By Alane D. Oestreicher, MLA

The Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis and the Golden Age story of

the Greek poet Hesiod are perhaps the two best-known accounts of a

primordial paradise. But the idea of an original, perfect society-one of

peace and plenty, devoid of disease or death, and in which humanity

communed freely with their God or gods-is found in many forms

around the globe. For all their variations in form and focus, these tradi-

tions relate remarkably similar circumstances.

Compare the Biblical account given in Genesis 2:8-10, 16, 17 with the

version penned by Hesiod (fl. 8th century B.C.):

At first the immortals who dwell on Olympus created a golden

race of mortal men. That was when Kronos was king of the sky,

and they lived like gods, carefree in their hearts, shielded from

pain and misery. Helpless old age did not exist, and with limbs

of unsagging vigor they enjoyed the delights of feasts, out of

evil's reach. A sleeplike death subdued them, and every good

thing was theirs; the barley-giving earth asked for no toil to

bring forth a rich and plentiful harvest. They knew no con-

straint and lived in peace and abundance as lords of their lands,

rich in flocks and dear to the blessed gods (lines 110-121).,

Just as in the Garden of Eden, Adam did not have to "toil" in order

to eat (Genesis 3:17). Foodstuffs seemingly grew of their own accord.

Adam and Eve were apparently meant to be immortal; the first mortals

of Greek mythology did not grow old, though they did eventually die.

And, as the Lord God could be found "walking in the garden in the cool

of the day" (Genesis 3:8), the "golden" men lived in close proximity to

the Olympian gods. Furthermore, in a striking parallel with the Biblical

story in which the first woman is held responsible for the Fall of mankind

(Genesis 3:10), a curious Pandora "with her hands removed the great lid

of the jar and scattered its contents, bringing grief and cares to men"

(lines 95, 96), hence putting an end to the Golden Age.

The Hebrew and Greek accounts are not alone in the literature of the

ancient Near East. Mesopotamian civilization and culture are considered

to have begun at Sumer, and the Sumerians had a paradise myth.

Composed in the 3rd or 2nd millennium B.C., it consists of an

unmistakable parallel with the Biblical account.2 Likewise, in ancient

Egypt, the theme of an original paradise was pervasive. "There was

plenty of food in the bellies of the people; there was no sin on the earth;

the crocodile did not seize prey, the serpent did not bite in the age of

the primeval gods"i-a time when men and gods lived together and man

was immortal.

This idea was not limited to the Near East. It is found in the earliest

traditions of the Far East as well. In China, the great Taoist teacher,

Kwang-tze (fl. 4th century B.C.), told of an ancient age when

Birds and beasts multiplied to flocks and herds; the grass and

trees grew luxuriant and long. In this condition the birds and

beasts might be led about without feeling the constraint; the

nest of the magpie might be climbed to, and peered into. Yes,

in the age of perfect virtue, men lived in common with birds

and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as

forming one family.... Equally without knowledge, they did not

leave (the path of) their natural virtue; equally free from de-

sires, they were in a state of pure simplicity. In that state ...

the nature of the people was what it ought to be.4

The "luxuriant" growth of plants is once again noted, and the willing

submission of animals to humans is reminiscent of the "dominion" Adam

was given over the animals. Kwang-tze further explained that it was the

excessive "practice of ceremonies" by "Sagely men" which caused

people "to be separated from one another." In other words, worship and

sacrifice were not necessary in the "age of perfect virtue," for man was

already at one with the Tao (the Way) and with his earthly fellow crea-

tures. As in the Garden of Eden, it was an unquenchable thirst for

knowledge that destroyed the tranquility-"Great indeed is the disorder

produced in the world by the love of knowledge" (Writings, p. 289). And

in at least one Chinese source it was a "woman, by an ambitious desire

of knowledge," that brought "misery" upon the human race.5

Meanwhile, in the jungles of ancient Mesoamerica, a similar account

was preserved:

And in this way they (the Creators and Makers) were filled

with joy, because they had found a beautiful land, full of plea-

sures.... There were foods of every kind.... They (the first

four men) were endowed with intelligence... they succeeded in

knowing all that there is in the world. When they looked,

instantly they saw all around them, and they contemplated in

turn the arch of heaven and the round face of the earth (Part 3,

pp. 166-168).'

This paradise, like the others, was filled with good things to eat.

But the predicament in which the gods found themselves-that the "created"

possessed knowledge and vision equaling that of the "creators"-was not

to be tolerated for long. Holding council, they resolved to remove these

powers from the realm of mankind (p. 169). This divine dilemma is

almost identical to the one described in Genesis 3:22. Later the first

Quichd women were formed while the men slept (p. 170).

