Not a metaphoric Garden of Eden, mind you, but the real, true thing?
The notion would seem to strike many people as absurd, not the least reason being that it’s a stretch to believe the Bible’s take on Creation is the literal truth.
Another reason is that it positions the Garden as the spot where four rivers — Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates — branch out. The first two are mysteries but the last two are actually in the Middle East.
But at one time a case was made that Serpent Mound in Adams County — southwest Ohio’s greatest example of land art and one of the nation’ best known earthworks — was indeed the actual Garden of Eden. And the story of that theory, as well as a lot of others about the Garden’s actual location, are discussed in a delightfully provocative and well-researched recent book, Brook Wilensky-Lanford’s Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden. Some of those theories are flawed but thoughtful and even scholarly; others are breathtakingly half-baked.
It’s been established that Ohio’s famous 1,348-foot-long raised effigy of a serpent was constructed by ancient American Indian cultures. Why has yet to be firmly decided. It might have been used as a calendar; the fact that the coiled serpent’s open mouth points toward an oval shape has been taken as a symbol of fertility, or as a sanctuary where people could gather during solar eclipses.
As Wilensky-Lanford recounts, however, an Adams County native, Reverend Edmund Landon West, first claimed in 1901 that it was actually the true, God-created Garden of Eden.
It’s worth noting that Serpent Mound had already been well-studied by 1901, and neither Ohio nor America was a superstitious place. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum had undertaken a restoration of the mound and then given it to the Ohio Historical Society a year before West’s theory was voiced. So he was seen as an oddity at the time.
Wilensky-Lanford, who has read West’s 18-page pamphlet Eden’s Land and Garden With Their Marks Yet to Be Seen (I have not) says his theory turns on a couple key points: He didn’t believe the mound’s builders could have been Indians. “He believed the Mound Builders were America’s first people: Christian people who ‘most assuredly’ knew something of the Bible events recorded in Serpent Mound,” she writes. In fact, she says of West’s theory, humans from Adam through Noah lived in Ohio until the Great Flood, when he built his Ark on the Mississippi River and then traveled 48 miles a day (or 7,500 miles in five months) from the Gulf of Mexico to Mount Ararat in Armenia.
This theory is enjoyable yet silly. But it sounds downright scientific compared to another theory that Wilensky-Lanford mentions, Dr. George C. Allen’s 19th Century belief that the Garden of Eden started off at the North Pole but rotated around the world every 25,000 years until coming to rest — at that time — under Cincinnati. So start digging.
If only another Cincinnati-area connection — a museum — to the Garden of Eden that Wilensky-Lanford mentions were so amusing. But her extensive consideration of the anti-evolution, science-denying Fundamentalism manifested at Northern Kentucky’s Creation Museum actually is quite sobering and troubling. While many people view the place as kitsch, she doesn’t. That museum is based on a literal reading of the Bible and its Book of Genesis.
Visiting the museum in 2008, Wilensky-Lanford walks through its Garden of Eden exhibit. “Each new scene came with a placard matter-of-factly stating biblical interpretation as if it were an explanatory caption,” she writes. Yet, amid all the literalism, she notes the exhibit never states exactly where the actual Garden might have been.
Then it hits her — admitting that a Garden of Eden ever could have existed on earth would defeat the point of the evangelism: to prepare Fundamentalist Christians for perfection in heaven — a new Garden — after the rapture.
“As ideas about the Garden go, I found this empty, invisible Eden disappointing,” she writes of the exhibit. “(Other proposed locations), however far-fetched, were human. …The Creation Museum’s empty Eden brought to my mind … coldness.”
Adam and Eve would probably prefer Serpent Mound to the Creation Museum, based on Wilensky-Lanford’s description.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org