“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die…When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye…Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” – Genesis 2:16, 3:6-7
You have probably heard of Godiva chocolate. If you are fortunate, you have also tried one of their delectable treats. What you may not know is that the company was named Godiva (in 1926) after the Lady Godiva, a noblewoman who lived in Coventry, England during the start of the second millenia.
Legend has it that her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had been oppressing his people through cruel taxation, and when the Lady Godiva confronted her husband and asked him to relieve his people, he scorned her request, advising her that he would only relieve their taxation if his wife, this noble woman, would ride a mare through the city streets, naked.
She agreed to his outlandish request, and sent a decree throughout the city that the people were to shutter themselves inside, thereby lessening the shame she was about to take on their behalf. Most of the populace acted honorably, but for one man, whom the legend identifies only as Tom, who peeped through his shutter to behold the Lady in her naked beauty. For his stolen glance he was stricken blind, and the world was given its first and greatest voyeuristic term, Peeping Tom.
There is a deep thread of what I call “the forbidden mystery” that lies at the heart of Western stories. This need to see the forbidden at any price. A thread that runs from the Garden through the Greeks, and whose echo finds its way even down to the chocolates we consume. Adam & Eve are the first, the Lady Godiva & her Peeping Tom may be one of the lesser known, but there are many more.
“With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished’…But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Genesis 19:17, 19:26
Moses & Yahweh
“Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.‘” Genesis 33:18-20
Actaeon & Artemis
Actaeon, the hunter, pursued the goddess Artemis (Diana), desirous to see the chaste beauty unveiled. He followed her into a woods where he saw the beautiful Artemis naked, bathing in a stream.
He was then punished for his sight by being transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds.
Tiresias & Athena
Similar to Actaeon, the young Tiresias stumbled upon the goddess Athena as she was bathing, but instead of being killed, the boy Tiresias was blinded for this forbidden gaze.
The myth is a bit vague about the boy’s intentions, but because Athena felt guilty about the boy’s loss of sight (though unable to restore it), she gave him the gift of prophecy, and also the ability to understand the language of birds, which seems to hint that he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. He may not have meant to witness the forbidden mystery, but it cost him, nonetheless.
(There is another version of the myth, equally intriguing, that involves snakes & sex changes, which we won’t discuss here).
Perseus & Medusa
Up to this point, the forbidden mystery has been beautiful. And I would argue that for most of the previous stories (Lady Godiva, Athena, and Artemis) it is because the crowning achievement of creation is man, and man’s co-equal, woman; because most of these stories were written by men, it is obvious that the greatest mystery, hidden beneath her veils and dresses (or the less sexy but modern achievement– pants), is woman. Any man can tell you the first time he saw a naked woman because it (sadly, often) has about it the aura of forbidden mystery.
But with Perseus and Medusa, the heart of the forbidden mystery is not beautiful at all, quite the opposite; at the heart of that gaze is a defilement onto death. When Medusa is forced to see her own visage, even she is rent to stone by the mystery of her own ugliness (contrast this to Moses & Yahweh, where death is also promised; in places like Psalm 27:4 we catch glimmers of Yahweh’s visage when the psalmist longs “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD“).
Western stories are big enough to hold, at the heart of their forbidden mystery, both beauty and ugliness, with lethal consequences for both. Or, as the writer of the Wiki article said so well, “Even if Peeping Tom is a late addition [to the Lady Godiva legend], his being struck blind demonstrates the closely knit themes of the violated mystery and the punished intruder.”
Cupid & Psyche *spoiler alert*
This is my favorite of the forbidden mysteries, mostly because of the wonderful remake that C.S. Lewis gave us with his book, Till We Have Faces.
The legend is that Psyche (a woman whose beauty rivaled that of Cupid’s mother, Venus) arouses the jealousy of the powerful goddess. Venus instructs Cupid to shoot Psyche with one of his enchanted arrows, forcing the woman to fall in love with a hideous serpent; but upon seeing her beauty, Cupid falls in love, and strikes himself with one of his arrows instead. The two are wed, but Cupid demands that Psyche not behold his face, for fear that she will recognize him as a god, and thereby arouse the attention of his mother, the still-vindictive Venus.
Lewis neglects most of this back story to focus instead upon the relationship between Psyche and her sister, Orual. Unlike Psyche, Orual is beyond ugly. And though she is jealous of her sister’s beauty, she is even more jealous of this unknown husband who has stolen the heart of her sister. So she, like Satan to Eve, plants a seed of doubt in Psyche’s heart: is your husband truly the man he says he is? maybe he is the ugly serpent you were supposed to marry? how will you know unless you look?
At the heart of the forbidden mystery lies a test. Some of these tests (Lot’s wife, Eve, Psyche) are explicit, while others (Artemis, Moses, Medusa) are implied. But the test is the same: look and receive your punishment, or avert and live. But why this test?
The most difficult to understand is the Garden of Eden story. Why, in the midst of paradise, would God place a test? It is my opinion that the test is for relationship. Without the chance to walk away, to forsake, there can be only robotic love. Also at the heart of the test is trust: will Adam & Eve trust that God is good and wants only good for them? Or will they heed Orual’s voice and steal away into the night, to peer into a mystery that their lover has forbidden? Will they trust their own curiosity, or the one who has “caused His goodness to pass before them”?
The deeper mystery of the Bible is that violators are pardoned. The forbidden mystery has, tragically, already been perceived; we received what we desired while gazing at the fruit, gorging ourselves on the knowledge of good and evil, until the nakedness of our deeds sent us hunting for cover, even willing to slaughter the remnants of truth, as creation itself groans for release from our futile attempts to cover ourselves with power, control, the building and crumbling of a thousand empires, while a guilt that defies pacifying holds us in its grip, however our noblest or most debased efforts.
There is an itch that lies behind the eyes of man that cannot be scratched. There is a darkness too deep even for our 20/20 vision to unveil; a riddle whose solution must be cut, like Alexander of old, by someone who wields the proper sword.
Thanks be to God that that darkness was finally lifted in Christ, who is the image of the invisible (dare I say, naked?) God, and whose life is the light of man.
(What do you call this nowadays? it’s certainly not a bibliogaphy anymore, is it? webography? anyways, it’s a list of my sources for this post).