Cosmology: An Overview

views updated


Cosmology is the term for the study of cosmic views in general and also for the specific view or collection of images concerning the universe held in a religion or cultural tradition. The twofold meaning of the term is reminiscent of the double meaning of mythology, which is at the same time the study of myths and the dominant or representative assemblage of myths in a given tradition. However, the double usage of the term cosmology is still wider in one respect: Quite explicitly, it also relates to inquiries in the natural sciences. The natural sciences customarily associate the term with the study of cosmic views; more specifically, these sciences reserve cosmology for the scientific study of the universe considered as a whole. Thus, it is the most encompassing task of astronomy and is distinct from, even if presupposed by, sciences with a comparatively more limited object, such as physics or geology.

Images of the World as Subjects for Historians

For historians, including historians of religions, the study of cosmology surveys and tries to classify and understand the significance of mythical images and religious conceptions concerning the cosmos and the origin and structure of the universe. The variety of images held, historically and globally, leads to one central question: What is the relation between human views of the world and the validity and authority of the tradition in which these views are held? Invariably, the two are relateddespite the contemporary uncritically held views concerning a separation between the sciences and the humanities. Hence the two meanings of cosmology noted previously do not present an ambiguity: The study of the structure of the universe and the history of cosmological imagery are interrelated and inseparable. In their study of cosmology, natural scientists do not usually need to concern themselves with images of the world held in past civilizations and in regions distant from the centers of modern scientific learning. For the historian of religions, however, the opposite is true: The cosmic views held by modern scientists cannot be ignored for they are but the latest in a long series of views and are thus as worthy of consideration as those, for instance, of the tribes of central Australia or the Hindus of India. Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) was an early student of the world's structure, but also a theologian and cardinal. It remains important to keep in mind that the separation between the sciences and the humanities is a recent (nineteenth century) academic idea, which epistemologically is still under debate.

The history of religions is the only discipline seeking to relate two branches of learning that have been kept apart for a considerable time, that is, the humanities (including history) and the natural sciences. With respect to images and theories of the universe, the borderline between science and myth has fluctuated throughout history. The significance of religious and historical studies in cosmology is largely due to this fluctuation, because the investigations of the historian of religion must overstep the boundaries that normally divide basic disciplines of study (i.e., specialized disciplines precisely delineated and separated from each other in objective and method) and can thereby illuminate features and themes or provide insights that in any given specialization can hardly be surmised.

In most instances, every aspect of a culture or religion presupposes a view of the cosmos. Nevertheless, even this generalization should be made with some caution. In the case of the modern natural sciences, there is no doubt about the pervasiveness of an implicit worldview, even though many of the details of this view may be open to debate. However, in the study of religious images of the world, the presupposition of a cosmic view does not necessarily apply. The sacred and the phenomenal world are related, but they are by no means identical. Certainly, notions of what is sacred vary widely from one tradition to another, yet in every tradition one notion or configuration of the sacred is prominent and forms the sine qua non of that particular religion and constitutes the vantage point for understanding it. The same is not true for images of the cosmos, for in certain traditions cosmic imageries are of mere secondary importance (as in Christianity and Buddhism). In the case of the biblical texts alone, images of the cosmos change several times without affecting the religious tradition. A hierophany (a manifestation of the sacred) can lead to an image of the cosmos, but images of the cosmos do not necessarily take on a sacred significance.

Cosmology and Worldview

According to this explanation of cosmology, the terms cosmology and worldview, although related, cannot often be used interchangeably. Worldview is the term for a more general, less precisely delineated but commonly accepted set of ideas (i.e., an ideology) concerning life and world. Cosmology refers to more consciously entertained images, doctrines, and scientific views concerning the universe. In religious traditions, the natural place to look for cosmology is the myths of creation or birth of the world (cosmogony), whereas questionnaires might be the best means to arrive at a dominant worldview. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) introduced the term Weltanschauung (worldview), but he used it as a synonym for cosmology or image of the world. The more nebulous term (especially as used by English-speakers) Weltanschauung is to a large extent the result of philosophical discussions and disagreements that have taken place for the most part outside of theological circles. The meaning of the term worldview in common use at the beginning of twenty-first century is a generally sensed answer to a question concerning the meaning of life that is felt rather than expressed. Its lack of articulation distinguishes it from cosmology. No wonder that so much discord has continued to exist among philosophers on the meaning and definition of worldview, although it has been accepted as a philosophical concept (e.g., by Karl Jaspers, 18831969). It is easy to see that a worldview, precisely to the extent that it is held uncritically, can be a remnant of an earlier cosmology.

