COSMOGONY . The word cosmogony is derived from the combination of two Greek terms, kosmos and genesis. Kosmos refers to the order of the universe and/or the universe as an order. Genesis means the coming into being or the process or substantial change in the process, a birth. Cosmogony thus has to do with myths, stories, or theories regarding the birth or creation of the universe as an order or the description of the original order of the universe. One type of narrative portraying meanings and description of the creation of the universe is the cosmogonic myth. These myths, which are present in almost all traditional cultures, usually depict an imaginative religious space and time that exist prior to the universe as a normal habitation for human beings. The beings who are the actors in this primordial time are divine, superhuman, and supernatural, for they exist prior to the order of the universe as known by the present generation of human beings.
Cosmogonic myths in their narrative form give a rhetorical, stylistic, and imaginative portrayal of the meaning of the creation of the world. These myths set forth a tonality and stylistics for the modes of perception, the organizing principles, and provide the basis for all creative activities in the cultural life. While these myths are always specific to the cultures in which they are found, it is possible to classify them in various ways. One may classify them according to the cultural-historical strata in which they appear; thus, one might place together myths from hunter-gatherer cultures, or from early Neolithic cultures, agricultural societies, and so on. Myths may also be classified in terms of specific religions or cultural-geographical areas (e.g., ancient Near Eastern myths, Hindu myths, etc.), or in terms of linguistic groups (e.g., Indo-European myths).
Myths may be classified further according to the symbolic structures and relationships portrayed and narrated in the myths. In the cosmogonic myth the symbols give expression to the religious imagination of the creation of the world. As the prototypical story of founding and creation, the cosmogonic myth provides a model that is recapitulated in the creation and founding of all other human modes of existence. In this sense, it expresses, to use Bronislaw Malinowski's phrase, a charter for conduct for other aspects of the culture. As such some creation myths find extended expression in ritual actions that dramatize certain symbolic meanings expressed in the myth. Myths should not, however, be thought of simply as the theoretical or theological dimension of a ritual. Even when analogous meanings are portrayed in myth and ritual, these meanings may arise from different modes of human consciousness. There are mythic meanings that may arise from ritual activity. R. R. Marett, the English anthropologist, surmised that myths might have arisen as attempts to give order to the dynamic rhythms and experiences of life that first found expression as ritual activities. Pierre Bourdieu, the French ethnologist, has refined interpretations of this kind by making a distinction between two types of theories. There is a theory that is the result of speculative human thought and there is another kind of theory that arises out of practical activity. Myth as theory may be of either type, but in each case the myth is a distinctive expression of a narrative that states a paradigmatic truth; this is especially true in the cosmogonic myth.
Creation myths are etiological insofar as they tell how the world came into existence, but what is important in the etiology of the creation myth is the basis for the explanation, that is, the basis of the explanation is in the founding or creation of the world itself. In other etiological stories the ultimate cause is not of primary importance.
Types of Cosmogonic Myths
Cosmogonic myths may be classified into the following types according to their symbolic structures: (1) creation from nothing; (2) from chaos; (3) from a cosmic egg; (4) from world parents; (5) through a process of emergence; and (6) through the agency of an earth diver. Cosmogonic myths are seldom limited to any one of these classifications; several symbolic typological forms may be present in one myth. For example, in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, the creation myth shows how Viṣṇu evolves from the primordial reality of prakṛti; how Viṣṇu as a boar dives into the waters to bring up earth for the creation (earth diver); how the creation is produced from austerities and meditation; how creation results from the churning of the primordial ocean. There is in addition the symbolism of the cosmic egg as a meaning of the creation. The classification of myths into these types is thus meant not to be a stricture of limitations but rather to emphasize a dominant motif in the myth.
Creation from nothing
Though the type of cosmogonic myth recounting creation from nothing is usually identified with the monotheistic religions of the Semitic traditions, it is a more pervasive structure. However, its identification with these religions opens up a fruitful line of study. It is clear that the monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—presuppose a religious history prior to their coming into being: for Judaism, the western Semitic tradition as expressed in Mesopotamia; for Christianity, the Hebrew tradition; and, finally, for Islam, the traditions of Hebrews and Christians.
