finally, Zeus, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, forced Hades to return Persephone.

Hades complied with the request, but first he tricked her, giving her some pomegranate seeds to eat. Persephone was released by Hermes, who had been sent to retrieve her, but because she had tasted food in the underworld she was obliged to spend a third of each year (the winter months) there, and the remaining part of the year with the gods above.

Replace the mystical Olympian names and settings with ones from Dallas or some other modern soap opera, and you can hardly tell the difference. The plot’s as outrageously improbable as any of the stuff that keeps millions of today’s TV viewers hooked. Yet a few thousand years ago this was how most people (at least in the Hellenic world) actually thought the universe worked. Persephone’s fate ‘explained’ why the flora all round them budded, blossomed and withered, year after year. Archimedes of Syracuse (see my earlier post The man who moved the earth in his mind) may have thought differently, but if so I expect he kept it to himself.

Why are religions full of such stuff? Why do they expect us to believe the literally unbelievable – and punish us if we refuse to, or if we use our intelligence to challenge their claims? Why do they tell us, in effect, ‘Don’t think too much, or God will be cross’?

To take a case in point, what exactly was the purpose of the biblical temptation myth – the one about Eve, the snake and the forbidden fruit?

All three of these elements were surely chosen very carefully by whoever wrote the screenplay. Eve – the woman (get it?) – was briefly out of her man’s sight (I won’t say ‘her husband’s sight’, as I can’t find any evidence they were lawfully married), and she instantly got up to mischief. Rather than acknowledge ‘man’s dominion’ over the beasts of the field, she took advice from one – and yes, it was a snake (get it?). Finally, for reasons best known to himself, God had decreed that one of the fruits he himself had created was never to be eaten: the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

I remember reading this as a child and wondering, even then, what could possibly be wrong with such knowledge – so wrong that the fruit of that tree should be forbidden fruit (now, incidentally, the name of one of Belgium’s best-known specialty beers!). Since the Christian churches put so much emphasis on good and evil, and above all their supposed monopoly on knowledge of which is which, I just couldn’t see what God’s problem with the fruit was – except (but this only occurred to me later) that eating it, and acquiring such knowledge, would effectively make him superfluous to requirements.

And why put such a tempting thing in full view of Adam and Eve, then sit around waiting to pounce on them if they couldn’t resist eating it? That’s plain sadistic. How about not creating it in the first place, and simply letting Adam and Eve get on with their blissful lives in Eden? There was no need for the initial temptation, or the ensuing punishment and above all the ensuing sense of guilt. But all these were deliberately written into the story.

In modern terms this is a clear case of entrapment, like when police officers are deliberately sent out in civilian clothing to tempt people into minor criminal acts (e.g. by offering to buy dope from them or, as pop star George Michael found out to his cost, seeming to want sex with them) – and then whip out their police badges and bust them (sometimes before even zipping up their trousers, just in case things get out of hand and they end up as accessories rather than law enforcers).

At least in the more civilised jurisdictions, entrapment is against the law – for it creates conditions conducive to crime that would not otherwise have existed.

So I really don’t see why God should get away with it. Perhaps it’s time for a class-action suit. Not sure if it would be prevented by some statute of limitations, since it’s been going on for so long – but, given the widespread damage caused to so many innocent people and the fact the offence is still being committed on a daily basis, I would hope not. Of course, the defendant would by definition have to be tried in absentia – or do I mean post mortem? – but that should be no obstacle. And it would surely send a powerful signal that we don’t have to put up with all this nonsense any more.

For nonsense is what it is – as nonsensical as the storyline of Dallas, or the myth of Persephone.

It’s the same old soap, and – to quote the bible, which (if nothing else) has enriched the English language, and many others, with some wonderful expressions – we should wash our hands of it.


From → Religion, Society

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