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The Garden of Eden appears inthewritingsof the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.Inthe biblical creation story of Genesis, it is a beautiful garden of trees planted by God in the land of Eden and watered by a river. God intends that the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, live there in contentment and innocence. God takes all the animals that he has created there so that Adam can name them. At the center of the garden are two fruit trees; the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge.Adam and Eve, encouraged by a serpent, ignore God’s prohibition not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. They thereby gain an awareness of good and evil but lose their innocence. God drives the couple from the Garden, placing an angel at the entrance to prevent their access to the Tree of Life and immortality. God further condemns Adam, and thus all humans, to secure food by hard labor in the fields, making the ground cursed and choked with weeds rather than naturally abundant as in the Garden.
Elsewhere in the Bible, the Garden of Eden is represented as the “garden of God,” a paradise of lush growth and majestic trees, a place of comfort and contentment for humans, and the utter opposite of desertsand wastelands. The prophet Isaiah assures Israelites in Babylonian captivity that one day God will convert their harsh environment into a new Eden. It is thus a symbol of the renewal of both land and society, and an image of promise.
In the rabbinical tradition, the Garden of Eden was the embodiment of perfection, the ultimate reward for righteous souls after death. The Garden of Eden is also mentioned in the Qur’an and is associated with paradise.
The Garden of Eden has also been described as a mythological creation story, a future celestial paradise that awaits the virtuous or a real placeonearth that was destroyed by the Flood. Some have sought the location of a real Garden, still in existence long after its primeval role in Creation but lost to the knowledge of humans. Medieval legend tells of St Brendan makinga seven-year Atlantic voyagein search of it. Some European voyages of discovery in the early modern period were partially inspired by the search for an earthly, utopian paradise. The American tropics were particularly seen as edenic lands. Columbus thought that the great Orinoco river might be one of the four rivers of Eden. In more recent times, satellite imagery has been used to suggest that the dried-up Wadi Batin and the Karun River, combined with the nearby Tigrisand Euphrates, make up the four rivers, placing the Garden under the waters of the Persian Gulf.
Any geographical location for Eden is hypothetical, but the garden has also been a compelling symbol of a once-effortless relationship between humans and the divine, and of harmony between society and the environment. Medieval scholars claimed that Adam’s control of the garden and the obedience of animals in Eden gave humans complete authority over all plant and animal life, which was clearly put on earth to serve them. Around this same time, the Garden of Eden was also seen as a model for botanical gardens. Some tried to recreate the garden, which they believed had been swept away by the Flood, by gathering all the plant species from the known world for study. Botanical gardens today continue assembling the plants of the world, although their aim is species conservation, not spiritual inspiration.
The nostalgic longing to recover a lost paradise, an ancient golden age when humans lived in harmony within an abundant nature,is common in many cultural traditions around the world. Some anthropologists suggest that the Garden of Eden story represents a cultural memory of simpler times when humans lived freely as hunters and gatherers rather than toiling at agriculture in fixed locations. Environmental historian Carolyn Merchant argues that the “recovery narrative” implicit in the story of the Garden of Eden was used as a powerful justification in American history to convert the “wilderness” into a garden and, within the early national parks movement, to forcibly evict indigenous peoples from areas designated as pristine.
The concept of “the last Eden” is still applied to a number of relatively “unspoiled” and inaccessible places on earth, which harbor a diversity of rare plant and wildlife, such as the rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin, or Borneo. The aim of restoring or preserving such parts of the world in a “wild” Edenic state can cause conflict over the rights and aspirations of indigenous peoples, environmentalists, tourism developers, and industrialists.
- Jean Delumeau and Matthew O’Connell (trans.), History of Paradise: the Gardenof EdeninMythand Tradition, (Continuum, 1995);
- Richard Heinberg, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Mythofa Lost Golden Age, rev. ed. (Quest Books, 1995);
- Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Naturein Western Culture (Routledge, 2003).