Given this history, it is legitimate to raise the issue of the relationship of prior empirical cultural history as a background to the religious imagination of creation de novo, or creation from nothing, in these traditions. The facticity of the Near Eastern religions enables us to more easily recognize the issue of the prehistory of those cultures in which this kind of myth appears. As a matter of fact, the very powerful symbolism of a deity who creates from nothing is a symbolic tour de force against the impacted empirical cultural histories as the basis for a new founding and ordering of the world and the human community. The power of the deity in myths of this type establishes the cosmos as unrelated to, and discontinuous from, all other structures prior to the statement of the creation of the cosmos and the human condition as enunciated in the myth. To the extent that older structures are present they are reintegrated within the new mode of creation.
Thus in the Egyptian myth of Khepri, it is stated, "I spat out what was Shu, and I sputtered out what was Tefnut." In the Hebrew myth the action is just as direct: "And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Gn. 1:3). In the Polynesian myth, one of the names of the creator god is Io-matua-te-kora, which means "Io, the parentless"; this deity has no parents, brothers, or sisters. The deity exists in the void in himself and by himself; the autonomous and self-created nature of the deity appears out of the void or out of nothingness, which are understood to be potent realities. Thus in a Tuomotuan myth it is stated that "Kiho mused all potential things whatever, and caused his thought to be evoked." The notion of nothingness as a creative potency is related to the mode of creation as a conscious, deliberate act; it is either stated explicitly or defined by the style of the narrative. The deliberate process of the creation signifies willful volition and the fact that the creation is brought forth as a form of perfection from a supreme being.
The creator deity in myths of this kind is often symbolized by the sky or sky deities. In such cases the sky symbolism shows that the deity who creates from nothing is not contingent to the world although the created order is contingent to the deity. Ultimately, the creation from nothing emphasizes that the creation is not a mere ordering or even founding but has come forth as a powerful religio-magical evocation from a powerful supreme being.
Creation from chaos
Some creation myths describe how the creation arises out of a prior matter or stuff that is either negative or confused. The chaotic condition may be variously depicted as water, a monster, or as the qualities of coldness, sterility, quiescence, repression, and restraint. In any case, the situation of chaos inhibits creation.
In a number of Near Eastern and Indian myths, chaos is in the form of a serpentlike monster. Mary Wakeman has classified such myths into two types, a space model and a time model. In the space model the monster is a withholder of water, sun, and fertility. The monster is repressive and acts as a tyrant in relation to its subjects. The monster prevents vital forces and energies from finding expression in a created order. The restraint and repressive nature of the monster does not allow the place and space for a created order to come forth. Chaos is thus defined as a holding back of the orders and energies of creation; this is a situation of primordial confusion and indeterminacy. It is clear, however, that there is power and potency in this confused situation. The repressive and restraining nature of chaos is equally the expression of an inertia in the face of a definitive order; chaos in this sense defines a stasis.
In the time model all the potencies are similarly contained within a primordial chaos. There is no change, no movement, and no differentiation. Conversely, some myths portray the chaos as a constant state of flux in which everything changes so fast that no distinguishable ordered form is possible. In the time model of myths of chaos, the drama shows how the forces and potencies of creation are energized to move and also how the constant flux is reduced to a measured movement in which the tendency to dissipation is balanced by a force of cohesion and integration, and this tendency is complemented by the deployment and expansion of the order. Human existence is seen as a mean between these extremes; thus the meaning of ordered human time appears from the regulation of this original chaos.
In some myths of this type the chaos is never completely overcome. While order may emerge from the chaos in the forms of space and time, vestiges of the chaos remain and the created order is always in danger of slipping back into chaos or chaos appears as the destiny of the cosmos when it has exhausted the meaning of its time and space.
