From Around the World 4
How Stories of the Beginning Might Have Begun
The essay starts here: Introduction
most persistent perspective in the study of creation myths is that
of religion. The myths are seen as examples of religious belief,
intermingled with worship of the sacred, ideas of deities, and so
on. This is a complicated path with questionable results reached,
especially since it is very difficult to get away from using
Christian definitions as measures.
any definition of what religion is, independently of Christianity,
is just as difficult as it is meaningless. The same is true for the
concept god, or deity, as well as worship and sacred.
the term 'belief' is something very vague and fleeing. Modern
religion in industrial society uses the word almost as a paradox.
Confessing the belief in something implies that reason would lead to
disbelief. It's a commitment to believing in something one really
would have made no sense at all to Homo rudis. At the birth of a
creation myth or any other cosmological speculation, reason was
probably not challenged at all by these ideas, or they would not
for the offspring of Homo rudis in the millennia to follow, the
ancient myths were definitely questioned even in societies where
they were still kept alive and officially confessed.
can be observed in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers,
who lived in a world where mythology was definitely cherished and
worshiped. Still, many philosophers were both willing and able to
question them, partially or completely.
the triangle of functions above, it's clear that the Greeks mostly
praised the norms of the myths and their artistic value, but they
hesitated about their explanatory reliability. Some philosophers
also debated their moral content.
has lasted the longest in the Greek myths is definitely their
rudis, though, must have believed in the myths of his own creation,
or he would have altered them. They must have made sense to him,
which does not necessarily mean that he regarded them with the trust
that we have for mathematical formulas. He believed in them insomuch
as he found them likelier than other theories he might have come up
with. Well, likelier or more meaningful or more exciting, to put it
in the triangle of functions.
actual purpose of Homo rudis for inventing a creation myth is out of
our reach. Its enigma is comparable to that of the Neanderthal
burial of their dead and the question if it is proof of some kind of
religious belief or not. In the latter case, the only clues are how
these graves were arranged and what can be read from this. As for
the creation myths, their plots and ingredients may reveal to what
extent they were explanatory, moral tales, or mere entertainment.
the concepts of belief and religion add very little to our
understanding of them.
what is there in religion outside the triangle of functions
described above? The only true connection between religion and
creation myths might be that their functions can be divided
similarly. In the case of religion as we know it today, the trio of
functions adds up to one overall need for religion to fulfill –
that of consolation. That can be said about creation myths, too.
what religion and creation myths reveal about one another is the
basic human need behind both, and therefore something about the
thought patterns leading to them. But one is not the explanation of
the other, nor the source of it.
mentioned above, the creation myths we know may not be the authentic
ones, but versions altered through the centuries before they were
written down in the sources at our disposal.
would have been made along the three directions of the triangle of
functions. A shifting understanding of the world and its emergence
would change the myth's explanation, modified norms of the society
keeping it alive would change its message and morals, and new tastes
of the audience would bring out other twists to the drama of it.
Wherever the need for change was the greatest, the myth would be
altered the most.
changes may be difficult to detect and extract in their entirety,
but they are not completely unnoticeable. They would leave scars and
tiny anomalies, peculiarities that seem to distort the imagery of
the myth, or inconsistencies that raise questions the myth leaves
unanswered – some more obvious than others. Each anomaly gives
its own clue to which of the three kinds of functions instigated the
change. The history of the society in question, if known in enough
detail, would reveal the same.
clear example of these dynamics is Enuma Elish,
the Babylonian creation epic with Sumerian roots, where the
Babylonian god Marduk conquers the gods of the older tradition, and
becomes the supreme deity. Marduk then creates mankind as mere
servants to the gods, just like that society had its rulers who
treated the whole population as their servants.
