VARDIS FISHER'S "TESTAMENT OF MAN"
Intimations of Eve
INTIMATIONS OF EVE The Vanguard Press, New York, 1946 (331 pages)
The third and fourth novels of the Testament of Man follow a trend in anthropological thinking which became increasingly popular throughout the course of the 20th century: that much of human society passed through a long matriarchal phase in which women and their values dominated because of their perceived special powers and roles. They alone were "vessels of birth"; the role of the male was not yet understood. Their instincts for nurturing and maintaining home and family were of greater significance to the evolutionary process than were male instincts. This produced a psychological advantage which gave women most power in society. Their ideas and values became its ‘mores.’ The important tasks were their privilege. They planted crops, used magic to heal and bring fertilizing rain, conducted ritual to deal with the spirits of the dead and the spirits inhabiting all of nature. And because of the correlation between the female menstrual cycle and the cycle of the moon, the moon became a Woman, the dominant spirit controlling all the patterns of life.
This matriarchal theory is still in contention with more traditional theories based on economic factors: that men, as hunters and providers of food, held the more important position, that being wielders of weapons and aggressors in the hunt, they brought these instincts into play in dominating women. Some anthropologists compromise by postulating a mild matriarchal phase of a few millennia following the decline of hunting and the rise of agriculture (men’s importance giving way to women’s importance). There is also a degree of uncertainty as to the relative roles of the Moon and the Earth in the worship of the "mother-goddess" which some see as the first and almost universal religion, beginning in the Ice Age and extending to the advent of cities and patriarchy.
Intimations of Eve is set just after the last Ice Age. People live in small communities in the forest, using modest agriculture. The power of women is still on the ascendant. The Moon is the guardian of rain, fertility, birth, an ominous, unpredictable spirit whose periodic wrath they all live under. But she bestows special powers upon those of her sex. And these powers are needed, for the world is full of dreadful spirits, the invisible ghosts of the dead. All are malicious and must be guarded against; they can enter the body through its openings. They cause sickness, barrenness in women, accidents and failures in human endeavors. Only certain women hold the power and lore to propitiate these spirits and to intercede with the Moon Woman.
Raven, the hunter of the little clan, represents the male whose ego and sense of worth are frustrated. He chafes under the strong-willed authority of the old grandmother and the general ill-treatment the women tend to accord the men. Fisher’s portrayal of the relations between the sexes throughout the prehistoric novels is based partly upon the psychological advantage women enjoyed which created matriarchy, but also upon differences in instinct and personality. He portrays the female as more practical, selfless, attuned to racial needs and understandings. She possesses a greater depth of spirit. The male, on the other hand, he portrays as more egotistic, mystically minded and innovative, especially—for good and ill—in the realm of ideas. He possesses greater skill in handling symbols and abstractions. The power struggle between the sexes, together with their fundamental differences, fuel the entire Testament, not only in relationships between the characters but in the development of history’s concepts and institutions.
Fisher sees philosophy and religion as the product of the male mind. Its most primitive beginnings are personified in Raven. Raven develops the amulet as a symbolic protection against the invasion of spirits into his body. (The women see no practical sense in this device.) He comes up with the brilliant speculation that the Moon was the "first woman," who ascended to the sky in order to watch over her progeny. (As such, she becomes the idealization of the Mother figure.) He makes another leap of thought—crucial for the future—when he becomes convinced that spirits cause the misfortunes they do because they have been "offended" by certain individuals’ behavior. Thus is planted the seed of the ideas of sin and conscience, of the need for individual moral responsibility for the good of the society. Yet Raven, though he may be a prophet, still lacks the self-confidence necessary to overthrow the resented supremacy of the other sex. That begins in the next novel.
Intimations of Eve and its successor are about subtle conditions and processes, and as such contain less dramatic action than the first two. But there are moving and memorable scenes, and as usual Fisher’s powers of evocation are stunning. During a terrifying eclipse of the moon, Raven’s little community goes berserk, shooting arrows at the monster that is swallowing the Woman, hurling stones and blood at the sky. The retreat of the monster under the onslaught of the family matriarch’s magic confirms for Raven the awesome power of the female. In another arresting scene, when rain for the crops has been successfully summoned, the women dance in the downpour, each exulting or imploring according to her hopes and fears. Here is all the desperate need and yearning of the human mind, buffeted by a world that has given it birth but left it to its own ignorance and meager, groping resources.
