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Almost every human society has had a set of stories that explain the origins of the cosmos; these creation stories (never “myths” to those who believe them) attempt to give meaning to all of existence and often reflect the cultures from which they derive. Modern creation stories, although based on scientific observation and research, still strive to answer the same basic questions as earlier myths.
Creation myths are stories, or collections of stories, that tell of the origins of all things: of communities and landscapes, of the Earth, its animals and plants, of the stars, and of everything that exists. They represent what “history” has meant for most human communities. Creation myths appear to have existed in all human societies and they are deeply embedded within all the major world religions. By offering answers to questions about origins, creation myths provide maps of reality within which people can learn about their place in the cosmos and the roles they are expected to play. As Barbara Sproul states in her book Primal Myths (1991, 2–3): “[C]reation myths are the most comprehensive of mythic statements, addressing themselves to the widest range of questions of meaning, but they are also the most profound. They deal with first causes, the essences of what their cultures perceive reality to be. In them people set forth their primary understanding of man and the world, time and space.” Marie-Louise von Franz, in Creation Myths (1972, 5), writes that they “refer to the most basic problems of human life, for they are concerned with the ultimate meaning, not only of our existence, but of the existence of the whole cosmos.”
Many striking parallels exist between traditional creation myths and the foundation stories of modern societies, which are embedded within modern science and historiography. Are modern accounts of origins fundamentally different from those of traditional societies? Or can they, too, be regarded as “creation myths”? Such questions are worth pursuing because they raise important questions about the nature of the truths that can be attained within modern historiography, particularly when, like world history, it aspires to a coherent account of the past on many scales.
A Creation Myth Example
Creation myths have taken many different forms. The Genesis story within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition counts as a creation myth. So do the origin stories found in the oral traditions of societies without written histories. Appreciating the full significance of creation myths is difficult because, like so many cultural traits, their meaning is obvious to those brought up with them, but opaque to outsiders. So the creation myths of others are almost invariably experienced as strange, exotic, and wrong. As the definition of “myth” in the Encyclopaedia Americana points out, “a myth is understood in its own society as a true story. (It is only when it is seen from outside its society that it has come to acquire the popular meaning of a story that is untrue)” (Long 1996, 699). The difficulties of understanding a creation myth from outside can be appreciated from the following extract. It comes from the account of a French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, who is summarizing his conversations with Ogotemmeli, a wise man of the Dogon people of Mali. Ogotemmeli had been authorized to reveal something of his society’s cosmology, but it is clear from the conversation that he was aware of speaking to an outsider, who might not understand or fully appreciate all he said, and Griaule himself was acutely aware of the difficulties of this complex process of translation.
The stars came from pellets of earth flung out into space by the God Amma, the one God. He had created the sun and the moon by a more complicated process, which was not the first known to man but is the first attested invention of God: the art of pottery. The sun is, in a sense, a pot raised once for all to white heat and surrounded by a spiral of red copper with eight turns. The moon is in the same shape, but its copper is white. It was heated only one quarter at a time. Ogotemmeli said he would explain later the movements of these bodies. For the moment he was concerned only to indicate the main lines of the design, and from that to pass to its actors. He was anxious . . . to give an idea of the size of the sun. “Some,” he said, “think it is as large as this encampment, which would mean thirty cubits. But it is really bigger. Its surface area is bigger than the whole of Sanga Canton.” And after some hesitation he added: “It is perhaps even bigger than that.” . . .
The moon’s function was not important, and he would speak of it later. He said however that, while Africans were creatures of light emanating from the fullness of the sun, Europeans were creatures of the moonlight: hence their immature appearance. . . .
The god Amma . . . took a lump of clay, squeezed it in his hand and flung it from him, as he had done with the stars. The clay spread and fell on the north, which is the top, and from there stretched out to the south, which is the bottom of the world, although the whole movement was horizontal. The earth lies flat, but the north is at the top. It extends east and west with separate members like a foetus in the womb. It is a body, that is to say, a thing with members branching out from a central mass. This body, lying flat, face upwards, in a line from north to south, is feminine. Its sexual organ is an anthill, and its clitoris a termite hill. Amma, being lonely and desirous of intercourse with this creature, approached it. That was the first occasion of the first breach of the order of the universe.
