Myths of Creation

Myths of Creation

“In the Beginning . . .” and “Long, long ago . . .” began the theogonies of that were composed by the primordial peoples who, in observing the celestial patterns in correspon­dence with the seasonal changes in their habitat, concluded from these extrinsic evidences theo­ries of creation of the cosmos, flora and fauna, and especially of humankind. These myths became the foundations that shaped the distinct cultural worldviews, mannerisms, and rituals that their belief systems would dictate. There were gods that were personal and dwelt among humankind, gods that dwelt in the heavens, and a pantheistic god that is believed to reside in everything. Globally, the creation myths have a myriad of origins and important characters, yet similar motifs are evident. This entry examines analogous themes and will initiate each creation section with a passage from Genesis, as a bell­wether creation motif, being one of the most recognized of creation legends.

Darkness, Divine Chaos, and the Primordial Gods

In the beginning . . . the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light . . . and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (Bible, King James Version, or KJV) The Romans tell of Chaos, the shapeless form of the four elements—water, fire, air, and earth—before the beginning of time; when these elements finally sepa­rated, the result was the formation of Janus, the “god of gods.” From China, the gods Yin and Yang were the first to form from the hun dun or shapeless vapors; with the remainder of these vapors Yin and Yang created the universe and humans. The Hopi legends recount how the entirety of existence was endless space and the sun spirit; the sun spirit formed the earth from himself and endless space. The Mayans’ “Book of Counsel” tells that there was silence in the beginning prior to creation. The Taoist Chuang-Tzu describes the subtle stages of “Being”; there was: “Not-Yet-Beginning-to-Be-Non-Being,” and “Not-Yet-Beginning-to-Be-a-Not-Yet-Beginning- to-Be-Non-Being,” and how “suddenly” the vitality of Being and Non-Being came to pass. A New Zealand Maori chant tells how everything emerged from a void origin. The Taoist Lao Tzu wrote of an unknown thing, “confusedly formed,” with the potential of being the mother of worlds. In the Slavonic legends the dual forces of positive and nega­tive created Byelobog the Black God, and Chernobog the White God. To the Haidas of the Pacific Northwest (of the U.S.), the Supreme Being is called “The-Light-of-the-Shining-Heavens,” while the Incas call it the “Hidden-Face-of-God”; and the Iroquois call it the “Old-One-in-the-Sky.” To the Hebrews, the name of God is so revered that it is unspeakable; in writing, the consonants JHVH were arranged to denote God. An Inuit legend describes Raven as being the creator, yet it is the Sparrow that not only accompanied Raven throughout the creation processes, but was there from the inception; while the Inupiaq of Alaska tell of the Primevous Shaman that created Raven the god-man, Raven who became a creator in his own right and transformed into a bird. In Siberia the Chukchi call the Reindeer Being their Creator. The Evenks have two names: Amaka the guardian for humans, and Ekseri who oversees the animals. The Korean Supreme Being is Hanullim, the “ruler of .” In Australia the Aboriginals recognize the “All Father,” which goes by several names depending on location, and/or the “The Great Mother” or “All Mother.”

The Zohar, a Judaic text, describes how the cre­ator was without shape or form, and so created a divine man that he descended upon and utilized for further creations. The Memphis Egyptian legend recounts Ptah as the creator and “Father and Mother of all the gods.” Within the Greek legends the “deep-breasted” Gaea, Mother Earth, was cre­ated from the chaos of the void. The Celts’ “Good God,” the Dagda, is known to them as the “Great Father.” In Northern Europe, creation transpired within the merging point of the icy north and the inferno from the south; the melting ice from this fusion formed the giant Ymir. The dark nothing­ness and divine chaos that is prevalent in creation lore and that antedated creation and the primordial slime, is a similitude of the darkness, then the cha­otic nebulae from the aftermath of the early stages of the evolution of the universe.

The Deep Waters and Children of the Gods

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters . . . God called the firma­ment Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. (KJV)

Some cultures believe that Father Sky and Mother Earth were in continuous lovemaking, in an inseparable embrace. These parents have numer­ous appellations: Apsu and Tiamat (Babylonian), Ouranos and Gaea (by Hesiod), Rangi and Papa (Polynesian), and An and Ki (aka Nammu) (Sumerian); in Egypt the parents are reversed and the mother is the sky and father the earth. Given that their children are imprisoned between them and more “offspring” are being created, the sib­lings launched a campaign against their parents to improve their living conditions.