Fisher presents the dawning of belief in spirits and the supernatural as the major turning point in the psychological history of the human species. Through "the notion of the soul and of the ghost that survived the dead body, human beings entered the long terrifying night of spiritual bondage, the end of which is not yet." They "abandoned reality and enveloped themselves with an invisible world which became the most important meaning in their lives." That meaning grew out of fear. It was fear of the unseen spirit (later of the unseen all-powerful gods) which led to religious philosophies based on a sense of inadequacy and helplessness in the face of the supernatural, and to lives spent in never-ending supplication and propitiation.
Was this inevitable? As soon as humans learned to think and could act beyond or contrary to instinct, they lost their innate flow with the world. They sought to survive beyond their time, to enhance their individual egos, to control others in order to accomplish ever greater things. With this urge came a host of unhappy repercussions. Frustration, superstition, man-made suffering, these were the inevitable results of intelligence and self-consciousness, because thinking drew us out of the protective womb of instinct and oneness with unthinking nature. Fisher’s novels on primitive humanity recognize this awful consequence of becoming intelligent in a world not equipped with a compensating benevolent agency. They prod the reader into deep and troubled thinking about humanity’s nature and loneliness in a universe whose blind sights are set elsewhere than upon the little joys of this one planet’s intelligent life form. As Steven Jay Gould has put it: "Nature does not operate for our particular moral purposes."
This novel is set near the end of the matriarchal phase, when new ideas were emerging which would lead to a male dominant society. Dove is a rebellious and bitter philosopher in a village controlled by the old seeress Rainmaker. He conceives the heretical idea that the sun, far from being the mere ‘torch’ of the Great Mother the Moon, is the spirit of the "first man." He is the Great Father, the true source of power because he bestows warmth and light on the world, renewing nature each year as he returns from the south.
But Dove’s ultimate heresy is to appropriate for men the more potent part of the creative principle. The male organ resembled the snake, which was already looked upon as a vigorous spirit in the mysteries of life; and it was deathless, since it sloughed off its skin and renewed itself instead of dying. Thus the penis became a more powerful symbol than the womb. People had already come to believe that women conceived through contact with spirits, usually of dead men, and when this was transferred to the sex act with the living—a concept which Dove begins to perceive—the male image became predominant, and power underwent a profound and revolutionary switch.
Adam and the Serpent marks a transition in the evolution from spirits, seen as ghosts of the dead, to supernatural entities who have an origin and life of their own within the world’s invisible realm. Dove personifies the priest-creator of these proto-gods, and he is the formulator of the concepts of religion, the relationship between humans and gods.
The ‘emasculating’ effects of matriarchy upon the male which is the psychological underpinning of novels three and four is supported by many scholars surveyed by Fisher. From these effects, Fisher derives the source of the very nature of western religion and its deities. Dove’s driving force is the need to regain the male’s sense of significance, to achieve equality or even supremacy over the female. "When he became ascendant, because of his long eclipse the man became even more tyrannical than the female." Thus, Dove formulates the idea of a masculine god derived from the sun, upon whose coattails he can ride to a new position. Men would be the sons of that Father, the "special disciples and servants of a great power."
As part of the foundation he is laying for male dominion, Dove comes up with a potent concept that will serve to suppress female powers and pretensions: all evil spirits are those of women. Women are thus the source of all evil, including pain, sickness and death. In the growing milieu of that moral culpability idea begun by Raven in the preceding novel, women, in Dove’s mind, are the original source of "sin" and this can only relate to their sex. Thus the central essence of evil was to become sex itself and specifically female sexuality.
Dove’s ruminations and pronouncements have little immediate effect upon the community’s activities, but they are beginning to seep into his society’s consciousness as woman’s power begins to wane. This first railing prophet has denounced women as fixated on sex, as trying to destroy and dominate men. This is the core of the Garden of Eden myth: the role of Eve as sexual temptress who draws Adam to his fall and debauchery. Built into this myth are details which accord men the justification for exercising control over women, and for the moral curtailment of human sexuality in general. But evil is always enticing, and the myth of the female shifted from her role as mother to her role as lover. (As the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson puts it, from "reproductive power to erotic power." [The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1981, p.165]) And the latter became even more threatening than the former.
Thus Fisher has presented the two pillars upon which he believes rest the genesis of modern religion: fear of supernatural powers, all of which were originally looked upon as evil, and a tortured backlash by the male against matriarchy.
