In several cultural traditions, history and myth intersect in tales that express a particular people’s conception of time. These accounts characteristically address a culture’s perceptions of the changes that occur in the unfolding of time, and, in so doing, offer a worldview that serves to explain the experiences of temporal life. In other words, while creation myths answer the need to understand how life first came into being, myths of the changing ages answer a need to understand the significance of the present era in respect to the past and the future. A desire to define the meaning of human experience within the context of time is not at all unusual and can in fact be seen in the common practice of assigning labels to epochs (“The Dark Ages,” for example), to centuries (“The Age of Reason”), or to decades (“The Roaring Twenties”). In similar fashion, the narratives of changing ages name the distinctive periods that comprise a culture’s understanding of its own historical identity.
While accounts of changing ages focus on the temporal experiences of earthly life, they usually reveal a people’s conception of the nature of eternity. In Indian tradition, for example, four epochs of human existence are endlessly repeated within the recurring cycle of the birth, death, and regeneration of the cosmos. In the Indian worldview, where time is eternally cyclical, the earth is reborn again each time it is destroyed. In many other traditions, where life on earth is understood to occur in finite time, eternity lies beyond mortal experience, existing both before and after the time of earthly life. Interestingly, both of these worldviews often envision a Golden Age, a period of existence in paradise or Eden. In Indian tradition, the Golden Age occurs during the first of the four recurring epochs—and then occurs again each time the cycle begins anew. In many other traditions, the time of creation is also a Golden Age, but one that is lost when the world falls from grace. The Golden Age, in these accounts, can only be recovered in the eternal paradise beyond earthy life.
According to Hindu tradition, the four epochs of earthly life occur within a “great age” called the Maha Yuga. The four lesser ages, or yugas, are not of equal length; the first age, which comes after a pralaya (dissolution) that cleanses the world, is the longest of the yugas, and each of those that follow is shorter than the one before it. Through the course of the cycle of the changing ages, the world becomes increasingly corrupt, until, at the close of the fourth epoch, a flood that few survive cleanses the earth. The great Vishnu presides over each of the yugas, appearing in the first age as Brahma the Creator and taking the form of Shiva the Destroyer at the end of the cycle. Dharma, the principle of moral order, behavior, and duty, metaphorically stands on all four legs during the first yuga, but then loses one leg in each of the succeeding ages. During Kali Yuga, the last period of life on earth, dharma rests precariously on one remaining foot. After the “great age” ends with the flooding of the world, another Maha Yuga begins with a Golden Age on earth. At the end of one thousand Maha Yugas, an interval known as a Kalpa, Vishnu, as Shiva-Rudra, destroys the entire cosmos. After the Maha Pralaya, the “great dissolution,” Brahma re-creates the universe and another Kalpa begins.
During the Krita Yuga, the first age of life on earth, gift-giving trees provide for all the needs of human beings. No houses are required for shelter, and work is always a pleasurable occupation and never a necessity. There is no hardship or sorrow during the Golden Age, which is the time of satva (goodness), and people live long lives enriched by devotion to dharma and the virtue of meditation. The first age is a period of brightness, and people accordingly worship a white god. As is characteristic of a Golden Age, the Krita Yuga is an era of abundance, an age of ethical, social, intellectual, and biological harmony.
The second age, Treta (three) Yuga, is so called because dharma stands on three rather than four legs. Virtue and devotion still exist during this period, but are diminished by one quarter. Earthly existence begins to become difficult when the gift-giving trees vanish after greedy people claim them as their own. Great rains produce new trees that replace the trees of plenty, and people turn to them for shelter and for food. People therefore still find their livelihood in the gifts from trees, but their lives are not as long and satisfying as those of the people of the Golden Age, and they must work hard to answer their needs. Some provide for themselves by stealing from others, and it is not long before greed and thievery inevitably lead to bloodshed. It is therefore during the second age that the Kshatriya, a caste of warriors and kings, is created to protect people from one another. Knowledge is the primary virtue during the Treta Yuga, and it is during this era that people worship a red god.
