The Golden Age, Garden of Eden, and Thanksgiving Myth of Origin
by Karen Davis Ph.D., president, United Poultry Concerns
“The question before us is, which images of the universe, of power, of animals, of ourselves, will we represent in our food?” – Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, p. 202.
How will a “myth of origin” be used?
People look to the mythic past for prototypes in order to propagate some plan or hope for the present and future; to protect existing traditions and outlooks; or to advance new practices and prospects, drawn from elements within the myths that have not yet been exploited.
This is the true use of the Golden Age and the Garden of Eden and other myths of origin, including the American myth of Thanksgiving.
Myths of origin act as informing principles of existence. In this sense they can promote ethical insight and change. Alternatively, they can be invoked ironically to protect the “fallen world” from the infiltration of ethical progress.
This is how they have mainly been used with respect to how we view and treat the other members of the animal kingdom, to which we ourselves belong.
“Traditions” evolve & change
How a myth of origin will be used is primarily a matter of desire and will, or in a word, motivation.
Myths of origin tend to be evoked to shroud changes of some sort behind a veil of tradition. This is possible because despite the aura of permanence associated with tradition, people in reality constantly change their traditions to conform to whatever else they believe or identify with.
The American Thanksgiving, which is rooted in ancient harvest festival traditions, has been “recreated” many times over; fabricated, as James W. Loewen shows in his chapter, “The Truth about the First Thanksgiving” in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
Arguably, says Elizabeth Pleck in Celebrating the Family, vegetarians who spend hours preparing a tofu turkey or a chestnut casserole from scratch express the spirit of Thanksgiving more authentically than the turkey takeout people do, while taking the American tradition of the pioneer to a new level of adventure and nurture.
Turning flesh into fruit
Substituting new materials for those previously used to celebrate a tradition is in itself an integral part of tradition. In the religious realm, if we can substitute animal flesh for human flesh, and bread and wine for “all flesh” and the shedding of innocent blood in communion services, and can view these changes as advances of civilization, not as inferior substitutes for genuine religious experience, then we are ready to go forward in our everyday lives along a secure and familiar path.
Could the religions of the world ever reach the point of respecting “all flesh,” not in false ceremonies of compassion, but in actual fact? For if God can become flesh, then flesh can become fruit.
Technologically, this transformation, this substitution, has already occurred. People have demanded it; technology can meet the demand.
If the Peaceable Kingdom is a genuine desire and a practicable prospect, faux meat is the food to which dead meat has aspired, and animal-free meat makers are as deserving as anyone of the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Disgust at the thought of meat
In the past, says Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of The Evolving Self and Creativity, “our limbic system learned to produce disgust at the smell of rotten meat. Now we might be learning to experience disgust at the thought of eating meat in the first place – thanks to values that are the result of consciousness.”
The cultural turkey in America is a model figure that allows us to examine our attitudes and the values they imply, like the values implicit in creating laughingstocks and innocent victims in order to feel thankful, and the values of a nation that ritually constitutes itself by consuming an animal – one, moreover, that it despises and mocks as part of a patriotic celebration memorializing the wholesome virtues of family life.
In The “Thanksgiving” Turkey: Object of Sentimentality, Sarcasm, and Sacrifice, posted on November 23, 2019, I draw attention to the moral ecology surrounding the Thanksgiving turkey: the miasma arising from the traditional holiday meal. The ritual taunting of the sacrificial bird conducted by the media each year – what if this mean-spirited foreplay and blood sacrifice were taken away?
What elements of Thanksgiving would remain?
Decomposing turkey ghosts
Hunters claim that the killing they do is incidental to their joy of being in the woods, and turkey eaters claim that the carnage they inflict is incidental to their appetite for togetherness.
Yet the carnage perpetrated by both is the one thing in the midst of other changes on which these people stand firm, as if Plymouth Rock amounted in the final analysis to little more than a pile of meat, just as the symbol of happiness is portrayed in the final epiphany of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.
There, under the aspect of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge mounts a pile of flesh as a foretaste of his imminent social redemption and return to life’s pleasures:
“Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, [and] long wreaths of sausages.”
Scrooge’s first charitable act following his nightmares is to purchase “the prize turkey” hanging upside down at the butcher shop.
Free all spirits from inflicted suffering
It is time for the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present to include the ghosts of all those turkeys who were murdered for the meals of “Scrooge.” It is time for all future turkey ghosts to be freed from haunting the table.
Slowly this pile of avian ghosts may be rotting away. As the present century proceeds in America, the conflict between vegans and flesh eaters, between the animal rights people and the rest of society, crystalizes at Thanksgiving.
As the single most visible animal symbol in America, the de facto symbol of the nation, the turkey focuses our conflict and marks its progress in a holiday in which personal values and cultural ideals come together, or clash, most notably.
Carol J. Adams. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 1990. New edition published by Bloomsbury Revelations, 2015. https://www.amazon.com/Sexual-Politics-Meat-Feminist-Vegetarian-Revelations/dp/1501312839.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “It’s All in Your Head.” The Washington Post Book World, May 16, 1999, 3.
Karen Davis. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. New York: Lantern Books, 2001.
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol and Other Haunting Tales. New York: New York Public Library-Doubleday, 1998. First published 1843. See Karen Davis, More Than a Meal, 59-60.
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. New revised edition published by The Free Press, 2018. https://thenewpress.com/books/lies-my-teacher-told-me.
Elizabeth H. Pleck. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.