Ancestors: Mythic Ancestors

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Cosmogonic myths are narratives that depict the creation of the world by divine beings. In many cosmogonic myths a supreme being or high god creates the world, after which other divine beings come into being, who in the form of culture heroes or other types of gods reveal the realm of the sacred, death, sexuality, sacred geography, and the methods of food production. The narrative of the cosmogonic myth moves from the initial creation of the world to the revelation of the archetypal actions and gestures of divine beings and culture heroes, thus describing a sacred history of primordial times. These divine beings and culture heroes form the ancestral lineages of the human race. The situation of the human race is based upon the activities, adventures, discoveries, and disappearance of these first creative ancestors, who appeared in sacred history.

Primordial Ruptures

In the Mesopotamian myth Enuma elish, a tension develops between the first creators and their offspring. This tension leads to a rupture in the initial creation and a struggle between its gods and their offspring. In the ensuing battle, the foundation is established for human existence. In the Enuma elish, the god Marduk is the leader of the offspring who fight Tiamat, the mother. In the battle Tiamat is slain, and her body becomes the earth on which human beings live. Certain archetypes for human existence are established as a result of this battle: the cooperation between the offspring gods becomes a model for cooperative enterprise among human beings, which the death of Tiamat affirms. In the biblical myth of the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve live in Paradise with the creator god. When they sin they become the archetypal ancestors of the human community, for they now must experience sexuality, birth, labor, and death, the universal lot of all human beings.

A Dogon myth from West Africa describes a similar situation. The god Amma began creation by first forming a cosmic egg, in which the embryos of twin deities matured; they were to become perfect beings. One of the twins became impatient and decided to leave the egg before maturation. In so doing it tore out part of the placenta and fell to what is now the earth, creating a place of habitation from the torn placenta of the egg. This was an incomplete creation, however, and Amma, to rectify the situation, sacrificed the other twin. Even with this sacrifice, the creation could not be made perfect. Instead of creating perfect beings who were both androgynous and amphibious, Amma was forced to compromise. Thus, humans are not androgynous but rather composed of two sexes; they are not amphibious but essentially terrestrial; they do not live continuously in a perfect state of illumination (composed of equal parts of dark and light), as was the original intention of Amma, but in two alternating modes of full light and darkness. In addition to this, the opposing natures of the obedient and the malevolent twin, who are the ancestors of all human beings on earth, define modes of life throughout the universe.

In myths of this kind we are able to recognize what Mircea Eliade (1969) identified as two forms of primordiality. There is, first of all, the primordiality defined by the great creator deities who brought the world into being. Their creativity is inaccessible to ordinary human beings and they appear remote and unconcerned with the human condition. There is another primordiality that can be recognized in the tension and rupture between the creator deities and other deities who enter upon adventures and exploits that define the archetypal modes for human existence. Through these activities, the creator deities bring the sacred into the existential modes of human existence and are seen as the ancestors of human beings.

In some cultures, the cosmogonic myths make no reference to great creator deities. The narrative begins with the second primordiality and the action is that of the culture hero, whose actions create the human condition. Among the Kwakiutl Indians of North America, the culture hero is Transformer and comes upon the scene as a human being living in a human family. Whenever he discovers human deceit or error, he transforms the human being into a bird or other animal, thus filling the landscape with the food supply necessary for human existence. In this manner Transformer sets the rules for the production and consumption of food and for reincarnation (to ensure a continuous supply of food). Prior to the actions of Transformer there is no order in the cosmos. After his participation in the production of the food supply, all other forms of orderwithin the family, society, and so oncome into being. The chiefs of the segmented social units (numaym) are each related to an animal ancestor. In fact, following upon the transformation of humans into animals, the Kwakiutl believe that animals and spirits lead lives that are exactly equivalent to those of human beings. Animals are considered to be human beings who are wearing masks and costumes created by their animal forms.

The second primordiality also dominates the myth of what Adolf E. Jensen (1963) has called "cultivator cultures." In a myth cited from the Indonesian island of Ceram, he describes a type of deity referred to by the indigenous peoples as a dema deity. The activity of these deities goes back to the end of the first primordial period. They sometimes possess human form and at other times animal form. The decisive event in their lives is the killing of one dema deity by another, which establishes the human condition. Before the death of the dema, the human condition is not characterized by sexual differentiation or death; it is only after the death of the dema that these aspects come into existence. The dema come at the end of primordial time and are thus the first of all human ancestors. Through the death of the dema, human beings are accepted again within their community. In myths of this kind the ancestors are gods, heroes, or divine beings, who through their actions make possible and render meaningful the human condition as it is, with all of its possibilities and limitations, and it is through them that the human condition possesses a divine presence.

Ancestors not only set forth the general and universal human condition; they are also the founders of clans, families, moieties, and other segments of the human community. N. D. Fustel de Coulanges's classic work The Ancient City (1901) describes how ancient Greek and Roman families were founded by ancestors who were heroes or divine beings. The family cult was at once the basis for the order and maintenance of the family and a cult of the ancestor. Similar notions are present among Australian Aborigines, where each totemic group has its own totemic ancestor who controls the food supply and is the basis for authority and marriages among the groups. In almost the same manner, the Tucano Indians of Colombia understand their origins as arising from mythical ancestors, the Desána, who revealed all the forms of nature and modes of being to the human community.

An exemplary expression of the cult of ancestors is found in Chinese religions. It is the duty of Chinese sons to provide for and revere their parents in this life and the life after death; this is a relationship of reciprocity. The household is composed of the living and the dead; the ancestors provide and sustain the foundations of spiritual order upon which the family is based, while the living keep the family in motion. The living are always under the tacit judgment of their ancestors, on account of which they attempt to conduct their lives in an honorable manner.

The Founding of Cities

Not only do divine ancestors and culture heroes form the lineages of families and totemic groups, they are equally present at the beginnings of almost every city foundation in ancient and traditional cultures. Cain in the biblical story is the culture hero who founds the city of Enoch; Romulus is the founder of Rome; Quetzalcoatl, of Tollan. In Southeast Asia, the founding of states and kingship follow the archetypes of the Hindu god Indra.

The founding of a city may be a response to the experience of a hierophany. Hierophanies of space, or ceremonial centers, are revelations of the sacred meaning of space itself. The divine beings or culture heroes who found cities derive their power from such sacred ceremonial centers. In some cases, a sacrifice is necessary to appease the gods of the location; thus, many of the myths involving the founding of cities relate a story of twins, one of whom is killed or sacrificed, as in the case of Cain's slaying of Abel, or Romulus's murder of Remus. In one of the mythological cycles of Quetzalcoatl, for example, a magical combat takes place in which Quetzalcoatl kills his uncle.

The ancestors as founders of a city establish the archetypes for all domesticated space. The normalization of activities in the space of the city, whether in terms of family structures or the public meanings of space, are guaranteed by the founding ancestor. All other establishments or reestablishments of cities will follow the model of the archetypal gestures of the founding ancestor of the city. The ruler of the city represents and symbolizes the presence of the divine ancestor, and elaborate rituals of rulership take place at certain temporal intervals to commemorate and reestablish the founding gestures.


In some myths death enters the world because of an action, inaction, or quarrel among the creator deities. They may have simply forgotten to tell human beings whether they were immortal or not, or the creator deity allows death to enter the world. In a myth from Madagascar two gods create human beings: the earth god forms them from wood and clay, the god of heaven gives them life. Human beings die so that they may return to the origins of their being.

In most mythic scenarios, however, death is the result of a sacred history that introduces the second meaning of primordiality. Through ignorance, interdiction, or violence, a break is made by the divine offspring from the creator deity, and in this rupture is the origin of death. The origin of the abode of the dead is equally located in this event, for, in the mythic scenarios, the rupture creates divisions in space among which a place of the dead comes into being. For example, in the Dogon myth mentioned above, the placenta of the god Amma is the earth, and at death one returns to the earth which was the original stuff of creation.

Funerary rituals are very important, for they assure that the dead will arrive in the correct manner at the abode of the ancestors. The souls of the dead must be instructed and led on the right path lest they become lost. At death the deceased is vulnerable and subject to the attack of malevolent spirits. Funerary rituals prescribe the correct behavior and route to be taken by the dead to the land of the ancestors.

See Also

Animals; Archetypes; Center of the World; Cities; Cosmogony; Culture Heroes; Death; Deus Otiosus; Fall, The; Funeral Rites; Totemism.


A general discussion of cosmogonic myths can be found in my Alpha: The Myths of Creation (New York, 1963). For Mircea Eliade's discussion of the two types of primordiality, see "Cosmogonic Myth and Sacred History," in his The Quest (Chicago, 1969). For ancient Near Eastern myths, see Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed., edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton, 1969). N. D. Fustel de Coulanges's The Ancient City (1901), 12th ed. (Baltimore, 1980), remains the best general introduction to Greek and Roman religion dealing with the meaning of ancestors. Joseph Rykwert's The Idea of a Town (Princeton, 1976) is a brilliant discussion of the myths and rituals of the founding of Rome. Paul Wheatley's The Pivot of the Four Quarters (Chicago, 1971) is the best work on the meaning of the ceremonial center as the basis for the founding of cities. Robert Heine-Geldern's "Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia," Far Eastern Quarterly 2 (November 1942): 1530, describes state and urban foundation in Southeast Asia. Davíd Carrasco presents the full cycle of the myths, histories, and city foundations of Quetzalcoatl in Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire (Chicago, 1982). For the Tucano Indians of Colombia, see Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's Amazonian Cosmos (Chicago, 1971). Adolf E. Jensen's Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples (Chicago, 1963), is the best general work on the religious meaning of culture heroes and dema deities. For China, see Raymond Dawson's The Chinese Experience (London, 1978). Dominique Zahan's The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa (Chicago, 1979) places the meaning of ancestors within the general structures of African religions. Hans Abrahamsson's The Origin of Death (Uppsala, 1951), is still the best study of the myths of death in Africa. For the ancestors of the Dinka, a cattle-raising people in Africa, see Godfrey Lienhardt's Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford, 1961). Jack Goody's Death, Property and the Ancestors (Stanford, 1962) is a detailed study of death and funerary rituals among the LoDagaa of West Africa. Stanley Wallens's Feasting with Cannibals (Princeton, 1981) is a study of the meaning of ancestors among the Kwakiutl.

Charles H. Long (1987)

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Ancestors: Mythic Ancestors

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