From Around the World 5
How Stories of the Beginning Might Have Begun
The essay starts here: Introduction
what is the oldest any creation myth can be? Well, it doesn't exist
before it's transmitted from one person to another, which could
hardly have been done before there was a language equipped to permit
it. Primordial man may have wondered within his own mind about the
marvels his eyes could see, but only when language emerged was he
able to share it, and thereby refine it into something more
comprehensible than dreams and visions.
have no way of fixing the time when man developed language. It seems
to have been present at least some 50,000 years ago, but it could
have been introduced in some primeval form more than 100,000 years
course it evolved slowly from an extremely limited number of word
representations of natural objects and phenomena, into the
complexity that we find already in the oldest written texts
preserved. Only when language got rich enough to carry such oddities
as images of things never seen and creatures never met, would it be
able to transmit creation stories of any complexity.
tend to assume that this came very late, maybe not far before the
dates of the oldest archaeological remains of civilization.
example, do the cave paintings in Lascaux, assumed to be around
20,000 years old, suggest that their artists must have possessed a
language intricate enough to transmit something akin to a creation
Cave painting from Lascaux, France.
numerous societies of hunters and gatherers we know that writing is
not needed to transmit even very complex ideas and sophisticated
stories, but they certainly demand the existence of many words that
represent things at which one cannot point. They need a language
with a high level of abstraction and words that can paint pictures
of things that nobody has seen.
find it hard to accept anything else than that this would have been
highly unlikely mere centuries before the emergence of the ancient
civilizations that we still know quite a lot about, and from which
there are many remnants proving their advancement.
man is a tricky beast. Once he gets a process started, he seems able
to take it further than he ever imagined beforehand – and
faster than he would ever have hoped. This is particularly true for
things of the mind. The brain is an organ of great resources at
immediate disposal to each of us.
is possible that language evolved by the help of hand signs, which
must have been present before spoken words. But they were probably
not of any complexity, or we would have remnants of this. In an
initial process, the understanding of words was probably shared by
pointing at the objects they represented, and methods of that kind.
would demand of the objects to be concrete and visible. The same
would be true for actions described. Such a language would not
immediately express the abstract or past tense, both necessary for a
there would have been an eagerness in man also to find a language
for all those things of major significance to him, such as the most
dramatic events in life – birth and death, and how to
accomplish the former and avoid the latter. These lines of thought
lead to just about everything.
evolution of language probably followed these two lines: simplicity
and urgency. Objects or actions that were easy to define were
quickly given words, and so were – out of necessity –
words to deal with urgent matters.
the very first creation stories possible are those told with words
of simplicity and urgency. Birth is likely to be an early word, so
it was surely used in a primeval creation story, where it makes very
much sense. The birth of a human being is easy enough to point out,
and therefore also to establish a word for – but what about
the birth of the whole world? Well, that would be the birth of all,
which is not that difficult to convey with gestures, so this concept
may well have been possible to express very early in the development
suggests that the imagery of a primeval creation is that of a birth
– out of something yet to be described, a creature or object
as unimaginable as it is lacking words. Then the mystery to the
people who were the first to speculate on the matter was not the
birth of the world, but out of what it was born.
Actually, we have the same problem today.
is possible that this mysterious nameless entity out of which the
world was born according to the primeval creation story, was the gap
that later had to be filled with the invention of what we call
deities. But of course, there were other options. The one most
commonly used in creation myths is the sea. It's the primordial
ever-present entity in many creations, where the world is born by
land rising up from it, or falling into it.
the probable development of language suggests that speculations
about creation, the birth of all, could have commenced quite early
in that process. The most difficult thing to convey, except for the
entity out of which the world may have been born, was the past
in this case it would have been obvious, as it would with any
creature or thing possible to point out. Somebody or something
pointed at, combined with a sign indicating birth, would be
understood as the previous birth of that someone or something, i.e.
something of the past.
the same fashion, the future tense would be assumed when mentioning
death and pointing on anyone still alive. Therefore, I doubt that
this part of grammar took that very long to appear, at least in a
really everything needed for a primeval creation myth: The all
was born in the past. Already this is saying a lot.
the language of the primeval creation story suggests another
statement: The all will die in the future. It is very likely
that such ideas were fostered at the same time and given equally
significant meaning. But that's beyond the scope of this text.
search through primeval language and the mind of Homo rudis finds a
lot of similarities to be expected in creation myths of old. This is
indeed the case. But there are also significant differences between
the myths we know. When we have found plausible explanations for the
similarities we learn to expect them – then we need to
understand the reasons for the many differences we find.
should try at first to explore how these differences can be
explained through universal patterns of human thought. Otherwise we
have abandoned the idea that there are such things, and we lose the
explanations we already found for the similarities.
differences can be explained along the lines of the triangle of
functions of creation myths, presented above.
The triangle of functions in creation myths.
that would come to mind to any inventor of a creation myth would
have to make sense in that person’s environment. So, a
primordial sea is a plausible image among people living near an
ocean, but otherwise quite unlikely.
are many examples of a primordial sea in creation myths around the
world. Genesis 1
of the Bible is one example of it. At its opening scene, God’s
spirit hovers over the sea, before the actual creation is initiated.
The creation of Genesis 2,
though, mentions no such primeval water, but presents creation as
one of the heavens and the earth, where there is no water, not even
as rain, until God makes a mist appear from underground. This must
be a creation imagined by people living very far from any sea,
probably also from any lake. A river appears only by the formation
of the Garden of Eden, soon to divide and spread water all over the
The garden of Eden. Painting by Jacopo Bassano, 1573.
Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish
starts with two waters – the salt one of the mighty sea, and
the fresh one of an underground lake. They are connected in the form
of rain, whereby the creation of the world commences. Norse creation
carries the image of ice meeting fire, which is indeed relevant in
that cold climate. Without fire, how could life there emerge and
many more ways, the environment has influenced the content and
logics of creation myths. So, differences between them should be
examined from this aspect. Of course, a developed understanding of
how the world works – and increased abilities to describe
abstractions and complexities – has also influenced the
creation myths, by altering them through time or by replacing old
myths with completely new ones.
norm corner of the triangle of functions has also influenced
creation myths into characteristics deviating from common original
forms. Those differences stem from the moral and regulatory intent
of the myth, and the order of the society where it appeared. As
mentioned above, the difference between agrarian societies and those
of hunters and gatherers must show in the structures of their
creation myths, particularly regarding the norms they advocate. This
also leads to other variations, such as exactly how the generations
succeed one another, how powers of command are distributed, and so
norm corner of a myth mainly demonstrates its people’s view on
its role in their surrounding, and what they regarded as most
precious to strive for.
corner of the triangle dictates what can be called decorative
ingredients, which are highly dependent on the environment of the
people upholding the myth. That decides what kinds of spectacles
they are able to fathom, and what their specific longings or
aversions are. The drama of the myth also reveals a lot about how
they regard human nature.
Again, we can refer to Genesis 2
and its continuing story, where Adam and Eve are the first to betray
a trust, causing great misfortune. Then their own son does the same,
even more violently so. This demonstrates a disillusioned view on
human nature, to put it mildly.
myths around the world are full of similar examples. Man is rarely
praised in those myths, but very often portrayed as the real cause
of all misery. Differences between creation myths are to be found
concerning what specific type of shortcomings man is guilty of.
There's always something.
find what sets one creation myth apart from the universal standard,
its inner structure has to be carefully examined – the plot,
the ingredients, its moral, the natural laws it establishes, the
personalities of its characters, and on and on. By such careful
scrutiny, what seems at first to be universal can prove to be quite
unique, and the other way around.
- 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.