After the fall

Let me tell you a story.  It’s a good story, I think – funny and sad and sweet.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin…

Once upon a time, there was the Earth, and the Moon and the Sun.  And on those three heavenly bodies, humans walked.  But not the sort of humans we know today.  Like the Earth and the Moon and the Sun that had given them life, these humans were spherical.  Unlike the Earth and the Moon and the Sun, they were made up of two equal halves.

On the Earth, which was the home of all things feminine, each half of each sphere was female, and the whole sphere was female.  And on the Sun, which was the home of all things masculine, each half of each sphere was male, and the whole sphere was male.  But on the Moon, which had been born of the Earth, but was halfway to the Sun, half of each sphere was male, and half was female, and the whole sphere was hermaphrodite.

And because each sphere was made up of two equal halves, no sphere was ever lonely, or sad, or unhappy.  They lived their lives filled with ease, and joy, and firmness of purpose.

But Zeus, the King of the Gods, grew jealous of the humans, because with their ease and comfort and firmness of purpose they began to believe they were Gods themselves.  And, determined to humble their pride, Zeus took a knife and divided each sphere in two, and reshaped each orphaned half so that it could stand alone.  After he had finished his grisly work, there were only two sexes – male and female – and each of them had the shape that we know today.  And Zeus tossed them all onto the Earth, and stirred them up to such chaos that no-one could tell which former halves had belonged together.

The humans no longer thought they were Gods.  In fact, they no longer knew what they were, except that they were alone, and they were sad, and they longed for things to go back to the way they’d always been.

But Zeus was satisfied with his work.  The humans were now so preoccupied with searching endlessly for their former soul mates that they no longer had time for pride, or joy, or firmness of purpose.  Zeus sat resplendent in majesty on top of Mount Olympus, and knew that once again his power was supreme.

But even at that great, dizzy, height, Zeus could hear the noise coming from the humans below – the weeping, and crying, and wailing.  And the humans’ unhappiness grew louder still when they realised that, even if by some miracle of luck they found each other, the two former hemispheres could never join together again.  All they could do was sit opposite each other and weep for the happiness they had lost.

Looking down at the humans, and the misery he had sown amongst them, even Zeus was moved to pity.  He resolved that henceforth, when two former hemispheres met each other, they would be united by love.  So that the humans would never forget the hard lesson he had taught them, Zeus ensured that none of them would ever know again the perfect joy of an endless physical and mental union, but only a pale imitation of it, enough to remind them of what they had lost.  But even this was better than nothing.  The humans had discovered a new purpose in life – the search for love.

And that search was carried out according to the personal histories of each of the humans.  So, men who had come from the Sun searched for another man to love, because that was who they’d been separated from.  And women who had come from the Earth searched for another woman to love, because that was who they had been separated from.  And men and women who had come from the Moon searched for someone of the opposite sex to love, because that was what they were lacking.

The chaos that Zeus had created didn’t go away.  Humans might find themselves continents away from their opposite hemisphere, and no way ever to find each other.  Even if they thought they had met each other, there was no way to be sure if they were right, except to try it and see.  And that is why the world today is so full of people who think they’ve fallen in love, only to split apart later, when they realise they haven’t met the right person yet.

But sometimes, just sometimes, luck, or fate, or serendipity work their magic, and two people meet, and recognise each other, and fall forever in love.  And when that happens, they introduce themselves to other people by saying,

‘And this is my other half…’


Well, I hope you liked that story, but it’s not mine (although I have adapted it quite freely).  It appears in one of Plato‘s most famous works, the Symposium.  If you want to read the original (in a fairly dull translation) you can find it here – if you do a search on the page itself ( press [Ctrl] and [F] ) for the word ‘professed’, that will take you straight to the start of the relevant section.  Exact dating of the Symposium is difficult, but it was written in the first half of the fourth century BC.  That means the story is at least 2,350 years old, and possibly older.

Obviously, I don’t think it’s true, but, as myths go, I rather like it.  It provides a neat explanation for love (which is the topic of the Symposium), and also for hetero- and homo- sexuality.  I even reckon you could make a case for it explaining transexualism as well; maybe when it came to cutting up the folk from the Moon, Zeus didn’t always cut quite straight, and some of the hemispheres were left with a brain belonging to one sex and genitals to the other.  It doesn’t really account for bisexuality – but then again, it’s only a myth, so it doesn’t actually have to be anything except a nice story.

