From Around the World 3
How Stories of the Beginning Might Have Begun
The essay starts here: Introduction
century, anthropological and ethnographic studies of creation myths
have more or less focused on their functional aspects. The myths
have been explained through religious rituals connected to them, or
basic urges of primordial man. They have been interpreted as
expressions of human needs of one kind or other, and not as
speculations in cosmogony.
or not this is relevant, it has a ring of disrespect for the mind of
man prior to the Scientific Revolution.
the creation stories convey on the very surface are explanations to
the emergence of the world. Yet, this is often the last thing
considered in the study of them.
a grave mistake. Primordial man saw the sun rise and set, the
seasons turn, and the birth and death of his fellow men. He must
have wondered what it all meant, and how it all began. This reason
for the emergence of creation myths deserves to be considered
there is plenty of evidence in our history for the creation myths
playing a significant role in the everyday life of societies of old.
In many cases it's just as true today. These myths have been
essential ingredients in rituals of worship and festivity, they have
influenced the way of thought and principles of justice, and they
have been integral parts of the foundations on which societies have
been built and governed. They have also influenced the arts,
language, and countless aspects of cultural heritage.
it is quite likely that the creation myths have been altered through
time in the dynamics of the societies where they were kept. Even if
they were conceived as no more than speculations on the birth of the
world and its creatures, their cultural roles and societal functions
may very well have changed their content toward additional agreement
with their functions. So, this too has to be considered.
The triangle of functions in creation myths.
see a triangle of functions of creation myths, where the three
corners are explanation, norm, and art.
explanation is the pre-scientific function of making some kind of
sense about the world and its origin. The norm is the societal and
moral function of establishing an order that the members of that
society have to follow, whether it pleases them or not. It also
contains the wish to find reason for and meaning to it all. The art
is that diffuse function of satisfying the audience through an
experience involving some kind of relief, in line with the Greek
idea of catharsis.
three corners of the triangle are likely to have been instrumental
in the formation of any creation myth, as well as having influenced
the alterations of it through time. Surely their influence has
mostly been mixed, with differing dominance and dynamics between
them over time.
tendencies are sometimes conflicting, and sometimes not. For
example, the pure effort of explaining the world from experiences of
it may not fit wishes of both order and meaning, especially when
futility and decay seem to be the only things certain. So, the idea
of an afterlife may have been the norm corner of the triangle
balancing the experience of lives in hardship ending with no evident
demands on creation myths have probably been present already at
their forming, in order to make stories that would inspire the
effort to pass them on through generations of oral transmission.
Creation theories without an ounce of some kind of poetry were
unlikely to be remembered by others than their inventors. Fantasy
was surely allowed to add to what little was known from pure
observation, and attractive images would have been kept even if they
contradicted those observations in some way, though not too
Aristotle in his Poetics
not demand that a drama should end morally, with the villain losing
and the noble one victorious – although he expressed warnings
against the very opposite, since that would not benefit a relieving
catharsis for the audience, but just add to its frustration. The
artistic corner of the triangle is indeed almost negligent of moral
Aristotle (384-322 BC).
a story containing and supporting a moral can be wonderfully
attractive to an audience, but so can many stories that end bitterly
for its most sympathetic characters. The dramas that Aristotle
focused on were mostly tragedies, where just about everybody died
miserably at the end. Equally sad is the story of Gilgamesh
the oldest one we have in written remains. Tragedy is rarely the
stuff by which to make and support the norm corner of the triangle.
most tragedies have a moral ingredient. Not in such a way as to
reward the noble at the end, but by showing somehow that their bad
fate was the result of an ignorant mistake of theirs, like King
Oedipus unknowingly marrying his mother and killing his father, or
an anomaly in their environment, like the family feud
forcing Romeo and Juliet to suicide.
the latter case, the heroes were victims of things beyond their
control, but thereby illuminating the problem for the audience and
coming generations to recognize and correct. This is made very clear
at the end of Romeo and Juliet,
where Prince Escalus scolds the heads of the feuding families:
be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
I, for winking at you, discords too,
lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.
The families learn their lesson and make peace.
Romeo and Juliet. Painting by Frank Dicksee, 1884.
any tragedy, there is some kind of lesson to be learned. Gilgamesh,
for example, has to accept that it’s best to let the dead lie.
tragedies with a moral component are common in creation myths. The
sad fate of Adam and Eve is another example. They are expelled from
their carefree existence because they break the one rule of it,
thereby firmly warning mankind never to make that mistake about any
rule of divine origin, a great number of which are to follow in the
succeeding books of the Bible.
dramatic ingredients of creation myths may have been present from
the start, or they were added later in order to satisfy the needs of
this corner of the triangle.
can’t establish much about the mind of man before the dawn of
civilization. Nor can we be sure that primordial man was the
originator of the creation myths or even their embryos. But we must
try to understand him, if we are to study what might be expressions
of his thinking.
long ago as about two millions years, the human mind started growing
significantly. One million years ago it had a size very near the
present (circa 1200 cc, compared to the modern average of 1400 cc).
That big brain must have had something to do.
order to investigate the mind of primordial man, I sketch a brain
very similar to ours in resources and complexity, but in an
environment without scientific knowledge – and with no means
of transmitting discoveries and theories
of any intricacy from one generation to the next. I call this model
of primordial man Homo rudis, the unlearned man.
can also be translated as primitive man,
but I dislike this expression, often used in 19th and
early 20th century anthropology, because it assumes a lack of mental ability in
our distant forefathers, which is not necessarily the case. It has
also been used for hunter and gatherer societies in our present
world, which is even worse. When studied closely, they prove to be
anything but primitive.
Homo rudis is man before the emergence of science and its
explanations of natural phenomena. He had a brain much like ours,
but very little knowledge to absorb into it. He had to make his
conclusions about nature and existence from his own observations,
with little means of empirical study or the fountain of experiences
from many previous generations that we have at our disposal. What he
saw was what he knew, and that was it.
creation myths that remain in our records should be considered from
the perspective of Homo rudis, so that we can comprehend the
environment and circumstances in which they were conceived.
course, far from all creation myths are inventions of Homo rudis,
but of later origin. They may still carry fragments of earlier
versions, maybe as far back as to the days of Homo rudis. Only if
these fragments hold dominant positions in the myth, or if they
distort its plot in a way that makes the myth somewhat
incomprehensible, will it be necessary to extract them by
considering the Homo rudis perspective.
is no rock solid way of confirming that we must go back to the time
of Homo rudis to find the emergence of a creation myth, but it's
rather easy to establish what myths or portions thereof would have
made sense to Homo rudis. That's an indication of those myths
actually being that old.
suspect that a lot of the creation myths preserved have such a
distant origin – at least some major fragments of them.
may be tempting to go to present day hunter and gatherer tribes in
search for minds like that of Homo rudis, especially if they have
been isolated from our society’s influences. But that's a
societies have been around just as long as ours. There is no way of
knowing how much their thoughts and ideas have progressed from the
primordial stage of Homo rudis. Close investigations of their myths
and beliefs show a complexity and level of abstraction that suggests
additions and modifications through many generations of
what extent this complexity is a late addition or was present
already at the time of Homo rudis, is usually quite impossible to
establish with any certainty. The risk of mistakes on this issue
makes it important not to assume that the mind of Homo rudis is to
be found among people living today.
should not apply the Homo rudis perspective to myths that are alive
today, although some ingredients make it tempting, except for the
purpose of trying to extract their oldest components. But on myths
retrieved from our distant past, the mind of Homo rudis can be a
rewarding way of trying their age and the thoughts behind them.
- 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.