Creation Myths: We All Have More in Common Than You Think
Let There Be Light, And There Was Light
From the time that humans were first able to perceive their world and philosophize about their place, there have existed stories with which we have tried to explain how that world had come to be. Creation myths have common themes universally; they use symbols to represent what is sacred and important in their particular culture and to lay out what is to be socially acceptable in their society.
It is a common theme also that myths created to explain the origin of the world begin with nothing, a void. It is interesting to consider that this is also the accepted scientific view in modern times. The ancient people realized that life was not omnipresent, but rather had to have a point of genesis or a time before there was life. However, because there was no science with which they could explain this, the ancient people also felt that there must be some kind of omnipresent being that created them out of this void. In the Judeo-Christian creation myths, God is the omnipresent being that decides to create their world out of a formless void. Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 begins with God creating the heavens and the earth, the place where life would dwell, and the place where God himself would dwell. This division of Earth-bound and Heaven-bound places God above the world he created, and therefore within the first few lines makes clear the hierarchy within which humans lie. The Genesis myth clearly outlines the creation of every aspect of the world we live in; the reason we have night and day, land and sea, seasons and the passing of days and years. The ability to procreate, both human and plant, is also clearly stated. This is imparting the ability of a god unto seeds, animals and humans. God is the creator of life, but he has given that ability to every living thing he has in turn created. This view makes life a holy thing. Over and over again the phrase “after his kind” is used. This can both be interpreted as being of God, and also being of that living thing’s origin. The seed can now give life after itself, as can the beast, the cattle, and “every creeping thing upon the earth”.
Man and woman are created on the sixth day, together, and told to be fruitful and multiply. This suggests that men and women have equal importance. God tells them both then that they are given dominion over every other living thing he has created; the animals and trees were created to give them food. Humans are to believe that they are the most important thing on the earth, and that everything on it only exists so that humans may prosper and multiply. This version of Genesis clearly tells followers how they should perceive their place in the world, yet this version does not attempt to truly outline a social contract they are meant to follow. In the second, possibly earlier, version of Genesis, the story is written in such a way that it is clear that God is telling humans how to behave socially. It seeks to address morality by way of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In this version also the plants exist only because man does; God caused water to rain upon the seeds of the earth, but they only grew once he had created man to till the fields. In this version of the Genesis myth the creation of the world is glossed over in favor of telling how humans should act morally. Further, while this version may have been written earlier, this is the accepted version because it was able to be used to create order in a chaotic medieval society. In the time the King James Version was written, only priests could read and were allowed to interpret the holy word. The masses needed to be told why they needed to live the way they did; women were subservient to men, and were meant to be a vessel in which life is held, men were meant to till the fields and keep the moral line. Women were specifically taught their place by being told they were the reason humans were no longer god-like beings. Women had been coerced to eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, and then had led man into that corruption, so they are to blame for all of humanities woes and needed to be kept firmly by men so they would not stray from the holy path again. Whenever there is chaos in society, humans turn to their religion to explain why there is chaos and how they should act in order to calm that chaos. In the Christian mythos particularly, God is seen as a being that is not only the creator, but also the destroyer when his creations go astray. Adam and Eve were punished in the Genesis story and are used as examples for what can happen when you do not listen to the orders of God.
Navajo Creation Story
From This Dark World, The Din'e Emerge
The Navajo Native American Din’e Bahan’e story is an example of an emergence myth. The Navaho began in the depths of the earth, which contain four worlds. They “emerge” from one world onto the next as they search for a safe haven from disorder and chaos. In the excerpt in the text, there are four gods who, for four days, visit the original People, who are in the form of insect people. The four gods try on each of the four days to teach the People to be more like them, but they do not speak the language and the People don’t understand. Eventually all but the Black God leave, and he does speak to them in the language they can understand. The gods want them to be in their image, an idea reflected also in the Genesis myth. In the Navaho story, being like the gods means to not only appear as them, but also to be able to think like them, and be civilized like them. The People are not truly people until they are able to reason and be intelligent as the gods. They are instructed to bathe themselves before the gods come before them again. This story contains elements that are important to the Navaho people; the cornmeal with which the insect people bathe themselves, the ears of white and yellow corn from which the First Man and First Woman emerge, and even the appearance of the number four. There are four gods, which visit for four days and the eight (which is divisible by four) Mirage People circle the buckskin covered ears of corn four times. This probably represents the four winds, or the four directions from which the four winds blow. Wind is representative of life, or breath to the Navajo people, which is why wind is what blows life in to the ears of corn. Wind is what helps seed the fields so corn will grow, and give the Navajo food so they will prosper. This myth not only explains how the people evolved into how they are today, but also their place in nature. They believe they are made of the earth, so therefore they are singularly able to be in harmony with the earth. This belief is central to Native American culture.
Gururumba, New Guinea: Creation of the People
No Village, No Pigs, and No Women
The Gururumba creation story is more centrally cultural rather than an explanation of their origin. The story does not begin to explain what came before just that before the story began it was different. Men already existed but their culture did not. There were no villages, or pigs, or women. The story says that the two men are brothers, without explaining how such a thing is possible without there being women to create them. The story explains that a woman was born of an egg, which is a common theme universally; the egg is a symbol of fertility and birth. However, the woman was a wild thing without the ability to produce until one of the brothers cuts on opening into the woman using the phallic symbol of sugarcane. The woman runs away so that the man cannot have sex with her, and slips away, turning into different animals every time he touches her on the limbs. It is her thumb that he finally catches, a body part that only humans possess. She cannot turn into an animal because he has caught her by the only truly human aspect she has. By catching her and mating with her, the man has made the woman a part of a new society and made her useful. This illustrates the Gururumba’s belief that it is only man that creates what is important in their culture; without him there would be no culture.