Ogotemmeli ceased speaking. . . . He had reached the point of the origin of troubles and of the primordial blunder of God. “If they overheard me, I should be fined an ox!”
At God’s approach the termite hill rose up, barring the passage and displaying its masculinity. It was as strong as the organ of the stranger, and intercourse could not take place. But God is all-powerful. He cut down the termite hill, and had intercourse with the excised earth. But the original incident was destined to affect the course of things for ever; from this defective union there was born, instead of the intended twins, a single being, the Thos aureus or jackal, symbol of the difficulties of God. . . . God had further intercourse with his earth-wife, and this time without mishaps of any kind, the excision of the offending member having removed the cause of the former disorder. Water, which is the divine seed, was thus able to enter the womb of the earth and the normal reproductive cycle resulted in the birth of twins. Two beings were thus formed. God created them like water. They were green in color, half human beings and half serpents. From the head to the loins they were human: below that they were serpents. Their red eyes were wide open like human eyes, and their tongues were forked like the tongues of reptiles. Their arms were flexible and without joints. Their bodies were green and sleek all over, shining like the surface of water, and covered with short green hairs, a presage of vegetation and germination. These figures were the Nummo twins, water gods who later play a crucial role in the creation of the earth. (Sproul 1991, 50–51, citing Griaule 1975, 16–40)
Features of Creation Myths
These brief extracts, from the start of a long and complex story, illustrate several features of creation myths in general. First, Ogotemmeli’s account is told as a story. This may be simply because narrative is the most powerful and memorable way of explaining and transmitting complex, important truths. “Like myth, memory requires a radical simplification of its subject matter. All recollections are told from a standpoint in the present. In telling, they need to make sense of the past. That demands a selecting, ordering, and simplifying, a construction of coherent narrative whose logic works to draw the life story towards the fable” (Samuel and Thompson 1990, 8).
Second, origins are explained as the result of conscious actions by spirits or gods. That spiritual entities created the basic structures of the world is a default hypothesis in many traditional cosmologies. But it is not universal. Many origin stories rely on metaphors of birth, positing the existence of a primordial egg or a primordial sexual act, whose meaning can be understood more or less literally. Some origin stories explain creation as an awakening from sleep, a reminder that our own personal origin stories all have the quality of awakening from preconsciousness. Some creation myths face the paradoxes of origins squarely, positing a realm preceding that of the gods, which was balanced precariously between existence and nonexistence. According to the Rig Veda, the ancient sacred hymns of northern India, “There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep? There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse” (O’Flaherty 1981, 25). Such language hints at the paradox present in all stories of ultimate origins—how can something (whether a god or an entire universe) come out of nothing?
Third, all creation myths are more complex than they may seem at first sight. Because they deal with ultimate realities, with truths so complex that they can only be referred to using richly metaphorical or poetic language, their tellers are usually well aware of their paradoxical, even provisional nature. At one point, Marcel Griaule was puzzled by a detail in Ogotemmeli’s story, according to which large numbers of creatures appeared to be standing on a single step, only one cubit deep and one cubit high. How was that possible? Ogotemmeli replied: “All this had to be said in words, but everything on the steps is a symbol, symbolic antelopes, symbolic vultures, symbolic hyenas. Any number of symbols could find room on a one-cubit step.” Griaule adds that the word Ogotemmeli used for symbol literally meant “word of this (lower) world” (Sproul 1991, 64).
Fourth, embedded within cycles of creation myths there is generally much hard empirical information about the real world, information about animal migrations, about technologies of hunting and farming, information that younger members of society needed to learn. Such information is often of little interest to outsiders, who may thereby miss the practical, empirical nature of most cycles of myth, but it helps explain their fundamental role in informal systems of education. Ogotemmeli’s story, for example, contains a long list of important animals, much lore about procreation and sexuality, details of the major grains farmed in his region, and symbolic accounts of human anatomy and the world’s geography.
