The First Woman

Rubens Painting Adam Eve.jpg
Ruben’s painting of Adam and Eve

The bible tells us that God formed a man from the dust and blew the breath of life into him. The man was then placed in Eden where he had to tend the garden and animals. In the garden, there was a tree containing the knowledge of good and evil. God prohibited the man from eating the fruit of this tree. Later, as none of the animals were found to be a suitable companion for the man, God created a woman from the man’s rib. The chapter ends by establishing the state of primeval innocence, noting that the man and woman were “naked and not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25), thus providing the basis for the subsequent narrative where wisdom is obtained through disobedience initiated by the woman.

The story of Adam or Eve is by no means universal. According to the Iroquois, Huron and Navajo people, the first human being was, in fact, a woman. This interpretation of the origins of the human race accords reasonably well with the facts concerning Mitochondrial Eve, who, according to currently popular scientific mythology, is the mother of us all. Nevertheless, the role of the woman in many legends are the most intriguing as, varied as they are in the method in which they were created and in their circumstances, the first woman share many similar characteristics across cultures – they are beautiful, they change the course of the world through their mere existence and they provide us with glimpses of personalities that women around the world still inherit to this day.

Young black woman with closed eyes touching chin

In ancient Greek mythology, the story of the first woman first appears in Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 8th – 7th centuries BCE). After humans, all of whom were men, received the stolen gift of fire from Prometheus (“forethought”), an angry Zeus decided to give humanity a punishing “gift” to compensate for the boon they had been given. Zeus commanded Hephaestus to mold the first woman, a “beautiful evil” whose descendants would continue to torment the human race “for from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble.” When the first woman appeared before gods and mortals, they looked at her in wonder. However, according to Hesiod, the woman was “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men”.

The more famous version of the this legend comes from another of Hesiod’s poems, Works and Days, in which Hesiod expands on her origin and widens the scope of the misery she inflicted on humanity. In this version, more gods contribute to the first woman’s completion – Athena clothed her and taught her how to weave, Aphrodite “shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs”, Hermes gave her “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” as well as the power of speech, putting in her “lies and crafty words”. The Charites adorned her with finery and the Horae adorned her with a garland crown. The woman was given the name Pandora (“all-gifted”) because all the gods gave her a gift.

Alexandre Cabanel - Pandora - Walters 3799.jpg
By Alexandre Cabanel, a professor of painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, depicting the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson as Pandora. (1873)

Pandora brought with her a jar – due to textual corruption in the sixteenth century CE, this jar came to be called a box. The jar contained toil, sickness and miseries that bring death to men. Prometheus had warned his brother Epimetheus (“afterthought”) not to accept any gifts from Zeus. However,  Epimetheus, who quickly fell in love with Pandora, did not listen and accepted her. Pandora later opened and scattered the contents of her jar, releasing all the evil and miseries to the world, only leaving hope. The opening of the jar serves as the beginning of the Silver Age, in which mankind is subject to the cycle of death and rebirth.

Calm woman with sparkler on street

Hindu mythology believes that when Brahma was created the universe, he gave form to a man and a woman. The man was named Swayambhu Manu (“self-manifested man”) and the woman was named Shatarupa (“she of a hundred beautiful forms”). However, after Brahma created Shatarupa and saw her for the first time, he was immediately infatuated and pursued her wherever she went. This made Shatarupa uncomfortable as she moved in various directions to avoid Brahma’s gaze. However,  wherever she went, Brahma developed another head until he had four – one for each direction of the compass. Shatarupa desperately leaped over him to stay out of his gaze for a brief moment. At this, a fifth head appeared above the other heads of Brahma. Shiva saw this and sympathized with Shatarupa. Shiva then merged with his wife Parvati and formed the Ardhanarishvara (“half-man and half-woman god”). In this form, Shiva taught Brahma that males and females are the same because their souls are exactly the same – the soul does not have a gender, only material. The different outer bodies are only due to different body parts.

Drone view of distant female in maxi dress standing on lush verdant meadow in magnificent exotic highlands in sunlight

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