'Myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to'
'Myths form a bridge between the terrifying abyss of cosmological ignorance and our comfortable familiarity with our own recurrent, if tormenting, human problems...'
Wendy Doniger in 'The Implied Spider'
The most fascinating thing about the word myth is that it has two opposite meanings, basically 'truth' and 'lie', depending on your viewpoint. In some cultures the Creation Myths are the great truths that underpin human existence, truths that people honour above all else. In our own culture we often use the word 'myth' as a synonym for 'fable', something imagined that doesn't actually exist or didn't ever happen.
Another word that has the same distinction of meaning both one thing and its opposite is 'to cleave': it means to split, but it also means to stick or to remain faithful to (and in that sense the word is used in the marriage ceremony). Having said that, visit the LANGUAGE page and to read more about language and concepts from world languages. On this page, now let's move on to myths or stories about Creation.
MAKE MAKE, (H 30.5 cm x W 41 cm) £125
Painting inspired by rock art on Rapanui (Easter Island) depicting the Birdman God 'Make Make' holding the egg that contains the world
The Bible says: 'In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth'. Our five year old son Elliott asked recently: 'Right, but who created God?' And that is the million dollar question that has occupied human minds for centuries.
Two years after writing the previous paragraph, our middle son was once again contemplating the creation of our world. This is what he told me today (5th February 2009): '
This painting was inspired by a fresco by Giusto de Menabuoi in the baptistry of the cathedral of Padua
Newsflash! This has appeared on the cover of Edwin M Good's book: 'Tales of the Earliest World' in 2011, published by the Stanford University Press. Edwin M Good is a literary scholar of the Hebrew Bible, he taught at Stanford for 35 years. The book is a translation of the text from Hebrew and a discussion of the “tales” in terms of how they work as stories.
So, who is God, what is Divinity? One way to describe God is to credit him/her with every noble trait a human being could possibly possess, the 'Superhuman in the Sky' (after all he created us in his own image). The other way to go is not to describe him at all and leave it up to the individual imagination. (See also the DIVINITY PAGE for more about Deities, Gods and Goddesses)
The Altaic God Azrail had an infinite number of eyes. The closing of one eye meant the death of a human being. Think also of the ancient symbol of the 'divine eye enclosed in a triangle', which symbolises all that God sees and knows, his omniscience.
A body completely covered in eyes could even represent the starry sky, the cosmos viewed as a living organism.
Monoprint 2008, A4, £85
I am listening to a lot of Latin American baroque music from the missions at the moment. Just this very morning (Saturday August 24th, 2007) another image of interpretation, if you like, jumped out at me. It is a love song addressed to Maria, the virgin of Guadeloupe, but at the same time it sings the praises of God and creation. In Spanish it runs like this:
Maria, todo es Maria (copla 3)
Vuestra calzado es la Luna// vuestra vestidura el Sol// manto bordado de estrellas// por corona el mismo Dios
Maria, everything is Maria
Your footwear is the Moon// your clothing is the Sun// your cloak is embroidered in stars// to crown the Lord himself
The three great monotheistic religions (Jewish, Christian and Islamic) skirt around the issue by saying that God = The Uncreated and therefore the cause of himself. However, in other faiths or world mythologies there exists a thing called a 'theogony', i.e. a group of myths that explains and illustrates the birth and descent of the gods.
Mythologies from all over the world try to solve a big universal riddle: how did the world come into being in the first place?
Mesoamerican Series (46 x 81 cm) £299
In one Aztec creation myth the earth was conceived as a giant crocodile floating in primal waters. Each of the four quarters had specific names, colours and influences associated with it: East = Tlacopan, 'Place of Dawn', yellow, fertile and good. North= Mictlampa, 'Region of the Underworld', red, barren and bad. West = Chihuatlampa, 'Region of Women', blue/green, unfavourable, humid. South = Huitzlampa, 'Region of Thorns', white. Centre: Tlalaxico, Navel, black. The waters surrounding the inhabited land were called Ilhuicatl, the celestial water.