The relation between scientific views of the universe and worldviewand the influence of the former on the latterare strikingly exemplified in developments of the twentieth century and, if anything, increasingly so in the twenty-first century. Discoveries in astronomy, the popularization of unimaginable distances in space, and the beginning of space travel have contributed to a new anxiety.

Human beings have become conspicuously lonesome creatures in the universe. Typically, in science fiction literature, space travelers risk the danger of literally getting lost in space. This anxiety is part of a widespread worldview, which is tied to a new cosmology produced by scientific discoveries. A relation to traditional religious systems might seem completely absent, if it were not for the accompanying fully conscious realization that the central place of humans in the cosmos has faded. Thus, the anxiety concerns precisely the cardinal point in all traditional religious imageries: In more than one manner the world seems to have become less human, if not inhuman. It is, however, not correct to assume that all the cosmologies held on to by people in ancient and distant cultures were stories of perfect peace. It should be remembered that the biblical creation account ends with the entrance of evil and the expulsion of the first people from paradise, and, according to many African myths, an accidental forgetfulness in the conveyance of a message causes the mortality of people.

Classification of Cosmologies

Cosmic worldviews may be examined from two distinct perspectives: geographical location and culturally evolved themes.


The most obvious grouping of cosmic views is given according to the continents of the earth, the various regions within them, and their ethnic and linguistic divisions. Although a necessary first step that appeals to the quest for empirical knowledge, this method is most valuable in showing the extreme difficulty of making generalizations and is useful in demonstrating the impossibility of finding helpful answers to a number of elementary questions. The greatest problem for the longest period of time has been the self-overestimation of Westerners who regarded themselves as very well-educated indeednever having had a primitive thought in their minds and the natural inheritors of the classical Greeks. It took Europeans and Americans a long time to pay proper attention, intellectually, to Africa, which was so often maltreated and exploited, especially during colonizationworse than any other continent.

At the same time, however, one cannot help but observe in Africa a variety of traditions and a great dissimilarity in historical influences and levels of culture. Although there may seem to be in African traditions few pure cosmologies in the sense of myths explicitly dealing with the origin and structure of the universe when compared with, for instance, traditions in the Pacific or the sheer beauty of Indonesian myths, this deficiency is more than made up for by a pronounced significance given to human acts in the world from its inception. In particular, the discovery and presentation of Dogon myths have opened Western eyes to the philosophical profundity of African thought. The choices made by people as reflected in their acts obviously concern the world, even when the cosmos itself is not described in its origin and structure with the poetic beauty characteristic of, for example, many Indonesian myths. Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli, an Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (1965) opened Western eyes for the profundity and philosophical depth of the Dogon myths in the West.

A geographic compilation of cosmic views leads to a very natural and necessary first conclusion: Humanity is an important theme in traditional cosmologies. Whether poetic visions of primordial mountains and oceans or a preoccupation with the risks or failures in human acts prevail, the world of human beings is the theme of all traditional mythology, including the narratives and the symbolism that refer expressly to nature, the universe, the cosmos, and the earth. This basic conclusion must indeed be drawn; it eliminates much unnecessary confusion on cosmological and cosmogonic myths as supposed steps toward satisfying innate human scientific curiosity or cravings for establishing causes.

Cultural themes

Any worldwide survey of cosmological views must consider as a crucial factor the variety of cultural levels on which views of the cosmos have developed. At first glance, this variety may seem only to increase the almost overwhelming abundance and complexity of the material to be studied; however, in the end it provides the only sturdy vantage point for a thematic classification on which some scholarly agreement might exist. This is not to say that the various livelihoods (huntinggathering, tilling the soil, livestock raising) are presented as ironclad systems in myths. Yet to quite an extent, views of the cosmos are in harmony with the social order in a tribe or tradition and, as a rule, reflect the prevailing mode of production (and may shed light on the legal customs of the society as well).

