According to the Holy Bible, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; but there are other, some even older, stories to explain original creation.
When some people hear the word “myth,” they think of something that hasn’t been proven true, for example, Big Foot or the Abominable Snowman. Other people immediately think of ancient Greece and Rome, specifically their accounts of the exploits of myriad gods and goddesses. Myths, however, are not untruths, nor were they ever limited to ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, every culture has always had its myths, including those to explain how the earth and humankind were created.
How To Define a Myth
The word “myth” is derived from the Greek mythos, meaning word or story. Furthermore, according to David Leeming, author of The World of Myth, while “in its explanatory or etiological aspect, a myth is a “form of history, philosophy, theology, or science,” it is also “an ‘old wives tale,” meaning a generally accepted belief that is unsubstantiated by fact.
Consequently, a myth is simply a narrative or chronicle that explains, in metaphorical terms, the beliefs of a people about events, both current and past. Whether these stories are true or false is totally irrelevant; and, in fact, truth or fiction does not enter into the equation.
Myths also normally meet certain criteria:
- The imagery of a myth is usually highly visual.
- Myths are closely linked to a culture’s moral system, rituals, and religious beliefs. (Fiero, 2006)
The Role of Myths in Human History
Ancient myths were created and then passed from generation to generation because humans were searching for ways to explain the unexplainable: natural disasters, diseases, death, and mysterious phenomena, for example, eclipses of the sun or moon, shooting stars, rainbows, aurora borealis, St. Elmo’s Fire, etc. In addition, myths like their close relatives fairytales, originated in folklore; and as a result, both myths and fairytales not only helped explain the unexplainable, they also often taught lessons in how to live.
Myths of Creation and the Origin of Life
A creation myth (or cosmogony, from the Greek kosmos, meaning “order,” and genesis, meaning “birth”) “is a story of how the cosmos began and developed” (Leeming). However, as for which came first, myths about the creation of the world or those about the creation of man, the answer is neither because both myths concurrently sprang into the human consciousness. In other words, in humankind’s eyes, the creation of man naturally went hand-in-hand with the creation of the world, and both acts of creation needed explaining.
Eight Different Creation Myths
Creation myths (or stories) established humankind’s reason for existing and the source of its significance. There are many examples, including, but not limited to, the following:
Egyptian: The Beginnings. Developed over the centuries between the beginning of the Old Kingdom in 3000 B.C.E. and the end of the third century C.E., and contains “an original spirit or Word; the High God as an emerging deity; a cosmic egg; and a creating eye (the sun).
Mesopotamian: Enuma elish. Dates back to the reign of Nebuchadrezzar, or perhaps earlier, and contains the motifs of order from chaos, primal waters as a source of creation, a war in heaven, and emergence of a king god,” etc.
Hebrew: Genesis. Presents the motifs of an omniscient creator; creation by thought; creation out of chaos (represented by the “face of the deep”); a great war in heaven; and a mysterious divine spirit.
Indian: Rig Veda and the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. Two of many Indian creations tales, containing such motifs as the creator god (Brahma or Prajapati), creation by the spilling of the god’s seed, the cosmic eye, primal waters, and the emergence of reality as Mind or Soul from nothingness.
Greek: Hesiod’s Theogony. Classical Greek view of the creation of the universe, containing the motifs of creation out of chaos, a great war in heaven, and the establishment of a monarchy in heaven following the war.
Hopi Myth: Spider Woman. Presents Spider Woman as the female principle, and contains the themes of a mysterious divine spirit; an omniscient god (Tawa, the sun god) who uses divine reasoning; and creation by thought, although this belief later evolved to include creation by song.
Modern: The Big Bang Theory. Everything that now exists was there at the beginning when the universe emerged from chaos (a great fiery explosion); and all things in the universe sprang from this common origin, so all material and matter, including humans, are interconnected and related. (Leeming)
Of course, these are but a sampling of creation stories, for there are countless others, but from the beginning of time, people have searched for a way to explain those great mysteries that will perhaps always remain unexplainable, and mythology has provided that way.
- Fiero, G. (2006) The Humanistic Tradition; Boston: McGraw-Hill
- Leeming, D. (1990) The World of Myth; New York: Oxford University Press
- Tripp, E. (1970) The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology; New York: Penguin Books