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Origins

“We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.”
– Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I was clearing up some old files on my computer today and came across an old compilation of origin stories I had. We all have wondered, at some point or the other in our lives, how the hell did all this begin? While Science is still searching for definitive answers, we have very many colorful mythologies that attempt to explain our origins. Beliefs about the origin of human beings fall into three main types: (1) they have always existed on earth, (2) they did not always exist but were created in some way, and (3) they previously existed, but in another world, and had somehow to be brought to this one. If you examine the several origin myths in the world, there are many underlying similarities and common threads. But I won’t kill the joy further by summarising or analysing, as there is beauty to be found in details.

I have ditched some myths which din’t catch my fancy anymore, but the more interesting ones from my old list are here..

Greek:
In the beginning there was a period of Chaos, when air, water, and matter were combined in a formless mixture. On this floated a Cosmic Egg, from which arose Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). These deities created the earth and its creatures and the Sun, Moon, and Stars.

Navajo:
In the beginning there were Holy People, supernatural and sacred, who lived below ground in 12 lower worlds. A great flood underground forced the Holy People to crawl to the surface of the earth through a hollow reed, where they created the world. Changing Woman gave birth to the Hero Twins, called “Monster Slayer” and “Child of the Waters” who had many adventures. Earth Surface People, mortals, were created, and First Man and First Woman were formed from ears of white and yellow corn.

Babylonian (or the flood myth):
Certain myths are all but universal, and their extensive distribution attests to their great antiquity. The best example of this is the famous Flood myth. The Flood story recorded in the Bible was by no means original with the ancient Hebrews, but was derived by them from the earlier Gilgamesh Epic of the Babylonians. But the Babylonian version in turn drew on a pre-existing Flood myth that no doubt went back thousands of years earlier. So old is the Flood myth, in fact, that it has had a chance to diffuse far and wide. Indeed, it is known to practically every human society from aboriginal Australia to Tierra del Fuego.

Chinese:
The first living thing was P’an Ku. He evolved inside a gigantic cosmic egg, which contained all the elements of the universe totally intermixed together. P’an Ku grew by about 10 feet each day. As he grew he separated the earth and the Sky within the egg. At the same time he gradually separated the many opposites in nature male and female, wet and dry, light and dark, wet and dry, Yin and Yang. These were all originally totally commingled in the egg. While he grew he also created the first humans. After 18,000 years the egg hatched and P’an Ku died from the effort of creation. From his eyes the sun and moon appeared, from his sweat, rain and dew, from his voice, thunder, and from his body all the natural features of the earth arose.

Japanese:
In Japanese Shinto-mythology, the primordial sky, the god of all that is light and heavenly. Izanagi (“the male who invites”) and his wife and sister Izanami (“the female who invites”) were given the task of creating the world. Standing on Ama-no-ukihashi (the floating bridge of the heavens), they plunged a jewel crested spear into the ocean. When they pulled it free, the water that dripped from the spear coagulated and formed the first island of the Japanese archipelago. Here the first gods and humans were born. When his wife died giving birth, Izanagi went to the underworld to retrieve her, but she refused to come back with him and they parted forever. When Iganami returned from the underworld, he started the first cleaning rites. He washed his left eye and thus created the sun goddess Amaterasu. When he washed his right eye, the moon goddess Tsuki-Yumi came forth. From his nose he created Susanowo, the god of the seas and the storms.

Egyptian:
The Egyptian creation myth as related in the Pyramid Texts is one example of creation from nothing. Atum is the first god who creates his brother and sister Shu and Tefnut. Together with her consort Shu (Air) she was produced by Re from his own body by masturbation. By Shu she became the mother of Seb (Earth) and Nut (Sky).

Polynesian:
Some Polynesian peoples, for example, believe that the sea was primeval, and that the land was created by a god, Tane, who drove to the bottom and came up with mud from which to fashion it. The Norse gods Odin, Vill, and Ve made the world from the body of the giant Ymir, using his blood for oceans, his bones for mountains, his hair for trees, and so on. It is not unusual for several gods or culture heroes to be involved in the creation, each contributing his or her portion to the final structure.

Golan:

Golan says about two initial mythological characters: The Goddess of Sky and her husband – The Lord of Underworld. The latter one had two images: undeground – in the form of a snake or a beast, and heavenly – in the form of an eagle (when he flew up to his wife). Golan also thinks that The God of Earth (personified by bull) existed separately from The Lord of Underworld. Besides God of Earth there was the Cultural Hero (in form of ram or stag). He was venerated as an ancestor and protector of people. This hypothesis was confirmed by Golan in terms of numerous examples. But he proves the existence of some general religion in the Neolithic Age.

Sometimes I wonder – If I had no myths at all, if I were born into this world and no one told me anything about the origin of the world, and if I were the one to create the first myth of origins, what would it be? Alas, my mind has already been stretched and will not regain its original ‘innocence’. But I will add this one to the list of impossible experiments I would like to do – do a ‘Charmed‘-like spell to erase memory of any origins myths from all humans in the world, make them write out what they intuitively think is the real origin story. If I find one common underlying theme, I would be very intrigued.

Posted in Science on April 30, 2005


4 Responses

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  1. Ashwin says

    the chinese and japanese ones are interesting. There are a lot of similarities between Greek mythology and the Mahabharata.

  2. Surya says

    The Indian mythologies have similarities to other stories too..The story of the Varaha avatar where the earth is submerged in water might have some links to the flood myths..

  3. Belgin Saglam says

    What do you think about Peter Ackroyd’s metafiction “The First Light”? It is basically about the myth of origins afterall!

  4. Cody Ferguson says

    i have been studying japanese mythology for some time now and i am intrigued by your story. it is unfortunately innacurate and if you would like a accurate description of how the world was really created according to japanese myth then you should contact me. 1-208-604-3098



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