Marduk kills the old creator goddess Tiamat.
would wonder why the Babylonians did not simply make a new creation
story, where Marduk was the unchallenged ruler of all from the
outset. But at that time both the gods of old and their process of
world creation were already familiar to the people, so a fresh start
would only lead to two competing creation myths – weakening
the trust in both. The Babylonians needed to adjust the old myth,
because they had already adapted it.
was probably the case whenever a change in society called for change
in how it perceived and described creation. Traditional myths could
not be eradicated, so the new needs had to merge with the old
stories, altering some things but saving enough of the old version
to keep consistency from the past toward the future. The greater the
theme of a story, the greater the work to have it changed, and
creation myths are by definition among the greatest stories told.
dynamics of myth have been explored and recognized within the
history of religion, and there are many examples of how such changes
can be reversed in search for the original version.
this has mostly been done without applying narration aspects. The
revised version makes less instead of more sense. Also the
explanatory aspects have often been neglected, if not ignored, as if
creation stories had nothing to do with describing a possible
creation of the world.
have been emphasized the most are the norms and moral implications,
because these are widely seen as forming the core of religion.
That’s a simplification quickly bringing the exploration of
creation myths to a halt.
if not all, theories on the emergence of creation myths have taken
for granted that they were not invented in intentional acts of
conscious minds. Instead, they have been explained as expressions of
basic needs of people – such as the need to worship in order
to find solace, the need to explain the unknown to stop fearing it,
or emotional urges rising from the unconscious.
these perspectives, the creation myths have been regarded as
expressions of religious beliefs, where the latter was presumed to
forego the former.
the 19th and early 20th
century, there were debates about what “primitive man”
was able to fathom, and what may have been the steps in the presumed
evolution of religions. Creation myths studied in this context were
interpreted according to the level of evolution they were thought to
represent, where those supposed to be the oldest were denied any
abstract or intellectually advanced content. That made the reading
of them quite superficial.
the first half of the 20th
century, Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung formed theories by which to
interpret religions and their myths as expressions of subconscious
Sigmund Freud (left) and C.G. Jung.
saw religion as the constant repetition of repent for a primordial
patricide, so he searched the myths for little more than examples of
that drama and the guilt it would have brought. Jung, on the other
hand, explored the myths at much greater depth. To him, they were
representations of the archetypes, basic universal symbols of
elements in man’s quest for self-realization.
Jung’s perspective, the creation myths were of particular
interest, since they dealt with birth and rebirth, and events that
set the rules for human life thereafter. He and his followers –
a mighty number of researchers, particularly in the mid 20th
century – sorted the creation myths into categories of
archetypal significance. What they read into the myths, they did not
presume to be elements intentionally included in them by their
original creators, but unavoidable components because of the nature
of the human mind.
idea of the archetypes as patterns through all mythological material
actually shows similarities to dramaturgical components proving to
be unavoidable in story-telling. In the latter case, the reasons are
the dynamics and excitement needed for a story to attract an
audience, whether they are aware of it or not. So, there is an
unconscious ingredient in that model, too – but on the side of
the audience, and not on that of the author. Strong arguments are
needed to claim that the inventor of a story is unaware of the
choice of its components and the progression of its plot.
the late 20th
century there have emerged other more or less psychological theories
about how myths have been formed, for example those based on
cognitive psychology, or on the mechanics of metaphors, investigated
by linguists. They also presume that such influences have mainly
have so many similarities with the Jungian perspective on myths that
they can be described as variations of the Jungian paradigm –
especially in their presumption that significant ingredients of
great meaning were included in the myths without the conscious
intent of their inventors.
is no clear indicator of Homo rudis lacking the willful intent of
the conscious mind that modern man is credited with. Our
predecessors were able to come up with quite sophisticated and
intriguing myths. The refinement of their stories argues for greater
mental capacities than the above mentioned theories are prepared to
only shortcoming of Homo rudis’ mind that we can be certain
about is its lack of knowledge of the scientific discoveries we have
at our hands to describe the world and its inner workings. His
explanations were based on very little else than his own
observations, and those of the people in his immediate surroundings.
from that experience he would have been able to consciously invent a
creation story, fully aware of the choices he made for its
components and events. Otherwise he would not have been able to
communicate it to his fellow men. Nobody disputes that the telling
of a story is a conscious act, so why would not the invention of it
- 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.