Creation from a cosmic egg
In many myths involving creation from chaos there is also the symbolism of a cosmic egg or an ovoid shape out of which creation or the first created being emerges. Myths of this kind are found in Polynesia, Africa, India, Japan, and Greece. The egg is obviously a symbol of fertility. In egg myths the potency for creation is contained within the form of the egg. The incubation of the egg implies a time-ordered creation and a specific determination regarding the created order.
Hermann Baumann has suggested that one motif of the egg symbolism has to do with the statement and resolution of the problem of sexual antagonism, and has its origin in megalithic cultural circles. For Baumann there is, first of all, an early stage in megalithic cultures in which the meaning of creation is expressed in the form of a sky father and earth mother as sexually differentiated deities; there is another stage in which the parents are separated and may reside within the egg as twins. A third stage portrays the meaning of sexuality as abstract principles such as yin and yang in China. In this stage the gods possess these abstract principles as attributes. In the final stage there is the attempt to recover the antagonism of sexual differentiation and to resolve it. This is the myth of androgyny.
The symbolism of the egg also connotes a state of primordial perfection out of which the created order proceeds. In a Dogon myth from West Africa, the god Amma created a world egg as the first order of creation. Within the egg twins were incubating. In time these twins were supposed to come forth as androgynous beings, indicating perfection on the level of sexuality. Other aspects of the created order were correlated with this mode of perfection. For example, instead of the dualism of day/night, the world was to be in perpetual twilight, and instead of either wet or dry, the world was supposed to be damp, and the twins were supposed to be amphibious. Due to a mishap this perfection was not attained and thus the created order as we know it is a compromise alternating between the dualism of day and night, wet and dry, land beings and water beings, male and female sexes. A philosophical statement of this myth of dualism stated in terms of androgyny is found in Plato's Symposium (190–192).
In some myths creation is the result of the reproductive powers of primordial world parents. The birth of offspring from the world parents is often portrayed as an indifferent or unconscious activity. Even the sexual embrace of the world parents is without passion or intent. The sexual embrace does not appear as the result of a desire or an intention; it is simply the way things are. In this way the sexual embrace of the world parents is like the twins contained within the world egg, and the embrace itself recapitulates an original androgyny. As a matter of fact, the Dogon myth states that the male and female in sexual embrace is an imitation of the original androgynous archetype. In myths of this kind there is a reluctance on the part of the primordial couple to separate from this embrace. The embrace has no beginning or climax; it is perpetual and the world parents are indifferent or unaware of the offspring produced from this embrace.
In world-parent myths the world parents are, in most cases, the second phase of the primordial ordering. Prior to the appearance of the world parents there is a chaotic or indeterminate phase. For example, in Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation myth, it is stated that waters commingled as a single body in a state of indeterminacy; the Polynesian myth of Rangi and Papa speaks of a darkness resting over everything. In a similar fashion, in the Egyptian myth of Seb and Nut primeval chaotic waters precede the coming into being of the world parents. From this point of view, the world parents are part of the ordering of the cosmos, a specific stage of its coming into being as a habitat for the human community.
The offspring of the world parents tend to be aliens to their parents. The close embrace of the parents allows no space and thus no reality for their mode of being. The world parents are for the most part indifferent to the needs and desires of their offspring. A tension comes about because of this alienation and the offspring become the agents of the separation of the world parents. In some cases the agent of separation is another deity or one of the offspring, but in most cases the separation marks the beginning of a community and a discourse among the offspring. In Enuma elish this community and discourse have to do with a battle between the offspring and the world parents. The same sequence takes place in the Polynesian myth of "the children of heaven and earth." In cases of this sort the community of offspring are the archetypal models for the human community.
The separation of the world parents is a rupture in the order of creation. In Enuma elish the mother's body is made into the earth that human beings now inhabit. This is similar to a theme in the Dogon world-egg myth, where one of the twins leaves the egg before maturity, tearing the yolk of the egg off with him; this yolk becomes the earth. Amma must then sacrifice the other twin to make the earth habitable for human beings. In other versions of this type of myth the separation comes about when a woman who is pounding grain needs more room for her pestle and pushes the world parents apart so that she can have more room for her work.