The generating earth

Even though no unambiguous examples of matriarchy have been found, many examples of female cosmic principles and deities do exist. In certain very early agricultural societies, as in prehistoric Eastern Europe, it is likely that supreme goddesses to some extent mirrored the importance of women in society. However, much more is at stake than a mere projection of society. There are indications that a mother deity functioned at one time as the sole generative principle, giving birth without the participation of a male counterpart. It is not necessary to think of the peoples holding such ideas as ignorant concerning impregnation; obviously, such ignorance, wherever it existed, could not be the point of the cosmogony.

Evidence of the imageries of a sole maternal figure comes from well-developed early and classical cultures, including those of the Greeks, Egyptians, Hittites, and Japanese. The earthconstituting "the whole place" in which humans found themselvesevidently was conceived as the center or foundation of the cosmos. A Sanskrit word for earth, prthivi, is feminine and literally means "the one who is wide." Taking all evidence together, caution is advised in speaking without further qualification of motherhood as the cause of all these imageries. Less socio-psychologically but not less concretely, the preoccupation with the fact and act of generating seems central in all examples of the generatrix (she who brings forth). In the settled, archaic society of the Zuni, but also among many other Indians of the New World, myths speak of people emerging from the earth in very early, mythical times. Here the subject of originating is much more emphatically presented in the tradition than is the principle of motherhood.

The predominant significance of the earth in a number of traditions is commonly referred to with the adjective chthonic. Derived from the Greek word chthon (earth), it was first used by classicists to describe the quality of many deities in Greece, whether female (such as Gaia and Semele) or male (such as Ploutos, identified with Hades). Gaia (from earth ) is the equivalent of Tellus in Roman mythology, and Ploutos, called Pluto by the Romans, is the provider of wealth that comes from the earth. Gaia is regarded as the oldest of the deities in Greek tradition, arising by her own power out of chaos. In many cosmogonic myths in the ancient Mediterranean world, the theme of the spontaneity of life and life arising from death is repeated and elaborated. Its variations are not limited to the classical civilizations in the Mediterranean but occur wherever agricultural life exists.

Divine male fashioner

Many nonliterate traditions know of a primordial celestial god who created the world and then withdrew after having accomplished that act (deus otiosus, lit., god without work). The great monotheistic systems (those of ancient Israel, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, as well as Zoroastrianism) that also speak of a supreme creator are very different because they brought into existence an understanding of monotheism proper that extends beyond the idea of a god who merely creates. Their monotheism is the result of their fight against polytheism of one type or another and is a matter of a revolution in the development of religion. Not by chance are they historically rooted in pastoral traditions and in civilizations far more extensive than those of early hunters and gatherers. Here, the father is the undisputed head of the family. The world is governed strictly by the creator, Yahweh, the biblical god who sets the course for the celestial bodies. However, societies of a pronounced patriarchal type with a monotheistic religion are relative latecomers in history, and their diversity is striking. One would hesitate to emphasize similarities between them beyond a few general lines linking cosmic structure, social structure, and their type of deity.

The pater familias (father as head of the household) in Roman religion may focus the attention on a striking feature yet brings to mind the complexity of an ideologically pastoral, agriculturally based, and advanced urban society. Also, it is a reminder that the most typical examples of monotheism (as in Israel and Islam) are not an inevitable product of one homogeneous socio-cultural development. After all, Rome did not itself yield to monotheism until Christianity's gradual conquest in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries ce.

World parents

Enlarging on the themes of the earth's generative power and a supreme fashioner is the theme of the world parents. The primordial union out of which all there is was born is often that of sky and earth, that is, the primal pair of parents. Iconographically, the pair is often depicted as if in shorthand form through a square or rectangle (the earth) and a circle (the sky). Here also, an inadequate scientific knowledge and fanciful illusions concerning the structure of the universe is not under question but rather the fundamental issues in a lasting religious quest. In addition to the immediate world of humans, there exists the sky, at the same time undeniably there and yet unreachable. The sky is the first image of what in philosophy will come to be called transcendence. Out of the opposites of earth and sky, the world (perhaps more precisely called "the human world") is born.

Pointing to the theme of the world parents as an expression of the mystery of all creation is far from exhausting the subject. This theme occurs with infinite variations. In ancient Egypt, for example, the earth and the sky are male and female, respectively, unlike the vast majority of traditions. In the ancient Near East, in their relationship the primordial pair, Tiamat and Apsu, exist distinct from and prior to the establishment of sky and earth; they are portrayed as a series of opposites, one of which is the opposition of the primeval salt water and fresh water oceans that were crucial to Babylonian existence. The two form the beginning of the god's life and the beginning of organization necessary for the world that is yet to come. Hence, the pair of deities is both theogonic (related to the study of the origins of gods) and cosmogonic.