". . . Dove sat in thought. Wholly unknown to him was the fact that his new truths would lead to a major revolution in human affairs, build great religions, strengthen the accursed ambivalence of the divided cell, and place women in that bondage to male sublimations from which they have not yet escaped anywhere in the world. Adam was entering his kingdom, bewildered by his metaphysics and terrified by his gods."THE DIVINE PASSION The Vanguard Press, New York, 1948 (373 pages)
With this novel, Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man enters an evolutionary stage and a mode of thinking which we can recognize as the childhood of our own. The long period of women’s supremacy over people’s beliefs and mores has given way to the ascent of men’s. Once men came to realize their role in producing children—which most cultural historians place some time between the 9th and 6th millennia BCE, resulting from observations which came with the domestication of animals—human society underwent a dramatic change. The creative powers of nature became symbolized in the human and animal sexual organs, and especially the male phallus. The latter became an object of worship, as did the sex act itself. The primacy of female spirits like the Moon gave way to that of those perceived as male; the latter took on heightened characteristics to reach the status of the first true gods.
Chief of these was the Sun, whose fire and light fertilized the Earth. The Earth became the primary representative of the receptive, germinating female principle and was raised to the status of a goddess. Powers of magic and divination, the priesthood, temporal rule in society, the conduct of agriculture fell now to men. Women became ‘property,’ subordinate to fathers and husbands, sold as brides, valued for virginity and for marital fidelity and devotion. Marriage and the family grew more important as institutions through which men exercised control over their women and children.
With the ascension of the Sun to principal deity, the earth’s astronomical features became the great determinant of much of humanity’s thinking and behavior. Each day the Sun sank in the west, into the underworld of darkness where it was forced to battle malevolent spirits in its passage beneath the earth; people rejoiced each morning as it rose victorious in the east. But all the world’s early advanced civilizations arose in the northern temperate zone, and so in addition to its nightly battles, the Sun was seen to face an even greater struggle as its celestial enemies pulled it ever further south and winter came upon the world. Unlike the daily cycle, in the seasonal one vegetation died, warmth receded, the very earth seemed to be perishing. Primitive people’s great fear was that one day the Sun’s enemies would triumph, imprisoning it forever beneath the earth, or dragging it over the southern rim of the world, plunging everything into permanent darkness. The ritual life of society took shape around a desperate urge to aid the Sun and prevent its defeat. Donations of the first fruits of the soil, sacrifices of humans and animals were meant to give the god heart and strength, to show that his people were struggling with him, sharing in his pain. Sacrifice became the symbol of salvation. And with the next conceptual step, that the Sun did in fact die and was reborn, the idea of the slain and resurrected god entered human consciousness.
Fisher’s tale of one tribal community’s life somewhere in the Near East at the dawn of history embodies this central motif of the Sun in the development of western religion. The author highlights the psychological effects on men and women which resulted. The great issue of the Sun’s struggle each night and each year "had overdramatized their lives." Constant anxiety and fear nourished the darker passions, leading to cruel customs and traditions. But the needless suffering they inflicted upon themselves and others eventually became sanctified and ennobled, for "all expedients born of fear have in time become accepted by conscience." It is ironic to think that the earth’s own life-producing and life-sustaining patterns of movement, the very structure of the universe, had induced its intelligent life to develop "an elaborate metaphysical apparatus of morals and magic" which would embody so much unnecessary evil.
Fisher lightens this grim picture by providing a set of strong, interesting characters with even some comic overtones. Adom is the village headman, a vain and arrogant man whose schemes to amass wealth and wives usually backfire on him. His most intelligent wife, Narda, uses her sly talents and beauty to thwart her husband’s aims and to gain her own comforts and desires, which include a liaison with Rabi, the village priest-oracle. (To such a degraded state from the grand matriarchal figure of preceding novels has woman been reduced by the ascendancy of men and their treatment of her as property.)
Rabi the priest is often skeptical of his own wisdom and something of a realist about religious matters. But he faces an insidious rival in the outcast prophet Yescha. It is the latter’s radical, harsh ideas which are impelling the further evolution of religious thought. As such, he is the pivotal figure of the novel.
Yescha is a fanatical prophet of doom, lame and epileptic, and totally committed to his beliefs. He sees the evil in the world, from the struggles of the Sun god to the clan’s defeat in war, as the fault of his culpable people. It is Yescha, building upon predecessors like Dove, who implants the idea of sin into society’s mind, permanently as it turned out.
