FALL, THE . The concept of the fall appears in myths, traditions, and religions of a great many peoples and presents a number of interrelated themes of primary importance in the history of religious thought. In general, the fall is to be thought of as an accident that arose after the creation or genesis of the world bearing consequences for the present human condition; this accident explains a new situation in the world that is recognized as a decline or degradation when contrasted to the original state of humankind and the cosmos. This fundamental conception of the fall takes different forms in different cultures and religions.
Perspectives on Myths of the Fall
The theme of the fall may be considered from the perspective of (1) historical time and its unfolding; (2) theogony; (3) cosmogony; and (4) anthropogony, which encompasses the creation of humanity and its present condition.
Considered temporally, the fall takes place between Urzeit and Endzeit, between the beginning and the end of creation. Within historical time, it is very close to the beginnings of time conceived as a golden age in contrast to which the fall and its consequences represent a break or degradation. This temporal and historical conception of the fall can be found in various popular traditions as well as myths of the golden age and paradise lost.
The theogonic aspect of the fall deals with the degradation of the divine and is found in the numerous myths concerning the origin of the gods, of their victory over chaos, or of the victory of the more recent forces of divinity over older ones. Coextensive with the creation, the fall as presented in theogony implies the identification of evil and chaos on the one hand and of salvation and creation on the other. This conception of the fall is found especially in Sumero-Akkadian theogonic myths that recount the victory of order over preexisting chaos; it is found also in the Egyptian myth of the battle between Seth and Horus. Strictly speaking, these theogonic myths are not true myths of the fall, but two of their recurrent themes justify their inclusion in a typology of myths of the fall. First, they emphasize the ritual celebration of the maintenance of the creation and cosmic order, as in the festival of Akitu in Babylon. Second, they present, through a variety of mythologies, the theme of the degradation of divinity that results from the fall of some portion of the divine substance into matter, body, or darkness. This theme is central to the three most important forms of religious dualism: Orphism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism.
From the perspective of cosmogony, the fall is seen as an accident occurring after the genesis of the world that affects cosmic forces and explains the present condition of earth or the universe. Myths that tell of the progressive degradation of the universe and its destruction and recreation in successive cosmic cycles exemplify this cosmogonic view of the fall. The flood is an important example of this type of fall, and numerous myths of the flood are found among religious traditions of the world.
Anthropogony, however, offers the most important perspective on the fall. From this perspective, the contemporary human condition—a condition of degradation in contrast to that of the golden age of humanity—is explained as the consequence of a fall, a tragic event that bursts into human history. Around this event are clustered those myths and symbols that seek to explain the origins of illness and death and the tragic nature of the human condition after the fall.
From these four perspectives, it is possible to develop a typology through which the myriad myths of the fall in cultures throughout the world become comprehensible. Furthermore, these perspectives illuminate the fundamental aspect of the concept of the fall and the inherent meaning that emerges from these myths: The present human condition is explained by the accident that occurred after creation and ended the golden age.
Myths of the fall clearly show three essential elements: (1) the concept of a golden age in the beginning, (2) the accident that is a break or degradation of original harmony, (3) the explanation of the present human condition. From these three elements, it is possible to trace a historico-phenomenological picture of the traditions dealing with the fall. One final remark needs to be added, however, before proceeding to an analysis of this picture. An understanding of the complexity of the problems related to the concept of the fall must not lose sight of the intimate relationship of this concept with the problem of evil; any conception of the fall has implications concerning the origins of evil, as well as intimations of a possible overcoming of evil through a recovery of the state that existed previous to the fall. Thus a philosophical and ethical dimension is grafted onto, and is coextensive with, the idea of the fall and forms an important part of a hermeneutical approach that tries to come to terms with its relationship to guilt or fault. The scope of this article, however, does not permit an envisage of these other aspects of the fall.
Archaic Religions and Oral Traditions
The myth of an earthly paradise, where humans are immortal, is an integral part of cosmogony and descriptions of the world's beginning in many cultures. That primordial person enjoys a bliss and freedom that it lost as the result of a fall is the dominant theme of this myth, a theme offering many variations.
The Jorai cosmogony of the autochthonous peoples of Indochina gives an idyllic description of original humanity. Living with the god Oi Adei, humankind enjoyed a deathless existence in a paradise where one could fly like a bird and talk with plants and animals, where bundles of wicker grew on trees and shovels turned over the earth by themselves. Man had only to feed his tools; but he got drunk and did not do so, and the tools revolted. In the Sre cosmogony of Indochina, humans had no need to work in the earthly paradise, because the god Ong Ndu had made them immortal; but when the primordial couple refused the god's command to dive into a well, they were punished for their disobedience by suffering, old age, and death.
The cosmogonies of Bantu speakers from the Mayombe region north of the Kongo River, the cradle of the old Kongo civilization, contain significant stories of the fall. In the Yombe tradition, humankind's golden age was brought to an end by Nzondo, a spirit whose magic also created the Zaire River after a flood. Nzondo drove people from their original home, dispersing them over the earth and setting in motion the chain of disasters that have since befallen the race.
In a Dogon myth from Mali, heaven and earth were originally very close to each other. But God separated them and made men mortal, after being disturbed by the noise of the women crushing millet. Similarly, in a myth from Cameroon and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), the vault of heaven was originally within humanity's reach, but when a woman who touched the vault with a load of wood she was carrying on her head asked God to move it out of her way, he moved it so far that he abandoned humankind to death. These myths tell of a paradise lost; but they also stress the theme of God's rejection of a disobedient humankind, of his consigning humanity to death as punishment for a variety of sins, that is, for violating a divine prohibition, for lying or theft, for domestic rivalries, for lack of charity. Death is explained as divine punishment prompted by human disobedience. Similar myths are found among the Diola in Senegal, the Nupe in Nigeria, the Bena Kanioka in Zaire, and the Anyi in the Ivory Coast.
Myths of the fall as fate, though less frequently encountered than those of the fall as punishment, are also significant in sub-Saharan Africa. These myths involve an archetypal badly delivered message—a divine message of immortality that reaches humanity either too late or in abridged or altered form. Here, the original separation of heaven and earth replaces the earthly paradise where God and humans live together; from heaven, God sends messages to people on earth. In a Tsonga myth, a chameleon carries the message of eternal life, while the giant lizard Galagala carries the message of death. The lizard, moving faster, arrives first, and humanity so becomes mortal. In a Bete version of the same myth, from the Ivory Coast, the lizard advises the chameleon to walk slowly. Animals are always the messengers in these myths, and the message of mortality always arrives first. Other myths emphasize the change and deterioration of the message in the course of its transmission; myths of this sort are found among the Mossi in Burkina Faso, the Ashanti in Ghana, the Kabiye in Togo, and the Kikuyu in Kenya.
In Australia, the Aranda regard their totem ancestors as the heroic forgers of civilizations who gave form to the countryside, who allotted individual lives to humans by creating separate embryos, who lived in a mythical golden age where they were untouched by the woes of contemporary humankind. These totem ancestors were immortal, and those among them who apparently died in battle in fact went to heaven, where they became tjurunga s, sacred beings who were powerful and creative, traveling to and fro above or below the earth.
Exhausted when they completed their creative work, and seized by an overwhelming lassitude, these mythical ancestors sank into the earth. But before they disappeared they laid down, by some of their actions, the rudiments of death; thus, the first people knew both death and the pains of the human condition. The myth of the magpie Urbura explains the permanence of death. When the first mortal tried to leave his tomb, Urbura struck at him with her claws, thrust a spear through his neck, and nailed him to the ground, establishing forever humanity's mortal condition.
Common to myths of the fall and to nostalgia for a lost golden age is the view that the original human condition was a condition of paradise. Heaven lay close to the earth, and people could go there merely by climbing a mountain, a tree, a ladder, or a vine (Eliade, 1960). Enjoying the friendship of both the gods and the animals—and speaking their language—man enjoyed a life that was immortal, free, spontaneous, and perfectly happy.
