All human societies, including our own, tell stories of how the world began. Such stories are almost infinitely varied in detail, but they tend to include some basic themes.
Many accounts begin with earth, or with earth retrieved from water. In some of them gods and people and animals emerge from the earth (just as plants still do). In others the process begins when a creature, such as a crab or tortoise, dives into a primeval ocean and brings up a small piece of earth from which the universe is created. Myths of these kinds are common among American Indians and aboriginal Australians (who place before the moment of creation a period called ‘the time of dreaming’).
Eggs and emptiness
Several mythologies, including one developed in China, begin with the splitting in two of a cosmic egg. In the Chinese version this is followed by the growth of a giant whose limbs eventually form the observable world. A dismembered giant features also in the Germanic (or Norse) account of creation.
The Germanic version begins with a magic emptiness, one of the most characteristic features of creation stories. The Hebrews imagine a first moment when all is void, with darkness on the face of the deep. In Greece the story begins with Chaos, meaning a gaping emptiness. In Egypt and Mesopotamia a boundless ocean sets the primal scene.
In societies where many tribal groups have coalesced into a single civilization, each bringing their own gods, there tends to be a dramatic series of encounters between the contending deities – sometimes sexual, but more often murderous and even cannibalistic – before humans appear in the story. This is true of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and above all Greece. Japanese mythology also provides a complex account of the early affairs of the gods, while hardly noticing the arrival of mankind. In the multi-faceted mind of India, several creation stories are able to co-exist.
An entirely different theme emerges with the ancient Hebrews. They declare, briefly and to the point, that God did it.
There are several creation stories in Egypt, attached to rival gods. The most common one begins with Nun, the primeval ocean, from which Amen rises in splendour. He takes the name Re, thus in effect merging two rival deities. By an act of masturbation (described as such in the temple texts) he produces a divine son and daughter. These two breed a race of gods, while the tears of Amen-Re become mankind – appropriately enough, for man’s behaviour soon persuades the creator to withdraw from earthly affairs. He retires to the heavens, where he reigns as the sun.
As creation stories go, this is a simple one. But, from this beginning, Egyptian mythology evolves into great complexity.
The Mesopotamian creation story survives on clay tablets found in Ashurbanipal’s library, in the saga known as Enuma elish (named from its first two words, meaning ‘When on high’). The tablets are written in the 7th century BC, but the origin of the text is believed to go back to at least 1500 BC – a period when Babylon was the dominant city of the region.
The story begins with two watery tumultuous beings, one male and one female, Apsu (sweet water) and Tiamat (salt water). From their union there come forth a variety of sea monsters and gods. In the ensuing chaos Tiamat, the female creator, tries to take control. Her descendants unite against her, choosing one of their number – Marduk, the god of Babylon – to lead them.
Armed with a hurricane and riding a tempest drawn by four fiery steeds, Marduk meets Tiamat and her evil accomplice Kingu in battle. He kills them both.
He splits the monstrous corpse of Tiamat into two parts. From half of her he creates the heaven, from the other half the earth. In heaven he constructs a dwelling place for his colleagues, the gods. Realizing that they will need a race of servants, he uses the blood of Kingu to create the first man. This is followed by other necessary tasks, such as the creation of rivers, plants and animals.
The creation myths of India, in keeping with the complexities of Hinduism, range from familiar themes such as dismembered giants and magical eggs to the most delicately expressed doubts as to the possibility of knowledge on such a matter.
In an early story Purusha is a primal man sacrificed by the gods as the act of creation. The sky comes from his head, the earth from his feet, the sun from his eye and the moon from his mind. The four castes of Hindu society also derive from his body. The birds and animals come from the fat which drips from him during the sacrifice.
A much later Indian story involves the god Brahma. Beginning from nothing, he goes through a lengthy process. First he creates, by thought alone, the waters. In them he deposits his seed, which grows into a golden egg. He himself is born in the egg. After a year, again by thought alone, he splits the egg in two. The halves become, in the usual way, heaven and earth.
But Indian philosophy also produces a less literal response to these eternal mysteries. One of the hymns in the Rigveda speculates on various cosmic forces which might have fashioned the universe. It concludes with a passage of most Sophisticated scepticism, beginning: ‘But, after all, who knows, and who can say whence it all came, and how creation happened.’
The Bible story
In strong contrast with all other creation myths, the Hebrew version has a simplicity and confidence deriving from a rugged monotheism. The Old Testament opens with a magnificently confident statement: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’
This first chapter of Genesis, in which the creation is described, is believed to be the work of priests in the 5th century BC. They give the impression of looking around them – to see what God needed to create – and then devising his programme. Since the sabbath is probably already sanctified as a day of rest, they need to fit the task into a working week of six days.
The resulting programme is eminently practical, from the first moment when everything is void and dark yet also somehow awash with water. Day 1, separate light from darkness, day from night. Day 2, make space among the encircling waters by pushing up the vault of the sky. Day 3, divide the material beneath this vault into earth and sea; and on the earth let there be vegetation. Day 4, attention returns to the vault of heaven; create sun and moon and stars. Day 5, it is time for creatures in water and air; create fishes and birds. Day 6, earth too must be populated; create land animals of all kinds, and man in God’s image to supervise the creatures.
The task is done. God rests on the seventh day, and sanctifies it.
In this account there is only one flaw. God’s world sounds perfect, and surely must be so. But we know it is not. There are such things as disease, guilt, violence, sexual shame, even death. How can this be?