Among the other things it is, this story is a lapsarian myth – that is to say, a story about a former state of bliss which was brought to an end by a terrible event.  As with most lapsarian myths, the ‘fall’ resulting from the terrible event is the explanation for why the contemporary world is so far from perfect.

In Judeo-Christian culture, the most famous lapsarian myth is the story about Adam, Eve, the Apple, and the banishment from the Garden of Eden.  Within Christian culture, at least (I don’t know much about Jewish interpretations of it), the fall has come to be associated almost exclusively with sexuality.  After they had eaten the Apple, Adam and Eve became aware of their sexuality (which is why they became ashamed of their nakedness), and it was this ‘sinful’ knowledge that supposedly led to their expulsion from paradise.  In other words, all of the bad things in this world – death, hunger, disease, cruelty, etc – are supposedly the result of sexuality.

Speaking as an atheist, this view of the world bemuses me.  Sex is so obviously a celebratory, life-affirming thing that to label it as evil seems to me to be positively perverse.  All of the consequences that have followed on from that labelling seem to me to be equally perverse – the licensing of a specific, narrowly-defined form of sexuality by means of marriage; the hatred poured out over any alternative form of sexual self-expression; the attempt to restrict women’s rights to control their own bodies; and so on.

I think it’s probably because it’s an antidote to those kind of attitudes that I’m attracted to the story I re-told above.  In it, sexuality isn’t the cause of the fall (not that I really believe there ever was a fall).  Instead, it’s part of the solution, a way to repair the damage, a way to put right what’s wrong with the world.  And it’s a broad definition of sexuality, too, one that explicitly encompasses at least some of the breadth of human diversity.  It doesn’t try to squeeze every human being into a one-size-fits-all box.

Yes, all in all, I really like this story.

But it’s still just a story.

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13 Responses to After the fall

  1. Lucy McGough says:

    I like this story.

    Speaking as a Catholic, as far as I know we have nothing against sex and Adam and Eve were NOT chucked out for having sex but for some other sin – knowledge of good and evil, I think. In ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton says they had sex all the time BEFORE the fall.

    Ahem. Thanks for the story, Aethelread. I hope I find my missing hemisphere one day. Dunno what gender I’m looking for, even, but apparently I’ll know him/her when I see him/her – romantic movies wouldn’t lie to me, right?

  2. cellar_door says:

    Nice story :o) I wonder if Mr Door knows he’s a hemisphere…

  3. Lucy McGough says:

    …hopefully he won’t think you’re dropping hints about his avoirdupois! :D

  4. cellar_door says:

    Hehe! He is a bit paranoid about his love handles… :o)

  5. Alex says:

    It’s a nice story, and you’re right about the sex thing. My favourite bit of mythology involves Narcissus, though, for obvious reasons… >_>
    That being said, I do like Greek mythology, and the various trickster gods like Papa Legba and Loki, because I like the idea that if there are gods, they’re every bit as violent, sex-obsessed (lookin’ at you, Zeus), dishonest and petty as mortals, if not more so. It makes an enjoyable counterpoint to the idea of a benevolent old fucker smiling benignly down from the clouds.
    Re: catholicism not having a problem with sex, I was under the impression that sex was supposed to be a man+woman in the context of marriage thing, and with none of that artificial contraception lark for one reason. ;)

  6. Lucy McGough says:

    I thought it was the embryos that were sacred, not the sperm, because embryos have human souls. We don’t like contraception because we think that sex should be open to the possibility of creating new life. Also, we like kids. (Although not as many as that bloke in the video had.)

    That was quite an amusing video, but it made me feel uncomfortable because it is negative stereotyping of Catholics.

    However, it’s a free country (thank God!). And it would be a funny world if we were all alike. And I guess nobody knows 100% what the truth about life and death and the soul is.


    BTW, my favourite classical gods are Artemis and Athene. Artemis is part of a triple goddess too – more power to her elbow! Let’s hear it for the strong, powerful Greek goddesses – nobody dared to mess with them.

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for all the comments. Oh, and can I just say, I like the way you’ve started talking to each other, as well as to me – definitely a big fan of that! (So long as it stay friendly, of course – I don’t want this turning into another Mental Nurse…) :o) Oh, and it means i’m going to list you all in the order you first commented, even if I mainly talk about something you said in a later comment.

    Lucy McGough – the Monty Python film (‘Meaning of Life’) that Alex linked to a section of isn’t really anti-catholic. It’s pretty much anti-everyone, to be honest… ;o) The Monty Python team aren’t big fans of religion (i would guess you’ve heard of (if you haven’t seen) ‘Life of Brian’), but it’s more the hypocrisy of the various religious establishemnts they object to than personal faith.