That this paradise was lost as the result of the fall is a second commonly held view. Often, the fall is an accident, as in Australia, where myths of the Aranda tribe merely record it. In various African traditions the accident is equated with sleep: The god had asked humans to remain awake through the night to await a message from him, but when it arrived they were asleep. If sleep is understood as a symbol for death, the accident of sleep explains both the precarious human condition and the establishment of death.
The fall may also result from human failings. Once again, the most important documentation is found in sub-Saharan Africa. A Maasai myth known in both Africa and Madagascar tells of a package that humans were given by God but forbidden to open; driven by curiosity, they opened it and let loose sickness and death. The divine prohibition takes other forms in other traditions. In a Pygmy story of central Africa, it is against looking at something; in a story of the Luba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it forbids the eating of certain fruits; in a Lozi myth found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi, it prohibits the taking of wild game.
Sometimes humanity's fault is best understood anthropologically, as in myths describing theft or lying, or those that stress lack of charity, or the race's capacity for domestic violence, as in a Chiga myth from Uganda. The curiosity of the primordial couple who aspire to the secrets of the gods is a frequent mythical theme in Africa, where myths of the fall also emphasize the cohesiveness of individual and group (Thomas, 1982, pp. 32–48).
Important approaches to the theme of the fall are found in the great civilizations of antiquity. This section examines those myths and traditions found in the civilizations of Egypt, Sumer and Babylonia, ancient India, ancient Iran, and ancient Greece.
Egyptian religious thought also shows an awareness of a golden age existing at the beginning. The study of archaic texts has prompted the hypothesis that this age was thought to have had two stages, the first of which was Urzeit, primordial time before the creation. The idea of a primordial time is expressed by such formulas as "that did not yet exist" (nhprt ) or, in the wording of Pyramid Texts 1040 and 1043, "When the heavens did not yet exist … there existed neither death nor disorder." In contrast to this mythic primordial time is the time that follows it, the time of creation and of creator gods such as Re and Osiris (Otto, 1969, pp. 96–99).
Whatever the validity of this hypothesis, the time of creation, the Schöpfungszeit, was definitely considered a golden age. A variety of texts make it possible to assert this interpretation with certainty. "Law was established in their time. Justice (Maat) came down from heaven to earth in their age and united herself with those on the earth. There was an abundance on the earth; stomachs were full, and there was no lean year in the Two Lands. Wall did not collapse, thorn did not prick in the time of the primeval Gods" (Kákosy, 1964, p. 206). An inscription from the temple of Idfu speaks in the same way: "There was no sin on the earth. The crocodile did not seize prey, the serpent did not bite in the age of the primeval Gods." This golden age is depicted in other temple inscriptions and is found again in the Coffin Texts; it is, in fact, a very ancient doctrine in which myths of a golden age and fall are tied to the problem of death.
Three great Egyptian cosmogonies explain the creation of the world. In the Memphis theology, the word of the god Ptah created all things; at Heliopolis, the creation takes place with Re-Atum's separation of heaven and earth; at Hermopolis Magna, the creator is the god Thoth, who fashions an egg from which the sun, organizer of the cosmos, emerges. The Memphis theology makes it clear that, by putting the cosmos, the gods, and the gods' images and cults in place, Ptah established a definitive cosmic order in which Maat, the principle of order, replaced disorder (Pyramid Text 265.1775b).
The myth of the celestial cow, a myth of archaic origin, although known from a text of the New Kingdom, is the most important witness to the Egyptian doctrine of the fall. It tells of insults hurled by humans at the god Re (variously called "silver-boned Re," "golden-limbed Re," "Re of the lapis lazuli hair") and of Re's attempt to determine their punishment in a secret council of the gods held in the Nun, or primordial chaos. From his throne, Re glared fixedly at the rebellious humans, as the gods had advised; immediately, his eye became the goddess Hathor, henceforth called Sekhmet, the Powerful; she organized a massacre of the rebels as they fled into the desert. Re, however, preferred to save remaining humankind; ordering that pomegranates be brought to him, he extracted their juice, and at dawn carried the juice to the flooded area of humanity's impending extermination. There he determined to spare the human race; but he also withdrew to the highest place in heaven, and sat on the back of Nut, the vault of heaven transformed into a cow, assigning to Thoth the role of scribe and the task of civilizing humanity.
The Book of Going Forth by Day is another witness to the Egyptian doctrine of the fall. Chapter 17, alluding to Re's enemies, declares: "I was All when I was in the Nun, and I am Re.… When Re first appeared as king of all that he had created, when the uprisings of Shu did not yet exist, he was on the hill that is at Hermopolis and at that time the children of the fall at Hermopolis were delivered over to him." To this passage, which tells of the revolt against Re, correspond the lines at the beginning of chapter 175, which speak of the disorder created by the children of Nut: "O Thoth, what is to be done with the children of Nut? They have fomented war, they have provoked quarrels, they have caused disorder, they have massacred.… They have brought low that which was great in all that I created. Show strength, Thoth, says Atum.… Shorten their years, cut off their months. For they have secretly destroyed all that you created."
From such texts, it is clear that pharaonic Egypt was acquainted very early with a doctrine of a golden age, an age followed by the fall that explains the Jetztzeit, the present human condition of death and degradation. Nevertheless, the Egyptian theology that viewed royalty as a divine continuation of Maat, the cosmic and moral order, had a paramount influence on three thousand years of Egyptian history under the pharaohs and the Ptolemies, and although each great historic era ended in a period of disorder, the disorder itself gave rise to the reestablishment of Egyptian society under renewed pharaonic rule. Life and survival were inseparable in Egypt, and the optimism running throughout Egyptian culture is made obvious by the absence of traditions dealing with great cosmic disasters such as the flood.
There was also, however, a darker side to Egyptian thought, one that does relate that evil, incarnate in the god Seth, existed before the creation of humans. Hence some Egyptologists interpret the verses quoted above from chapter 175 of the Book of Going Forth by Day, referring to the children of Nut, as an allusion to a quarrel among the gods and evidence of a primordial sin that stood at the origin of the fall.
Sumer and Babylonia
The numerous Mesopotamian traditions dealing with the origins of the gods, the cosmos, and humanity go back to the Sumerian period, well before the third millennium bce, and become completely intermixed over time with Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian myths. Thus, it is possible to present these traditions coherently by selecting characteristic examples from these three groups of myths.
Samuel Noah Kramer (1981) finds the first document of the Golden Age in the Sumerian story called Emmer-kai and the Lord of Aratta. The story speaks of "an earlier time," before the fall, when humankind lived in peace and harmony, without fear and without rival. During that time, before the creation of snake or scorpion, hyena or lion, wolf or wild dog, all peoples of the universe worshiped the same god, Enlil. But the gods brought about humankind's fall when Enki cast an evil spell and stole Enlil's empire.
The creation poem Enuma elish, which dates from 1100 bce but actually goes back to the first Babylonian dynasty at the beginning of the second millennium, relates the genesis of the gods before it describes the genesis of the world or humanity, and shows that strife and murder existed among the gods from the moment of their creation. The younger gods banded together against their mother, Tiamat; they behaved riotously and spread fear throughout the dwelling places on high. The goddess Ea caused the god Apsu—who would himself have murdered the other gods, had his scheme not been betrayed—to fall into a deep sleep, then undressed him to take away his strength, and finally put him to death. The Atrahasis myth, dating from the reign of the Babylonian king Ammisadaqa (1646–1626 bce), gives another version of these events, in which the gods declared war on Enlil and gathered in arms before his temple for the decisive battle.