(From the Penguin Dictionary of Religions)
Sometimes the beginning of all things is described as a limitless expanse of water ('the oceanic consciousness'). However, the most common image of creation is that of an egg containing the potentiality of everything. Then usually there is some event or action that kicks off a process of change and transformation. For the Dogon people of West Africa a vibration set off by Amma the Creator God cracks the egg and liberated the opposed divinities of order and chaos. In Egyptian myth the primordial act of creation was the raising of a mound of land out of a watery abyss called Nun.
In Egyptian Creation Myth the Great Serpent Apophis was the anti-thesis of the Sun, an embodiment of the forces of chaos and evil that churned within Nun's ocean. Every night the sun god-king Re had to fight him. The defeat of Apophis allowed Re to rise up and take his rightful place in the sun-god's barque that sailed across the sky during the day. The barque carried as passengers humans who after dead had risen to become the blessed dead as well as Re's descendants: deceased pharaoh's who had joined him in splendour.
(W 40.5 cm x H 30.5 cm) £175
In all mythologies what happens next is a separation, a splitting. Instead of oneness, there are now opposites or opposing forces. This is where the concept Primordial Twins comes in.
In China the Cosmic Egg explodes into two parts, forming the heavens and the earth. In a Maori creation myth, the world began when two creator beings, Rangi the male sky and Papa the female earth, broke apart from their immobile embrace in the void and assumed their opposed and separate positions in the cosmos.
Romulus and Remus were twin brothers. Their father was Mars, the God of War. Their mother was Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin and daughter of King Numitor. Numitor's brother, Amulius, had taken the throne from him and forced Rhea Silvia to become a vestal virgin so that she would not have any children who might try take back the throne. When the boys were born, Amulius put the boys in a basked and threw them in the river Tiber, hoping they would drown. However, the boys were rescued by a she-wolf who fed the babies with her own milk and cared for them. They grew up and the spepherd Faustulus took them in. One day the boys found out who they really were and decided to kill Amulius. Having done so they decided to build a city of their own but could not agree where situate it. Romulus killed Remus in the heat of an argument and became the first King of Rome in 753 BC. The legend ends by telling how Romulus was carried up to the heavens by his father, Mars, and was worshipped as the God Quirinus. ROMULUS AND REMUS (80 x 100 cm)
In many stories or myths from all over the world, creation is brought about by sacrificial death. In Chinese accounts the giant Pan Gu gives up his life to bring the world into being. Exhausted by the long labour of separating earth and sky he lies down and dies. The various parts of his huge body then transform into features of the landscape and heavens.
There is a very similar hymn in the Vedic tradition in India about a primordial being called Parusha.
In Saharan Africa the world was originally made out of various segments of the sacrificed cosmic serpent Minia, God's first creation. This event is remembered in the animal sacrifice in the region to this day.
There is a very notorious serpent as well in an Assyro-~Babylonian myth: King Marduk slaughters the serpent Tiamat, the female principle of chaos and then divides her enormeous corpse. From one half he constructs the vault of heaven and from the other the solid earth. (Please use this link to read more about dragons, serpents and other mythical animals)
In Norse mythology the bisexual and primeval giant Ymir is slaughtered by the three creator gods. They form the earth from his body, the sea from his blood and the sky from his skull.
the first human beings in Nordic mythology SOLD
However, when it comes to theogonies, the Ancient Greeks constructed (possibly) the most famous one of all. The author Hesiod collected these stories and wrote them down for future generations. Hesiod says that in the very beginning there existed Chaos, the empty depths and right after that Gaia, the Earth; Tartarus, the Abyss and Eros, love (in the sense of erotic impulse that must guarantee the continuity of generations. The Greek word for self-sacrificing love is 'agape'). The Greeks eventually populate mount Olympus with a vast pantheon of Gods, still very much 'alive' in Western mind, art, films and literature today.
A frequent motif in African creation myths is the theme of God making a vessel from which the first human beings appear.
The Azande version of this story tells how men were originally sealed inside a canoe, together with the moon, stars, night and cold. The sun managed to melt the seal and humanity emerged.
In some mythologies the struggle between creation and destruction is seen as a permanent cycle in which worlds are brought into existence, destroyed and made again.
