THE BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN
AND THE ORIGINS OF PARADISE.
(Investigator 69, 1999 November)
We find in the myths of most cultures stories about the existence of a fabulous land, a place where, as Gershwin put it, "... the livin's easy" – a place where the weather is always perfect, food is so plentiful, humans can pluck it from the trees. It is a place where everyone can live without worry or care, and the drudgery of work is something unknown. It is, in other words, the paradise that we all secretly aspire to. Unfortunately it exists only in our imagination. Yet the fact that it exists in our dreams reflects our striving for a place that should exist, one that is the complete opposite of our mundane and troubled existence on this Earth.
This place goes under many varied names. Those exposed to Judaic-Christian folklore know it as the Garden of Eden. Like the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the story of the Garden of Eden is a reflection of many human dreams. It is the place where, according to the myth, if our ancestors had obeyed god we would all still be living in Paradise.
Some would say that, as compensation for humankind's loss of this fabled garden, they replaced it with a heavenly paradise to which the good and faithful could finally attain after death, thus overcoming the errors of Adam and Eve.
The origins of the myth are probably quite simple; one can imagine that as the tired and impoverished day-workers of Mesopotamia sweated in the fields they dreamt of a place where they could relax, surrounded by beautiful women, sitting, drinking fine wines in a cool shady arbor.
In the hot and dusty lands of the Middle East, such places would have been extremely rare. Only the rich could afford private gardens, and since the king was the wealthiest of all, he would have had the largest most magnificent gardens of all. Filled with every delightful plant, bird and animal it would have been beyond the imagination of common people. So emerged the idea of an exclusive domain, a place where the king could escape the heat and dust. The best time to walk in such a garden was at dusk, when the cooling breezes blew across the hot land, and the garden provided a pleasant sanctuary to relax after a day of dealing with the responsibilities of guiding the destiny of the nation.
Early religions adopted anthropomorphic concepts of their deities, so it is hardly surprising to hear from ancient times stories of the various deities walking in their pleasure gardens, an idea echoed in the text of Genesis where we read of...the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…
The early scholars who first recorded the Garden of Eden story did not originate the story. It is probably as old as the human race, but was not written down until relatively recent times1 an impossible concept and was accepted by Aristotle as an imaginary kingdom devised by Plato to illustrate certain political theories. And we know that in the writings of the earliest civilizations there was a definite identification of paradise as a place beyond death.
One of the earliest examples comes from Egypt, a culture that fortunately left behind a great deal of information. They believed that this brief life on earth was merely a prelude to a much greater eternal existence, where, those who were chosen, (or who had led a moral life), would receive their ultimate reward by dwelling in a land amongst the eternal gods of Egypt.
Throughout time the name of this paradise has taken many forms – in medieval Europe it was Cockaigne, a fabulous land, an earthly paradise, where one could live a life of idleness and pleasure. Food and drink abounded in natural profusion; the houses were built of cake and sugared confectionery, while the streets were paved with the finest pastries. Benevolent shopkeepers provided food free of charge. Cooked and buttered larks fell like rain from the sky, while roast geese wandered freely, calling upon people to eat them. In later times a similar story referred to the mythical land known as Lubberland.
During the great Age of Exploration, which commenced in the 15th century, Italian and Iberian cartographers produced imaginary lands and islands, with which to fill the unknown wastes of the Atlantic Ocean. These were fabled places where the inhabitants lived a life of ease. With ample food falling from the trees they devoted their lives to dance, music and poetry.
However, as more and more sailors traversed the ocean, these mystical lands were gradually removed from the charts, until the last, which remained on charts even into the 19th century, was the island of Hi-Brazil. A fabled land said to lie some 160 kilometres west of Ireland, where the inhabitants lived a life of peaceful repose.
In the 18th century the myth was revived in of all places Australia, amongst the first Irish convicts transported to the New South Wales settlement in 1791. The core of the myth was that if they could escape and flee northwards, they would eventually reach a great river, and once across that they would find themselves in the midst of a land populated by copper-coloured inhabitants who would treat them kindly. Eventually this desired land was identified as China, and it remained a popular myth, strangely enough only amongst the Irish convicts.2
One of the principal ideas behind the convict colony at New South Wales was its remoteness. It was possible to place convicts to work on farms and other places outside the convict barracks on the basis that it was useless to run-away, there was simply nowhere to go except wilderness where they had no hope of survival.
However, this myth dealt a severe blow to this idea. So many Irish convicts escaped from custody and headed northwards that it threatened the survival of the young colony. At a time when every convict's labour was essential for survival of the colony, large numbers were absconding. In January 1792 a head-count revealed that 54 men and 9 women had disappeared into the bush. These Chinese travellers as they were called were all Irish.
By 1798 a new version of the story had emerged. It was now being claimed that 500-600 km to the southwest, beyond the mountain ranges, there was a land populated by white people. It was claimed to be a utopian land, independent of English rule, where one could live without working.
Irish convicts continued to seek these fabled lands even into the 19th century, one of the last being John Graham in 1827, where he was initiated into an Aboriginal tribe, who believed he was the returned spirit of a recently dead member of the tribe. He remained with them for six years before returning to Moreton Bay, having calculated that his sentence would have expired.
In more recent times stories of these earthly paradises became part of the myths of the American hoboes, who called it the Big Rock Candy Mountain. The desire for such a magical place was never stronger than during the Great Depression. The hundreds of thousands of unemployed, and often destitute men wandering the countryside came into increasing contact with the hoboes, and were exposed to their mythology. It was from them that they heard of the mythical paradise known as the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Like Cockaigne it was a fabulous mountain composed entirely of the finest chocolate and confectionery. Although everyone could eat as much as they liked, the mountain never diminished in size. There was always as much as anyone could ever hope to eat. It was a land where life was easy, the sun always shone, and a man could relax and take his ease, after the hardships of the road. Such a place must have been an attractive dream for the nomadic unemployed during those terrible times of the depression.
The constant re-emergence of the idea of a "paradise" just beyond the reach of ordinary people reveals our very powerful desires, a constant dream of every human for a place where everyone can be happy living a life of ease. While the fact is that we would probably die of boredom in such a place, nevertheless we eternally look for that something beyond the horizon. While we know in our rational minds that such a place can never exist, yet, within our hearts there remains a faint hope, for despite all reason, we would really like to believe that such a place could exist.
Unfortunately there is also a negative side to the concept of an earthly paradise. It was such implausible idealism of creating a new social order based on love and drugs that led to the Hippie movement of the 1960s. The fragility of this Hippie idealism crashed in flames when exposed to the harshness of reality and finally ended with the Manson murders.
The other problem with the dream is that for most groups seeking this paradise, it requires that the only people to be admitted are their own people, (race, believers, religion, etc.). That usually means pushing others out, and whether we call it the Final Solution, Lebensraum or Ethnic Cleansing, it all basically means the same, elimination of those who are not "fit" to share the dream.
1. It was probably first recorded by Jewish scholars during the time of their Babylonian exile.
2. David Levell, China Syndrome, in Fortean Times, No. 123, June 1999, 28-31.
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