Other Motifs

Traditionally, especially since the nineteenth century, anthropologists and historians of religions have been interested in social structures and cultural structures and generally were neither trained for nor interested in typically exact science questions. In recent decades however, more scientists have begun to look at ancient cultures and at societies that not long ago were generally understood to be primitive. In so doing, they have found evidence of much greater interest in the skies in early ages than anthropologists and historians of religions had previously realized. Moreover, in the science of astronomy more and more voices are speaking of mysteries.

Several other themes that deal with the origin of the world and its structure may be related with certainty to the specific cultural environments in which they are narrated. Nevertheless, they cross-cultural boundaries or occur with modifications that can be expected by cultural anthropologists and historians. However, with chthonic creativity and the world parents, it is not necessary here to think in terms of diffusion from one point of the globe to another. On the basis of observation and experience, one may conclude that independent origins are not uncommon and in fact are often more likely. Among the notable exceptions are the variations within the cosmos of conflicting dualisms that are observable in many areas of the world and that are attributable directly or indirectly to Iranian or Manichaean influences.

A number of archaic hunters' traditions know of an earth diver, a creature that descends to the bottom of the primordial ocean to pick up the earth from which the dry land is to be fashioned on the surface of the water (for example, the theme occurs in North America among the Huron). In some regions, the motif appears with the addition of a character, often divine, who orders the earth diver to descend and fetch the required particles of earth. Finallyand herein lies the striking example of a historically traceable influencethe theme recurs with an earth diver who attempts to keep the earth to himself or who sets himself up in opposition to the divine creator. There is little doubt that a dualism of Iranian (Zoroastrian) or Manichaean origin is making itself felt here. In the new versions, the earth, in the end, is the product of both the good maker and the helper, who turns out to be a satanic figure. Thus the existence of evil is acknowledged, but the (good) god is not held responsible for it. Such a dualistic cosmogonic procedure is described in various ways in Eastern European and Siberian traditions.

Again, caution is in order in making generalizations, for the opposition of good and evil is not alien to any human society, even though in some cases specific historical influences can be inferred. Of general importance is the realization, first, that all myths are subject to historical changes, even if these changes have not been traced in detail and, second, that a cosmogonic myth of any thematic type is not necessarily wiped out or replaced but can be merely modified when a great religious system is superimposed on a civilization. For example, in the myth of the earth diver, first a dualistic change came about (no doubt from outside) and yet the new, dualistic version continued its life after Christianity had gained ascendancy in Eastern Europe.

Themes that in all probability were created independently in various traditions include the world egg, the cosmic tree, creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), creation from chaos, and creation from sacrifice. Each of these usually occurs in conjunction with other themes. The tree of the world and of life occurs in one form or another from the ancient Germanic and Celtic peoples to ancient Babylonia and to classical and modern Java. Perhaps even more than the others, this symbolism allows for interpretations of the cosmos at large (the macrocosm) and the "world" of a person's body and existence (the microcosm). Many traditions elaborate on such double application. Chapter 15 of the ancient text the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 bce) is an excellent example.

The imagery of the world egg occurs also in many places (e.g., Africa, Polynesia, Japan, and India) that are far apart and cannot be expected to have been in contact in such a way as to explain the similarity. The power of the imagery must be sought in the imagery itself. Just as water is always and everywhere given as a basic ingredient expressive of perfect potentiality because it takes on any form given to it, having no form of its own (hence symbolically interchangeable with chaos) and plays an essential role at birth, the egg is given as a cosmogonic image precisely because it represents a form that contains all there is "in principle" and produces life. The creation out of nothing, well known from the traditional Christian interpretation of Genesis 1, occurs unambiguously and articulately in a Tuamotuan tradition (Polynesia). Sacrifice as an act resulting in the creation of the world is especially well developed in early India (Vedism and Brahmanism).

Common Characteristics of Religious Cosmologies

When symbolism and mythology depict cosmogony and cosmology, the view is confirmed that the cosmos is always the world of humanity and is not an external object of inquiry. Additionally, an ethical concern, which by itself has no evident part in the study of nature or of astronomy, is very much in evidence in religious views of the world. The behavior required of human beings is often described and always implied in the account of the world's structure.