The agents of separation in the world-parent myths are the cultural heroes who make space for the specific tasks of the human community. They bring light where there was darkness, and they set forth a certain meaning and destiny for the human community. The symbolism of light in the form of the sun is prominent in these myths, for it refers to human knowledge and the destiny of the human community. The separation of the world parents presages the human community as a distinct mode of being, but the price of this separation is the remembrance of the tragic rupture between the parents and the offspring as a necessary condition for the human mode of being.
The emergence myths describe the creation of the cosmos in the symbolism of gestation and birth. The most prominent symbol in myths of this kind is that of the earth as a mother. The earth is depicted as the source of all powers and potencies. Within this womb of the earth are all the seeds and eggs of the world; they exist in embryonic form within the earth. The emergence of the forms of the world from the womb describes a process whereby the maturation of the forms within the earth take place before appearing on the face of the earth. The movement through the layers and strata of the earth is a gradual and cumulative one; at each stage some new forms are added to the growing embryos. The process is also one of integration and harmony, which has an ethical and logical meaning, for the meaning of the ethical is understood in terms of the harmonious relationship among all the forms of the created order. The capacity for the ethical is acquired during the process of the emergence upward through the strata of the earth.
In emergence myths hardly any prominence is given to the meaning of the male principle as father. The myths of this kind emphasize the earth as womb and mother, the container of all powers and potential realities. When the maturation is complete and humans emerge from the earth they are exposed to the light for the first time. The light at the last emergence is the symbol of the sun, which is the male ordering principle, but the basic formation of humans has taken place within the bowels of the earth.
In earth-diver myths water constitutes the primordial stuff of the beginning. Water, in its undifferentiated indeterminacy, covers everything in the manner of a chaos. A culture hero, usually an animal, dives into the primordial waters in an attempt to bring up a particle of sand, mud, or earth, any substantial form of matter out of which a more stable mode of order might be established. Several animals make the attempt and fail; finally, one of the animals succeeds in bringing up a piece of earth, mud, or sand. Upon coming to the surface of the water the bit of matter, which is usually so minuscule that it is lodged under the animal's fingernails, expands to great proportions, thus constituting the landmass of the world on which all beings reside.
Some myths of this kind tell the story of the antagonism between two creative primordial beings. In some of the myths, which bear certain Christian elements, God and Satan have created the primordial waters. God sends Satan to dive into the waters to bring back a piece of earth. After several attempts Satan brings back a small portion of earth, which expands into the world. But after this landmass is created, God does not know how to make further determinations of directions, valleys, mountains, and so on. Satan seems to have this knowledge and muses to himself how stupid God is, for he does not know how to order the landmass. God sends a bee over to eavesdrop on Satan's musings. The bee overhears Satan giving the proper knowledge as he muses to himself; he flies back and gives this knowledge to God, who then orders the world in its proper proportions. In another version, it is a human being who dives into the waters to bring up earth. He brings up earth and gives it to God, but he secretly hides a piece of earth in his mouth, thinking that he will make a world on his own. When God orders the earth to expand, the hidden earth in the mouth of the human also begins to expand and the human must expose his secret. God then orders him to give him that piece of earth, and out of it God makes the swamps and boggy places of the earth.
Earth-diver myths are widespread, but there is a preponderance of them in the aboriginal cultures of North America. In these cultures the myths are part of the trickster-transformer-culture hero cycle of myths. This type of cultural figure is somewhat unique to myths of this kind. In these myths the antagonism and tensions between the creator deity and a culture hero in the form of an animal or a human being is made clear. The antagonism is not a direct one of confrontation as in the separation motif in the world-parent myths; it is subtle, indirect, and subdued, but nevertheless intense. There is obviously a desire on the part of the culture hero to create a different world in a different mode from that of the creator deity.
