How Creation Myths Define Culture
Creation myths are one of the most highly valued myths because the myth itself gives purpose to its culture’s existence through its interpretation of the specific creation of human beings.
By interpreting and analyzing creation myths, we provide ourselves with a window into the driving forces of that culture’s members, as well as a viewpoint on how individuals and society may have viewed their connection to their god(s). In these creation myths, the elements of how, when, and why men and women are created serve as the basis for revealing the specific relationship a culture holds with its god(s). They also provide insights into other relationships.
A good example of the differing relationships which can arise is vividly depicted in a comparison of Enuma Elish, Hesiod’s Theogony, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
I love this version since it also includes the much beloved Epic of Gilgamesh! It also does a wonderful job of explaining the different myths.
The first element to examine in a culture’s creation myths is the how of creation. This element explores what substances humans are made from and whether those substances have any special physical connection to their god(s).
In Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, we see that humans are made from the blood of the god Qingu, who is sacrificed for such creation due to his part as a leader in Tiamat’s rebellion. This blood is combined with bones to become primeval man. This combination explains why humans are lesser beings than gods:
- First, they are created from the blood of a god who is being punished – a god who is viewed as lesser than all the rest. This automatically degrades humans from the gods who did not rebel.
- Second, the addition of bones separates humans from Qingu – making them lesser than Qingu since bones are an organic material and therefore subject to decay. Although gods can die in Babylonian myths, they also have a prolonged, if not virtually immortal, lifespan. By giving humans bones, the gods are ensuring that a human’s lifespan will not outlast the rate of decay of his or her bones.
- In combination, the blood and bones make humans into lesser, truly mortal beings.
In contrast to Babylonian culture, Hesiod’s Theogony (of the Greek culture) does not fully explain the creation of man – it is somewhat of a mystery. However, Theogony does explain the creation of women in a very specific manner:
“The renowned Ambidexter moulded from earth the likeness of a modest maiden, by Kronos’ son’s design. The pale-eyed goddess Athene dressed and adorned her in a gleaming white garment….”
The creation of the first woman, Pandora, is Zeus’s response to Prometheus disobeying him and giving fire to mankind. This implies that
- men existed before women, which provides the basis for a misogynistic argument that women are lesser beings than men;
- the creation of women is a punishment to mankind, clarified by Theogony stating that women are “an affliction for mankind to set against the fire”, which provides further evidence for the misogynistic argument; and
- that men were created sometime between the gods and women, since Theogony also details the creation of the gods from the original four primal gods.
Thus, we can conclude that the Greek civilization depicted men as either descended from or created by the gods (we cannot be certain) and that women were created after men, thus making men lesser beings than gods and women lesser beings than men. We can also conclude that Greek mythology is flexible in its view on the creation of mankind since it does not expressly state the details of man’s creation; Hesiod has left the actual how and when of creation up to the reader – a reflection of Greek culture’s embrace of many different and often contrasting philosophies and the philosophical debate as a whole.
In contrast to both Enuma Elish and Theogony, we find Ovid’s Metamorphoses – the Roman interpretation of creation. What makes Metamorphoses stand out is its illusion to the creation of man without explicitly stating any specific how of creation: “[W]hether the god who made all else, designing a more perfect world, made man of his own divine substance, or whether the new earth, but lately drawn away from heavenly ether, retained still some elements of its kindred sky….”
This passage alludes to the fact that man was created, but whether man was created by a god or from the earth and sky is left a mystery. Thus, Ovid is neither denying nor confirming whether he believes mankind is explicitly connected to god; he merely suggests that it is possible for man to be connected to god if god had created man “of his own divine substance”.
The one specific we can devise from Ovid’s description of how man was created is that man is a being who is held above all other animals: “And, though all other animals are prone, and fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to man an uplifted face and bade him stand erect and turn his eyes to heaven.”
Thus, the differences in how man is created can mean the difference in a culture’s embracement of equality in terms of sexuality, relations to other animals on earth, and in their relations with god(s).
Ovid's Metamorphoses...not for the light reader!
The second element to examine in a culture’s creation myths is the when. This element is most specifically useful for determining what standing mankind holds in relation with the gods and other earthly creatures, which in turn lends further support for the arguments produced by the how element.
In Enuma Elish, humans are created after the gods, the earth and sky, and Babylon itself. The most noteworthy item is that humans are created after the city of Babylon – thus making Babylon a more holy city since it is obviously a forethought to humans, as the “home of the great gods” and the “centre of religion.” This established the preeminence of Babylon as a city in Babylonian culture (and, of course, gave Babylonian culture its name) and thus made it a city worth preserving and protecting at all costs; the effects of this are felt even today in scholarly and religious references to the city of Babylon.
In contrast, in Theogony, there is no exact placement for man’s creation even though woman’s creation is explicitly detailed. This suggests that although Greek culture believed that a woman was beneath a man as far as social standing went, they were unsure as to man’s level of equality with god. This provided the doorway for various philosophical debates on the importance of religion and the existence of god, as well as the standing of human beings in relation to god.