Sin was distinct from guilt, which men and women already felt when they violated tribal customs, for such violations were a betrayal of their responsibility as members of the group. Sin was more subtle, and became associated with an increased concept of self and separateness as the human mind became more sophisticated. When this sense of separateness involved an actual isolation from the group, as in the case of outcasts or visionaries or those with neurotic or unusual mental faculties (like Yescha), such individuals began to subject their motives and urges to increased examination. And since sexual needs were so central to the personality and at the same time so intimately bound up with the group picture, the sex act became the focus of this examination. Here might lie an explanation for their painful isolation as well as for other evils in the world: thus Yescha concludes that the practice of sex is the primary sinful cause.
Once the role of both sexes in procreation was understood, sex had come to be looked upon as "the divine passion." The gods were regarded as the embodiment of the procreative principle, and people attained mystic communion with them, and with all life, through sexual intercourse. The world was explained in sexual terms. As Fisher puts it, "Sex was the most powerful of all integrating forces in group life and in its religion and morals." This outlook, based on instinct, was in the line of matriarchal thought, even though matriarchy as the functioning spirit of society had disappeared. This is why primitive peoples, especially agricultural ones who closely identified with the Earth Mother, had rituals involving sexual acts and orgies. Virginity was often ‘donated’ to the god or goddess at the temple.
On the other hand, the moralizing prophet like Yescha who regards sex as ‘sinful’ proceeds from the line of Dove in Adam and the Serpent, from conditions surrounding male dominance and religion. Neurotic self-consciousness had produced a critical examination of the sex drive. From an instinctual passion promoting group communication and a sense of completeness for the individual, sex became distorted into a culpable desire for self-gratification and a source of weakness. When such a mind—it was always male—became convinced of the evil of sex, it saw women as the source of that evil. (From a different direction, Dove had arrived at the same conclusion. It would be reached by many other religious thinkers in the future.) Such a mind felt a need to purge and protect itself by adopting asceticism and by castration; it felt an urge to undergo a sacrificial punishment to atone for sin, to achieve a renewal of the "at-one-ment" with the group and restore the lost sense of completeness.
This impulse to denial and self-sacrifice was reinforced by the religion of the Sun. The life of the deity involved struggle and pain; its very survival required sacrificial aid from a fearful humanity. Ironically, the creation of the male deity by such as Dove had not emancipated the man. Fear had won out. Men were being enslaved by the Father and his demands as earlier they had been enslaved by the Mother. This emasculating relationship of the earthly son to the heavenly father was psychologically involved with the rivalry that had grown up between the human father and son, as fathers became more powerful within the family and began to regard their sons, younger and more potent, as a threat to their supremacy and sexual prerogatives. In Fisher’s novel, Adom lusts after his son’s fiancée, later his wife, finally sending him off on a dangerous scouting mission into enemy territory, half hoping he will be killed. (World mythology is full of stories of fathers murdering or sacrificing their children.) The fearful son will be forced to either stand up against his father or sacrifice himself to his father’s own fears and demands. Before both his father figures, man stands in danger of castration.
Yescha represents a psychological fork in the road. Because he is lame and neurotic he is rejected by the villagers. His sense of separateness and fear cannot be alleviated through the divine passion, by pleasurable communion between the sexes and with the deity. Instead he follows his own way: the way of denial, self-inflicted suffering and death. His sacrifice moves the community, which begins to assimilate his ideas.
Humanity’s relations with its gods underwent a profound change when sex was removed as the symbolic basis of those relations and replaced by fear. When sex and woman became evil, people lost their guilt-free avenue to a sense of completeness and ensured mankind’s future neurosis. When the divine passion became an evil passion, human love could now take place only within the context of a ‘sinful’ activity. (Religion, and especially Christianity, has been forced to cope with this paradox ever since.) And because the sex urge was so pervasive and irresistible, the world’s evil began to seem insurmountable. The eventual result of all these ideas was that the world became a place to reject, the body an entity to spurn and cast aside in the search for the good pure soul that humanity shared with the good and pure gods.
The story of The Divine Passion is Fisher’s representation of processes that took place unequally and over a long period across the various cultures of the Near Eastern and European worlds. But the stage is now set for the tracing of these ideas through the channel which Fisher sees as having come to embody them most completely: the Hebraic culture, through which they passed into Christianity and our modern western civilization.
Part Three will review the following two novels of the Testament, The Valley of Vision, a novel about Solomon and the beginnings of monotheism, and The Island of the Innocent, a novel of the Maccabees and the great dichotomy between Jew and Greek in the seminal thought of the western world.
PART THREE: The Valley of Vision, The Island of the Innocent