In these two myths, evil is coextensive with the first generation of the gods, and disorder begins in the divine world itself when the younger gods kill their mother, Tiamat (who in any case had planned to murder them). From this perspective, the gods are responsible for evil, and order appears among them only with the advent of the god Marduk, the principle of an ordered divine world. Hence, humans simply find evil in the world; they are not the cause of it.
Both the Atrahasis myth and the poem Enuma elish show that the gods created humans with the intention of imposing burdensome tasks upon them: food gathering, the building of waterways, dikes, canals, and so forth. In the Atrahasis text, the god Weilu is killed by the other gods, who then mix his flesh and blood with clay to make humankind, upon whom they immediately impose the gods' "basket" (i.e., workload); in a story dating from the seventeenth century bce and found in a bilingual text from the reign of King Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076 bce), An, Enlil, and Enki kill the Alla gods and from their blood create humankind, which they also charge with tasks previously borne by the gods.
In these texts, and in many others that echo them, it is clear that Mesopotamian thought saw the human condition as one of total subordination to the gods, who were absolute masters of the world. This dualistic thought presents a humanity fashioned both from the blood of a murdered god and from mere clay, a humanity knowing no primordial fall but only a destiny of submission to the gods and subordination to divine power. The gods reserve a deathless, happy life for themselves, imposing on humanity a precarious existence that ends in death, itself a divine decision. The dead lead only a shadowy existence in the realm of the god Nergal.
Two ancient texts provide Akkadian and Babylonian versions of the Mesopotamian flood. The earlier, dating from the beginning of the third millennium, was found on a Sumerian tablet unearthed in the ruins of Nippur; the other is found in tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Sumerian tablet describes the creation of the world and humans and the building of the first cities, including Eridu and Shuruppak. The rather fragmentary story of the flood tells of how the gods decided upon a deluge, from which only the pious king Ziusudra was spared. After the disaster, Ziusudra sacrificed an ox and a sheep to the sun god Utu and thereby reconciled the gods and humankind.
In the Babylonian version, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the man saved from the flood was Utanapishtim, to whom the gods gave immortality. After the flood, the quarrel that had divided the gods started up again, and Enlil, the lord of earth and sky who had been the cause of the flood, wanted to destroy its sole survivor; but Ea and Ishtar, protectors of humankind, intervened and Utanapishtim was saved.
In neither version of the flood does the question of human responsibility for the cosmic disaster arise; as in Mesopotamian stories of humanity's creation, the stories of the flood deal only with theogony and with quarrels of the gods. The Atrahasis myth does indicate the gods' motive for the flood—the noise and disturbance produced by the ever-increasing number of humans—but this motive is analogous to that behind the gods' first quarrel. Thus, whatever the reason for the gods' displeasure with humanity, the human failings that appear at the time of the fall are simply part of a divinely ordained chaos. In the final analysis, myths of the fall in Sumero-Babylonian thought are intimately tied to theogonic and cosmogonic myths in which the fall, like everything else that happens, results from the will of the gods.
In India, which has experienced its past far more through myths than through historical interpretation of actual past events, the most important documents of mythic history are the Purāṇas, or "ancient tales." One part of the speculations of the Vāyu Purāṇa treats the four yuga s, or ages, of the world. The present age, the fourth yuga, is called the kaliyuga. The first age, named kṛtayuga or satyayuga, is described in the Vāyu Purāṇa as a golden age when Prajapati created all things from a superabundance of light and intelligence.
During this yuga, a perfect age that lasted four thousand years (plus an additional four hundred for its dawn and dusk), all creatures lived in a state of spiritual perfection, doing as they pleased, free from heat and cold, fatigue and suffering, ignorant alike of justice and injustice. Possessing similar forms, their pleasures, their life span, and their ever-youthful bodies ensured a life of abundant happiness, joy, and light, knowing neither classes nor different ways of being. Whatever was sought after by the spirit sprang from the earth, and all enjoyed truth, forbearance, satisfaction, and contentment.
The Vāyu Purāṇa does not describe a fall, but simply a decline, from this golden age. The second age, tretāyuga, was still, at its beginning, part of the golden age; beings still lived without suffering, joyous and satisfied. With time, however, they became greedy; they laid waste the fruit trees and the honey that had fed them in ease. Afflicted now by wind, heat, and cold, people built houses, then villages and cities. Now too rains came, bringing streams, rivers, and rank vegetation. Humans were divided into four classes: brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, and śūdra ; and, because humans no longer fulfilled their duties, the brāhmaṇa s assigned specific functions to each class. The brāhmaṇa s were to make sacrifices on behalf of others, to read the Veda, to receive offerings; the kṣatriya s were to exercise power, make war, and dispense justice; the vaiśya s were to raise livestock or practice agriculture or commerce; the śūdra s were to practice the various trades. The brāhmaṇa s likewise introduced and named the four stages of life: first, the quest for knowledge, followed by domestic life, the retreat into the forest, and, finally, renunciation.
It is clear from the Vāyu Purāṇa that by the end of the second yuga the conditions of humanity and the cosmos were such that the golden age had been lost, the victim not of a fall in the usual sense but of a progressive decline, and of the negative effects of time. As differences appeared among them, humans lost their original vitality, turning to passion, vice, and greed, and ceasing to carry out their duties faithfully. The Vāyu Purāṇa emphasizes the role of human responsibility in this cosmic and social decline.
From the sixth century bce on, the idea of karman, specific to Hindu religious thought, was used to explain the decline of the human condition. Linked to the idea of sāṃsara, the incessant whirlpool of rebirths, the ethical idea of karman, gradually replacing older Vedic ritual notions, placed the human soul under the necessity of being reborn in animal, human, or divine forms. Thus humanity by its actions was made responsible for its decline and for the repercussions of that decline in the cosmos. Holding humankind accountable for his position in the universe, the law of the karman became a law of just retribution for actions.
The Indian idea of the flood, of "cosmic disaster," appears within a cyclical conception of time—a conception analogous to the idea of the karman involving the periodic destruction and rebirth of the cosmos. The oldest of numerous Indian versions of a cosmic fall in the form of a flood is that of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 1.8.1; it presents the story of Manu, the first man and the survivor of the flood, in a typically Vedic context. Warned of the flood by a fish, Manu takes the fish under his protection and then is saved by it as the waters rise and carry away all other creatures. Left alone, Manu offers the pāka sacrifice, and, after a year, a woman—his daughter, called Iḍā, the offering—is born; through her Manu will create his posterity, the renewed humanity.
The Avesta preserves ancient Iran's memories of the golden age that existed in the beginning, during the reign of the first king, Yima (Vendidad 2.1–20, Yasna 9.4–5, Yashts 9.9, 13.130, 15.15, 17.29, 19.32). According to Yasna 9.4, Yima, the good shepherd, the most glorious of mortals ever born, looked benevolently on all creatures; his reign was one with neither drought nor heat nor cold, when food was always plentiful, and when people and animals lived without want or old age or death. The Vendidad (2.7) says that Ahura Mazdā brought Yima the two implements symbolizing a prosperous reign, a golden seal and a sword encrusted with gold. Yima also asked for a thousand-year reign of immortality in the world created by the Lord. For three hundred years after the creation, the world filled up with humans and animals; then Yima, advancing in the path of the sun, smote the earth with his seal and pierced it with his sword, and the earth increased in size by a third; he did this again after six hundred winters, and again the earth became a third larger; when he had repeated this act yet again, the earth was enlarged to three times its original surface (Vendidad 2.7, 2.8–9, 2.10–11, 2.17–19). Thus ends the story of the paradise of Yima, a paradise that in a Pahlavi text, the Dēnkard 8.1.24, is compared to the highest heaven.