In Japan the creative substance of primordial slime resembled oil or a gelatinous mass from which five gods took form and lived on the High Plains of Heaven; from these five gods, seven fol­lowing generations of gods and goddesses were created. Then, Izanagi and Izanami, the youngest god and goddess, took a sacred spear, swirled it in the waters of the deep from the Floating Bridge of Heaven, and the drops that fell when retrieving the spear created the beginnings of land, their new home; their children would become the remainder of the creation process of Earth. These global motifs of gods forming from the mists, the waters separating, and the promontories arising from the endless body of water represent the nebula con­densing into planets in the star systems.

Earth and the Cosmos

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place and let the dry land appear . . . Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit . . . And God saw that it was good. And the eve­ning and the morning were the third day. And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, for the days, and years . . . And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also . . . And God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. (KJV)

In a Persian legend, a 9,000-year battle between light and darkness ensued prior to the world’s formation. Globally, the theme of the separating of Father Sky and Mother Earth played an impor­tant role: for example, the children of Rangi and Papa are bent over and sideways; their miserable state prompts them to conjure conspiracies to destroy their parents, but the child “Father of the Forest” pushed the parents apart; in Egypt, it is Shu the child of the Air. In an early Chinese cre­ation legend, the sky god Zhuan Xu orders the two grandsons Chong and Li to separate the sky and the earth; and in another version the sky had to be propped up from the earth, in another tied down to the earth. In Korean legends it was Miruk who separated heaven and earth and placed pil­lars to keep them in their place, then filled the sky with the stars, the moon, and the sun.

In the Eastern cultures, the cosmic egg arose from the primordial waters of the deep. From Hermopolis, Egypt, the creation legend tells of a mound that emerged from the waters of Nun, and upon the mound an egg from which the sun god appeared. In Orphic legend the egg is silver, and is cracked by Time and Need. Love, named Eros, “father of the night,” emerges from the egg “wear­ing both sexes”; Eros fathered Zeus, who in turn swallows his father; Eros returns as the cosmos. The Chandogya Upanishad of India recounts how the egg was half silver and half gold; the silver became the earth, the gold the heavens; the Brahman legends tell how a golden egg floated upon the waters a year prior to becoming the heavens and the earth. The Vedic hymns tell how each of Vishnu’s seeds became golden eggs, and from each seed a universe was created; the god Brahma was born from Vishnu’s navel; Brahma then created the stars and demigods to assist in the creation and control the earth and universe. With the Chinese, 18,000 years of incubation occurred prior to the egg separating into Yin and Yang: the Yang, being lighter, arose to create the heavens, while the Yin was heavier and lowered to mold into the world. In Africa, Mebege created the cosmic egg by combin­ing a portion of his hair, brain, a pebble, and his breath; a spider brought the egg between the sea and the sky until the egg obtained the optimum temperature, at which Mebege fertilized the egg. Following the birth of his three children, Mebege created termites and worms to leave droppings, which thereby created land.

At times a god’s or demigod’s being was utilized as a cosmological body for the creation to be com­plete. In Babylonia it is the third-generation god Marduk, the sun god (Assyrians call him Assur), who slays the mother of the gods, Tiamat, and thereby creates the earth and heavens with her body. In Northern Europe the three brother gods Odin, Vili, and Ve slay the giant god Ymir and use his carcass to create the earth. From the southwest area of China, the being of the semi-divine human, giant Pan Gu, was formed while the Yang sepa­rated from the Yin; after an unspecified time the dying remains of Pan Gu were used in the finishing touches of the creation process of the earth: for example, his eyes were placed in the sky for the sun and moon, and his body lice become human beings. The Inupiaq tell of Raven killing a whale in order to create the world from its carcass.