The American folklorist Alan Dundes interprets this meaning in a psychoanalytical manner. He interprets the diving into the waters to bring up a piece of substantial matter according to Freud's suggestion that what is ejected from the body as waste is at the same time experienced as a source of value and the basis for a new creative order. Insofar as the trickster-transformer-hero exhibits male characteristics, Dundes speculates that this is an expression of birth envy on the part of the male. The waters, which can be seen as a symbol of the primordial womb, are potent but cannot give birth; it is only through the earth diver that the necessary form of matter is brought to the surface as a basis for the creation. But once brought to the surface there is still an antagonism or a distrust between the creator deity and the earth diver.
Mac Linscott Ricketts, a historian of religions, interprets these motifs as a new and paradoxical meaning of sacrality. The trickster-transformer-hero is for him the religious symbol of the human being who is independent of the gods and their power. It expresses the desire to know on the part of the human, and this desire for knowledge does not follow the pattern of archetypal participation in the sacredness of that which has been created in primordial times by the gods. The trickster-transformer-hero figure represents for Ricketts the rejection of the ways of the gods as a mode of life and knowledge; his way is a kind of "primitive humanism," wherein knowledge is sought through experiments that reveal the foolishness and the humorous, even comical nature of the human being who attempts to know apart from the sacred power and forms of the creator deities.
Ideograms, Themes, and Structures
Rudolf Otto, in his classic work The Idea of the Holy, speaks of ideograms as modes of expression that lie somewhere between experience and concept. It is possible to discern from the cosmogonic myths such orderings of meaning that will color more systematic thought concerning the meaning of the creation of the world.
The primordial has to do with the problem of the basic stuff out of which the creation has emerged. In one sense what is before the creation may always be understood as chaos, for the only modes of order are those that are forthcoming in the created order itself. However, the meaning of this primordial order expresses in symbolic terms the intention of the creation. The primordial order may be spoken of in neutral terms or as alien and inimical or it may, as in the emergence myths, connote a nurturing womb.
Mircea Eliade has spoken of two meanings of primordiality; one is the original primordiality, which may be seen in the symbols of water, earth, darkness, or nothingness. The other mode of primordiality is the first mode of ordering in the creation; this may be through a world egg, world parents, a creator deity, and so forth. It is at this stage that a specific meaning and direction is given to the creation of a world for human habitation, for this is the stage at which cultural heroes appear.
Ruptures and discontinuities are present at several points in cosmogonic myths. There is first of all the rupture between the primordial stuff and the first mode of ordering. In some cases this discontinuity is stated as the word of power of a powerful deity whose very power breaks through the inertia of the first primordiality. In other cases a new form simply appears, as in a world egg that appears upon the waters. The other stage of rupture is occasioned by the desire of the embryonic and prehuman forms, which are the result of this first stage of ordering, to exist. These are the offspring of the world parents, or the twins who are maturing in the egg, or the earth diver who does not wish to be subject to the imitation of deities and divine models for existence.
In the world-parent and egg myths the impatience of the offspring and the twins leads to tragic results, for in both cases there is a tearing, killing, and violation of the primordial order for the sake of existence. This tragic element explains the finitude of the human community and introduces death as a cosmogonic structure of human existence. It furthermore qualifies the perfection of the primordial order, for with the coming of human existence the meaning of the primordial order itself is changed.
This is turn raises the issue of the mutual contingency of the human order and the primordial order. While a case for mutual contingency and dependence could be made for a myth such as Enuma elish, the Egyptian myth of Khepri with its powerful evocation of creation from the power of the deity does not lend itself to any mode of dependence of the creator upon the creation. The aseity of the deity and the relationship of the deity to the created order thus becomes a meaning that receives theoretical and practical forms in most communities.
What is the meaning of the distinction between the two modes of primordiality, and which possesses the greater qualitative power? Is the first ordered form of the primordial time an absolute victory and advance over the primordial chaos? This is an initial issue of dualism in cosmogonic myths. There is also the dualism of the structure of the first order and the offspring of that order. There is the dualism of partners in the creation. In the Dogon myth there is ostensibly a good twin and a malevolent one, and the human condition is constituted by a mixture of both of them.