The woman gives birth to a son and daughters, but they too are not members of the society until the man makes his son into a man also by placing him into his own house. The son in turn makes his sisters into reproducing women and parts of their culture. The pigs that spring up from the earth may represent the earth providing them with a reward for furthering life on the planet. This reward is both food to help provide for the generations of new life, but also the ability to barter with other members of this new society, thus creating the basis for which men and women should act in their culture.
China, Pan Gu and Nu Wa
Pan Gu, The Giant Who Grew in the Chaos
In a very similar sounding story, the Chinese tell of a time when all the universe's matter were contained in an egg. Outside the egg was nothing but void. Deep within this swirling, chaotic matter grew Pan Gu, who slept inside the egg for 18,000 years, growing all the while, becoming giant. Then one day he awoke and stretched, cracking the egg and spilling the universe out into the void. The purest elements drifted upwards, becoming the heavens, while the heavier impure elements fell down and created the Earth. Pan Gu began to worry that the heavens and the earth would mix once more, so he vowed to keep them separate; he held them apart, heavens above his head and the earth below his feet. For another 18,000 years he continued to grow until the distance between the heavens and earth numbered 30,000 miles. And it was then that Pan Gu finally decided it was safe, and so he died.
But upon his death his body took on a new form; his arms and legs became the four directions of the mountains. His blood became rivers, and his sweat became the rain and dew. His voice became thunder and his breath became wind. His hair became the grass and veins the roads and passages. His left eye became the sun, his right the moon, and his flesh made the soil. His teeth and bones became rocks. In death, Pan Gu made the Earth. But he made no other living thing.
Many centuries later, a goddess named Nu Wa was roaming the world Pan Gu had created and decided she was lonely. From the mud she found at the bank of a pond, she formed a human being. But in her hands it remained lifeless until she set it down on the soil. Once she did, the human began to dance and was alive. Nu Wa was pleased and so she set to making more for two whole days, and each were as perfect as the first. Being so delighted in the company, she decided she needed even more humans, so she took a vine and dipped it in the mud, then flung the vine from her. Droplets of mud fell to the soil and each became another human being, until there were many and spread throughout the world. The ones she made with her own hands were the aristocrats, and the ones made from the vine were the common poor.
After a great while, Pan Gu's fear came to be when the heavens and earth came together once more, causing great fires to come from the earth, and beasts to rise that hunted the humans. Massive holes were torn in the skies. Nu Wa beat back the beasts to protect her creations, and she took colored stones from the riverbeds and put them in the holes in the heavens. Finally she used the four legs of a giant turtle to keep the sky aloft. Then she, too died, and from her form came many more beasts.
In looking at this creation story it is fascinating to see the similarities with other creation stories. As is common there is the element of a void, then a sudden presence of existence. The egg is common as well, seen in Native American stories as well as Japanese myths. Nu Wa's creation of humanity is interesting when compared to the Genesis story of how soil created the first man. In this story, the female created the form but it was the soil that gave it life. Interesting, too, is the fact that this creation story also incorporates a social aspect; Nu Wa's personal creations are aristocratic while the mere droplets are the common poor. This gives an almost holy right to superiority to the rich in the Chinese culture at the time, and is fairly singular when it comes to creation stories. The story of Pan Gu, merely one of many different creation stories from that region, illustrates a common theme in thinking in that the role of life for the male aspect and the female aspect are clearly defined. Each has their own domain. In this story only the creation of the earth and humanity is deemed worthy of elaboration; the creation of animal life is secondary.
From Many, One
I could expound on a thousand different creation stories from around the world and told throughout history. Some are almost exactly the same (the Judeo-Christian Genesis and the Islamic creation story from the Qu'ran) while most merely resemble each other. The interesting thing about the similarities is that these stories have been told, in some cases, for thousands of years, with thousands of miles between the people who told them. Centuries before trade routes allowed the wide spread of different cultures, humans had basically the same idea about how they all came to be, and how this world they live in began. Even more interesting is that some of the tales suggest an understanding of nature that you wouldn't think was instinctual; for instance the persistence of the idea of a void, something coming from nothing. All believe that there was a Creator, or in most cases, Creators, a male and female entity that represented their own ideas of gender and society. Only the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions believe there was only the male aspect (a fact not surprising when considering the two cultures and respective societies in which those beliefs are deeply prevalent). A great many other cultures believe in creation stories that involve a different Creator for each aspect of nature; earth, fire, animals, plants, humans, lightning, thunder, etc.
Even those who don't believe, believe in the religion of science. No matter what the story, or theory, from all of culture and history there is but one reason- it is inherent, basic human nature to strive to explain our existence on this planet. From the time humans had the ability to rationalize and wonder, they looked up at the sky and tried to understand their place here. It is a beautiful thing, in my opinion, that we have so many similarities in that understanding. Despite the strife that is human existence, we are truly one in our humanity.