Even if certain features do not make an obvious ethical impression on many modern and Western readers, they nevertheless may illuminate something concerning the rules that govern human behavior. Sacrificial or headhunting techniques are given within the structure of the cosmos. The renewal of the world celebrated in the Babylonian New Year festival is a cosmological event that has little, if anything, in common with modern scientific researches, most obviously so because it implies a renewal that must be observed in human existence. Another example is the teachings concerning many births and rebirths in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism; they fit in traditions that speak of world cycles, successions of worlds, and multiple worlds. Finally, the intimate relationship of the macrocosm and the microcosm, which is widely attested, is a striking formal link between various views of the cosmos.

Do Science and Religion View the Cosmos Differently?

Contrary to popular opinion, pondering the conflicts between science and religion is not often necessary. It is more to the point to think of differences in questions asked and in subject matter. Pre-Islamic Indian literary sources are almost unanimous with respect to the conception of the continents of the earth. They depict the continents geometrically rather than empirically, and India itself occurs in the center of the world's map. The idea of many long ages and periods with truly astronomical numbers and the concept of many worlds existing both in succession and simultaneously are pan-Indian. As indicated, the center is and remains the human world and the human quest for liberation. This does not mean that the large figures of years given in the Purāas are figments of the imagination or betray a disregard for science. Quite the reverse is true, despite earlier fashions in scholarship that disparaged India's talent for science (a tradition fostered by some eminent Sanskritists). On this score scholarship has been set right by recent investigations in the history of science, with David Pingree in the forefront of this work.

On a wider scale, a comparable correction has been made with respect to the generally held opinion that prehistoric people and, in their wake, members of every nonliterate tradition were wanting in intellectual power capable of raising scientific questions. This correction has been made through the work of Alexander Marshack, who persuasively interpreted prehistoric data as records of precise astronomic observations. None of this suggests oppositions between religion and science; such oppositions are in fact a very recent phenomenon in history and are restricted to very few sciences and only to specific religious traditions. Only in recent times have antiscientific, fundamentalist religious movements occurred. It is certainly impossible on the basis of the cumulative evidence to regard religious and mythical views of the cosmos merely as precursors to science or as preliminary or inadequate endeavors that are discarded with the development of science. Moreover, not only from the point of view of the historian of religions but also from that of the historian of science, no single moment in history can ever be established to pinpoint the supposed fundamental change from myth to science. In fact, no such moment exists. The relation between clearly recognizable religious views and scientific views is complex, but much clarity can be gained by looking critically at the sort of questions that are asked, the nature of the assumptions questioners make under the influence of their own culture, or the intellectual habits of their age.

One tradition, fundamentalism, although largely limited to the history of American Protestantism, illuminates the study of the problem of science and religion with regard to cosmology. Fundamentalism is rooted in America's frontier experience and in rural life, yet ideologically it has had an emotional impact on urban communities and educational institutions. The public evil of religious illiteracy is the root cause of most questionable ideas concerning religion and science. Taking biblical statements about the cosmos literally, fundamentalists build up a supernaturalism that does not replace naturalism so much as it is superimposed on it, while the religious character of religious accounts is obscured in the process. In a legal procedure in 1981 and 1982, a group of fundamentalists known as creationists tried to provide educational institutions with the right to spend equal time on creation science (i.e., based on biblical statements about the physical universe) alongside the teaching of generally accepted modern scientific inquiries. The assumption was that religious accounts can be viewed for their factual, that is, verifiable and inferential accuracy. The question of the religious intention is not raised, because the creation scientist postulates a factuality that is positivistic in naturein the sense of the French philosopher, Auguste Comte (17981857) and after the manner of the English social philosopher, Herbert Spencer (18201903) for whom religion covered everything not yet figured out by science.

Rather than holding up ideas of this sort for ridicule, scholars have used them to show more clearly the weakness of ideas shared in the widest intellectual circles. The modern intellectual problem of creating a dichotomy in which documents show a unity or seem to indicate no more than aspects of the same thing cannot be ignored. The contrast between modern science and traditional religious ideas concerning the world and cosmogony has occupied the minds of many Westerners, especially since the eighteenth century. This contrast has blurred the intention of world images given in religious traditions.