Life on Earth was a paradise, explains the New Guinea legend, filled with flora, fauna, and demi­gods called Demas; but then, the world of paradise was burned to the ground by the demigods playing with fire. So Darvi, the great Dema, created rain, which not only brought a cessation to the flames, but formed rivers in the process. Enraged over the holocaust, the great Dema threw a charred piece of land into the ocean; this is the beginning of New Guinea, and brought a metamorphosis of the flora and fauna to be changed into humans. Also from New Guinea, a story of three brothers at the begin­ning of the world who became the ancestors of the people on Earth: people of the grassland and peo­ple of the bush, but the third brother left and was never seen again; the arrival of Europeans brought speculation that these were the descendents of the third brother. Another Oceanian legend recounts how the god Tiki made his wife from sand. Their children and children’s children fill the island, giv­ing Tiki the impetus to create more islands, the solution to the unprecedented population prob­lem. Another island, Turtle Island, is the term from the Cheyenne of North America, whose leg­ends inform that the Earth resides on the shell of Grandmother Turtle. In the Caribbean the sons of the supreme spirit Yaya were secretly consuming fish from a gourd that belonged to their father; upon hearing their father’s arrival they acciden­tally overturned the gourd filled with fish and water, thereby creating the ocean. The Unambal tribe of Australia tells of two creators: the Ungud who is shaped like a python and finds its habita­tion within the earth, and the Wallanganda or one that “belongs to the sky” and dwells in the Milky Way; their creation process transpired during Dreamtime. In the North American Iroquois leg­end, “The-Old-One-in-the-Sky” impregnated Ongwe and then thrust her through a hole in the sky, resulting in the birth of the world.

A Mongolian story tells of seven unmoving and unbearably hot suns that grieved the residents of Earth. The hero, in human form, the intrepid mar­mot, shoots six arrows into the sky, to which six of the suns fell; this sent the seventh sun into a con­tinuous cycle around the world. In the early Chinese calendar a week was 10 days, in which the sun god­dess Xi He or Breath Blend conceived 10 children or suns that would alternate journeying across the sky, to each occasive conclusion; when all 10 decided to come out one day, which threatened Earth’s habitat, the hunter god shot and pulled them down with cords attached to his arrows. Maui, a Hawaiian demigod, pulled the land out of the water, much like the sons of Bor raising the dead body of Ymir from the waters to create the earth. Maui also trapped and convinced the sun to slow its passage across the sky; prior to this the sun moved swiftly, making the days too short.

Within the diverse creation versions, the entry of humans occurs at various stages; some prior to the creation of the cosmos and others after­wards. In a Tlingit legend, all the world was dark and the people complained of the gloomy existence. It was the legerdemain of Raven that brought the sun, moon, and stars to the people; the trickster secreted into the drinking water of the daughter of the Great Chief, thereby impreg­nating her. Raven, now the grandson, cried until the Great Chief opened his bentwood boxes filled with his most valued clan items: the stars, the moon, and especially the sun. First, he let Raven play with the least of these, the stars, and Raven let loose the stars through the longhouse smoke-hole; next Raven released the treasured moon, when the slaves weren’t looking; at the opportune moment he transformed into a raven and with the sun in his beak, he attempted his escape; the Great Chief commanded the smoke hole to be shut, it trapped Raven midway, the sun’s fire and smoke blackened Raven’s white feathers; he wriggled free and liberated the sun for the earth’s inhabitants.

The ancient Chinese calendar recognized 12 moons; the moon goddess Chang Xi or Ever Breath’s 12 children or moons rotated their pil­grimage across the sky. Another account has Chang E, or Ever Sublime, consuming a stolen potion of immortality, thereby creating her as the goddess of the moon as she rose up into the sky. Arctic dwellers describe the sun and moon origi­nating from a man chasing his amour, his sister; they ran so quickly that their bodies lifted into the skies, his sister became the sun and he the moon, so that to this day the moon chases the sun; their brief embrace creates an eclipse. The Mayan leg­end reveals that the sun god’s only journey through the sky was on the initial day; a disk with his reflection is now in the sky. The stars, accord­ing to Slavonic legends, are the children of the sun and the moon.

Thus, the earth and the universe were very personal to the early peoples of the world, to the point of being considered family or part of the clan. Many tribes, like the Pueblos, attempted to live in harmony with the movements of the planets, and so it is understandable why the earth and star systems were created in our image.

