Murngin and Genesis: How is Woman Derived?

While the Murngin tells the origin of rites from myth and Genesis tells the origin of humankind, both describe similar narratives on the power relationship between females and males, a dynamic revealed in how they rely heavily on placing certain symbolic weights on the female gaining and losing power and the snake figure.

For the Murngin, the Wawilak sisters’ have gained autonomy through wrongful sexuality and can go about the country turning food into ceremonial artifacts through naming power: “You will be maraiin by and by” (180). But the very fact that they have gained autonomy has put them on a fated path toward destruction – “If they hadn’t done wrong in their own country this would not have happened” (184). The snake – “the masculine principle in a pre-social “animal” form (181) – consumes them, internalizing their power, and through a series of gastric maneuvers, releases the power for men to utilize through ritual. On the other hand, in Genesis, woman gains power by being tricked into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and transfers that knowledge onto man by sharing the fruit (15). Both times, it is the woman who gains knowledge/autonomy/power (?) and transfers it onto man. However, the snake figure for the Murngin represents a noncensensual tunnel of power transfer while for Genesis, the snake figure gives the woman two options – consent to eating the fruit or not (an interesting question is whether or not woman is in the position to even give consent…).

Furthermore, both myths rely on the priority of man over woman. It’s not the clansman that’s banished, but the woman; it’s not Adam created from Eve’s rib but vice versa. I don’t understand the original reason(s) for placing woman as the derivative of man, but it seems that because of this derivation, their status as a reproduction allows them a certain ability to disobey laws (one Wawilak sister is banished after having incestuous relations, p180; Eve eats from the tree of knowledge, p15). By breaking law, they trigger some sort of destruction phenomenon (“woman’s sexuality generates the mortal cycle of generation and decay” p186; “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” p16) in which humans become mortals. Interestingly enough, a Greek equivalent myth is Pandora’s box.

Thus, in both myths, there exists a causal relationship: woman sins which leads to humans becoming subject to decay. I don’t want to put too much weight on this causality, but I can’t help but extrapolate that there seems to be a primordial point in myth-making at the beginning of many major civilizations where there comes into being a narrative in which women are deprived of power. Why is that? How is that? What does that mean and how can it be challenged?

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3 thoughts on “Murngin and Genesis: How is Woman Derived?

  1. I agree with you that there’s a lot of parallels that can be found between these two myths. Like you said a lot of imagery is used in both–the snake, exile, the wrongdoing of women, and women as subordinate to men. But I’m interested in some of your comments about women’s power within the story. You mentioned in both that in these stories women gain some power and then transfer it to men. I think this is true on some level (both do involve a transfer from woman to man) but we need to analyze it a bit more. Most importantly I think there’s a distinct difference in the way women holding this power is viewed by those who believe in these myths. In Genesis it’s pretty clear that women gaining the knowledge of the tree of good and evil is not at all perceived as a good thing. (Although I’m sure you and I would disagree). It’s never stated that Eve gains something positive from this. What power has she gained from this? All that’s stated is that Adam and Eve become embarrassed by their nakedness, which comes across as an inherently negative thing. However, I agree with you on the part of the Murngin story. I think it’s clear that the woman, although exiled, were powerful as result and the passing of that power to men was positive. I wonder if we could look further into why this difference exists.

    As a side note: you mention that in both stories woman are created as derivative of man. I wonder about your thoughts on the section at the very beginning of Genesis in verse(is that what they’re called?) 1 in which it’s stated “in the image of God he create them; male and female he created them” (13). This suggests woman and man were created simultaneously. In one of my fundamentals course we talked about the Lilith myth which is supposed deal with the issue that the first and second verse(?) seem to contradict one another. I haven’t looked much into it but I thought you might be interested in reading about it.

    • Thanks Hannah for your reply!

      I’m not sure myself whether or not that gaining knowledge is perceived as a good thing for Genesis either. I didn’t mean to make a statement on the quality of knowledge that the woman gained; I assumed that whatever knowledge she gained from eating the fruit enabled her to notice that she was naked, which I perceived to be a kind of autonomy from God – and thereby, in a sense, she had gained some form of power. I assumed this especially since on page 16, God says “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil…”. Although God doesn’t refer to the woman, I presume that since the woman having also eaten the fruit, has become closer to being Godlike which would mean she has gained some sort of power.

      I looked into the Lilith myth; I have a terrible background in theology, but it does seem to explain the contradiction. I wonder why it wasn’t mentioned in the first place that Lilith existed…

      Alice

      • Hey Alice,

        I see what you’re saying about the knowledge being a power thing in Genesis. I had always taken it in the similar sense that by gaining the knowledge of good and evil Eve had become more autonomous, as well. However, I would think that a separation from God would be perceived as negative within the Christian community. BUT now that you’ve pointed that line out to me and I’ve reread I think it really clears some stuff up. Perhaps instead of saying that Eve became more autonomous after having eaten the fruit we should focus on the fact that she became on the same level as God–which I think we would agree is definitely gaining power.

        As to the Lilith myth–I’d never really heard of it myself. My professor was just telling me about how there used to be this idea that Lilith is that original woman who got cast out from Eden first, then Eve was created. I don’t think there’s a large Christian community that really believes in it. However, I imagine that individuals who strongly believe in demonic beings, and ghosts might hold some weight to it. I kind of imagine it’s just this myth that was told way back when. Or maybe a result of Milton writing something in the same way our lore about angels/demons are largely a result of epic poems. But it did spawn this idea of this original woman who’s half demon/half woman who steals children etc.

        Hannah

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