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creation myths

creation myths The essential metaphysical question that creation myths seek to answer is that of origins, or where things come from. The emergence of day from night, the growth of plants from seeds, the provenance of weather and the seasons, the birth of living things, all provoke questions regarding the source of these phenomena. Creation myths serve, in most societies, to give an account of such origins.

The central bodily image in most recorded myths of creation is that of human birth. This leads to a widespread anthropomorphization of the original principles or powers of creation as being primeval parents, male and female. In the classical Greek myth of Hesiod, the Earth Mother, Gaia, is impregnated by the Sky Father, Uranos, and gives birth to Kronos, who later kills his father and unites with his mother to produce a race of giants, the first mortal living beings in the world. The genders of earth and sky are reversed in an Egyptian creation myth, which depicts the cow-goddess Nut with long hair and hanging breasts, overarching the earth-god Geb, her spouse, as his sky-protectress.

In patriarchal cosmogonies the ‘normal’ imageries of divine motherhood are taken over by the father, as in the Christian myth of creation by the Word spoken by a male creator, who calls things into existence by naming them: ‘Let there be light’. Alternately, in the Hindu story of the world's beginnings, Lotus, which grows from the navel of the reclining god, Vishnu, and is a symbol associated with the female powers of reproduction, is transmuted into an image of creation springing from the male. For, since the lotus is associated primarily with the goddess, Padma, whose body itself is the universe, the long stem from Vishnu's navel to the lotus should properly connote an umbilical cord through which the flow of energy would run from the goddess to the god, mother to child.

The image of Athena springing, fully grown, from Zeus' head, is an example of the appropriation of birth and its transference away from the lower regions of the body, to the higher faculties. As the mother gives birth from the womb, so the father gives birth from the mind, through the faculty of speech: in this latter transformation, the mouth, with its tongue (in Western cultures sometimes regarded as the alternative male member) produces that precious child of civilization, the word.

The Brihardaranyaka Upanishad (c.700 bc) tells of how, in the beginning, the universe was nothing but the Self in the form of a male. ‘It is I!’ he shouted, whence the concept I arose. Feeling lonely, however, he split himself in half, and his other half was in the form of a woman, whom he embraced. To escape him, she transformed herself into a cow, then a goat, then a sheep, and all the female animals that exist, while he followed, transforming himself into the male of these animals in order to embrace with her, and thus all pairing things were formed. Seeing the proliferation of living beings from his own and his mate's inventive metamorphoses, the male Self congratulated himself, saying, ‘I, actually, am creation; for I have poured forth all this’, rather overlooking the fact that it was his other half's reluctance to embrace him, and desire to escape him, that produced this animal abundance.

Procreative desire may give rise to land as well as the animals that inhabit it. The emergence from the sea of the volcanic islands of Japan is explained in terms of childbirth, the islands being the offspring of two heavenly spirits, Izanagi and Izanami. The first children of the pair, however, were abortions, caused by the fact that, when their parents first joined together, it was the woman who had first exclaimed at the man's beauty. The second time round, the order of precedence was corrected, the man spoke first, and the births were successful, forming the eight islands of Japan, and all their forests, mountains, rivers, and valleys. While sexual desire serves as the explanatory model for these myths of creation, there exist other myths that purport to explain the origin of sexual desire itself.

Several creation myths tell of one primeval body, out of which all the parts of the world were made: in a Norse myth, when the frozen wastes of the north met the fiery realm of the south, the melting ice transformed into the shape of the sleeping giant, Ymir. From his flesh was formed the soil, his bones became mountains and stones, his hair became vegetation, and his blood the sea. More frequently this primeval body is female, as in the Mayan myth of the great female Earth Monster, who was torn in half by the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca: her lower half ascended to form the heavens, and her upper half descended to form the earth. In a Mayan myth describing the origin of plants, the corpse of a god provided the basis for a thousand varieties of fruits and grain. From his hair grew cotton; from his ears, seed-bearing plants; from his nostrils, healing herbs; from his fingers, the sweet potato; from his fingernails, maize.

Creation myths in many cultures ascribe different parts of the cosmos to different parts of the body of a divine being, or give alternative origins for the sexes. In Babylonian myth, Marduk slaughters the serpent Tiamat and makes the sky and the earth from her divided body. In Norse myth the three creator gods kill the bisexual giant Ymir, making the earth from his body, the sea from his blood, and the sky from his skull. The giant Purusha's body is the basis of the universe in Vedic myth.

The notion of the many growing out of the one is counterposed in mythology by the idea of two opposing principles of existence, the struggles and foment of which provide the seeds of creation. In the Zoroastrian myth of creation, the world is made and maintained by two contrary powers; Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Life, and Angra Mainyu, the Demon of the Lie who, when the world had been made by Ahura Mazda, corrupted every particle of its being. Yet it was Angra Mainyu who, by shattering the fixed order of the stars, caused celestial motion to being, and by dessicating the first created plants, and spreading their powder over the world, covered it in vegetation; and by destroying the sole created being, a primaeval ox, made all living things arise from its seed, from the birds of the air to the fish in the waters and beasts on land. A parallel story of the world created through the dynamic tension between opposing forces is found in the Huron creation myth, which tells of how the world was made by the twinned offspring of the Woman Fallen from the Sky. The evil twin, Taweskare, kicked his way through his mother's armpit, and killed her, while the good twin, Tsentsa, was born in the usual manner. So when Tsentsa created fertile plains and valleys, Taweskare heaved up parts of them to create barren mountains, and cleft others to make swamps and chasms; the first made flowers and fruit trees, and his brother put thorns on the stems and made the fruit small and gritty; the good twin made fish and other animals to eat, and the bad twin gave them sharp teeth, and scales, and horns.

Creation myths thus have a dual relationship with the body, in that they seek both to mimic, as well as explain, bodily processes such as birth and growth. The functions and qualities of the human body, or microcosm, are seen to mirror those of the external world, or macrocosm. Body and earth become one in these myths, and human origins, geological formations, plant life, and animal life, are all explicated by means of metaphors and images related to human reproduction and development. Similarly, the observable oppositions and dichotomies in the world are accounted for as the competing expressions of two siblings, whose rivalry drives the diversity of creation.

Natsu Hattori

Bibliography

Campbell, J. (1960–5). The masks of God, Vols 1–3. Secker and Warburg, London.
Graves, R. (1961). The White Goddess. Faber and Faber, London.
Taube, K. A. (1993). Aztec and Maya myths. British Museum Press, London.


See also Greeks; metamorphosis; mythic thought; mythology and the body; reproduction myths.

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cosmogony

cos·mog·o·ny / käzˈmägənē/ • n. (pl. -nies) the branch of science that deals with the origin of the universe, esp. the solar system. ∎  a theory regarding this. DERIVATIVES: cos·mo·gon·ic / ˌkäzməˈgänik/ adj. cos·mo·gon·i·cal / ˌkäzməˈgänikəl/ adj. cos·mog·o·nist / -nist/ n.

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Cosmogony

Cosmogony: see COSMOLOGY.

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cosmogony

cosmogonyLéonie, peony •Tierney •Briony, bryony, Hermione •tourney • ebony • Albany •chalcedony • Alderney •Persephone, Stephanie, telephony •antiphony, epiphany, polyphony, tiffany •symphony •cacophony, homophony, theophany, Zoffany •euphony • agony • garganey •Antigone •cosmogony, mahogany, theogony •balcony • Gascony • Tuscany •calumny •felony, Melanie, miscellany •villainy • colony •Chamonix, salmony, scammony, Tammany •harmony •anemone, Emeny, hegemony, lemony, Yemeni •alimony, palimony •agrimony • acrimony •matrimony, patrimony •ceremony • parsimony • antimony •sanctimony • testimony • simony •Romany • Germany • threepenny •timpani • sixpenny • tuppenny •accompany, company •barony • saffrony • tyranny •synchrony • irony • saxony • cushiony •Anthony • betony •Brittany, dittany, litany •botany, cottony, monotony •gluttony, muttony •Bethany • oniony • raisiny •attorney, Burney, Czerny, Ernie, ferny, gurney, journey, Verny

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