Eating one bad apple isn’t all that happened in that garden.
Cain has heard all of his father’s stories before, he’s just not certain why he should listen. It’s hard to imagine his troubled mother as any sort of temptress. Nor is he the manly shepherd Adam hoped for as a son. But when a decidedly droll serpent slithers into his life—imagine a cryptic Oscar Wilde with scales—Cain begins to wonder what other choices he might have.
Cain’s troubles only grow when he encounters a crone named Lilith trapped inside an ancient tree. Claiming to be Adam’s first wife, Lilith’s story only fuels Cain’s anger at his father. It also sets into motion the tragic fratricide.
Cast into exile, Cain must find his proper place in a new and wider world. Along the way, with the serpent’s help, he pulls together the pieces of an alarming primordial mystery.
Conversations with the Serpent retells a familiar iconic story from a fresh perspective, sympathetic to those who usually get blamed: Eve, the serpent and Lilith. Think Gregory Maguire’s Wicked meets the Garden of Eden. At 130,000 words, the novel is complete and available for representation.
The novel’s central plot points are derived from existing myths and legends. The wellsprings of many of these developments are described below.
Characters in the Novel and their Basis in Ancient Legends
In the Genesis account, Cain is described as a farmer, even though his name is drawn from the same root as that of a blacksmith. In either case, he is emblematic of a more settled rural/urban life, in contrast to that of the nomadic shepherd favored in the Hebrew Bible. Besides the more familiar tale of his conflict with his brother, in Genesis 4.7, Cain is said to have built the first city, further identifying him with urban life. Symbolically, in the Biblical account, Cain’s murder of Abel embodied the conflict between those two lifestyles, unsympathetically portrayed by nomadic storytellers. Cain’s mark for murdering Abel was identified as a horn in some Jewish commentaries. Some suggest Cain’s evil was so great that he couldn’t actually be the son of Adam, but rather the bastard son of Eve and the serpent.
Other extra-Biblical commentaries suggest that Cain’s city wasn’t the first city of any kind, but rather the first city of refuge for those exiled from their own communities. Cain, as a murderer, is precisely the sort of fellow who might benefit from a city of refuge and so his building one must have made sense to early scriptural commentators. The Bible mentions existing cities of refuge in Deuteronomy 4.43 and Joshua 20.7-8, but doesn’t link them with Cain. This only occurs in extra-Biblical commentary.
These were some of the aspects of the Cain legend that I developed in Conversations with the Serpent. I also drew on an intriguing medieval image of being tortured with fire all the while being penetrated by the roots of a tree. The tree of knowledge? I began to think of the serpent’s temptation of Cain as involving a dangerous hunger for self-knowledge.
Eichhorn, David Max (1985). Cain: Son of the Serpent. Chappaqua, NY: Rossel Books.
Eve has been honored and condemned as the world’s first woman, according to Hebrew, Christian and Islamic legend. Before her separation from Adam’s side, some ancient Hebrew commentators believed Eve constituted part of an androgynous creature with Adam. What’s more, this androgyne constituted the ideal state of humanity. In the 3rd century Gnostic Gospel of Philip, it’s written, “When Eve was still in Adam, there was no death. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he again becomes complete, and attains his former self, death will be no more.”
Of course, a traditional reading of the book of Genesis suggests that death entered into the life of the primal pair because of Eve eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. As such, the serpent’s role in enticing her to eat from it is seen as destructive. The Gnostics, on the other hand, saw knowledge has a necessary first step towards recognizing key illusions in the physical world. In that sense, eating from the tree was seen as a positive step.
The Gnostics weren’t the only ones to see Eve in a more positive light. In the late 2nd century, for example, the New Prophecy movement of Phyrgia revered Eve as the first prophet, a distinction granted her for seeing things as they really are after eating from the tree of knowledge. The New Prophecy, more commonly referred to as Montanism, was founded by Montanus, a eunuch, and two female prophets, Prisca and Maximilla. Other female figures admired by the New Prophecy were Moses’ sister Miriam and the Apostle Philip’s daughters, all four of whom were said to be prophets. The New Prophecy survived for several centuries, but was regarded heretical by the mainstream church.
Barnstone, Willis, Ed. (1984). The Other Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, p. 94.
Torjesen, Karen Jo (1993). When Women Were Priests. Harper Collins, San Francisco.
