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Monday, January 21, 2008

Beautiful Evil - Part the Second

In Marina Warner’s book Alone of all her Sex, each chapter is dedicated to one of the numerous roles that Mary assumes in Christian theology, including her symbolic function as the Second Eve. Mary, a virgin, was sanctified through her motherhood. There was no such glorification of woman’s creative power for women in the Old Testament. For them, as for Eve, childbirth, menstruation, and nursing were a duty, not a privilege. Motherhood was identified with nature, with the imperfect world of the flesh that keeps the human soul from attaining spiritual perfection. The feces and urine of childbirth epitomized the closeness of woman to all that is vile, lowly, corruptible and material; in the “curse” of her menstruation, she was likened to the beasts. Even the lure of her beauty was nothing but an aspect of death brought about by her seduction of Adam in the garden. St. John Chrysostom warned: “the whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food… If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulcher.” Chrysostom’s writings, which of all the works of the Ascetics had a particularly sallow view of women, were later used as support for priestly celibacy, but his condemnation extended to the universal human body.
The voice of God is the voice of man, a potent tool for social control. Religion does not only embody human belief, it reflects the attitudes, the moral and social codes of its adherents, and of the priests and scribes who interpret it. Those in power can reshape religious stories and societal myths in a way that preserves the existing social order. The early Catholic Church carefully cultivated a dual image of Eve as both mother and temptress. The evidence of this association is quite apparent in early iconography, in which the serpent is often depicted as a woman. This connection extends even to later artistic works: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling portrays Eve receiving fruit from a very muscular but feminine serpent.





An anonymous painting of the Immaculate Conception for the Burgundian Emperor Maximilien highlights Mary’s role as the Second Eve. In this painting both the serpent and Mary are given Eve’s likeness, reinforcing Mary’s ability to “reverse the curse” of Eve. The stigma of the evil that has been attributed to the female sexual organs is most striking in Paul Klee’s 1926 drawing Die Busche der Pandora als Stilleben. There is no doubt to the eye that the “jar” holding the flowers resembles a vagina, and the menacing vapors pouring from its mouth only reinforce the element of shameful darkness that has been used to justify the repression of women for millennia.
In comparing Eve to Pandora, it seems logical to begin with the motivation behind their respective creations. Pandora, the first human woman of Greek mythology, was created as a punishment for the wise and cunning Prometheus, who skillfully stole fire from Zeus with his phallic fennel stalk. In Hesiod’s Works and Days Zeus says: “Son of Japetos, there is none craftier than you, and you rejoice at tricking my wits and stealing the fire which will be a curse to you and to the generations that follow. The price for the stolen fire will be a gift of evil to charm the hearts of all men as they hug their own doom.” Pandora is thus an instrument of divine retribution, yet possesses the beguiling charm of a youthful virgin. Each god bequeaths to her a small gift; among the first are the voice , the power to move, and the face of an immortal goddess. Athena gives her the belt of a bride, and dresses her with robes of silver and a crown that rivals the shield of Achilles. Aphrodite gives her grace, desire and passion, but Hermes bestows the mind of a bitch and a thievish nature. The gods call her Pandora, which literally means “bitter gift of the gods”, or as Hesiod defines her, ‘a scourge for toiling men.’ This paradoxical combination of godlike and bestial traits is described in Greek with a playful turn of words, kalon kakon, or beautiful-evil.
Unlike Pandora, Eve was not created as a punishment for Adam, but was made to be a helper, a wife. Pandora is made from elemental Earth and Water, in obvious reference to Gaia and Uranus, but Eve is derived from Adam’s rib, an image of inferiority that feminists ironically embraced through the magazine entitled Spare Rib. This almost comical creation story echoed in the heads of ancient rabbis who sniggering equated women’s ‘foul smell’ with their origin in ‘putrefying bone’. Another interesting commentary on Eve’s creation is the 1106 Duomo carving of Wiligelmo’s Creation of Adam and Eve , in which Adam is depicted with a bulging pregnant stomach, genitals conveniently tucked out of sight.

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