These accounts of a primordial paradise are but a representative

sampling of those which survive. It can be demonstrated that the same

story is an integral part of tribal traditions in places as diverse as Africa,

Iceland, India, the Americas, and Australia.8

In our comparisons of the above accounts, many conditions were found

to be common to most or all of them. Food was always abundant and

animals had no fear of man. And man had no fear of God or gods, for he

lived not only with Him or them, but he lived as one himself, tasting of

neither infirmity nor death. But in every case this blissful state came to

an abrupt end, usually through human action.

Thus the primordial paradise, like the creation of the universe and

mankind, was a singular event in prehistory, and, as such, cannot be

verified by science. This is not to imply that a judicious application of

the scientific method of inquiry is of no value here.

Modern theories of mythology are many and complex, but they

ultimately fall into one of two categories-the myths are either judged to

contain historical truth or they do not. In the case of a primordial para-

dise, no contemporary mythologist seems willing even to allow for the

possibility that it might have been an actual state of human affairs at one

time. The idea is therefore hastily relegated to the status of pseudo-

history or allegory-symbolic means of explaining the "human condition"

or expressing the strivings of the human spirit. It then follows that its

nearly universal currency is due to one of two factors-either it was

everywhere borrowed from another culture (or inherited from an earlier

one) or, conversely, it independently arose the world over in obeisance

to the "psychological unity of mankind," that is, that all human beings in

the final analysis think alike.9

The reason for dismissing the Golden Age as fiction is, in fact, based

not so much on the laws of human nature as on presently accepted

theories of human origins. Evolutionary science claims that man has

risen from a primitive form, and has not fallen from a higher form at all.

But Darwinian evolution today has critics within its own ranks. And

evidence is mounting which proves that ancient civilizations in both

hemispheres were far more sophisticated than had been previously

believed. "Prehistoric" or "primordial" does not have to mean "primitive."

Appraising the paradise myth with regard to the above theories brings

to light numerous difficulties. Interpreted as pseudo-history, it should

come as a surprise that there are so many similar stories, for it seems

highly unlikely that people in Greece and Guatemala would invent the

same scenario in order to reconstruct their respective racial origins. And

to ask for "psychological unity" is, scientifically speaking, asking a lot.

If looked upon as an allegory, the same myth would be expected to

convey more or less the same message, for it would have been com-

posed with a specific purpose in mind. Yet we find that in each case the

,'moral" of the story is different, and that it appears in a different context

within each culture. Thus the Genesis version focuses on mankind's

separation from God, Hesiod is extolling the virtues of honest labor, and

Kwang-tze is condemning the prevailing social class structure. These

examples support the view that the tradition itself is of great antiquity

-and that its "truth" is more than poetic.

Some scholars have suggested that the story was diffused worldwide

from a single Sumerian source, either by direct of indirect borrowing.

But when the Sumerian "original" is placed side by side with its sup-

posed offspring, it is immediately evident that it does not contain all of

the elements central to the story. As it turns out, no single surviving

version contains all important features found in others. Furthermore, the

logistical problems of global distribution are great.

Historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, has supposed that the tradition of

a primordial paradise reflects a "nostalgia" for a mythical time when

heaven and earth were either closer together or actually connected,

facilitating direct communication between the gods and man. He ob-

serves that the shamans of Asia regularly engage in rituals devised to re-

store this "Paradisial life."10 In ancient Egypt, this sharp separation be-

tween divinity and humanity was considered "an irrevocable event." The

early Chinese expressed considerable regret that they "had no way by

which they might ... bring back their original condition." And in South

America, several Indian tribes still lament that they "no longer know the

route to this 'Happy Place.' "

In conclusion, if the idea of a primordial paradise originated in the

imagination of one individual or nation, one would simply not expect to

find it so firmly implanted in the minds and hearts of peoples everywhere.

After all, it is not only widely known, but widely belieued, and there is a

difference. This tradition has not been transmitted as an interesting tale

told by an exotic traveler; it has been preserved, without exception, as

the record of an actual historical time and place. The primordial paradise

is more memory than myth.


1. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Davs, Shield. Translated by A.N.

Athanassakis (1983).

2. J.B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the

Old Testament (1969). Translated by S.N. Kramer.

3. L. Kakosy, "Ideas About the Fallen State of the World in Egyptian Religion. Acts

Orientalia (1964), p. 206.

4. The Sacred Books of China. . Part 1. Translated by James Legge (1891).

5. T.W. Doane, Bible Afvths and Their Parallels in Other Religions (1948),

p. 14.

6. L. Spence The Myths of Mexico and Peru (1925), pp. 208, 209.

7. Popol Vuh.... Translated by Adridn Recinos (1950).

8. J. Ries, "The Fall," The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), pp. 256-258.

9. F.R. Tennant, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin

(1968), p. 22.

10. M. Eiiade, "The Yearning for Paradise in Primitive Tradition," Daedalus

(1959), p. 256.