It would not be appropriate to allow a conflict generated by the French Enlightenment and repeated and modified since then in Western intellectual history to distort perception of all religious symbolism concerning the world, its nature, and origin. Instead, religion and science should be viewed together in their development, with the understanding that every attempt to view religious cosmologies side by side with modern scientific cosmologies fails if the cardinal point mentioned before is missed: The former are human-centered, whereas the latter is only human-observed and human-calculated. However, this distinction, with which modernity should be familiar, is not a division, and few ages and communities have found it necessary to make the distinction into a special subject for discourse or emphasis.

The ancient Babylonians thought of the earth as the center of the universe and conceived of it as a mountain, hollow underneath and supported by the ocean, whereas the vault of heaven kept the waters above from those below; the waters above explained the phenomenon of rain. Roughly the same cosmic scheme occurs throughout the entire ancient Near East and returns in the creation account in the Book of Genesis. Another example is Thales of Miletus (c. 600 bce), the Ionian natural philosopher, who is famous for positing water as the primal substance of the universe. Although this schematization may appear scientifically primitive, such a scheme was, in fact, never presented in any tradition and is only the summary that the modern mind draws from far more complex mythologies.

Although the study the development of the natural sciences can (mistakenly) take place in isolation, the documents of the exact sciences, available from the ancient Babylonians (the period of the Hammurabi dynasty, 18001600 bce) and the ancient Egyptians on are recorded not only in mathematical signs, as one might expect, but are also surrounded by mythological images. Mythological images simultaneously absorb and appropriate scientific discoveries, calendrical calculations, and established views of the world, stars, and planets as their symbols. Although a distinction must be drawn between the two sciences, the documents make no such separation and establish no contrast. Various scholars (e.g., Mircea Eliade and Werner Müller) have stressed the cosmic character of all archaic religious traditions. It is of great importance, however, to add that the history of science points to the interwovenness of science (notably astronomy and physics) and religion.

Epistemological considerations are not separable from socio-religious traditions and cannot be kept for long from the work of a modern scientist. Basic definitions functioning in scientific research are not central in scientific education, yet typically normal, consensus-bound research ultimately results in revolution. The process of change in religion is quite analogous. As a rule, renowned mystics, prophets, and great reformers have followed their tradition so persistently as to arrive willy-nilly at a change that in some cases amounted to a rebirth or total overhaul of a tradition (e.g., the great reformers in Christianity; Nāgārjuna, second century ce, in Buddhism; the great bhakti philosophers, especially Rāmānuja, traditionally dated to 10171137 ce, in Hinduism; and Abū āmid al-Ghazālī, twelfth century, in Islam). Any such great change is reflected in the image of the world.

The breakdown of the classical, Aristotelian world image, shaken by Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), Tycho Brahe (15461601), Galileo Galilei (15641642), Johannes Kepler (15711630), and Isaac Newton (16421727), is principally due to René Descartes (15961650), the initiator of philosophy in modern Western history. Instead of being a human environment and accessible through the senses, the world now becomes a definite object of rational inquiry of a new, truly objective character of which humans are no longer the unquestionable center. The conflict between Galileo and the church is well known and has been given so much attention as to obscure the structures of both science and religion. This conflict is limited to only one science (astronomy) and only one religion (Christianity) in a particular phase of each. Other sciences, such as the science of music or the science of crystals, have never found themselves in a comparable predicament with Christianity. It stands to reason that a religion such as Buddhism, in which the subject of the world's creation and the earth's central position in it has no significant part at all, could not be expected to provoke comparable polemics between astronomers and defenders of the religious tradition.

Two final points must be made to complete the subject of the distinctive place of religion with respect to cosmology. First, an absolute break between religion and the sciences after Copernicus and Descartes is not a meaningful division. From Gottfried Leibniz (16461716) to Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (18811955), Carl F. von Weizsäcker (b. 1912), Stephen Hawking (b. 1942; widely known through his A Brief History of Time ), and Karl Jaspers, writers, scientists, and theologians have dealt with the unity and meaning of the world, a world designed to be religiously and scientifically comprehensible. Second, significantly (and complementary to the first one point), in considering the cosmos under two aspects in the religious documents that exist, the religious viewwherever it does come to the foretends to show a certain priority. This is not only true in the temporal sense that the historical development shows religious assumptions concerning the world before the first recognizable scientific strides are taken, but also in terms of relative importance. Karl Barth (18861968) rightly emphasized (in part in opposition to theories by the New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann, 18841976) that the histories of Israel and of the church have unfolded under the impact of various dominant views of the cosmos without being disturbed by them. Characteristically, in the entire history of the church, no creed ever made the structure of the universe an item worthy of concern. The same holds true for other religious traditions as well. Even though in archaic traditions the sacred can be expressed primarily through cosmic forms, the sacred supersedes the cosmic in all religions.