The human condition is thus riddled with ordinary and qualitative dualisms—that of night and day, wet and dry, male and female, and so on. Are these the marks of finitude of lesser beings or does the human condition represent the original intention of creation? These dualism are also between the nonhuman creators, as in the case of God and Satan in the earth-diver myths. How can these dualisms be handled on the human level? Are they to be harmonized and alternated, or do they represent fundamental differences and orientations in the cosmos?
The ethical has to do with the proper, appropriate, and right conduct of a community. It is obvious that such behavior must be based upon some principles, and those principles in one way or another presuppose an explicit or implicit understanding of the nature of the world in which one lives. Cosmogonic myths are narrative statements of the origin of the various worlds of humankind. The origin of the world is often the basis for the principles that define the resources, possibilities, limitations, and validities of the meaning of human existence for the human community. There is not, however, a one-to-one relationship between the structures and themes of cosmogonic myths and the ethics of a community.
The cosmogonic myths, more often than not, serve as background and context for thinking about the issue of ethics. It is not only those elements of the cosmogonic myth that may lead to explicit philosophical and ethical principles that are important. Equally important are the style and rhythms of these stories of the ordering of the world that are a basis for reflection and creative thinking in a community. There may be similar structures in the cosmogonic myths of different communities, but these similar structures may very well lead to quite different ethical reflections and modes of behavior. The philosopher of religion Paul Ricoeur has put forth the notion that the "symbol gives itself to thought." By this he means to set forth a basis for religious and ethical thought within a religious community. Thought can arise as a reflection upon a tradition of thought within a community, but thought may also arise out of that which is not understood as simply a part of the traditional thought of the community. The symbol and the myth define a more archaic mode of presentation, expression, and style that engenders thought within a community. There may be some cosmogonic myths that are inimical to ethical reflection or that set forth ethical options that are to be rejected by the community, as well as cosmogonic symbols that appear to be neutral or indifferent as far as ethical reflection is concerned. This does not mean that such myths and symbols cannot constitute part of the ethical reflection of the community, for the myths do not simply present principles that are to be carried out in behavior. The relationship between symbol and myth on the one hand, and modes of thought, behavior, and conduct, on the other, is a much more problematic one.
Cosmogonic myths form the horizons of meaning in cultures where they still have their original power and efficacy. In this way the meaning of thought and behavior is shaped by them. It is instructive to understand the term shaped in an aesthetic sense, as something being created within the context of certain resources of materials that are suggested by the cosmogonic myth, for it is necessary for ethical thought and moral conduct not only to be right but to be appropriate, to fulfill aesthetic concerns, and to fulfill some of the possibilities adumbrated as possible orders for the world.
For a general discussion of cosmogony within the framework of cosmogonic myths, see Charles H. Long's Alpha: The Myths of Creation (New York, 1963) and Barbara C. Sproul's Primal Myths: Creating the World (San Francisco, 1979). For ancient Near Eastern myths of creation, see Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton, 1950); Theodor H. Gaster's Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East, 2d rev. ed. (Garden City, N.Y., 1961); Hermann Gunkel's The Legends of Genesis (Chicago, 1901); Mary K. Wakeman's God's Battle with the Monster (Leiden, 1973); Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, by Henri Frankfort, Henriette A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, and Thorkild Jacobsen (Harmondsworth, 1963); and Henri Frankfort's Kingship and the Gods (Chicago, 1948).
For a general philosophical and comparative study of ancient Near Eastern and Greek cosmogonies, see Paul Ricoeur's The Symbolism of Evil (New York, 1967). Langdon Gilkey's Religion and the Scientific Future (New York, 1970) deals with ancient cosmogonic themes in light of contemporary philosophy and Christian theology.
W. K. C. Guthrie's In the Beginning: Some Greek Views on the Origins of Life and the Early State of Man (London, 1957) is one of the best introductions to Greek cosmogonic thought. Louis Gernet's essays in his The Anthropology of Ancient Greece, translated by John Hamilton and Blaise Nagy (Baltimore, 1981), relates certain cosmogonic notions to law, social institutions, and the beginnings of Greek philosophy. The origins of the Greek style of thinking within ancient Greece and its basis for Western thought are explored in Richard B. Onians's The Origins of European Thought (Cambridge, 1954) and in Bruno Snell's The Discovery of Mind (New York, 1960).
