J.R.C. Cousland, «‘Her Flesh Was as Grass’: Vita Adam et Evae 10.1», Vol. 81 (2000) 507-510
The Vita Adam et Evae uses an unusual metaphor to describe Eve’s state when she ceases her penitential immersion in the Tigris river: ‘her flesh was as grass from the cold of the water’ (caro eius erat sicut herba). While a number of points of comparison have been adduced to explain the metaphor, including movement and texture, it is more likely to be the colour of Eve’s skin — she is as pale as grass from the cold of the water.
On the first day of the week he went into the waters of the upper Gihon until the waters reached up to his neck, and he fasted seven weeks of days, until his body became like a species of seaweed6
Second, Ginzberg’s argument builds on the premise of a Hebrew Vorlage common to the Vita and PRE, an assumption from which many scholars would prescind7.
Other versions of the subject matter of the Vita provide helpful commentary on the question. The Armenian version reads: ‘her flesh was like withered grass, for her flesh had been changed from the water’, and adds, ‘but the form of her glory remained brilliant’. The Georgian version relates: ‘her flesh was withered like rotten vegetables because of the coldness of the water’, and then states ‘all the form of her beauty had been destroyed’8. While the versions evidently disagree over the final appearance of Eve, they concur that she is like withered greens after her ordeal. What, then, is the tertium comparationis? While (pace Wells) it is unlikely to be movement — withered greenery does not move very differently from vital greenery — it does suggest either Eve’s bodily form or her colouration. With respect to the former, it is certainly possible that a ‘withering’ is in view in these two versions; perhaps Eve’s flesh has wasted and wrinkled from long fasting and exposure to the water9. Yet, it is not clear — at least in the Georgian version — how the cold of the water should induce withering.
The alternative is to suppose that the metaphor is referring to the colour of grass, and, in particular, the pallor associated with withered grass or greenery. Eve emerges from the Tigris, either deathly pale, or — as we would say — blue with cold.
While it is not possible to choose categorically between these alternatives, there is a suggestive, if limited, parallel in the Greek tradition10. The poet Sappho uses a comparison with grass to describe the debilitating effects of love on her: