The motifs found in the creation myths are undoubtedly different from those found in any other type of myth. Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the creation myths is much greater than a primitive attempt to explain the mysteries of creation. Behind each creation myth is a vast variety of symbolism along with a number of motives which are often shared between cultures, despite vast geographical differences. My intention here is not only to discuss the purpose of the creation myths, but also to compare and contrast common themes which can be found in three selected works.
These being, an Eskimo creation myth, the Ongwe creation myth and the Navajo creation myth. Even with modern advances in science and technology, most of the questions regarding the origin of our cosmos are answered on the basis of theory. A few of these theories may be contradictory, but all can be considered equally correct as each one is based upon information that is considered to be factual. The question that may be asked is, how can we differentiate between factual information and information that is based purely upon speculation?
Western mentality states that as long as we feel that we are talking about a true quality of an object, rather than its projections, we can consider our statements or ideas to be factual. This is true as long as long as one does not wander upon a new discovery which contradicts the previous facts. When this occurs, one may consider his previous theory to be an error or a misinterpretation of the facts. Therefore, his new discovery will likely lead to new theory which will then be considered factual.
This same philosophy applies to the origin of any given creation myth. Therefore, a creation myth may be considered a theory that has become outdated due to our more complete perception of the world. We now see these theories as inaccurate, due to the fact that they have been replaced by newer scientific models. In a modern light, it can be stated that creation myths describe not the origin of our cosmos but rather these myths allow us to gain a broader understanding of ancient theories and beliefs.
During the time of their invention however, these myths were precisely an honest interpretation of the outer world, and therefore they served the exact purpose which is stated in their title, to explain the process of creation. A technique that is used in many creation myths can be referred to as “creation from above. ” In this method of narration, the creator often creates a replica of earth within the heavens, and somehow recreates this image in the abyss below. An example of this can originally be found in Kund Rasmussen’s collection of Eskimo myths.
In this story a being called Tulungersaq, or Father Raven is born in the heavens. He initially takes the form of a human being and is entirely unaware of how he came into existence. He is in complete darkness and it is through his sense of touch that he becomes aware of his surroundings. Through his exploration, he discovers a sparrow, and realizes that this is the only form of life that had been in existence before him. He goes on to bury something beneath the earth and soon after he discovers that the earth is no longer sterile, it is now covered in bushes and grass. Tulungersaq is still lonely however.
As a result, he forms a figure from clay which resembles his own. From this formation, a new human being becomes alive. Tulungersaq then asks the sparrow to fly down into the abyss and inform him as to what he finds. The sparrow does this and returns. He tells Tulungersaq that far below in the abyss is a new land that has just started to crust over. Curious about this finding, Tulungersaq gathers some twigs from which he constructs wings of his own. It is at this point that he is transformed into a raven. Accompanied by the sparrow, Tulungersaq flies down to the earth below.
Once again they arrive to find everything to be deserted and sterile. Tulungersaq goes about planting some herbs and flowers. He discovers some pods, out of which a human being emerges. The Raven is so bewildered that he throws his bird mask back and once again transforms into a human being. This selection is one that quite well illustrates the notion of “creation from above. ” Father Raven, or Tulungersaq initially creates everything in heaven and then essentially recreates everything on earth in the same way. This is a method which is predominant in most creation myths.
A second utilization of this method can be found in the Ongwe creation myth. The term Ongwe means “man-being” and also stands for the images of all things which later existed on earth. These include the images of trees, houses and animals. A summary of this myth is as follows: In one place there lived two Ongwe, a man and a woman who were of high rank and lived very religious lives. Suddenly the woman became pregnant, although there had been no sexual contact between the two. At the same time, the man fell ill and stated that he will soon die. This happened as predicted.
After a short period of time, the child was born and she developed surprisingly quickly. She cried for a period of five days, during which time her mother grandmother took the child to her father’s coffin. When she saw her father’s corpse, she immediately stopped crying. Soon after they left, the child began once again began to cry. This ritual continued for some time. Each time the child was brought before the corpse, she would immediately stop crying. After a time the father had called to the girl from his coffin and said that the time had come for her to marry.
He instructed her to go to a faraway place, to which he would provide the directions. At this place she would find a chief of good repute and they shall get married. Shortly after her union with this chief, she too becomes pregnant surprisingly. Her husband is upset by this and asks his wife who has made her pregnant, but she does not understand. The chief then becomes very ill and feels that he is going to die. He tells his wife that she will give birth to a girl and she should name her Gaengsdesok (Warm Whirling Wind). After some time, the wife gives birth to a girl and the chief’s suffering worsens.
He instructs his wife to pull the “tree of light” which stands by his hut up by the roots. When this is done the earth will have a hole in it. The chief tells his wife to sit beside him with her legs hanging down through the hole and the child on her back. As soon as she does this, he catches hold of her and pushes her into the hole. As soon as the woman is pushed through the hole, the chief feels much better and orders that the tree be replanted. Meanwhile the woman falls a great distance down to the earth below. During the latter part of her plight, some birds swimming on the waters below notice the woman.
One of them states that she is falling from heaven, another seeing the mirror image in the water, states that the woman is emerging from the sea. The birds consult together as to what they can do to save the woman. They all fly up together and bring the woman slowly down on their backs. Meanwhile a large tortoise comes to the surface of the water and the birds deposit her on his back. A number of birds then dive for earth. One of them succeeds and spreads it on the back of the tortoise. When this is done, the earth remains there and spreads, becoming the whole earthly surface of our world.
There are several interesting points about this story that are worth mentioning. One of them in correlation to the topic of “creation from above and below. ” This myth provides another good example of the concept of creation from above. It is interesting to note however that one of the birds in the story sees the mirror image of the woman in the water and states that she is emerging from below. This rather small detail would not be so important if we were unaware that in some of the creation myths, the process of creation starts below the earth and is a slow process of coming up to the surface.
Another common theme in this story is that of the birds diving beneath the water in order to obtain some earth on which the new world can be built. This is a common motif in many of the North American creation myths. Remaining on the topic of creation from above and below, the preceding stories quite apparently fit the mold of creation from above. In both of these stories, the initial act of creation takes place in the heavens and is then duplicated on the earth below. The main difference between these two accounts is that in the Eskimo myth, The act of creation seems to have been planned.
This is due to the fact that it is through the existence of both Father Raven and the sparrow that the earth comes into existence. If these two beings did not exist then the acts of creation would not be fulfilled. In the Ongwe creation myth, the same motif is utilized, however it can be said that the acts of creation occur accidentally. One may be lead to believe that it is the chief who is responsible for the initial act of creation, as he pushes the woman though the hole in heaven, causing her to fall to the earth and therefore setting the scene for the act of creation to commence.
This is not the case however, since the story apparently consists of two repetitive subplots. In the first portion of the story, the woman became pregnant and immediately following this, her husband becomes ill and dies. In the second portion, this same plot repeats itself, however it is only because the chief pushed his wife into the hole that he overcomes his illness. It is stated in the story that he immediately feels better after his wife begins her fall from the heavens. Therefore it can be said that the chief is not responsible for the initial act of creation as he was apparently only after his own well being.
As a result we can safely conclude that in this case, the deeds of creation unfolded in a spontaneous manner. Contrary to the method of “creation from above” is the technique of “creation from below. ” Most often this method of creation is a slow process of emergence. An example of this can be seen in the Navajo creation myth, As re-told by Mary Wheelwright . I will provide a brief summary of this myth as the text is both laden with Indian names and is surprisingly complex. Begochiddy, the creator god first creates first creates a cosmos-like environment under the earth, surrounded by four mountains.
He also creates several types of insects. In the eastern mountain, he plants some bamboo and other foliage. After some time, when the bamboo had grown, all the inhabitants of the first world climbed out on in and Begochiddy pulled the bamboo up into the second world. Following this, the first world burned up and is still burning. The first world accounts for present day volcanoes. Following the entry into the second world, Begochiddy recreates the mountains, plants and insects as they were in the first world. Again they all climb out on the bamboo and enter the third world.
Again all is created as it was in the second world. Again this process repeats and the fourth world is reached. The people finally settle in the fourth world. Through this myth, it can be seen that it is through a process of repetition that the world is finally created in its entirety. This technique is one that is used somewhat infrequently in the creation stories. It is greatly surprising however that such a simple concept can be told in a very subtle fashion. In it’s original form, the myth is full of rituals and tribal complexities.
Although this myth is seemingly different from those previously discussed, the myth can be quite easily compared with the previous two stories. For example the technique of repetition is quite often used in the creation myths. One main difference between this myth and the former myths is that in this case, heaven is situated below the earth rather than above it. This is apparent due to the fact that prior to the acts of creation, there are a number of eternal beings present in the first world. Through examining several creation myths, I have found this issue to be more complex than originally anticipated.
This composition is primarily aimed toward the illustration of several common themes that are predominant in many creation stories, including those which we have studied during the course of the semester. In its most fundamental sense, the creation myth, along with any other variety of myth must be authored in such a way that it can be easily retold for generations. Although the works discussed may seemingly be lacking in complexity and depth, it is only through careful examination that one can truly appreciate these myths as complex excerpts from history.