In even starker contrast, there is the very detailed when element found in Metamorphoses, which contains “ages” of men rather than one single creation of man. Each “age” of man is progressively worse in terms of morality although each step contains more elements of Ovid’s own civilization.
- The “Golden” age of man is the most peaceful age and is killed out by the banishment of Saturn and the establishment of a new god (Jove) rather than anything the humans died.
- In the Silver age, human violence (war) takes form and causes the ultimate death of its age.
- And finally, in the current “Iron” age, the citizens are the worst of all, with all aspects of violence and civilization that exist in Ovid’s world.
The creation of man is still a mystery as to exact specifics, but it is clear in Ovid’s work that men are growing progressively worse, which suggests that humans may either be growing further away from the gods or that the political events of Ovid’s time had a greater effect on mythology than is seen in other cultures.
In examining Ovid’s own life during the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire, we see that Metamorphoses acts as perhaps an assimilation vehicle in its embracement of non-specific details (which leaves the door open for other cultures’ interpretation of Roman culture following their own assimilation), and it acts as a vehicle for political commentary, showing that Roman civilization – and hence, human civilization – is growing progressively worse as the empire gains strength.
Thus, the when aspect brings to light the place in the world’s order which that culture believes it holds, further evidence supporting the misogynistic or other arguments arisen in the how element as well as raising the possibility of utilizing myths as political commentaries.
Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days
The third and final element in the creation myths is the why, which gives the culture a specific purpose for existence.
In Enuma Elish, mankind’s purpose is very specific: “Let me create a primeval man. / The work of the gods shall be imposed (on him), and so they shall be at leisure.”
In this passage, “they” refers to the other gods which have been toiling in digging irrigation ditches. These gods eventually go on strike and thus man is created to replace them. This event also brings to light the importance of water in Babylonian civilization, designating it as a possible gift of the gods through their hard work and as mankind’s job to continue on with the work of maintaining the water supply and utilizing it to continue the creation of other things.
In Theogony, there is no specific why given for men, so the reader is left to philosophically debate the purpose and importance of man – which is precisely what the Greek philosophers did through many varied and contrasting explanations. There is, however, a specific reason for why women are created, and this sets up the final evidence for why women are viewed as lesser beings than men (and why Greek civilization held a very misogynistic viewpoint): women are “an affliction for mankind”, who are “conspirators in causing difficulty” (which gives a very general explanation which can explain everything from why women gossip to why men hate their wives).
However, Hesiod also states that women are a blessing for men in their old age, since Zeus also “gave a second bane to set against a blessing for the man who…chooses not to wed, and arrives at grim old age lacking anyone to look after him.” So, for all their faults, women are deemed useful creatures in that they will look after men – a reflection on women’s nurturing roles in society.
Finally, in Metamorphoses, mankind is created as a living creature that is made of “finer stuff” than all the other living creatures and “could have dominion over all the rest [of the animals]”. This sets men apart from all other animals and helps to establish their dominion over the earth as well as the possibility of a divine connection with god beyond physical being. Ovid’s interpretation leaves the doors open for philosophical debate and cultural assimilation by others on the exact relationship the Romans have with god, but also allows the Romans to establish their dominance as masters of all the living creatures.
By explaining the why element of creation, each myth lends the final weight to a culture’s arguments on equality as well as defines or opens the doors to definition of a culture’s purpose.
Combining into Cultural Beliefs
In conclusion, it is through the examination of the how, when, and why of creation that we can come up with a more concrete interpretation of how a culture viewed its relationship both to god and to the world in which it lived. We see this by comparing the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman cultures.
Babylonian culture defines itself as lesser beings than the gods, mortal, and placed on earth to be caretakers of the city of Babylon and to do the work of the gods. In combining these elements, we can interpret that the Babylonians viewed themselves as having a relationship with their gods in which humans were more like servants than children – although made from the blood of a god, they are not divine enough (through their bones and their placement after Babylon’s creation) to be on any type of equal standing with the gods.
In contrast, Greek culture leaves creation as more of a mystery, only defining the details of woman’s creation in order to make her a lesser being than man. This lack of explanation in all three elements leaves the door open for varied philosophical debate on the subject, helping foster the love of opinion and debate found in Greek society as well as the idea that perhaps men are masters of their own destiny – lacking divine connection, men are left to their own devices rather than serving god.
Finally, in direct contrast to the other two, Roman civilization establishes men as above all other animals on earth, perhaps even containing a divine element in their being created of “finer stuff” than the others, as well as providing insight into the uses of creation myths as vehicles for political or social commentary.
Thus, we see not only the varied interpretations which can exist between humans and their gods, but also the ways in which mythology can evolve from very simple explanations of a servant status to philosophical doorways into questioning the very nature of god.
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