See Also

Ages of the World; Cosmogony; Deus Otiosus; Dualism; Earth; Egg; Eschatology, overview article; Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity; Goddess Worship, overview article and article on Theoretical Perspectives; Hieros Gamos; Metaphysics; Monotheism; Science and Religion.


In many, if not most creation myths, one finds notions of human or political power. For this reason alone, it is useful to look at Said Amir Arjomand, ed., The Political Dimensions of Religion (Albany, 1993). For African creation accounts, the most helpful work is Herman Baumann's Schöpfung und Urzeit des Menschen im Mythus der afrikanischen Völker (Berlin, 1936). Jean Bayet's Histoire politique et psychologique de la religion Romaine, 2d ed. (Paris, 1969) has a special eye for the interwovenness of human orientations and conceptions of the world throughout Roman history. Hendrik Bergema's De boom des levens in schrift en historie (Hilversum, Netherlands, 1938) is the most extensive collection of tree symbolisms in religious traditions. Jean Bottéro, The Birth of God. The Bible and the Historian, translated by Kees W. Bolle (University Park, Pa., 2000) is mandatory reading for all who have a religious or theological interest in this subject. Kenneth Brecher and Michael Feirtag, eds., Astronomy of the Ancients (Cambridge, Mass., 1980) is a collection of essays by experts in astronomy and history of science. The collection is not only interesting in itself but also is useful reading for all students of the mythology in ancient and tribal cosmogonies. Following the lead of the earlier work by Hertha von Dechend and Giorgio de Santillana, Hamlet's Mill; an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time (Boston, 1969), the contributors point to evidence of exact observation of the sky, found in the earliest cultures, that is clearly present in the materials.

A sociological attempt to show that human beings by nature orient themselves toward a more encompassing world than that of their observable social and psychological reality is made by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y., 1966). Eduard J. Dijksterhuis's The Mechanization of the World Picture (Oxford, 1961) is the classic study of philosophies and discussions leading from antiquity to the birth of science in modern history. Mircea Eliade's Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York, 1954), Myth and Reality (New York, 1963), and Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958) offer the most comprehensive religio-historical studies of cosmic symbolism, especially in archaic societies, with special emphasis on cosmogony as the fundamental myth in any tradition and on the significance of world renewal. Eliade's Australian Religions: An Introduction (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973) elaborates on these and other themes in the particular compass of some culturally most archaic tribal traditions. Adolf E. Jensen's Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples (Chicago, 1963) is especially concerned with the relation between cosmic views and human behavior. Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli, an Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (London, 1965) is the work that more than any other made it difficult to speak seriously anymore about "primitive thought." The Dogon people of western Sudan, the preface sums up, "live by a cosmogony, a metaphysic, and a religion which put them on a par with the peoples of antiquity, and which Christian theology might indeed study with profit" (p. 2). Noel Q. King, Religions of Africa, A Pilgrimage into Traditional Religions (New York, 1970) remains one of the most sympathetic introductory works on the religions of Africa. Willibald Kirfel's Die Kosmographie der Inder (Bonn, 1920) treats views of the world among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.

The most influential works in the history of science in the illumination of the wider philosophical and religious context of the origins of modern science are by Alexandre Koyré: Entretiens sur Descartes (New York, 1944) and From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore, 1957). Samuel Noah Kramer, ed., Mythologies of the Ancient World (Garden City, N.Y., 1961) discusses different mythologies, including cosmic views, ranging from the ancient Near East to ancient Mexico and to India, China, and Japan. The best observations made within the context of Vedic and Brahmanic ritual concerning the cosmos are available in Herta Krick's Das Ritual der Feuergründung (Vienna, 1982). W. Brede Kristensen's Het leven uit de dood (Haarlem, Netherlands, 1926) is the unsurpassed study on the relation of cosmogonies to the spontaneity of life as a central issue in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion. Reprinted and revised several times since its first publication in 1934, Harvey Brace Lemon's From Galileo to the Nuclear Age (Chicago, 1965) is quite educational for anthropologists and historians of religions concerned with the development of physics and scientific cosmologies. Including all periods and many civilizations yet with most relevance to cosmogonies in nonliterate traditions, one of the most attractive collections is Charles H. Long's Alpha: The Myths of Creation (New York, 1963).

Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese, eds., Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo Sapiens (LaSalle, Ill., 1992) contains essays and answers concerning life and the universe by eminent astronomers, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, and chemists and does not at all abstain from pronouncements dealing with religion.

Alexander Marshack's The Roots of Civilization (New York, 1972) was the first work to break down artificial barriers between religion and scientific views of the universe on the basis of prehistoric data. Jacques Merleau-Ponty and Bruno Morando's The Rebirth of Cosmology (New York, 1976) is a detailed reflection on the limits of modern astronomy. A collection of studies on cosmos and myth in seventeen different nonliterate traditions, plus one playful attempt at a structural analysis of the Book of Genesis as myth by Edmund Leach, are collected in John Middleton, ed., Myth and Cosmos (Garden City, N.Y., 1967). Marijan Molé's Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien (Paris, 1963) presents a full discussion of ancient Iranian cosmology, with elaborate textual documentation. Werner Müller's Die heilige Stadt: Roma quadrata, himlisches Jerusalem und die Mythe vom Weltnabel (Stuttgart, Germany, 1961) discusses the tenacity of cosmic views forming the model of city planning and includes a lengthy bibliography. Teachings concerning the cosmos and its hierarchy, with special attention to microcosmic views, are given in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (Cambridge, UK, 1964). Volume 2 of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, 7 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1956) is the best study available on any civilization that illuminates the rise of science, cosmology, views of nature within the course of religious traditions and change. Otto Neugebauer's The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, 2d ed. (New York, 1969) is a classic work on the topic. Martin P. Nilsson's Geschichte der griechischen Religion, 3d ed., 2 vols. (Munich, 19671971) is indispensable for the study of religious complexities within which cosmic views in Greece arose and changed. F. S. C. Northrop's Man, Nature and God (New York, 1962) deals with the problem of cosmology, science, and nature within a world that is religiously, culturally, and philosophically diverse yet has no option but to come to terms with its unity. Jacob K. Olupona, ed., African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society (St. Paul, Minn., 1991) is a collection of essays mainly by scholars of African universities.

The best available text on astronomy from classical India is David Pingree, ed., trans., and comm., The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK, 1978). For the problem of monotheism and the origin of the cosmos, see Raffaele Pettazzoni's Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden, 1954) and The All-Knowing God (London, 1956). In view of the great importance of myths of creation and cosmologies and their significance for the notion of power in the world, see the world-encompassing Raffaele Pettazzoni, Miti e leggende (New York, 1978). Don K. Price's "Endless Frontier or Bureaucratic Morass?" Daedalus 107 (Spring 1978): 7592, and Robert L. Sinsheimer's "The Presumptions of Science," Daedalus 107 (Spring 1978): 2336, both present indirect but eloquent arguments for the necessity of a more significant framework for science than science itself can provide. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. with supp. (Princeton, N.J., 1969) is a large collection of myths, laws, and epic texts in which cosmological ideas are embedded. Dualistic views characteristic of Manichaeism are described in Henri-Charles Puech's "Le manichéisme," in Histoire des religions, vol. 2, edited by d'Henri-Charles Puech (Paris, 1972). Joseph Silk, The Big Bang: The Creation and Evolution of the Universe (San Francisco, 1980) provides a readable account of the famous theoryvery useful for humanists and social scientists who wish to be informed. Carl F. von Weizsäcker's The History of Nature (Chicago, 1949) is a balanced and thoughtful account of the modern natural sciences between philosophy and religion and is of abiding interest. A. J. Wensinck, Studies of A. J. Wensinck (New York, 1978), interprets a number of cosmological symbols in Mesopotamian, ancient West Semitic, and Arabic traditions.

Kees W. Bolle (1987 and 2005)

About this article

Cosmology: An Overview

Updated About content Print Article Share Article