The Avestan text Yashts 19.34–38 describes the fall that marked the end of this felicity. When Yima began to take pleasure in false and deceitful speech, the khvarenah —the celestial light, the mark of divinity, the sign of the elect and of power—at once abandoned him. He thus lost the three marks of glory associated with the khvarenah, the marks of the priest, the warrior, and the agriculturalist-herdsman. Seen in the context of Indo-Iranian thought, the loss of these marks represents the loss of the three great Aryan functions of sovereignty, power, and fecundity. Confounded and distraught, Yima fell to earth and became mortal.
The cause of the fall, the "lie against the truth," is stressed in Yashts 19.34; this lie deprived Yima of his aura of light and delivered him over defenseless to the Evil Spirit, who hounded him with demons and forced him to flee. Yima actually made two mistakes: The first was "the lie and the error," or druj, condemned by the entire Mazdean tradition and still decried in Manichaeism, for Mani taught that lying and deceit constitute the evil that resides in matter and darkness; the second mistake was the offense to God caused by pride (Widengren, 1968, p. 72). Because, in this very ancient myth, Yima is the archetype of the cosmic king who holds sovereignty over the gods and humans, the king of the three functions that correspond to the three classes of society, his fall will mark both the cosmos and the human condition.
Describing Yima's meeting with Ahura Mazdā, Vendidad 2.21–22 mentions hard winters of bitter cold and heavy snow; in Bundahishn 7, there is a story of what appears to be a flood; and al-Masʿūdī (d. 957) relates how, according to one tradition, the flood came during Yima's time. In the nineteenth century, scholars such as C. P. Tiele, François Lenormant, and A. V. Rydberg saw an allusion to the flood in this evidence; but early in the twentieth century, Nathan Söderblom, in a lengthy discussion of the question, showed that it is impossible to know whether the devastating winters mentioned in these passages were considered part of a real past before they came to symbolize the end of the world later incorporated into Mazdean eschatology. Söderblom leaned toward a strictly eschatological meaning of the myth of the vara of Yima and the winter of Mahrkuska; more recently, Geo Widengren has observed that in the few traces of a flood linked to the myth of Yima two different themes have been combined: one of the golden age of Yima, the other of a period when the more fortunate of humankind took refuge in the vara because winters threatened their existence (Widengren, 1968, pp. 70–71). Going over the evidence once again, Mary Boyce still finds the narrative of the vara of Yima puzzling; but she argues that, because the editing of the Vendidad in the Parthian period is comparatively recent, the Avestan story very probably was contaminated by the Mesopotamian and biblical stories of the cosmic flood (Boyce, 1975, pp. 92–96).
The term golden age (Gr., chruseon genos ) comes from the ancient Greek world. In Works and Days, Hesiod provided the myth of the Golden Age to which later Greek and Latin poets would return again and again, a myth of five races of humans to which correspond five ages of the world: ages of gold, silver, and bronze, of heroes, and, finally, of iron. Created when Kronos reigned in the heavens, the race of gold lived as gods on the earth, perfectly happy and secure, sheltered from all woe, fatigue, pain, or illness. The earth gave forth abundantly all things that people desired, and although this first race of humans was not immortal, its death was a mere going to sleep. This age of paradise, when humans enjoyed the blessing and friendship of the gods, ended with the fall of Kronos; then Zeus made benevolent gods of these first humans.
Plato elaborated on the conditions of this golden age in the Politics (271c,d–272a); in that age, he says, the gods were responsible for different parts of the cosmos, and demons served as shepherds for the various species and groups of animals; the earth's climate was always temperate, and everything was designed to serve men, who lived on fruit picked from trees. There were neither cities nor even women or children, because they were reborn from the earth without any memory of earlier lives.
Horace, Vergil, and Ovid later take up this theme, adapting it to the legendary history of Rome; thus Kronos will become Saturn and Latium will have the name Ansonia during the golden age—a time when, according to the Latin poets, springtime was perpetual, and, because lying and theft did not yet exist, houses had no doors.
Four races will follow that of the golden age. Extremely slow in coming to maturity, the silver race will lose the qualities of life that characterized the previous age. Although created by the Olympian gods, the people of this race could not refrain from foolish excesses, even refusing to sacrifice to the gods, and Zeus buried them, transforming them into the spirits of the underworld. He then created the fearless and warlike race of bronze, a race so given to violence that it destroyed itself and was followed in its turn by the race of heroes, heroes who founded famous cities, fought beneath the walls of Troy and Thebes, and ended their days in the Isles of the Blessed. At last came the present race of humans, the race of iron, whose ephemeral and vulnerable existence is plagued by illness and want.
The myth of the races of humans, which recalls the Indian myth of the four yuga s, is, like it, a myth of decline rather than fall; like the text of the Vāyu Purāṇa, the Hesiodic text emphasizes progressive degeneration. Gradually humanity loses the virtues and qualities of the primordial period; its strength and endurance diminish, and finally it loses the longevity of the first age. Recent analyses of this myth have also laid stress on the evil pointed out by Hesiod: human pride, the hubris that makes humans refuse to sacrifice to the gods and to defy dike ("justice").
In his Theogony, Hesiod describes the triumph of an ordered world over chaos and proclaims the sovereign power of Zeus, who imposes himself upon both the universe and the other Olympian gods, to whom he distributes functions and privileges. In Works and Days, before recounting the myth of the races of humankind, he tells the story of Pandora, the first woman, created by Zeus's command to bring punishment upon the human race. All the Olympians joined in making this special gift to humans. Zeus sent her to the naive Epimetheus, who was seduced by her beauty and married her.
At pains to stress how humans had originally enjoyed the earth free from troubles, weariness, or illness, Hesiod now relates that Pandora had barely arrived on earth when she was devoured by curiosity to learn the contents of the vase she had brought with her and lifted its lid, thus sending throughout the world all the present and future afflictions and woes of humankind, leaving only hope at the bottom of the vase when she replaced the lid. Henceforth, innumerable miseries will plague humanity, and thus, Hesiod concludes, none can escape the plan of Zeus (Works and Days 90–102, 105). In the myth of Pandora, the themes of hubris and fate come together, and the description of the fall shows the fundamental link between divine will and human fate.
Orpheus seems to be a figure of the archaic religious type that, in certain traditions, is thrown back to the earliest time; he stands in sharp contrast to the Olympian gods. Hesiod's theogony and cosmogony oppose an ordered world upon which Zeus has at last imposed himself to an earlier, primordial chaos; Orphic theogony, on the other hand, presents a primordial Eros, or Protogonos ("firstborn"), or Phanes ("light"), that itself creates night, Ouranos, Kronos, Zeus, and, finally, Dionysos.
Orphic anthropogony, in sources that date from later antiquity, recounts the myth of a Dionysos torn apart and cut to pieces by the Titans, who then divided the dead god among themselves and ate him. Zeus hurled lightning bolts at them as a punishment and killed them; he then created the present race of humans from their ashes. Thus, humans possess both the evil nature of the Titans and the divine nature of Dionysos whom the Titans had assimilated by eating him. The Neoplatonist Proclus talks of three races of humans: the race of gold ruled by Phanes, the god of the beginning of things; the silver race over which Kronos was lord; and the Titanic race, created by Zeus from limbs of Titans whom he had punished for their crime. Plato himself had already referred to this race, Titanic in origin, who likewise refused to obey both laws and parents, refused to abide by oaths, and despised the gods. Both Diodorus Siculus and Firmicus Maternus repeat these basic elements of the Orphic myth; and the dualism of Orphic anthropogony, in which the story of the Titans is presented as an etiological myth accounting for the present human condition, has been further confirmed by the discovery, in 1962, of the fourth-century Dervani Papyrus.
Orphism explains the human condition through the dualistic myth of the exiled soul. Humankind is composed of a divine soul, daughter of heaven, and of an evil, Titanic nature; the tragedy of his condition comes from this mixture, itself the outcome of an earlier, prehuman crime. Evil is the legacy of an event that stands at the origin of the mixed human nature; it originates in the murder of Dionysos, but that murder signifies both the death of the god and the participation of his slayers in his divine nature. The original sin, the sin of the fall, is murder, and with the murder of Dionysos the soul experiences a brutal descent into a body that becomes its prison (see Ricoeur, 1960, pp. 264–279).