It is Vishnu the Preserver who presides over both the second and the third ages of the cosmos. During Dvapara Yuga, the third era of earthly life, famine, drought, disease, war, and suffering are all commonplace. People do not live as long as those of the preceding ages, and most endure hardship as they struggle to survive. Because only one half the virtue present during the Golden Age still remains in the world, religious texts are produced for the moral instruction of the people. During the Dvapara Yuga, therefore, the great sage Vyasa appears on the earth to write the scriptures known as the Vedas. In the third era the righteous people begin to offer sacrifices to the yellow god they worship, and thus sacrifice becomes the highest virtue of the age.
The fourth age, Kali Yuga, is a time of darkness. Ignorance is widespread, and people’s understanding is dulled by a cloud of illusion (maya). In this period people ignore the scriptures written during the Dvapara Yuga. Under tyrannical leaders, nations wage senseless and unending wars against one another, and natural calamities frequently occur. Wicked and dishonest people prey upon others to advance their social standing and then measure their success in terms of their material possessions. Beggars fill the streets of the overcrowded cities where they endure misery and hunger or flee to the countryside where they live as hermits off the land. Life is short for the people of the Kali Yuga, and their god is black. Charity is the one virtue of the age—and is only practiced by the honest poor. According to Indian tradition, Kali Yuga is the current age, a time of darkness in the world.
The recurring pattern of earthly life, the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, lies at the heart of the Hindu tradition’s vision of cyclical time. Indeed, the concept of cyclical time is manifest throughout India, for although Buddhists and Jainists conceive of the changing ages as the eternal turning of the great wheel of time, each revolution of the wheel completes a cycle that will begin again. An account of the changing ages that comes from Mesoamerica’s Aztec people offers an interesting variation on the idea of cyclical time. According to the Aztec myth, the world is created and destroyed several times over, but each new world that is born is different from the others. Each world is ruled by a different creator god, and each is governed by its own particular sun. Eventually, each world is destroyed by a means appropriate to its governing sun. Like the Indian accounts, the Aztec narrative of changing ages is informed by the cyclical pattern of birth, death, and regeneration. In Aztec myth, however, there is no conception of a Golden Age, and the finite history of life on earth does not repeat itself in eternal time. Furthermore, the Aztec history of the ages does not record the pattern of the world’s gradual decline into corruption that appears in many other stories of the changing epochs.
In Aztec tradition, the ages of the world are distinguished by the various suns that govern them. Each of the first four suns is associated with one of the four essential elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and for the fifth age, all four elements are combined to create the Sun of Four Movements. The element associated with each of the worlds signifies the mode of its destruction by one of the gods. When a world is destroyed, the people who inhabit it are either killed by the elements of nature or they are transformed into animals. At the end of each of the first ages, a different member of the Aztec pantheon creates a new sun, and, for the creation of the last world, the gods finally join together and offer themselves in sacrifice. Just as the gods must sacrifice themselves to set the Sun of Four Movements in motion, so too must human beings practice ritual sacrifice to prolong the age of their world. According to Aztec myth, the fifth world in the present age, and after the destruction of the Sun of Four Movements, the earth will cease to be.
During the first age of the world, the Sun of Earth, Black Tezcatlipoca is the presiding god and the earth is inhabited by giants who live by eating pine nuts. The first world comes to an end when jaguars, creatures associated in Aztec tradition with the earth and its underworld, devour the entire race of giants. Quetzalcoatl reigns over the second world, which is governed by the Sun of Air. This age ends with the destruction caused by the mighty winds of an immense hurricane. The people of the second world, who live on mesquite seeds, are transformed into apes by the tremendous winds. Tlaloc, the god of rain, presides over the world governed by the Sun of the Rain of Fire. Many of the people of the third age, who cultivate primitive grains, are consumed by flames when a rain of volcanic ash falls upon the earth, but those who survive become turkeys, butterflies, or dogs. The Sun of Water governs the fourth age, and Chalchiuhtlicue (She of the Jade Skirt) is the presiding god. Chalchiuhtlicue, goddess of streams and ponds, destroys this world by means of a deluge, and the people who subsist on acicintli seeds are then transformed into fish.