In North America the Hopi people believe in a series of worlds. The first was destroyed by fire, the second by freezing and the third by a flood. We are now in the fourth world, which is also due to end soon (!). (Here is a hyperlink for visiting the NATIVE AMERICAN page).
The Aztecs and the Maya in Mesoamerica also believe in epochs of successive civilisations and the destruction of those at the very end of every era. You can use this link to visit the MESOAMERICAN page. On the LANGUAGE page you can read more about Maya timekeeping and cyclical time.
THE GREAT COSMIC LOTUS DREAM (80 x 100 cm) £650
(See also the COSMOS PAGE!)
The most elaborate story of this kind is from Hindu India. The great God Vishnu, resting on the coils of the cosmic serpent Ananta in the waters of chaos, emits a lotus from his navel. This lotus opens to reveal creator god Brahma. From Brahma's meditation the world is created. It lasts for an immense amount of time before dissolving back into chaos. From this chaos a new universe eventually emerges in exactly the same way. Each of the four successive eras within a world cycle is inferior to the previous one.
Egyptian myth also anticipates that the universe will eventually dissolve back into chaos and a new cycle of creation will begin.
In myth the visible world of everyday reality is always part of a larger whole. Most traditions describe the everyday world we live in, a 'heaven' or world above inhabited by superior beings or god(s) and ancestors, and a world below: a lower world or 'underworld' peopled by the dead and other subterranean spirits. (Please see the SHAMANISM PAGE for the shaman's map!)
In many mythologies there is a world pillar, axis mundi, or often a world tree that unites the three worlds or levels. The most famous World Tree or 'Cosmic Tree' is Yggdrasil in Norse mythology. (Here is a hyperlink to the SACRED TREES series, if you wish to read more about the Cosmic Tree and other special trees).
Other examples of Cosmic Trees or World Trees are found in Central America, in the mythology of the aboriginal people of North and South America and the peoples of the Sahara Region in Africa. A similar concept lies at the heart of the Hebrew mystical tradition: the Kabbalah.
To read more about the Kabbalah Tree of Life, visit the SACRED TREES page!
The heavenly bodies often appear in myth as human beings, be it divine, human or animal. The sun is often a male deity (think of the cult of the Egyptian Sun God Ra). The sun can also be female (the goddess Amaterasu in Japan) and the moon male. A male moon features in the myths of southern Africa, as the husband of the planet Venus. In many places the sun and moon are seen as lovers.
One of the remotest Inuit (Eskimo) tribes believed that when people died, the moon carried them up to the Land of the Dead, where the windows of their houses showed as stars. Aningat or Targeq was a Moon Being who lived with his sister in a double house up in the Land of the Dead. He regulated fertility, presided over the tides and currents of the sea and brought boys good luck.
In many parts of the world, houses or dwelling places are modelled on an image of the universe. This is characteristic of the island peoples of Southeast Asia, but also the people of the Amazon forest of South America and the nomadic tribes of Siberia. The houses of the Dogon people of Mali are built to represent the Creator God Nommo in human form.
'In the beginning there was only darkness, inhabited by Earth Maker and Buzzard. Earth Maker rubbed dirt from his skin, from which grew a greasewood brush. Buzzard created the mountains and rivers with the passage of his wings, the Spider People sewed the earth and the sky together. In time Earth maker brought about a race of people in the desert. They lived for several generations, but they all became sinful, except for one: Litoi, the Elder Brother. Earth Maker told Litoi that a flood would kill all people and placed him high up on the sacred mountain Baboquivari. Litoi witnessed the disaster and helped create the Hohokam people. In time these people turned on Litoi and killed him. His spirit fled back atop Baboquivari. From time to time his spirit, in the form of a small man, sneaks into villages and takes things from people. Despite their attempts to catch him, the twisting path he takes always confuses them. Thus in the labyrinth one can see Litoi on the pathway and trace the mysterious and bewildering turns he makes on the journey back to his mountain home, Baboquivari'.
This is the creation myth of the Tohono O'odham people of southern Arizona. They are well known for their woven baskets decorated with a design known as 'The Man In the Maze'.
Many mythologies from all over the world have comparatively little to say about the creation of human beings. The book of Genesis in theBible says that 'God created man in his own image'. According to one Greek myth, the first man was created from clay and the first woman from earth. In North America a Hopi myth describes how Spider Woman formed the first human beings from earth. The Herero people of southwest Africa say that the first people climbed up from a 'Tree of Life' in the underworld. Another African motif is the idea of God making a vessel from which human beings later came out. The Azande version (as mentioned before on this page) says that people were originally sealed in a canoe, together with the sun, moon, stars, night and cold. The sun melted the seal and humanity emerged (see the painting 'Azande Canoe').
The first human beings climbed up from a 'Tree of Life' in the underworld SOLD
Adam Kadmon is The Divine Human, Hebrew for Primordial Man, the starting point for generations of humans. Adam Kadmon is a being of light - the concept of the perfect human being. Every human soul is said to be one cell in Adam Kadmon. In the Kabbala this leads on to the belief that every single human will become perfect in order for the Divine Baby to be born. Each human being is equally important in the Holy Plan of Creation. It is important to note that Adam Kadmon is neither masculine nor feminine and has no race and religion!
However the world was created, once it exists, accidents and misfortune arrive. The Book of Genesis in the Bible describes how Cain kills Abel. Once Adam and Eve have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, God casts them out of paradise and the concept Death enters the world as they did not manage to eat from the Tree of Life as well.
In Egyptian myth the violent god Seth creates havoc on earth by murdering his brother Osiris. The spite of the Greek goddess Eris (Strife, not to be confused with Eros!), insulted because she wasn't invited to a wedding, leads indirectly to the Trojan War.
Maybe the most famous story that illustrates this (and lives on in everyday speech in our culture) is about Pandora's Box. Zeus created Pandora as the first woman (to even a score with Prometheus) and sends her a box or jar she is told not to open. Out of curiosity she does so anyway and unleashes a tempest of evils, including every kind of sickness. Only Hope remains inside.
Native American tales feature a Trickster character: Coyote. In Norse mythology we find the trickster God Loki, who is forever upsetting the 'apple cart' and spoiling things for the other gods.
There is a fascinating tale in Inuit mythology that reflects the ecological necessity of death. For a long time people were periodically rejuvenated and no one died. The population became dangerously large, threatening to tip the land over and plunge everyone into the sea. An old woman, seeing the danger, then used magic words to summon death and war. This way the world was lightened and global catastrophe averted!
The Yoruba people of Nigeria believed that everyone has in their body the agents that cause disease. These agents are different kinds of worms, contained in bags and kept in various locations in the human body. Disease occurs when these worms 'multiply and burst out of their bags'. This is prevented by moderation in eating and drinking and a healthy lifestyle.
All cultures have stories about heroic figures who perform extraordinary feats in the course of laying the foundations for human society. Some have supernatural abilities. (Human nature craves this: our own children, like any boys their age, have an insatiable appetite for superheroes: stories, films, dressing up and acting out storylines - they can't get enough of it!)
Related to the 'Hero' is the 'Trickster' figure. Tricksters are mischievous and cunning and often they are shapeshifters, i.e. they have the ability to switch between animal and human appearances. (To read more about shapeshifting: visit the SHAMANISM page).
Another important type of Hero is is Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths). He is the hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey, one of two major poems attributed to Homer, probably written in the 8th century BC. On his epic voyages and encounters with supernatural beings he is a very human hero and a role model for courage and endurance in a hostile world. Other examples of kind of hero are Aeneas, Beowulf, Cu Chulainn and Finn.
The theme of 'the stolen fire' is widespread as a key event in the development of society, it appears in stories from all over the planet. Along the Pacific coast of North America, Raven is represented as the one to discover fire. He is also a trickster figure, outwitting the enemies of humankind.
A figure from Aboriginal Siberian Mythology
Tricksters are like 'cosmic jokers'. They have a very important job: staking a claim for the freedom of the human spirit (even if they often plunge the world into disaster in the process!)
Another frequent theme in creation mythology is the appearance of humanoid beings such as angels or minor gods and goddesses devoted to particular causes.
In many indigenous cultures all over the world we find 'spirit helpers', providing guidance for human beings.
According to Mesomamerican mythology 'Chulpas' are creatures that lived before the Dawn of Time and before the sun rose over Pachamama (Mother Earth).
The Jalq'a people of Bolivia weave these striking animal motifs on their aksus or overskirts.
(An image from the SIBERIAN SERIES)
The Inuit speak of an early history where animals and humans lived together and spoke the same language, changing appearance (i.e. shapeshifting) and intermarrying. The polar bear was said to be closest to human beings, of all animals. In his 'human appearance' he could be 'spotted' by his oversize canine teeth and huge appetite for fat!
Metamorphosis or transformation was the theme of the verse narratives of the Roman poet Ovid. There is a Southeast Asian myth from forest people that describes how the creator god solved the problem of overpopulation by transforming half the people into trees! (A great concept for our 21st century with its dual problems of overpopulation and deforestation, if you ask me!!)
Colourful yarn paintings by the Huichol Indians in Mexico sometimes show fertility symbolism akin to rock art. (Visit ROCK ART SERIES).
This is Tacutsi, Goddess of Life, who gives birth to every living thing and is an example of the 'Great Mother Archetype'. The Huichol Indians, whose pre-Hispanic culture still survives in the remote Sierria Madres ranges, live a life woven of magic and sacred mythology. Here men and women keep alive the ancient traditions, relatively unaffected by Western civilisation.
These yarn paintings are shamanic art. They originated with prayer bowls placed in caves as offerings. They are personal interpretations of the Huichol relationship to the Gods. They are called 'nierikas' or Mirror Images of God. They are creative manifestations embodying the Huichol belief that we all make our own realities. These yarn paintings connect the Huichol people to the forces of nature and the Life Force. (See also the SHAMANISM PAGE for more about this worldview)
Global catastrophe is sometimes seen as a deserved punishment inflicted by the gods for the folly or wickedness of mankind. The bible story about Noah and the Ark is a familiar version of this concept. Noah and his wife bring a pair of all animals known to man aboard the ark they build and they are the only survivors of a Great Flood. There are echoes of this story in the Assyro-Babylonian account of a cosmic deluge. Here the Noah figure is Utpanishtim who survives and becomes the only mortal human being. Other stories about floods are found all over the world. For instance the Yao people of southern China blame a man who caught the Thunder God for the Great Deluge.
A very interesting thing about comparative mythology is that it shows major creation themes appear all over the world. Concepts such as 'The Great Flood', 'The Cosmic Egg' and the Axis Mundi or Tree of Life, the Great Serpent and The Theft of Fire are universal themes, not unique to a particular culture.
These seemingly archaic tales say something about the way that society is organised, but they often have a variety of other meanings as well. You could say that they are layered: over time different people from different cultures find different meanings in them. Research has shown that myths have 'building blocks' that appear all over the world, sub-themes or plot-lines such as: The Quest, The Battle of the Gods, Magical Helpers, the Magic Cauldron or the Holy Grail, the Hero and the Trickster - and so forth.
I started this page by giving two opposing meanings of the word myth. I would like to finish by saying that myth, far from being a 'useless fantasy', registers and conveys meaning and connections. We can turn to myth for a connection with our ancestors, for a metaphor describing a situation we find ourselves in, for reflection and contemplation or simply an entertaining read. However, ultimately myths are universal and timeless. We can play around with their meaning and their meaning plays with us, there is not 'one correct interpretation'. Our interpretation depends on who we are and where we are in the world, in history and in our lives.
Imelda Almqvist, August 2007
(Completely rewritten after this webpage crashed: 1 February 2009, last updated January 2015)
A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong 2005, Canongate Books Ltd, ISBN 978 1 84195 703 6
Fantasia, Worlds of Magic, Mystery and Fantasy, Man's Imagination at Work, Antonino Anzaldi & Massimo Izzi 1995, Gremese International, ISBN 88-7301-051-2
The Way To Eternity, Egyptian Myth, Fergus Fleming & Alan Lothian, 1997, Duncan Baird Publishers, ISBN 0-7054-3503-2
Showing Gilgamesh and Enkidu, from the Epic of Gilgamesh
This painting was inspired by a mask in the British Museum in London