The Oldest Taboo in the World
Introduction to "PARADISE DENIED"
This book challenges an ancient taboo on what may be the supreme religious experience of the human race. It reveals the untold story about how religion originated before humans formed beliefs about what God or Divinity might be. It affirms what scholars of history and anthropology have come to understand by intensive studies in the long-range view of human evolution: our species encountered God, the divine presence in the world, before we could define it as such. This encounter took place thousands of years ago, prior to any form of faith defined by doctrine, rite, hierarchy, or institution. Paradoxically, religion as we now define it only became possible due to a taboo imposed on the primordial religious act—the ecstatic, unmediated encounter with Divinity.
What people today believe about God depends on their being forbidden the sublime experience that stands behind their belief.
Thou Shalt Not Know
The oldest taboo in the world is seemingly a most potent one. Its prohibitive power cannot be denied, yet it also suffers a fatal weakness. As taboos go, this one is odd, an inexplicable exception. Traditionally, native societies around the world observe taboos, ritual prohibitions. Among the most common are taboos against eating certain foods or animals: the Muslim taboo on eating pork, for instance. Or the Hindu taboo on killing cows. Such prohibitions may look foolish or simple-minded,but there is a profound understanding behind them. All around the world, indigenous people show a sophistication lacking in modern society, because the taboos they observe are transparent and can always be put in question, or even suspended.
Traditionally, the purpose of a taboo is to preserve the boundary between the sacred and the profane, but the boundary is porous. Cattle sacred in the Hindu religion wander the streets in India in a routine, nonchalant way. The cow may not be slain: this is taboo. But due to open awareness of the taboo—complete transparency—the presence of the cow in the ordinary (profane) world brings to mind another world, a realm where things possess a different value, connected to the sacred dimension of life. Sacred and profane values coexist and interact, and how they do so is seen in the function of taboos and tabooed objects.
In Native American cultures, taboos apply to totem animals, considered to be forms assumed by non-human ancestors and guides of the community. The definition of what is forbidden is explicit and known to all. Each taboo is particular to the tribal identity of those who embrace it, and unanimously recognized across communal divisions. The beaver may not be eaten by members of the beaver clan, for instance. Other clans may consume it as they like. But on certain occasions, members of a beaver clan do eat the sacred animal in a ceremony of gratitude. The taboo exists to be broken—but broken in a regulated, respectful, and ceremonial way. Periodic breach of a taboo preserves the sacredness of the taboo.
Paradoxically, breaking the taboo is a way of observe it: the beaver is kept sacred by not being eaten most of the time, but then, even when it is eaten, the communal ceremony of consumption is a sacred event. Taboos work positively in indigenous societies because they are openly accepted by the members who are asked to observe them. The tribe knows exactly what it is forbidden to do. Normally, a taboo is open and self-evident.
Not so, the taboo the original ecstatic religious experience induced by psychoactive plants or medicine plants. This taboo is totally exceptional and fundamentally different from the universal model of prohibition that sets a felxible boundary between sacred and profane. In this bizarre instance, the taboo hides itself from those who are required to observe it. The taboo on original religion is a prohibition that keeps its observants in the dark about what is prohibited to them Rather than knowing about the taboo, and observing it openly and by consent, the community—in this case, the entire human race—is forbidden to know the taboo exists, as well as forbidden to partake of the tabooed object.
Consider a crude analogy: a tribe is forbidden to eat baked beans, but never told so in just those terms, that is, never told that baked beans exist to be eaten in the first place. This being so, those who impose the taboo have to make sure that no baked beans are available lest some members of the tribe, ignorant of the taboo, might discover them and eat them. This inverted taboo (as it might be called) requires that the tabooed object be concealed, and more, that it's very existence be denied. It demands that all knowledge of its availability be supressed, but even more weirdly, of its unavailability. Members of the tribe subjected such an inverted taboo must not even know that they are prohibited from having something. Such are the bizarre conditions of the blinding prohibition that operates in the inverted taboo.
Anthropologists who study taboos and totemic systems do not report anything remotely like the inverted taboo in the entire corpus of studies. The inverted taboo is a unique case that applies to a unique factor in human nature, in the deep structure of our species: the need to know the ontological source of the natural world, the “Ground of Being,” as Paul Tillich calls it in theological terms. If we accept that the human species has emerged from nature, the ontological source or the Ground of being for humanity must be the natural world. The inverted taboo is imposed upon our knowledge of that world, first and foremost, whatever one may imagine of a world beyond from which nature itself has emerged.