The myth of Deukalion and Pyrrha presents the Greek version of the flood, but the fragmentary Greek texts do not give Zeus's reasons for suppressing humankind. However, as Roman mythology disappeared, it absorbed Greek mythology (a phenomenon discussed by Georges Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque, 2d ed., Paris, 1974, pp. 63–75), and it is therefore legitimate to seek Zeus's reasons in Roman mythology, especially in Ovid's Metamorphoses, which provides a fuller account of the Greek version of the flood (Metamorphoses 1.230, 7.352–356). Taking up the Hesiodic theme of the ages of the world, Ovid emphasizes that humans were progressively perverted by crime and lust. Zeus, before humanity's destruction, visited Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who served him a feast of human flesh; outraged and at the end of his patience, Zeus swept away all creatures, cities, almost the whole of earth itself, in the flood. Only one couple, Deukalion and his wife, Pyrrha, were saved, and from them Zeus re-created the race.
Each of the world religions discussed in this section—Gnosticism and Manichaeism, and the three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—lend great richness to the concept of the fall.
Gnosticism and Manichaeism
From the second century ce onward, Gnosticism, a religious movement composed of a number of different sects, came to maturity throughout the Mediterranean world and in the Near East. The central element of Gnostic metaphysical speculation is a dualistic doctrine according to which humanity possesses a divine spark that, although originating from on high, has fallen into matter, into body, which holds it prisoner in the lower world. The myth of the fall, therefore, is an integral part of Gnostic teaching. Each Gnostic sect offered salvation through its specific creed and rites of initiation into these dualistic mysteries. These constituted its particular gnosis. Understood only by adherents who were gradually initiated into it, the gnosis brought about an identity of the initiate with the means of his salvation and with divine substance.
Because it claims to possess the most perfect gnosis, Manichaeism holds a special place in the spectrum of gnostic thought. Its founder, Mani (216–276), taught that, as the transmitter of the gnosis, he was the greatest of the prophets and the ultimate revelation, sent by the Holy Spirit, after the trials and failures of his predecessors—most notably Zarathushtra, the Buddha, and Jesus—to establish the church of the end of time, the church of light, and to provide the definitive revelation that would enlighten all people. According to Mani, the soul, a spark detached from divine light and held prisoner by matter, must tear itself away from the darkness of the body in order to return to the realm of light where it had originated.
The Manichaean gnosis offers the clearest conception of the beginning, the middle, and the end, the three divisions of time. In the beginning, there existed two radically opposed natures, darkness and light, eternal and unborn principles. These two natures created two earths, two different realms. The realm of light is located on high, in a city of incomparable beauty, in the house of the Father of Greatness; the breath of the spirit breathes life and light throughout this realm, where all things exude blessing and peace. But beneath this realm, and separated from it by an impregnable border, lies the realm of darkness, the domain of matter and of demons, a realm governed by the Prince of Lies. Obviously, the Manichaean gnosis presents the golden age within a context of radical gnostic dualism.
In other forms of gnosis, dualism appears against a monistic background, because the world on high—everlasting, immutable, and incorruptible—is held to have existed before the lower world. Indeed, many gnostic writings speak of the Pleroma, of the world on high in all its plenitude, emanating from a being that is the source of all things. The gnostic Pleroma is the union of the Aeons that emanate from the All and constitute, with the First Father, the harmonious universe of peace and light.
The symbol of the fall is omnipresent in gnostic texts; indeed, the precosmic fall of a portion of the divine principle is the underlying reason for the genesis of the cosmos and humanity (Jonas, 1963). In the different metaphysical speculations that explain this fall, it is generally held that the divine principle descended voluntarily, and that guilt came into being as the Aeons turned toward the lower world. Turning toward matter by a burning desire to know it, the soul then sank into it and was swallowed up. Hence, the fall that gave birth to the cosmos also imprisoned the soul in matter.
In Gnostic writings, important groups of symbols suggesting captivity describe the tragic fate of this dualistic, imprisoned soul. One group of symbols suggests pain or danger: violence, fear, and the wounds and bites of animals; another suggests the soul's forgetfulness: torpor, sleep, death, darkness, drunkenness, lack of conscience, ignorance. As a snake's bite causes an infection that debilitates the body, so the poison of darkness causes an infection of the soul that makes it lose awareness of its divine origin. In a frequently used image, the soul falls asleep in matter, and the gnostic message strives to awaken it; hence, gnosticism attaches great importance to its call. Also characteristic of gnostic writings are the images used by Valentinus when describing the behavior of Sophia ("wisdom") after she had fallen into error. The youngest Aeon of the Pleroma, Sophia was the cause of her own fall, through the passion that carried her away—the origin of a fall that brought about the lower world of the Demiurge, who created the material world.
A true religious genius endowed with uncommon imagination, Mani brought together a number of Eastern cosmogonic myths and from them produced a synthesis in which the entire range of dualistic cosmogony, soteriology, and eschatology is included.
In the beginning, Mani taught, the Prince of Darkness, jealous and envious of the Father, hurled a war cry against the realm of light, signaling the beginning of a gigantic cosmic conflict. Primordial Man, the first emanation of the Father, marched against the forces of darkness, but he was wounded and defeated and fell among the archons (cosmic rulers). This was the fall, the moment when the living soul, the divine portion of Primordial Man, was engulfed by darkness; it was also the beginning of the second division of time, the middle, when divinity fell into matter and humanity's mixed nature became fixed. Henceforth, salvation became an imperious necessity. The liberation of Primordial Man from this fallen state is the prototype of the salvation of each soul; and the second emanation of the Father, the Living Spirit (also called the Friend of Light or the Great Architect), extends his right hand to Primordial Man and leads him back to the realm of light. But the fall has permanent consequences, because a part of the light remains captive in the lower realm.
The first moment of middle time, the moment of the fall, is followed by the moment of the creation and the freeing of another part of light, as part of the punishment of the archons. The Living Spirit chained down the archons and cut them to pieces; from their skins he made the vault of heaven, from their bones the mountains, from their flesh and excrement the earth, and from the light taken from them he created the sun, moon, and stars. When a Third Messenger descended from on high in the form of a luminous virgin, the semen of the archons excited by this apparition fell on the earth and produced trees and vegetation. Animals were next created, and finally the first couple was born, the work of demons. This couple was Adam and Eve, creatures of mixed nature whose posterity nonetheless carried with it the greater part of light.
The third moment of middle time is the moment of the messengers of the gnosis, the moment of true and divine hypostasis brought about by the fourth emanation of the Father, Jesus the Splendid, a transcendent, cosmic being, fifth Greatness of the Realm, the life and salvation of humanity. Messengers of the gnosis have followed one after another from Sethel, the son of Adam, to Jesus (here considered as a historical figure), who both announced and sent the final messenger, Mani. Hence, everything was made ready for the third division of time, the end, when all things will become as they had been at the beginning, and the total separation of the realms of darkness and light will be reestablished.
The Eastern myths of the fall brought together by Mani constitute one great myth of the fall and redemption of the divine soul. Each human soul is part of the divine soul that is partly imprisoned in bodies, partly in plants, trees, and earth; in all its imprisoned parts, that divine soul is the soul of the world and the third representation of Jesus, Jesus patibilis. In the great Manichaean myth of the fall is found the gnostic myth of the exiled soul; but, in contrast to most gnostic creeds, in Manichaeism the soul is not responsible for its fall and exile in the body, because that exile is a part of a greater, cosmic fall of light. To this cosmic myth of the fall corresponds the cosmic salvation by a gnosis accessible to individual souls in a church that is both the location and the means of individual salvation, a church charged with proclaiming the message of the fall and issuing the call to salvation, as well as awakening human souls and initiating them into the dualistic mysteries.
