Monday, March 5, 2012

A Myth Is As Good As a Mile

I'll admit I've never quite gotten the Mormon religion. It's always seemed a fanciful tale - too intermingled with patriotism (Jesus visits the New World); too mired in a capitalist ethic (God rewards the individual mercantile efforts of the faithful hedge fund manager); too fiscally Neanderthal (the gold standard? really?).

The Book of Mormon is itself a curious exercise in bombastic prosody, the mock-heroic Old Testament English which was already threadbare by the mid-nineteenth century. The Lord of Hosts was busy "raising up in the land" this or that, slaying the hosts of Amelekites and Moabites and Hittites and Ammonites while his people busily begat Niphor who begat Zildad who begat . . . and so on. The Mormon faith made an immigrant of Jesus, back in the days before that was just another four-letter word like "contraceptive." The American cast includes the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel wandering endlessly in the desert around Salt Lake City. And, like the Mosaic Law written on the stone tablets, the golden tablets from the angel Moroni were also irretrievably and conveniently misplaced.


Never quite gotten it, that is, until the other day when I discovered quite by happenstance that the Mormon Garden of Eden is somewhere in the United States, somewhere more precisely near Independence, Missouri. And Adam-ondi-Ahman, on the eastern bluffs of the Grand River near Gallatin, is the historic site to which the first couple fled after the expulsion from their original digs. The story is that Joseph Smith, upon being shown the vista from the heights over the river, declared that it must have been where Adam and Eve spent a paradisiacal nonage. The presence of some flat rocks cinched it for him; they were clearly not just places for porcupines to piss, but the actual altars used by Adam in the first burnt offerings to the Ancient of Days.

From this Arcadian spot the Grand River meanders southeastward to join the Missouri River just south of Brunswick, the Missouri eventually merging with the Mississippi River at St. Louis. So no matter how you look at it, Missouri is the cradle of humanity. If you've ever had a flat tire anywhere in Missouri, or tried to find a theater that shows Bergman films, this may not come as any great comfort. But the geography is important because the great American river system was the conduit by which the descendants of Adam went forth and subdued the earth. And that may explain a good deal about the Iranians and the North Koreans.

This may fly in the face of received anthropological wisdom: what, you may ask, are all those stacks of hominid bones littering the East African Rift Valley? what about Lucy, and homo erectus and australopithecus and all the rest? This story, an American Eden, also contravenes the usual picture of the hominid invasion of North America from the west over the Bering land passage.

"Naw, we walked over - came in through Seattle."

Further supporting a theory of trans-Pacific migration, early Clovis cultures have been discovered far into Mexico and Central America, and eastward as far as South Carolina, which should come as no surprise since South Carolina is still, in the main, a functioning Clovis culture.

Even omitting the Koran from this mix, the Lord of Hosts, it would seem, has written almost as many books as P.G. Wodehouse. Fortunately for the tale, neither the Book of Mormon nor the Old Testament are geo-referenced, so it could all, with equal plausibility, have started in Missouri or in Mesopotamia, all flowed outwards down the Missouri and Mississippi, or down the Tigris and Euphrates. Who could decide the question? When it comes to subduing the earth, one river is as good as the next. And a myth is as good as a mile.

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