For the trickster figure in cosmogonic myths, see the following works: Daniel G. Brinton's The Myths of the New World: A Treatise on the Symbolism and Mythology of the Red Races of America (New York, 1868); Mac Linscott Ricketts's "The North American Indian Trickster," History of Religions 5 (Winter 1966): 327–350; Robert D. Pelton's The Trickster in West Africa (Berkeley, 1980); and Stanley Walens's Feasting with Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology (Princeton, 1981). See also The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, edited by Paul Radin (New York, 1956).
The most thorough discussion of the distribution and meaning of the egg as a symbol in cosmogony is Anna-Britta Hellbom's article "The Creation Egg," Ethnos 28 (1963): 63–105. For earth-diver myths, see Alan Dundes's "Earth-Diver: Creation of the Mythopoeic Male," in his Sacred Narrative (Berkeley, 1984). This anthology of interpretive essays on cosmogonic myths also contains Mircea Eliade's "Cosmogonic Myth and Sacred History," Franz Kiichi Numazawa's "The Cultural Background of Myths of the Separation of Sky and Earth," and Anna Birgitta Rooth's "The Creation Myth of North American Indians."
For a general survey of Indo-European creation myths, see Bruce Lincoln's "The Indo-European Myth of Creation," History of Religions 15 (1975): 121–145. In this article Lincoln describes and compares the structures of the Puruṣa myth of Ṛgveda 10.90, the Bundahishn of the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Prose Edda of Germanic mythology, and the creation myth of the Śatapatha Brahmana. Hans H. Penner's article analyzes in detail the creation myth in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa in "Cosmogony as Myth in the Vishnu Purana," History of Religions 5 (Winter 1966): 283–299. Since the creation myth sets forth the origin of all modes and forms of life, the origin of death and evil are often narrated in the cosmogony. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, 1976) discusses this meaning in Hindu myths; Hans Abrahamsson's The Origin of Death (Uppsala, 1951) classifies a wide variety of myths of death in Africa.
Most speculative, philosophical, and theological works of religious cultural traditions proceed from a theme or structure in the culture's cosmogonic or cosmological tradition. Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese's Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago, 1953) is an example of this type of discussion in the Western tradition. A group of essays discussing the relationship of cosmogony to ethics can be found in Cosmogony and Ethical Order, edited by Robin Lovin and Frank E. Reynolds (Chicago, 1985). C. F. von Weizsäcker's The Relevance of Science: Creation and Cosmogony (Chicago) is still the best introduction to the relationship of religious mythical cosmogonies and those of modern physics.
Anderson, Gary. "The Interpretation of Genesis 1:1 in the Targums." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 21–9.
Bowler, Peter J. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 3d ed. Los Angeles, 2003.
Clifford, Richard. Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible. Washington, D.C., 1994.
Currid, John D. "An Examination of the Egyptian Background of the Genesis Cosmogony." Biblische Zeitschrift 34 (1990): 18–40.
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Charles H. Long (1987)
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.
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.
The term employed to designate the oral or written response, on a pre-scientific and non-philosophical plane, that man gives to the questions that confront him regarding the origin and order of the universe around him. The word itself comes from the Greek κοσμογονία, cited first from Plutarch (a.d. 46–c. 120). Cosmogonies describe, under the form of a myth or myths, the creative action and the primordial events to which the world owes its existence. Their composition and complexity vary according to places, time, cultures, and the degree of their maturity. They are found among almost all primitive peoples, higher cultures, and civilizations. At a certain stage of their development, they also comprise a theogony that is inserted in a "logical" and indispensable fashion in the development of the given cosmogony and an anthropogony, the real importance of which depends on the degree of formal understanding that man has succeeded in attaining.