Central to the biblical message is the view that the creation of humankind and the cosmos is the work of a unique and transcendent God who freely willed and effected a creation that also marks the beginning of time.
Two different stories of the creation are given in Genesis. The Bible opens with the so-called sacerdotal account of the creation, "the work of six days" (Gn. 1:1–31, 2:1–3). In this cosmogony, primordial chaos is replaced by order through the creative power of God's word. The sacerdotal account emphasizes the transcendence of the creator God and presents his creative activity in an order of ascending importance; although the creation of the world and of animal and vegetable life are all deemed "good," the crowning work in the beginning is the creation of humankind.
The second, so-called Yahvistic, creation story (Gn. 2:4–25) does not talk of the creation of the earth and sky but rather of a desert made fertile by Yahveh; it stresses God's action, his fashioning the first man from clay and breathing the breath of life into his nostrils. It is in the Yahvistic story that God plants a garden in Eden, where humans are the creatures of unequaled importance, the rest of creation being made in relation to them. Together, the two stories of creation provide genetic explanations of important aspects of the human condition; in both, huamity occupies a privileged position in creation. The biblical stories stress that humanity is free and not controlled by fate.
In Hebrew, the word gan—paradeisos in Greek (related to the Iranian paridaida )—designates the place where, according to Genesis 2:8, God placed humanity. The Yahvistic creation story speaks of an arid land on which Yahveh caused rain to fall, after which he took man and placed him in the garden of Eden, created especially for him. This paradise appears as an oasis in the Oriental desert, although its name is linked by some scholars to the Sumerian word edin, for which several Assyrologists read "plain" or "countryside." The word paradeisos adopted by the Greek Bible denotes the pleasure gardens and royal hunting lands of Iran and Asia Minor. For the Greek reader the word suggests a garden of fruits and fruit trees. Certainly the biblical garden is the archetype of all regions of luxuriant vegetation (Gn. 13:10, Is. 51:3, Ez. 31:8).
The text of Genesis 2:10–14, which mentions the four rivers flowing out of Eden, is clearly intended to locate the garden symbolically at the center of the cosmos; a story in Mesopotamian mythology also places a divine residence at the source of rivers. The biblical text seeks to establish a relationship between a divine garden and a human earth, thereby emphasizing the marvelous fertility of humanity's first home. The garden of Eden is also characterized by the presence of two special trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn. 2:16–17). The tree of life is part of a larger Mesopotamian group of symbols, known through a number of texts. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, however, has no parallel in any other ancient text; it is specific to the Yahvistic story of creation and stresses the relationship between life and obedience to God.
Adam and Eve enjoy a life of paradise in the garden, living together in harmony and at peace with the animals, as in Mesopotamian myths of the golden age. Both the Yahvistic and the sacerdotal text stress the privileged situation of humans in Eden—their intimacy with God, their hope of immortality, suggested by the tree of life—and evoke the harmony that exists there, seen in humanity's relations with the rest of creation and its life of ease. The presence in Eden of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil shows that obedience to God is essential to maintaining this privileged situation. The biblical text emphasizes considerations that are absent in all other myths of the golden age—considerations of freedom, of moral choice in the face of good and evil. Through a choice of its own, humanity decides its standing before God and at the same time the direction of its destiny.
The testing of humanity in Eden is related to the problem of human freedom. In mythical language, Genesis 2–3 describes the situation of humans in the world and in the face of God. The garden of Eden is the place where humanity lives in easy familiarity with God, but it is also the symbolic microcosm where its has been given mastery, and where it enjoys the free use of all other created things; thus the conquest and humanization of the world will become the condition of its vocation. The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge belongs to another order, for it deals with the basic human appreciation of the value of earthly things and of the human situation before God (Gn. 3:5–6). It will bring about humankind's fall from paradise.
The story of Eden stresses the primordial couple's disobedience to God and their expulsion from the garden, and it emphasizes that they lost the privileged status of Eden for themselves and for their descendants. Thus, their sin is presented as the prototype of that part of human sin that is universal. The essence of hubris is the desire to be like God; when this desire becomes action, the fall takes place and ushers in the woes of humankind. The Yahvistic document asserts both directly and symbolically that human experience of evil had an absolute beginning, a beginning that coincides with the beginning of human history, the history of freedom. Although the first exercise of that freedom resulted in disaster, through it humanity inaugurated the drama of choice that gives particular significance to human life and its relationship to God. Subsequent biblical books and apocryphal texts repeatedly return to these lessons of the fall (Ez. 28; Dt. 30:15–20; Prv. 3:2, 3:22, 6:15, 10:25; Sir. 37:3; Wis. 1:13–14, 10:1–2).
The editors of chapters 4–11 of Genesis saw in the fall of humanity in Eden not only the loss of paradise and the transformation of the human condition but also the source of a whole series of evils that subsequently beset humankind. Thus, at each stage in the rise of civilization and the institutionalization of the social developments that formed human lives in antiquity, the biblical text notes humanity's corruption, variously described as fratricidal war, polygamy, desert warfare, or the division of nations and tongues (Gn. 4:8, 4:19, 4:23–24, 11:5–9). Since the fall, evil is born in the hearts of humans and always remains at the heart of history, an inevitable force in human affairs.
The most important biblical event having the characteristics of a universal fall is the flood (Gn. 6:5–8:14). The story of Noah in the Bible reinforces elements of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but its editors have taken over and reinterpreted Mesopotamian themes in order to transform them into an episode in sacred history and to show the progressive degeneration of humanity that justifies the flood. In both its Yahvistic and its sacerdotal forms, the biblical story is very different from the Mesopotamian one. The latter sees in the flood simply the decree of gods annoyed with a despised humanity. In the Bible, the memory of the flood serves as the prototype of God's judgment against a sinful humankind; the human situation as a responsible being is stressed, and humanity is not abandoned to the blows of blind destiny. In this myth of the universal fall, a new alliance is foreseen, in which Urzeit leads to Endzeit.
Genesis 6:1–4 contains the story of the benei Elohim who take the daughters of humans as wives. This unusual text presupposes an oral tradition and possibly other written texts. It appears as a preface to the flood and may be interpreted as further evidence of the sins that will provoke the flood, but it is also the starting point for numerous speculations about the fall of the angels. The rabbinical interpretation has seen in the benei Elohim, "the sons of God," angels who sinned with the daughters of humans and were for that reason shut up in the depths of the earth; at the last judgment, they will be thrown into the fire.
Allusions to humanity's fall appear throughout the New Testament, although the Gospels speak of it only in Matthew 19:4–6, Mark 10:6–8, and John 3:5 and 8:41–44. It was Paul who was especially interested in the relationship between the fall and sin. In chapters 1–3 of Romans, he asserts that no one can escape the domination of sin, and in chapter 7 he gives a lengthy description of the human condition in the earthly paradise, where as yet humans knew neither covetousness nor death, and contrasts this with the actual condition to which they have been reduced by sin and death. He asserts that the actual human condition comes from the first sin, the sin of Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise (Rom. 7:13–15); and in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, he opposes the first Adam, the author of death, to Christ, the second Adam, the author of life. In general, Paul sees in the story of Eden not only humanity's hereditary punishment of suffering and death but also its hereditary fallen state, a state of sin transmitted to all humankind.
The Qurʾān demonstrates the importance Islam attaches to the idea of God the creator, the all-powerful. God is the creator (al-khāliq ), the creator par excellence (al-khallāq ); all things are created by virtue of the divine resolution that precedes their appearance. The Qurʾān describes a God who creates through his word, a word that is creative, eternal, and ever present (sūrahs 11:9 and 41:8–11).
God created humankind and called it khalīfah, vicar or viceroy (2:28). Adam, khalīfat Allāh, vicar of a God who had placed him at the center of the world, is the preeminent creature, although, made of mud and clay, it owes everything to God (15:26). Many verses of the Qurʾān stress the preeminent dignity of humanity; even the angels must bow down before humankind (2:32), and when the evil angel Iblīs refuses to do so, God damns him and Iblīs falls, followed by other angels (15:26–35, 17:63–67). The continuing work of creation is also stressed by the Qurʾān; because every person is made by God, the activity of God the creator is permanent.
God put Adam and his wife in the midst of a garden where they could take fruit from the trees, but he forbade them to approach one tree, under pain of falling among sinners (2:33). But the demon made Adam and his wife sin by eating fruit from that tree and thereby caused their expulsion from the place where God had placed them. God said to them, "Leave the garden. You are now enemies one of another, and on earth you will have only brief enjoyment, and brief lives" (2:34). The episodes in the Qurʾān concerning Adam are reminiscent of Genesis: his creation out of earth, his title of vicar, his temptation, fall, and expulsion from paradise. Only the episode of Iblīs is not found in the Bible.
Sūrah 7 mentions the story of the fall and punishment (7:21–24). Here it is the demon who suggests that humans break the divine prohibition in order to obtain immortality. After Adam has sinned, God declares that henceforth men born of the first couple will be enemies one of another (2:34, 7:23, 20:21), and the Qurʾān relates the first fratricidal struggle, between two unnamed sons of Adam whom later Muslim authors call Qābīl and Hābīl.
Noah appears in the Qurʾān as a great prophet who opposes unbelievers (11:27–36, 23:23–26). He receives from God the command to build an ark in order to survive the flood; but, contrary to Genesis, which stresses the universal character of the flood, the Qurʾān appears to restrict divine punishment to Noah's own people, who had become impious. The Qurʾān treats their punishment as both a warning and a sign.
Reflection on the fall is a constant preoccupation of homo religiosus. In his "nostalgia for beginnings," he turns instinctively toward a primordial, sacred history, where he finds a golden age that corresponds to what humankind must have been in the beginning. He sees that humanity's present situation no longer corresponds to that of the golden age, and he strives to explain the accident that has taken place and the consequences of that accident, of that break with primordial harmony.
This article has sought to present the theme of the fall as it appears in the religious thought of the greater part of humankind, although it has been necessary to limit the discussion of myths of the fall to those that describe the fall in relation to a supposed golden age—an age that has haunted human memory—and that locates humanity's fall and its present condition between Urzeit and Endzeit. Most of this article's attention was given to myths of the human fall; but, when pertinent, myths of a cosmic fall, or of the fall of lesser deities, have also been considered.
Nostalgia for the beginning of things is clearly a permanent feature of humankind's collective memory, and representation of a golden age provides the archetype through which that nostalgia is repeatedly expressed. As can be seen by the study of various peoples and cultures, peoples everywhere sought to explain their present condition through the contrast it provides to their supposed primordial condition; in light of that contrast, they have also classified and interpreted their mythical, historical, and symbolic heritage and related these to sacred history.
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Julien Ries (1987)
Translated from French by Jeffrey Haight and Annie S. Mahler
The Fall’s lead singer, Mark Smith, has at some point or another heaped disapproval on every musical trend that has taken place since his own teenage years in the 1970s, including punk, which is the slot most critics choose for the band. Smith has expressed more comfort with the term “speed metal,” which refers to a hybrid of heavy metal and 1970s British punk. He has also called his music “prole,” invoking the proletariat, or industrial working-class, roots of his sound and politics. The one constant in an ever-changing line-up of musicians, Smith operates as the band’s spokesperson and “boss,” as well as its founder. Definition and personnel aside, the Fall has been producing its particular brand of music since 1977, when teenaged Smith, then a dock-worker in Manchester, northern England’s industrial capitol, decided to dedicate his free time to forming a band.
Before putting together the Fall, Smith made some effort to become a part of already-working heavy metal bands. David Cavanagh, who wrote the publicity biography for Matador/Atlantic, noted that Smith had “had
Band members include Dave Bush, keyboards; Steve Hanley, bass; Craig Scanlon, guitar; Mark E. Smith (married Brix [a musician]) vocals; Simon Wolstencraft, drums. Other members include Martin Bramah, guitar; Brix (bandmember 1983-89), bass; Karl Burns, drums; Tony Friel, bass.
Group formed in Manchester, England, and recorded demo with New Hormones label, 1977; played locals clubs in Manchester until moving to London, 1978; began recording with Step Forward label; moved to Rough Trade label; recorded with Beggar’s Banquet, 1984–89; recorded with Phonogram label, 1989–92; signed contract with Matador/Atlantic, 1993.
a few auditions for local heavy metal bands, all of which he had failed in a spectacular fashion. He was tone-deaf and they all hated him anyway.” Always resourceful, Smith simply decided to create a band around himself. He gathered the musicians who would become the first incarnation of the Fall: Martin Bramah on guitar; Tony Friel on bass; Karl Burns on drums. None of them were adept with their instruments, so they had the usual punk sound of the era: loud, harsh, entirely without melody, and generally tuneless. Smith wrote lyrics during his lunch break at the docks; it was, in the long run, the originality, boldness, and social punch of those lyrics that would win the band a following.
An independent label called New Hormones funded the Fall’s first demo tape, but the company decided not to produce the album; it turned out that no one else wanted to either. Smith explained to Cavanagh: “Nobody liked it.... Everywhere we went, nobody wanted to know. They wanted to make it New Wave.... It was rough and all that. Out of tune and that. It was good. Stark, sort of.” A year after the recording, they finally released the Bingo Master’s Breakout EP on Step Forward, another independent punk label. Step Forward would work with the Fall for two more releases: Live at the Witch Trials, also in 1978, and Dragnet in 1979.
As soon as the recording was set in 1978, the band underwent the first in a series of metamorphoses: Smith brought in Una Baines, an organist who also worked as a nurse in a mental hospital. By 1979, however, Baines and Friel were gone, replaced by two teenagers: Marc Riley on bass and Yvonne Pawlett on keyboards. The year continued with more acquisitions, including Craig Scanlon on guitar, Steve Hanley on bass, and Mike Leigh on drums. Scanlon and Hanley, unlike anyone else Smith hired, would stay with the band into the 1990s; all three appear on Dragnet. Leigh was soon supplemented with a second drummer, Paul Hanley, who was Steve’s teenaged brother.
By this time Smith had established a salary system for the band, issuing equal paychecks to all musicians, including himself. When the return on shows and recordings actually exceeded those paychecks, all extra went back into the band itself, rather than into the pockets of the members. Through this method, the . band became an investment that would continually employ its members, whoever they may be.
In those early years, however, The Fall was just managing to scrape by on Manchester club dates, as Smith told Cavanagh: “We were doing cabaret circuits at the time, just to earn money.... Workingmen’s clubs and all that.... It toughened you up. They’d be throwing glasses—proper glasses, like—and spitting at you.” Smith traces devoted cult following from those shows, stressing in particular the working-class element: miners from Wakefield and Newcastle. When the outfit relocated to London in 1978, the band’s survival was guaranteed only by Smith’s and Baine’s jobs, which they used as subsidy.
After the first two albums with Step Forward, the band started on a pattern of moving through independent labels, sometimes leaving out of dissatisfaction, sometimes because a label died on them, as small companies were prone to do. They had one of their longer, if still far from perfect, associations with Rough Trade, with whom they first recorded Totale ‘s Turn (It’s Now Or Never) (:Live) in 1979. During this year the band also produced two singles that would eventually become Fall classics: “How I Wrote Elastic Man” and “Totally Wired.” They would stay with Rough Trade for two more albums, Grotesque (After the Gramme) in 1980 and Slates in 1981.