The Biblical prohibition “Thou shalt not know” signals a clear and deliberate act of denial. It indicates the peculiar dynamic of the inverted taboo, the way it conceals what it forbids. Stated in more explicit terms the taboo state that thou shalt not know what thou art forbidden to have. The taboo packs a double whammy: against partaking of the tabooed thing, and against knowing that it exists to partake of. Such is the extraordinary and baffling interdiction stated in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The fact that the community (i.e., humankind) is not allowed to know what is forbidden to it makes the inverted taboo particularly strong, but also uniquely vulnerable. To make the forbidden object unavailable demands strenuous measures of concealment and deceit (not stating what is denied). No ordinary taboo requires such measures or such devious tactics.
Blinding prohibition is a powerful tool for social manipulation. This is precisely the particular strength that derives from the inverted taboo. But there is a downside for the controllers in this situation. Unlike the open taboo, which is known to the entire community and adopted by communal consent, the taboo that splits the community depends on a cover-up, a program of deceit that keeps its members in ignorance of what is forbidden to them. Maintaining such a deceit is by no means easy. It requires enormous and elaborate effort over time. It demands arcane tactics of coercion and intimidation. Most of all, it obliges the controllers to involve the community in the cover-up operation, so that those who are subjected to the taboo actually contribute to the deceit being inflicted on them. The taboo-makers must rely on the complicity of the people they dupe with the blinding prohibition to make it work.
If the object under bliding prohibitoin were to be revealed, and the tribe was to realize what it was missing, the entire scheme of control and dissimulation would implode.
Such a vast exercise in deception is precarious, and perhaps hard to imagine, yet it can and does work amazingly well. But inevitably there comes a moment when someone in the community discovers what is forbidden and hidden by the inverted taboo, and challenges it. Such a moment occurred fifty years ago, in 1957, due to a singular event in the United States, and was even announced to the world at large, although the nature of that event and its repercussions are just now becoming known to the general public.
Traditionally, the tabooed thing is a power object. Partaking of it confers special force and knowledge. The oldest taboo in the world cannot be overthrown without access to the experience it forbids, but the deception woven around the taboo makes such access difficult to attain. My purpose in this book is to counter that supreme deceit with clear evidence, both textual and graphic, making it possible to tell a forbidden story and dispel the blinding prohibition. This done, those who care (and dare) can make the choice “to regain the lost dimension, the encounter with the Sacred.”
Do not eat the forbidden fruit: this is the oldest taboo in the world. The taboo against eating from the Tree of Knowledge appears to be imposed for the good of humanity, according to the will of the father god. But this claim cannot hold once the hidden agenda written into the myth is exposed. Then it becomes possible to understand that the divine prohibition works against humanity, against the fulfillment of human spirituality (or human potential, if you prefer). Due to the deceit that informs it, the taboo has to be inverted and made to look like a wise and loving prohibition, an act of protection on the part of the Creator who forbids humankind to have something “for your own good.”
The Edenic myth in Genesis contains a series of motifs that meld into a familiar story-line, expressing the unworthiness of humanity in the eyes of God: man is made the caretaker of the natural world, he is forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and told he will die if he does so; Eve appears, conjured from Adam´s rib, her purpose is to be his helpmate; the serpent on the tree tempts Eve, telling her the fruit is good and contradicting God, saying that she will not die by eating it, but will become as the gods, knowing good and evil; Eve eats the forbidden fruit and offers it to Adam, who also eats; they realize that the tree is “to be desired to make one wise,” and it pleases them; “their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked”; God discovers their disobedience when he realizes that they now know they are naked; God curses the serpent, puts enmity between man and woman, and between woman and her seed, condemns them to labor, condemns woman to pain in childbirth and subservience to her mate, condemns them both to eat thorny weeds and to die, dust returning to dust.
Genesis 2:9 describes the two trees, of knowledge and of life. But Genesis 2:17 only forbids eating of the first. Here is another hidden factor in the mythical syntax. Reading the myth in fine detail, we notice that eating of the tree of knowledge brings up the risk that Adam and Eve will eat of the tree of life, which is not expressly forbidden. Why is God so upset that eating of the one will lead to eating of the another? Perhaps because the realization gained from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge generates recognition of what the tree of life is. The forbidden fruit gives the first parents access to the very biological source of their existence, "the tree of life." Because this tree could not be attained unless the fruit of the other tree was eaten, access to it did not have to be denied. Without the forbidden fruit to open their vision, Adam and Eve could partake of the tree of life for nutrition, to sustain themselves, but not to access its deeper secrets, not to attain the secret of life itself. The tree of knowledge confers the wisdom that opens the way to the secret of immortality, represented by the tree of life (in modern terms, DNA, the human genome, ontogenic and phylogenetic evolution).
