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Mythology and Folklore

Creation Stories

early Mesopotamian civilization, primal state, primal elements, Sumerian mythology, Nommo

Creation Stories, myths that explain the origin of the universe, or cosmos. The origin of the cosmos forms one of the principal themes of mythology throughout the world. Most mythologies view the process of creation as belonging to the distant past. Some mythological traditions, however, present creation as a continuing cycle of birth and destruction, as in Hindu tradition or in the belief of the native peoples of Central America in the so-called Five Suns that governed successive worlds.

Students of mythology often draw a distinction between creation myths proper, or cosmogonies, and myths of origins. Cosmogonies tell how the cosmos arose or was created from a primal state. Myths of origin explain how later features of the known world—such as human beings, animals, and the social order—came into being. In practice, however, stories of origin usually represent continuations of a cosmogony, recounting the further development of an original creative act.

Most creation stories assume the eternity of matter or even of the world itself. However, these myths hold that the world in its precreation state was uninhabitable and must be organized either by the action of cosmic forces or by creator deities. Certain images of the primal, or precreation, state of the universe are common to a number of mythological traditions. Some myths represent the primal state as a void. Others depict it as a chaos of indistinct elements. Still others present it as a primeval sea, or as a cosmic egg containing all things in embryonic form.

Some creation myths reflect the environmental circumstances of a particular culture. For example, in Mesopotamia, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a dependence on irrigation systems and the perpetual threat of flooding were a pervasive feature of life. Accordingly, the action and control of the waters played a major role in the mythology of Sumer, an early Mesopotamian civilization. In Sumerian mythology, the primeval sea, personified by the goddess Nammu, is the source of the gods and of the cosmos. When the gods decide to destroy their human creations, they do so by sending a flood.

Creation mythologies explain the actual formation of the world by a variety of processes. These processes include the sacrifice of a primal being (for example, a giant or serpent); a struggle between supernatural powers; the blending or coalescing of elements, particularly water and earth; the incubation of a cosmic egg; and the uttering of a divine word. In myths that credit primary creation to gods, such as the Greek deities Uranus (sky god) and Gaea (earth goddess), these deities often become hazy, remote figures in later mythology, and stories often recount their overthrow by their own offspring. For example, in the Greek tradition, Zeus succeeded his father Cronus and grandfather Uranus to become ruler of the gods.

Many mythological accounts ascribe creation to impersonal agents rather than to individual deities. In some African traditions, a cosmic egg hatched to release spirits called Nommo, who then set about the creation of mankind. In Egyptian mythology, both personal and impersonal creative forces came into play: Elemental energies were personified by four divine couples who fused to form the cosmic egg, from which the sun god was born. In later Egyptian mythology, the sun god became identified with the figure of Ra, a deity who gave rise to a pantheon of high gods (known as the Nine Gods of Heliopolis) through self-fertilization. Many mythologies include similar stories of self-fertilization by a creator deity, whose offspring then give birth to other gods, creating a pantheon based on incestuous family relationships. The most famous such line of descent occurs in Greek mythology, in which Zeus begets offspring by many goddesses and mortals.

Many creation myths focus on the idea that primal elements were separated or made distinct from one another during the act of creation. In ancient Egyptian mythology, creation began when a mound of land first distinguished itself in the midst of the primal waters. In the biblical Genesis story, Yahweh's creation of the world is described mainly in terms of separating—for example, the separation of light from darkness, and of sea from land. In other creation mythologies, the raw material for making the world derives from a specific source. A widespread Native American myth tells of the descent into the depths of the ocean of a so-called earth-diver, an animal—often a turtle—who brings back mud from which the world is fashioned. In Indian Vedic tradition, the body of the primordial man, Purusha, is dismembered to provide material for the world and everything in it. A similar theme occurs in the Norse myth in which the primal giant Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers, who then make the sky from his skull, the earth from his body, and the sea from his blood.

Cosmogonic myths generally culminate in the creation of humankind, after which the mythic cosmos comes to resemble the world of human experience. In mythic history, the earliest era of the world is usually the closest to perfection—a Golden Age or Garden of Eden—with later phases showing the progressive degeneration of the world as it grows more distant from the original creative impulse. The earliest humans are often thought to have been of extraordinary stature and longevity and to have been much closer to the gods than are the humans of the present day. In many traditions the story cycles associated with demigods and heroes are an even richer source of myth than those involving the gods themselves. Such myths enable the listener to recall the time of creation when the world was in its infancy.


Vawter, Rev. Bruce, C.M., S.S.D.

Late Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University. Editor, "Old Testament Abstracts".

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