Humans, Animals, and Plants

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abun­dantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth . . . And God created great whales . . . And God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female created he them . . . And God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. (KJV)

From Egypt, the Heliopolis explains how the god Atum, the “ancestor of humankind,” created from himself the first human couple. In Northern Europe, the gods Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve, upon discovering two dead tree trunks, pro­ceeded to create the human male—Ask, and female—Embla. In the Haida legends Raven finds humans emerging from a clamshell washed up on the shore. The African Togo legends inform that the creator brought the humans down from the sky via a chain, to live on Earth. Insects fell from heaven in the Korean legend, as Miruk prayed to be able to create humans while holding a golden tray and a silver tray; those that fell upon the golden tray transformed into men and those on the silver into women. From Uganda comes the legend of the creator Gulu and his daughter and son; the daughter married the primordial man and gave birth to children, and when they refused to allow her brother to marry their children, he cre­ated death. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of India tells of the creation of man; he was lonely, and so separated himself into male and female. A Greek legend told by Plato explains how the early peoples were male/female, female/female, and male/male. The gods split them in two; so that to this day, each person is still trying to find his or her “other half.”

Some creations took several processes or numer­ous attempts to perfect. The primordial Hopis at one time lived in caves and resembled insects; Grandmother Spider escorted them through a long cavern, and the journey transmogrified them into animals. After another pilgrimage with Spider Grandmother they completed the evolutionary process into human beings. Then in order to sepa­rate from the evil people, a ladder of bamboo grown tall through the power of songs was employed to reach the sky world; then two young warrior gods transformed that world of mud into hills, valleys, and plant life. Afterward, Spider Grandmother instructed the people to make disks, and then to hurl them into the sky, and so created the sun and the moon. When the world was com­plete, the people emerged from the sipapu and were instructed to go separate ways and migrate. Among the Aztecs, legends recount how the world had undergone five creations and four destruc­tions, each resulting from battles between positive and negative forces; and that humankind’s final origins are a mythical island called Aztlan. With the Mayan creators Gugumatz and Huracan, four attempts were made before creating the kind of people they desired; during the process they even called upon their own ancestral diviners for assis­tance. The Inca god first created giants from rocks, then destroyed them; then fashioned people from clay and painted them distinctly to create various cultures.

In Greek , humans were created twice; the first time Prometheus fashioned humans from earth and water; later when Zeus was upset with the humans’ sacrificial offering, he withheld fire from them. Prometheus then stole it for the humans. At the behest of Zeus, Hephaestus formed the first female, Pandora, from clay and water, and she was sent with a gift, a vase filled with miseries that fell upon the earth. Zeus destroyed the first humans in a flood; after which it was Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, with guid­ance from Titan Themis, who walked along toss­ing rocks over their shoulder to recreate humans; men sprouted from the rocks thrown by the hus­band, while women sprang from those of the wife.

Sumerian legends recount generations of gods, each with a specific duty on Earth. Some of the gods’ tasks involved hard labor, which grieved them. Humans were created to spare the gods these menial tasks. In Babylonian legends, humans were created to “bear the yoke”; the blood of a slain god combined with clay created seven human beings. Clay was also employed in an Egyptian origin legend, when the god Khnum created peo­ple on a potter’s wheel. In China the goddess Woman Gua sculpted humans from yellow clay, and then mass-produced more humans from mud falling in a furrow, thereby creating the upper and lower caste system.

Lesser gods were also nominated to “finish” the creation project, as with the brothers Enmesh (Summer) and Enten (Winter); or the two daugh­ters of Spiderwoman, who were given baskets filled with objects to create flora and fauna. During the final stages of creation, humans and animals could converse with one another, as with the snake in the Garden of Eden; and in the Tlingit and Haida legends where humans and animals could transform into each other, marriages sometimes occurred among the species. Magic was evident as the mythical creations ensued; for example the legend of the man Naatslanei, who created killer whales by carving them from yellow cedar in order to institute revenge upon his brothers-in-law who deserted him for dead upon an island rock.


The introduction of the theory of evolution, over 100 years ago, liberated the scientific mind while it shook the Christian world to its foundation. Christians were then subjected to the condition that Indigenous tribes worldwide faced during colonization: to be informed that their belief sys­tem was benighted, a myth, a fictional myopic story. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra not only makes the controversial dec­laration “God is dead,” but adds that this resulted from our own “knives.” In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche further posits that “myth-less” human­ity’s displacement formulated the circuitous explo­ration for knowledge following the ruination of their mythical touchstone; later, philosopher William Barrett claimed that “neuroticism” was the consequence. The composer Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen theatrically encapsulated this moment in history, this witness­ing of the theomachy and the death of the gods in power. It is Loyal Rue who coined the term amythia for the emptiness felt by these modern Christian peoples. Rue speculated that unless our cultures rebalance by discovering an approach to cosmology and morality that is framed in work­able symbols once again, thereby creating a revised belief system, our survival may not be ensured through the end of the 21st century.