Trevett, Christine (1996). Montanism: Gender, authority and the New Prophecy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Norea is the daughter of Adam and Eve, conceived after Cain and Abel according to several Gnostic versions of the Judeo-Christian creation account. Norea was said to be “the virgin whom the Forces did not defile.” The physical nature of creation was seen as evil by the Gnostics, while pure knowledge or gnosis, as embodied by the tree of knowledge, was seen as a source of salvation. Known as Norea the Wise, she was able to escape physical defilement by the evil forces of the physical world.
Norea was also said to be the wife of Noah! Just as the Gnostics considered physical creation a distortion of our soul’s true nature, some Gnostics saw Noah’s efforts to physically rescue humanity and all the animals of creation as misguided. When Norea asked to board the ark, her husband refused her entry for reasons that remain obscure. Norea promptly blew on the ark, causing it be consumed in flames. But Noah was not so easily dissuaded, building a second ark. In this way, the physical nature of humanity and the animal world would endure.
As for Norea, she was rescued by an angel named Eleleth, that is, Sagacity.
In other Gnostic stories, Norea was identified as the wife of Seth or the wife of Noah’s son, Shem. In some ways, the character of Norea represents a reversal of conventional lore, a narrative device of which the Gnostics were especially fond. Norea was apparently an important figure in some strains of Gnosticism, having her several short tracts devoted to her teachings, including the The First Book of Norea and The Thought of Norea. In my version of the character, Norea walks with a decided limp from an early childhood fall.
Barnstone, Willis (1984). The Other Bible. San Francisco, Harper & Row, p. 735.
J. Robinson, pp. 156-60, 164, 404-05, 487.
Christian scholars never seemed troubled by the conflicting creation accounts in the book of Genesis. Jewish scholars, however, felt the need to explain the discrepancies by suggesting Adam had been married twice, first to Lilith and then to Eve. Early and medieval Jewish commentary elaborated on Lilith’s character, who had also been a minor figure in Babylonian mythology.
It was said that God infused Lilith with the fire of the moon, which accounted for her fiery temper and her love of night. When Lilith refused to submit to Adam’s hopes for authority, she sprouted wings of fire. One medieval legend suggested she fled to a cave where she proceeded to mate with demons. It is said that these demons could only reach the human realm through the surface of mirrors.
There are also Jewish accounts of Lilith as a serpent in the tree of knowledge, hating human children and haunting men in their dreams. A passage in Isaiah 34.14, in the New Revised Standard Version, is the only Biblical reference to Lilith (or night-hag as some other translations suggest). This passage placed her in the company of wildcats, hyenas, owls and satyrs, all in a barren landscape suggestive of a nightmare. I’ve drawn on all of these accounts in my shaping of her story.
Koltuv, Barbara Black (1986). The Book of Lilith. York Beach, MA: Nicolas-Hays, Inc.
Schwartz, Howard (1988). Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Aklia is based on the unnamed daughter in the “The Cave of Lilith,” a bit of medieval Jewish folklore. I took her name from an extra-Biblical source, the circa 5th century The First and Second Books of Adam and Eve, in which she was identified as the sister and intended wife of Cain. Making her a medicine woman and a healer enabled me to explore shamanic notions of both the other world and animals of power. The Jewish folktale only notes that feathers of an unspecified kind proved deadly to the girl’s mother. I’m the first to suggest that Aklia claimed a raven’s feather as a powerful talisman.
Platt, Rutherford H. (1927/1980). The Forgotten Books of Eden: Lost Books of the Old Testament. New York: Bell Publishing.
Schwartz, Howard (1988). Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
MUSTAFA, OLD HAMMAD and HAZM
As part of an overall goal to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in my writing, when characters I wanted to include had no established Biblical names, I chose Arab names to represent them. I recognize that the Arab language as such may not have been fully formed at that time. Even so, I think it’s a worthy gesture. Mustafa is a blacksmith who is part of Cain’s journey to self knowledge. Old Hammad is a merchant and Aklia’s father. Hazm is a youth who just happens to have one bad arm. All of the characters are original to the novel.
The serpent, of course, was the main villain in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden. But as the one who led Eve and Adam to partake of sacred knowledge, the serpent was regarded by Gnostic Christians as a positive force of spiritual enlightenment. It’s this tension that I play with in my novel. In writing about Lilith AND the Serpent, I also had to grapple with Lilith’s embrace of sensuality and the Gnostic rejection of it. Was it possible to write a saga in which a Gnostic reverence for wisdom could be embraced without portraying the material world as fundamentally evil. As such, Conversations with the Serpent isn’t just a retelling of ancient tales, but grapples with ancient truths as well.