From Around the World 2
How Stories of the Beginning Might Have Begun
The essay starts here: Introduction
are many obstacles when mapping a myth and its origin. Usually, the
first and most difficult one is dating the myth. Most creation myths
have an origin hidden behind an unknown number of generations of
oral transmission. Just how long this tradition was, before any
recording of it in writing, is often impossible to ascertain.
best, we can guess on a period of history, but hardly closer than
within centuries, sometimes only within millennia. That, too, is
hazardous and quite uncertain in several cases.
there is no evidence as to a myth’s age, and that’s more
often the case than not, we have to search for clues inside the myth
itself. This calls for an interpretation approaching pure guesswork,
especially if nothing else is known about the myth – such as
its geographical or cultural origin, or its link by similarities to
other myths of which we know more.
the date of origin of a creation myth is rarely known, its
geographical or cultural cradle is often noted – if not with
certainty, so at least with a high grade of probability. And when
this is known, dating a myth based on the content of it becomes
somewhat realistic. There is also a chance of increased precision
when knowledge of the environment and culture in question is
date and place of a creation myth’s origin can be established,
with varying certainty, by searching for clues within the myth and
its components. For example, there are some differences to be
expected in creation myths from agrarian eras, to those from hunter
and gatherer societies.
differences of this kind are found between the creation stories of
Genesis 1 and 2. The latter contains many ingredients pointing toward a
farming culture, such as the Garden of Eden cultivated by God, the
presentation of all the animals to Adam, as if inviting him to
domesticate the ones of his choosing, and so on.
Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, defending themselves from God's accusation. Painting by Domenichino, 1625.
In Genesis 1
, on the other hand, God creates one thing after another and puts them
in their proper places, until on the last day he completes the world
by creating man and offering the whole world to him as it is, to
walk freely on the land and feed on the animals and the plants that
he finds – much like the everyday life of hunters and
distinction between agrarian and non-agrarian society can be
similarly detected in most creation myths.
may even be clues to how far back in an era the myth was composed,
considering what elements it contains and which ones it lacks. This
allows us to find that some myths or fragments of myths must have a
dating before, say, the introduction of the use of fire, or that of
certain tools, and so on.
problem with properly interpreting and understanding creation myths
is that of their authenticity. How to confirm that the myth we know
is the original one, or if not, what parts of it are removed, added
or altered through time? A distorted myth would result in erroneous
conclusions about its time and place of origin, moving our
understanding of the myth all the way back to square one.
myths of similar time and a nearby place might reveal such mixes.
The lack of similarities would indicate authenticity. But those
methods are uncertain – and a prerequisite for them is the
existence of comparable myths.
similarities are not necessarily the evidence of mixed components.
Creation myths all over the world have lots of similarities, which
are easily explained by consequences of their subject, similarities
of human reasoning, tendencies brought on by oral transmission, et
cetera. There is simply no reason to expect a complete lack of
similarities between creation myths. Already by containing the idea
of a starting moment for the world, without which they could not be
called creation myths, they have similar premises.
must also be understood that even a very good idea can come to more
than one person. Similarities of myths might mean nothing more than
that the idea occurred in two minds, completely independent of one
present culture has a tendency to search for one sole originator of
any idea, which probably says more about the creation stories we
foster (both those of Genesis and the Big Bang theory) than about any limitations of human
the other hand, there are several possible situations where
comparing myths can help discovering influences between them.
they share names of characters, or other elements of equal
significance, it becomes quite obvious. Then, what remains is the
problem of deciding which one of the myths contained these
characters or elements originally, and which one added them later
on. To decide this, the stories of the myths need to be examined –
their narrative and dramaturgy. That's also a way of trying the
authenticity of a myth when no neighboring myth is at hand for
story has to make some kind of sense to its listener. It has to have
its inner logics. By this I mean that as a whole, it has to show
consistency, respect its own premises, and have an ending that
relates meaningfully to its beginning. Deviations from this are very
likely due to changes of its original form.
clear example of this is Cain’s fate in Genesis 4:
After having slain his brother, he left his parents Adam and Eve and
traveled to the land of Nod, where he found a wife and reproduced.
There is no previous mention of other people than Adam, Eve, and
their two children. This suggests that two stories have merged. The
one about the fratricide was most likely not an original part of the
story about Adam and Eve, but of a later stage in the history of
Adam and Eve mourn the death of their son Abel, killed by his brother Cain. Painting by William Bouguereau, 1888.
patterns of narrative and dramaturgy in myths, as well as any other
story-telling, are remarkably alike across cultures and historical
eras. This is also evident in the creation myths from around the
world. Therefore, such an analysis of a myth can be done with
confidence, and anomalies of this kind are very likely to depend on
distortions of the original version.
those universal story-telling elements and structures can be used to
reveal significant parts of creation stories as being of a purely
any creation story must in some way be a series of events, it will
get the structure of a plot, and thereby it will be arranged in a
dramaturgical way. This arrangement contributes to shaping the
story, even to the extent that it is the reason for some ingredients
in the world creation described. Dramaturgical necessity is
instrumental in the formation of any creation story.
- Man, Too
- Human Thought Revealed
- Trusting Creation Myths
- Time and Place
- Inner Story Logics
- Triangle of Functions
- The Relief of Tragedy
- Homo Rudis
- Present Day Tribes
- The Evolution of Creation Myths
- Subconscious Creation
- Simplicity and Urgency
- The All Was Born in the Past
- Religion, Science, or Art
- What Can Be Reached
This text was written as an introduction of sorts to my ongoing dissertation on creation myths, at the Lund University History of Ideas and Learning.
© Stefan Stenudd 2011
How stories of the beginning began.
Theories through history about myth and fable.
The mythological symbols and what they stand for.
Patterns of creation.
The paradox of origin, according to an Indian myth.
The first creation story of the bible scrutinized.
The ancient Babylonian creation myth.
The insoluble solitude of gods and humans.
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I'm a Swedish author and historian of ideas, researching the thought patterns in creation myths. I've also written books about Taoism, the Tarot, and life force concepts around the world. Click the image to get to my personal website.