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.