VITAL ARTICLES ON SCIENCE\CREATION
No. 192- WORLDWIDE TRADITIONS OF A PRIMORDIAL PARADISE
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
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
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,
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.
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),
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.