    I thought it was the embryos that were sacred, not the sperm, because embryos have human souls.

    From my perspective, that does seem a little strange. An embryo without a spem isn’t human, after all – it takes both of them together to make a person – so it seems strange that only one half is thought to have a ‘soul’ before they’ve joined together. To be honest, i worry that this is an example of the Catholic church trying to excercise more control over what women do with their bodies than they do over men, and that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

    We don’t like contraception because we think that sex should be open to the possibility of creating new life.

    I have a problem with this because, by definition, homosexual sex can never be open to the possibility of creating new life. In fact, this is a fairly standard part of religious arguments against ‘allowing’ homosexuality in the first place. (My take on the matter, btw, is that sex is about an expression of love and desire, and reproduction is just an optional extra for some.)

    I do realise, though, that you’re not the Catholic hierarchy yourself – your approving link to my post about the Daily Mail story proves that – and I certainly don’t hold you personally responsible for everything the catholic church does and says. :o)

    cellar_door – well, i don’t know about Mr Door, but i’m pretty much determined to become hemispherical myself… ;o)

    Alex – hmmm, i’ve never really thought about having a favourite Greek god. I’m not sure i know enough about them to have a favourite, to be honest. (My knowledge of the classics is very hazy, i’m afraid.) I do quite like the way they spent a lot of their time shagging, though… ;o)

    Oh, and i agree with Lucy about strong female gods – there should definitely be more of them. :o)

  8. loopykate says:

    Likewise the original Christian Lapsarian ‘myth’ was less about sexuality than self-knowledge – self-consciousness which made humanity succeptible to doubt and self-determination. However, it became increasingly ‘sexualised’ in recent history reaching a puritanical and prurient frenzy in the last 150 years with the Church becoming ever more involved in intervening with and regulating (not to mention prohibiting) people’s private lives.
    It’s amusing how some folk interpret these ‘myths’. I still laugh at how my (deceased) Grandmother (a very devout Methodist) would chastise my brother and myself for cavorting about the house naked when very young. This, apparently was ‘forbidden’ and that was ‘why God gave Adam and Eve fig-leaves’.
    Obviously 60 years of bible-classes and regular church going had done nothing to challenge (or perhaps reinforced?) her own prudish prejudices and hang-ups!
    The Platonic myth – never sure whether this makes me feel hopeful or eternally condemned!

  9. Lucy McGough says:

    Thanks for being so understanding, Aethelread :-)

  10. Katherine says:

    The sperm were considered sacred in Greek society because they did not understand about ova and thought that the sperm was the seed of new life complete in itself. (‘to spermon’ is Greek for seed of any kind: wheat, people, you name it)
    Then in the Middle Ages the concept of the homonculus was promulgated. The word homonculus is Latin for ‘little man.’ It was believed that the sperm had, quite literally, a little tiny human body inside it that would plant itself in the womb and grow into a baby. This was theorized to account for the resemblances between parents and their offspring.
    The homonculus theory was not successfully disposed until the work Leeuwenhoek, one of the main progenitors of the modern microscope, in the 1700’s. He was the first to observe live sperm microscopically. Prior to that, no one realised that millions of individual sperm were alive inside a man’s ejaculate. Believing that each sperm must contain a soul in readiness for growing into a baby, the scientific community reeled at the profligacy of God in allowing all these souls to be made only to die. This spurred further investigation and the development of modern gynaecology, whereupon it was realised that both a sperm and an ovum were needed for the creation of life and, thus, that sperm itself was not alive in a soul-having, human sense.
    The belief that the sperm itself contained human life already sacred and ensouled was extremely common in the ancient world across cultures. Cp. the story of Onan in the Old Testament, long given as the reason behind the injunction against masturbation and contraception. Indeed, masturbation used to be called Onanism.
    I love that story from the Symposium, especially the description of the eight-limbed pre-lapsarian humans rolling around and then the very moving original result of finding one’s soulmate. The poor creatures, throwing their arms around each other and forgetting to find food and perishing, such was the pain of separation. It’s a fun explanation for why the gods would invent sex.
    Sorry, this comment has turned into a mini-lecture…

  11. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Katherine – there’s nothing wrong with a lecture! :o)

  12. Lucy McGough says:

    I liked reading the ‘lecture.’

  13. Katherine says:

    Good! My favorite is Artemis, by the bye, and favorite myth is Actaeon and the Stag. He fully deserved it…

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