The Hebrew story provides an immediate answer in the second chapter of Genesis. Everything is indeed perfect in the Garden of Eden, and would have remained so if Eve had not tempted Adam into eating the fruit of a tree which God had forbidden them to touch. Its fruit brings an awareness of good and evil, which leads to sexual shame. After this act of disobedience Adam and Eve are in the real world. What happens there is their fault, not God’s.
Of various creation stories which evolve in China, the most striking is that of P’an Ku. He is hatched from a cosmic egg. Half the shell is above him as the sky, the other half below him as the earth. He grows taller each day for 18,000 years, gradually pushing them apart until they reach their appointed places.
After all this effort P’an Ku falls to pieces. His limbs become the mountains, his blood the rivers, his breath the wind and his voice the thunder. His two eyes are the sun and the moon. The parasites on his body are mankind.
The Greeks acquire a vague attachment to a great many different gods during their gradual movement, as a group of Indo-European tribes, into the region of modern Greece. The result is an extremely complex account of how everything began, with deities jostling for a role. Zeus, ruler of the sky, eventually emerges as the chieftain of the gods. It is likely that he is the original god whom the Greeks brought with them. But in the first Greek account of the beginning of the universe, written down by Hesiod in about 800 BC, Zeus arrives late on the scene.
The story begins, like so many others, with a gaping emptiness, Chaos. Within this there emerges Gaea, the earth.
Gaea gives birth to a son, Uranus, who is the sky. The world now exists, earth and heaven, and together Gaea and Uranus provide it with a population, their children. First Gaea produces the Titans, heroic figures of both sexes, but her next offspring are less satisfactory; the Cyclops, with only one eye in the middle of their foreheads, are followed by unmistakable monsters with a profusion of heads and arms. Uranus, appalled by his offspring, shuts them all up in the depths of the earth.
Gaea’s maternal instincts are offended. She persuades the youngest Titan, Cronus, to attack his father. He surprises him in his sleep and with a sharp sickle cuts off his genitals, which he throws into the sea.
Cronus frees his brothers and sisters from their dungeon, and together they continue to populate the world. But an inability to get on with their offspring characterizes the males of this clan. Cronus, who has six children with his sister Rhea, eats each of them as soon as it is born.
Once again maternal instincts intervene. To save her youngest child, Rhea wraps a stone in swaddling clothes. Cronus swallows the bundle and Rhea sends the baby to foster parents. He is Zeus. As an adult he overwhelms his father, defeats all the other Titans in a great war, and then settles upon Mount Olympus to preside over a world which has at last achieved a certain calm.
During this, imperceptibly, mankind has arrived on earth – it is not clear how. But men are certainly there, because a free-thinking Titan, Prometheus, smuggles them the valuable gift of fire. These first men are not considered direct ancestors by most Greeks, and there are several versions of how the present race of humans originated.
One is that Zeus, exasperated by Prometheus, sends a flood to drown mankind. Two humans escape in an ark. When the flood has subsided, the oracle at Delphi tells these two to cast behind them the bones of their first ancestor. That ancestor, they reason, is Gaea, the earth. They throw stones over their shoulders, and from each stone a human being is created.
The Japanese story of creation leads not so much to the first man as to the first emperor – not surprisingly, since the legends are collected and written down early in the 8th century AD by command of the imperial family, eager to establish a direct link back to the gods. It transpires that the gods have a lengthy and complex existence before we reach the emperor.
The story begins with a floating amorphous mass, similar to the slithery substance of an egg but moving more like a jelly-fish. From this there emerges a reed-like object, which produces eight generations of brother-and-sister gods.
The eighth pair of gods are Izanagi (The Male Who Invites) and Izanami (The Female Who Invites). Standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, they lean down to stir the brine of the sea with a lance. The liquid begins to curdle and forms an island. The two gods come down on to it, and build a Central Pillar. Behind this they come together, in a delightful passage of Divine innocence, to try and create more islands and gods.
Their first products are flawed (a child which cannot stand at the age of three, an island composed of foam). This turns out to be because the woman spoke first in their sexual encounter. With due formality established, they create many gods – including those of the eight islands of Japan.
The gods proliferate (soon there are 8 million) and they have many dramatic adventures, establishing such basic patterns of life as day and night, summer and winter. Eventually the Sun goddess sends her grandson, Ninigi, to rule the Central Land of Reed Plains. This is Japan.
Ninigi is granted three treasures as symbols of his rule – a jewelled necklace (symbolizing benevolence), a mirror (purity) and a sword (courage). His great-grandson Jimmu-Tenno is listed in Japanese legend as the first emperor. A necklace, mirror and sword are still the Japanese imperial symbols, kept in an inner sanctuary of Shinto shrines.
The main northern story of creation is probably shared by all the people forming one distinct part of the Indo-European family – the German tribes, who gradually move south through Europe from the shores of the Baltic. But it is in Scandinavia that the Germanic legends are eventually recorded and preserved, in the stories of the Norse gods.
In the beginning there is nothingness. Gradually this space fills with water, which freezes and then partially melts. From the drops of melting water a giant in human form emerges. This is Ymir. From his armpit a man and a woman appear – giants like himself, but capable of producing others by more conventional means.
Meanwhile a cow has licked the melting ice and has revealed another giant, from whom the god Odin (or Wotan) descends. Odin and his brothers kill the aged Ymir. Of his flesh they make the earth, of his skull the heavens, of his blood the sea, of his bones the mountains and of his hair the trees.
Odin builds a place for himself and the other gods to dwell in, linked to earth by the bridge of the rainbow, and he arranges for the maggots in Ymir’s corpse – who have taken stunted human shape as dwarfs – to remain in what is now his body, beneath the surface of the earth. On earth itself Odin and his colleagues breathe life into two tree trunks, turning them into Ask and Embla, the first man and woman.