Despite the rich proliferation of cosmogonic myths, it is possible to single out a restricted number of basic elements whose particular content and numerous possibilities of combination give a special character to the various representations. At the same time, this special character bears witness to a tendency that is common to certain groups of cosmogonies. Thus, for example, in so far as the accent is placed on the acting subject in the personalistic cosmogonies, the High God is represented under an anthropomorphic form and is regarded as strictly super-natural. He acts alone or, after carrying out his work in partial manner, he makes use of other beings coming from himself by divine filiation or through his creative will (demiurges, the Urmensch ). He derives the universe from nothing or, most frequently, from preexistent matter. He proceeds as an artisan or acts by the power of his word.
If the emphasis is placed on the object of the cosmogony, the existing universe may be considered to have originated not through one of the forms of creation mentioned, but through an emanation (which can have a highly spiritualized character, as in Neoplatonism) or through a spontaneous hatching (the Cosmic Egg, for example), the biological aspect of which does not necessarily exclude the acting will of a first cause.
The existing world is often connected in origin with a dark and formless chaos that in some way acquires a personal nature under the impact of cosmogonic events and constantly opposes the creating and ordering process. It remains vigorously active in the concrete reality of the universe, revealing its presence both at the divine level (in the various dualistic systems) and at the level of the human heart (torn between good and evil).
In the Greek world, where the concept of the kosmos as a universe harmoniously ordered had its origin and assumed definite shape, cosmogony found its classic expression in Hesiod's Theogony (c. 700 b.c.). While the Homeric cosmogony is confined merely to the mention of "Oceanus, the father of the gods, and Tethys, their mother" (Iliad 14:201), Hesiod presents an elaborate account that may be summarized as follows: First came Chaos, and next Earth, then Tartarus, and Eros. From Chaos came Erebus and Night, and of Night were born Aether and Day. Earth bore Heaven and the great sea, Pontus. Then, impelled by Eros, she united at one time with Heaven, at another with the sea, giving birth thus to different lines and generations of divine beings. Hesiod relates their theogonic conflicts in detail (Theog. 116 to the end).
According to Pherecydes of Syros (c. 550 b.c.), the three original gods, Zeus, Chronos, and Chthonius, always existed; the other gods descended from these three in five successive waves. Zeus, transforming himself into Eros, created the Earth and the Ocean, despite the opposition of the Titan Ophioneus.
The most original contribution of the cosmogonic myths of Orphism is their account of the origin of man. He was created from the ashes of the Titans who were destroyed by the thunderbolts of Zeus after they had devoured the infant Dionysos. Man, accordingly, bears within him the germs of evil as well as particles of divinity. The Cosmic Egg (mentioned by Epimenides of Crete, seventh century b.c.) is also an Orphic myth. From the Egg came Heaven and Earth, following the intervention of Phanes, the Orphic pendent of Hesiod's Eros.
The Ionian philosophers, in seeking to give a scientific explanation of the world's origin, replaced mythical forces by original physical principles (άρχαί), but did not thereby escape the influence of the old cosmogonies. Later, despite the attractive Platonic theory of the Demiurge responsible for transforming Chaos into Kosmos, the image of the scientific world, as it was projected by Aristotle and completed by Ptolemy the Geographer, imposed itself to such a degree that neither the conceptions of popular belief (see, e.g., Ovid's Metam 1:5–451) nor the mythical cosmogonies of the Hermetic writings (the speculations of the Poimandres, especially) and of Mithraism could prevail. Christianity alone, with its Biblical narrative of creation, introduced a permanent innovation in this respect.
Bibliography: j. sint et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 6:567–574. c.m. edsman, "Schöpfung I," Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 5:1469–1473, with bibliog. l. h. gray et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh 1908–27) 4:125–179, old but still useful. h. schwabl and j. duchesne-guillemin, "Weltschöpfung," Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (1962) 1433–1589, comprehensive, systematic treatment. h.j. rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (6th ed. New York 1958) 17–42. u. bianchi, Teogonie e cosmogonie (Rome 1960). f. laemmli, Vom Chaos zum Kosmos, 2 v. (Basel 1962). m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion (Munich 1955–61) v.1, 2, Indexes s.v. "Kosmogonie."
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.