Remove the dissimulating language and the hidden message of the myth is clear: this creator wants humanity to remain in a naïve state, like a child who can be commanded, frightened, and threatened, and not in an illumined state, full of rapture and autonomous, godlike knowledge.
Up to now it may seem that I am contradicting myself. Above I said that we are forbidden to know that the taboo on the forbidden fruit exists. A taboo is inverted when it does not state what it prohibits, but the Edenic myth does. It names the tabooed object. Or does it? God puts the tree of knowledge under taboo, clearly enough, but again I must stress how the myth dissimulates. The story says that the fruit offered by the serpent on the tree makes the eaters wise, gives pleasure, and changes their perception of themselves and the world around them. This says a lot, and such assertions might lead somewhere were we to ask, What kind of plants found in the natural world can produce these effects? We never go there, however. Why not? Because due to the dishonest intent of its construction, the myth of disobedience only points to the existence of visionary plants—euphemistically, Eve's apple— to condemn them. The myth names the tabooed plant, but forbids us to know anything about it. Consequently, hardly anyone today, asked "What was the forbidden fruit of Eden?", will be able to respond, "It was a psychoactive visionary plant."
The mythmakers who wrote the Fall myth intended to emphasize certain concerns—sin and sexuality, obediance to a parent, guilt, punishment, gender strife, procreation and birth pain, hard labor, and death—and to conceal, as far as possible, those features of the Edenic scene of awakening that refer to the natural setting where it occurred. These features are illumined knowledge, rapture, innocence (“they knew not that they were naked”), sensual pleasure, access to the secrets of biology, a heightened ethical sense ("knowing food and evil"), and the sense of immortality. Such are the suppressed values in the Edenic narrative. These values are downplayed in favor of themes of oppression, sin, and rejection. The natural values of the myth, as they might be called, have not been concealed by accident but by deliberate deceit. The myth is “spun” to hide everything it must reveal about the state of blissful knowing of the natural world in order to forbid that bliss? The story of what the myth prohibits cannot be told without including these features, but they must be dissimulated to fulfil the chosen intention of the narrative.
The Paris Eadwine Psalter
The myth of the Fall describes the loss of primary religious experience of eccstatic knowing, but in doing so, it assets that such an experience is possible. The motif of the earthly paradise, a dominant theme in Christian history, encodes a magnificent and life-enhancing opportunity: to awaken in visionary rapture to the divine reality of the natural world and the human condition. It is astounding to consider how little interest and aspiration has been given to this mofit, compared to the motif of the Fall that emphasizes sin, suffering, enslavement, and retribution, themes that have consumed human imagination for more than 2500 years. But there is no paradise lost without a paradise to regain.
The claim that humanity is “fallen,” i.e., less than it could be, can be balanced against the claim that human potential is open to learning and discovery, amenable to development, and can be infinitely evolved. The oldest taboo in the world stands against the latter claim, and denies the evolutionary promise of human potential, but does not openly refute it. A clever deception factored into the taboo determines how the taboo works. Paradise Denied exposes that deception.
Currently, there is an outpouring of books on entheogenic religion and the Wasson thesis. I am not to only one to be exposing the Biblical taboo, but in this book I have the advantage of rare evidence for the survival of ecstatic religion into the Middle Ages, the Paris Eadwine Psalter. This is a 12th Century illustrated prayerbook existing in only one version, kept in the National Library in Paris. It is filled with over forty multi-colored images of psychoative mushrooms which can be identified botanically by their shape and color. The Da Vinci Code demanded squinting and long stretches of imagination to support of the conspiratorial plot about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Paris psalter is gloriously explicit and requires no speculation or squinting. It depicts many Biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, embellished with psychedelic images of mushrooms. One panel shows Jesus is his cosmic form as Christ offering the sacred mushroom to our first parents.
The book concludes with a consideration of the Pharamacratic Inquisition, the current, stronger-then-ever program to forbid access to nature-given plants that heal and induce ecstatic vision.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.