The Myth Returns

Richard Wagner’s operatic poem Der Ring des Nibelungen contains a tetralogy of a unique per­spective on the cycle of mythological archetypes. “Das Rheingold” reveals the deep primordial waters of the Rhine, from which the universe was created; we are introduced to the maidens of the Rhine who, much like Dagon of the Philistines, have a fishlike tail; the dwarfs come next, who in earlier versions were also partly creatures of the water, which would then represent the monsters that first formed from the primordial slime; then the gods and goddesses and giants appeared, which is similar to the Mayan stages. Then within “Die Walküre” the mortal children of the god Wotan incite his wrath, to the point of his order­ing their annihilation, in similitude with Zeus’ wrath toward the humans. The independent choices of the heroine Brünnhilde and her estrange­ment from her father parallel the autonomous actions of the children of Father Sky and Mother Earth, not to maintain the status quo, which forced a separation; as well as Prometheus’ inter­ception for the clans of humans. In “Siegfried,” the hero wields the sword Notung, kills the dragon, receives the golden ring, and rescues Brünnhilde, reflecting the newly discovered power of the offspring of Father Sky and Mother Earth. The opera “Götterdammerung” reflects the lin­gering magic, as when Brünnhilde reveals the protection she has bestowed on her husband. In the end the gods are destroyed, but the world con­tinues. Interestingly, the Rhinemaidens are still as beautiful and youthful as ever, and Erda, Mother Earth it is assumed, still sleeps within the earth, perhaps using the Dreamtime to envision the next order of gods.

The culturally distinct transmundane myths of creation have been at the nucleus of humankind’s belief system for thousands of years. It appears that mythological history has repeated itself in this modern age: since the end of the 19th century the world has witnessed the gods subjected to scrutiny by human children who were suffocating beneath the weight of religion. Meanwhile, the accumulated knowledge of the cosmos, of philos­ophy, of medicinal plants and agriculture (all ascertained during their ancestors’ immersion in “myth”) is being used to create a new world. Comparable to the chaos initiated by the begin­ning stages of the universe, the new scientific thought brought a chaos of its own and created a space and time for a world of new thought. Faith in the legends and myths of ancestors and the secular empirical science at first appeared at an impasse, and although traditionalists continue to hold fast to a 7-human-day creation (Genesis), growing numbers in today’s diverse theology embrace both evolution and the divine. In turn, scientists are researching myths and legends for their symbolic patterns of the creation of the uni­verse relating to scientific theories. In 1992 the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite sent information about radiation from the big bang, proving a sudden creation; it was described as “the discovery of the century”—Stephen Hawking,and “likelookingatGod”—astrophysicist George Smoot. The scientific community rejoiced in the confirmation of a respected scientific theory, while the theological community celebrated the sudden birth of the universe, albeit some 13 bil­lion years ago as opposed to the creation in 7 days, and viewed the discovery as verification of a Supreme Creator. The interpenetration of science and religion appears to be in progress, as scientific facts are integrated with the symbols of honored spiritual belief systems.

Pamela Rae Huteson

See also Adam, Creation of; Becoming and Being; Christianity; Creationism; Bible and Time; Genesis, Book of; Jainism; Mythology; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Pueblo; Totem Poles; Wagner, Richard

Further Readings

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988.) The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Cotterell, A. (1999). Encyclopedia of world mythology. Bath, UK: Dempsey Parr of Parragon.

Courlander, H. (1979). The fourth world of the Hopi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Freund, P. (2003). Myths of creation. London: Peter Owen.

Graves, R. (1968). Introduction. New Larousse encyclopedia of mythology. New York: Hamlyn.

Huteson, P. R. (2002). Legends in wood, stories of the totems. Tigard, OR: Greatland Classic.

Maclagan, D. (1977). Creation myths: Man’s introduction to the world. London: Thames & Hudson.

Malville, J. McK. (1981). The fermenting universe. New York: Seabury.

Rue, L. (2004). Amythia: Crisis in the natural history of Western . Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Sproul, B. C. (1979). Primal myths: creating the world. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

What do you think?

Cosmology Inflationary

Cosmology Inflationary