Finally, partly because they contain so much familiar information, creation stories have the feeling of truth for insiders, just as modern science does for those educated in the early twenty-first century. To those brought up with them, particular creation myths represent the best available guide to reality and much of what they say fits in well with commonsense experience. This does not mean that creation stories are necessarily treated uncritically by insiders—it is always possible to argue about details of a creation story or express skepticism or even confusion about certain aspects of the story. As Griaule comments of Ogotemmeli, “Ogotemmeli had no very clear idea of what happened in Heaven after the transformation of the eight ancestors into Nummo” (Sproul 1991, 59). But it does mean that familiar creation myths are felt to be the best available guides to reality and therefore to conduct; in some sense, they hold society together. And this makes them extremely important, not to be told lightly or carelessly, and to be treasured and passed on with care by those who keep the knowledge they contain. Creation myths contain potent information, which is why Ogotemmeli lowers his voice when discussing the first blunder of the God Amma.
Similarities and Differences
This partial list of the features of traditional creation stories suggests some of the main similarities and differences between creation myths and modern, “scientific,” accounts of the past. Both modern and traditional accounts of origins play an important educational role because traditional creation stories also contain much carefully tested information about the real world. Like creation myths, modern accounts of the past can also be passed on best in narrative form, which is still the dominant form for history writing and much popular science. Modern accounts of origins also struggle with the problem of ultimate origins, something that is clear in the case of modern big bang cosmology, which can say nothing precise until just after the moment of creation. Indeed, like many traditional creation myths, modern physics sees non-being (the vacuum) as a state of potentiality, a realm of emptiness out of which things can appear. Further, when the epistemological going gets tough, even modern science has to fall back on complex and paradoxical concepts whose full significance may remain somewhat obscure. In this sense, concepts such as gravity or black holes or quantum uncertainty play roles similar to those of gods or other mythic creatures in traditional creation stories. Finally, to an educated person today, modern origin stories have the same feeling of truth that traditional creation myths had for those brought up within them. Because of these many similarities, it seems reasonable to suggest that modern “scientific” historiography, particularly in the form of world history, can play many of the roles that creation myths played in the past.
Yet there are also important differences. It is tempting to claim that modern scientific accounts of the past are truer than those of traditional creation stories. Such claims may be true, but they need to be made with care. Even modern origin stories are anchored in time and place, so in the future they will undoubtedly seem naive and primitive in some respects, as traditional creation stories do today. Furthermore, all creation stories have something to teach outsiders insofar as they offer different ways of thinking about reality. For example, many environmentalists have argued that modern societies need to recapture the sense of being a part of the natural world that is so pervasive in the creation stories of foraging societies. A clearer difference is that scientific origin stories (like modern science in general) aim at universality. They expect to be believed not by just a single culture, but by all educated people on Earth. To earn such universal respect, they require a flexibility and openness that was lacking in many creation stories, for they have to appeal to intelligent people from many different cultural backgrounds, and they have to be able to incorporate new information. This requires a constant testing of hypotheses and details to avoid the parochialism of most traditional creation myths. Because modern scientific historiography (like science in general) appeals to a global audience, the tests to which it is subjected are numerous and thorough. (Unlike Ogotemmeli, we now know from direct experience what the moon is made of and how large it is.) Modern creation stories can claim to be truer than traditional creation myths insofar as the information they contain has been more carefully tested, and as a result they feel true to a much wider audience. The universality and openness to testing of modern scientific accounts of the past explain a final, crucial difference: their unwillingness to invoke anthropomorphic or spiritual explanations for origins. Such explanations are ruled out by modern science because they are too flexible to provide rigorous, refutable explanations, and therefore cannot be subjected to the strict rules of testing that underpin modern science.
As this discussion suggests, world history is perhaps not so different from traditional creation myths. It, too, represents an attempt to tell the story of origins. But its audience is global, and to generate the feeling of “truthfulness” that all creation myths aspire to from a worldwide audience it must try to tell its origin stories without any taint of cultural bias, and with careful testing for rigor and objectivity.
- Berry, T. (1988). The dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
- Brockway, R. W. (1993). Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse. New York: State University of New York Press.
- Christian, D. (2004). Maps of time: An introduction to big history. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Griaule, M. (1975). Conversations with Ogotemmeli. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- McNeill, W. H. (1985). Mythistory and other essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- O’Flaherty, W. D. (Trans.). (1981). The Rig Veda. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- Samuel, R., & Thompson, P. (Eds.). (1990). The myths we live by. London: Routledge.
- Sproul, B. (1991). Primal myths: Creation myths around the world. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
- von Franz, M.-L. (1972). Creation myths. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.
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