Despite the productive pace, according to Cavanagh, “Smith was convinced” by 1981 that the band would dissolve soon. With that in mind, he produced what he expected to be “the last Fall album”: Hex Enduction Hour, released in 1982. Since an hour-long LP was virtually unprecedented, it appeared to be a kind of epic, which contained, in Cavanagh’s words, “everything [Smith] felt and thought” and “almost as many words as the Bible.” A six-musician lineup appeared on this release, including Karl Burns’s return as a second drummer. But Hex was not the swan song of the Fall, and they actually released another album in 1982, Room to Live. For both of these productions, the band took a break from Rough Trade, “starving away,” as Cavanagh wrote, “on the tiny Kamera label, which soon went bust.”
Hex coincided with a brief courtship from legendary U.S. label, Motown Records; the interest fizzled when the company that had opened up the record industry for African-American musical talent realized that the Fall’s lyrics could sport occasional bursts of troubling racism. The band encountered similar criticisms from Rough Trade; despite its background producing punk outfits, the label was uncomfortable with the coarseness, vulgarity, and violence that permeated Smith’s lyrics.
After completing Perverted By Language the match proved too difficult, and the Fall moved on. By this time, however, the band had enough of a following to be able to open record company doors fairly quickly. A kind of breakthrough occurred in the same year: the British media actually discovered the Fall, culminating in an appearance on national television.
Their sound had begun to change—becoming more melodic—largely due to the introduction, in 1983, of an American musician named Brix into Smith’s life and band. Smith and Brix met at a Fall show in Chicago; they were married soon after. By fall, Brix was playing bass in the band, at first only occasionally and then more and more regularly. She became, as Cavanagh summarized, “Thé Fall’s arranger, key melodic song writer and (undeniably) visual attraction.”
Despite growing fame, the band continued to operate on its “prole” work ethic; they put out albums on an at least annual rate, including The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fallin 1984, two albums in 1985, and one a year through 1988.
The 1984 album also led to an unlikely collaboration with ballet-dancer Michael Clark, a Fall fan who wanted to combine their music with his dancing. The product, an operatic ballet entitled Kurious Oranji, took Clark and Smith six months to create. After an Amsterdam opening, the performance traveled to Edinburgh and finished with two weeks in London—a respectable run for such an unusual venture. A recording of the work would appear in 1988 as I Am Kurious Oranji.
Brix, Clark, and a musician named Simon Rogers all coincided to provide that growth stage that the band was going through. Cavanagh explained, for example, the freshness of Brix’s style, which emphasized the former prejudices of Smith’s: “It was a bit of new scene for Smith—choruses and structures and middle eights.” Simon Rogers, a classically trained musician capable of handling any instrument, furthered those changes in 1985. Rogers first joined the band as a temporary, filling in on bass for Steve Hanley’s six-month absence. By the time the Fall released This Nation’s Saving Grace in 1985, Rogers had moved to keyboard; he stayed with the band until 1986, through the release of Bend Sinister.
These various influences appeared to be positive, contributing to their effect on audiences by 1987: “Fall now earn respect of entire music biz,” declared Jon Wilde, writing for Matador. They had a further success with the single “Hit the North”; Cavanagh claimed that it “blasted the Fall forward as an unexpectedly menacing dance proposition.”
Smith conducted more hirings and firings in the late 1980s, not the least of which was the very emotionally charged departure of Brix in 1989. Rogers and Paul Hanley left, on generally good terms, and were replaced by Marcia Schofield on keyboards and Simon Wolstencroft on drums, both of whom appeared on The Frenz Experiment in 1988 and the cover of a Kinks single, “Victoria.” After Brix left in 1989, Martin Bramah returned to play guitar. Bramah, however, lasted only through 1990’s Extricate, after which Smith fired both him and Schofield. The decision seemed odd, since the album received, as Cavanagh noted, “across-the-board rave reviews”; about those changes, Smith told Cavanagh, “I wanted to make the band more sparse.... We were a six-piece, almost a seven-piece.”
By this time, Smith had a reputation as a kind of proletarian enfant terrible,the press characterized him as an eccentric willing to express an acerbic opinion on everything, particularly the politics, national and international, that he perceived to be keeping the British working class out of work. As Andrew Perry remarked in Select, “Mark relishes the opportunity to spout off in interviews.” In 1990, Steven Wills declared in New Musical Express, “We like Mark because Mark is sharp and because his band have kept the flag flying for white trash music that is impolite and jagged and not... quite ... right... through all the bitter years of conformist poodlefakery and indie incompetence.” More pointedly, Wills commented on the source of that attitude: “Mark has reinvented himself as Mark E. Smith, the working class lad with two chip shops on each shoulder who is convinced of his brilliance, wisdom and uniqueness despite (or because of) his background in an education system that told he was shit and prepared him for the role of under-achieving epsilon.”
An association with Phonogram records that began with Extricate produced several more critically-acclaimed albums before crumbling in a bitter break-up after Code: Selfish in 1992. By this time, however, a resurgence of interest allowed The Fall to strike fast deals with Permanent in England and the Matador/Atlantic combination in the United States. The fresh attention was fostered in part by an evident influence surfacing in young bands, particularly American grunge rock bands, like Nirvana, that catapulted to fame in the early 1990s.
John Harris, writing for New Musical Express in 1993, raved over the slew of successful singles that preceded The Infotainment Scan, including “Why Are People Grudgeful?,” “Lost in Music,” and “Glam Racket.” “Why Are People Grudgeful?” earned single of the week status from both NME and Select In his review for the latter, Andrew Collins claimed that “time cannot tarnish them, age does not lessen their impact, changes of line-up (and, indeed, label) serve only to consolidate Mark E. Smith’s unfathomable vision.”
Paul Ashby paid similar tribute to their longevity in Pulse!, remarking particularly on the band’s “dignity”: “The Fall has endured (and often presaged) more changes in fashion than any other band, while never compromising its original purpose—to serve as a soapbox for Smith’s satiric and mercilessly honest social/political observations.” Smith, however, has the last word on that career, as he told Spin’s Mark Blackwell when he expressed his “deep contempt” for over-the-hill rockers, implying that Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie were making music without any purpose to it anymore; he set himself apart, saying, “When I’ve got nothin’ else to say, I’ll f—in’ pack it in.”
Live At the Witch Trials, Step Forward, 1978.
Dragnet, Step Forward, 1979.
Totale’s Turns (It’s Now or Never) (:Live), Rough Trade, 1979.
Grotesque (After the Gramme), Rough Trade, 1980.
Slates, Rough Trade, 1981.
Hex Enduction Hour, Kamera, 1982.
Early Years ‘77-79, Step Forward, 1981.
Room to Live, Kamera, 1982.
Perverted by Language, Rough Trade, 1983.
The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, Beggars Banquet, 1984.
Hip Priests and Kamerads, Situation Two, 1985.
This Nation’s Saving Grace, Beggars Banquet, 1985.
Bend Sinister, Beggars Banquet, 1986.
Palace of Swords Reversed, Cog Sinister, 1987.
The Frenz Experiment, Beggars Banquet, 1988.
I Am Kurious Oranji, Beggars Banquet, 1988.
Seminal Live, Beggars Banquet, 1989.
Extricate, Cog Sinister/Phonogram, 1990.
Shift-Work, Cog Sinister/Phonogram, 1991.
Code: Selfish, Cog Sinister/Phonogram, 1992.
Kimble (EP), BBC Radio 1/Strange Fruit, 1993.
The Infotainment Scan, Permanent/Matador-Atlantic, 1993.
Middle Class Revolt, Matador, 1994.
Guitar Player, August 1993.
New Musical Express, August 25, 1990; April 3, 1993.
New York Times, August 20, 1993.
Pulse!, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993.
Select, May 1993.
Spin, October 1993.
Variety, May 30, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Matador/Atlantic press materials.
—Ondine Le Blanc