To create the fifth and the last of the Aztec suns, the gods gather together in darkness at Teotihuacan, an ancient site northeast of Mexico City. Two gods, the richly adorned Tecuciztecatl and the humble Nanahuatzin, agree to transform themselves into the sun by leaping into a sacrificial pyre prepared by the deities. The noble Tecuciztecatl approaches the flames four times, but then turns away in fear. Finally, after the sickly Nanahuatzin boldly steps into the fire and is instantly consumed, Tecuciztecatl also flings himself upon the pyre. The brave Nanahuatzin rises first in the east and is soon followed by another sun, that of Tecuciztecatl. Fearing that two suns will make the world too bright, the gods hurl a rabbit into the face of the second sun, which then dims and becomes the moon. Further sacrifices are required, however, before the sun and moon will move across the sky, so Quetzalcoatl cuts the hearts from each of the gods in the sacred ritual that the Aztecs, the people who cultivate maize, must themselves repeat during the fifth age. It is said that at the end of this era, when the Sun of Four Movements no longer crosses the sky, the earth will be destroyed by a mighty quake.
Greek tradition, too, records a history of changing ages that begins with a people known as the Race of Gold. Older versions of the myth trace a pattern of the world’s degradation from an idyllic Golden Age through the lesser ages of Silver, Bronze, and Iron, but Hesiod, writing in the eighth century BCE, adds to the four traditional epochs a fifth Age of Heroes to honor the Greeks made famous by stories of the Trojan War. In placing the Age of Heroes between the Age of Bronze and that of Iron, Hesiod interrupts the narrative of social decline recounted in earlier myths, but his version, like the others, concludes with a description of the evil excesses of the current age. In fact, in his Works and Days, Hesiod warns the people living in the Age of Iron of their world’s imminent destruction by gods disgusted by the corruption of the earth.
Greece’s Age of Gold, dating to the time of Zeus’s father Kronos, resembles the idyllic epochs described by other cultures. During the Golden Age, mortal beings enjoy long, peaceful lives, and the bounty of nature provides for all their daily needs. When the people of this age eventually die, they become guardian spirits who spread their benevolence throughout the world. Zeus creates the people of the Age of Silver—and then later destroys them in anger, for during the second age the people are childish and selfish. When these people die, their spirits enter the underworld. Zeus makes the people of the Age of Bronze from ash trees. The fierce and cruel mortals of the third epoch worship Ares, god of war, and eventually kill one another with their bronze swords. Their spirits, too, go to the underworld. During the Age of Heroes, the era of the Trojan War, the people are nobler and more courageous than those of the Silver or the Bronze Age. When the Greek warriors lose their lives on the field of battle, their spirits are transported to the Elysian Fields. In the fifth era, the Age of Iron, the valorous deeds of the heroic period are but a distant memory for those who live in troubled times. Indeed, Hesiod regards his own age as a period of hardship and toil, a time when violent and rapacious people commit crimes more terrible than those of any other age.
History, for the Zoroastrians of Persia (Iran), consists of four epochs of equal duration that unfold until the Day of Judgment marks the end of time. In Zoroastrian tradition, the history of the world tells the story of a cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil, and it is only when that history is over that the battle is won. The Zoroastrians’ apocalyptic vision of the end of time is one that is shared by other cultural traditions, and, indeed, scholars see its influence in Judeo-Christian eschatology. The Zoroastrians’ understanding of hell, however, is different from that of Christian tradition, where evil people are condemned to eternal punishment. Although the wicked are sent to hell on the Day of Judgment, the three days and nights they spend there purge them of all evil. In eternity, according to the Zoroastrians, all people are made immortal in body and soul, and all dwell together in a paradise on earth.
In the first and second epochs of Zoroastrian history, Ahura Mazda, the great creator god, brings the universe into existence. During the first age he creates from pure light the menog, the spiritual nature of the cosmos, and during the second age he creates the getig, the material universe. In the third age of the cosmos the forces of evil assault Ahura Mazda’s creation, and during this period good and evil exist together throughout the world. The fourth era, which begins with the birth of the prophet Zoroaster, is divided into four lesser ages. It is during the first of these, the Age of Gold, when Zoroaster is visited by Ahura Mazda and five of his angels. The Golden Age is the time of revelation, the time when the prophet learns of the good creation and of human beings’ role in combating the forces of evil. During the Silver Age Zoroaster shares his revelations and begins to convert the people, and during the third era, the Age of Steel, Zoroastrianism spreads throughout the entire Persian Empire. The Age of Iron, the last period of historical time, is filled with perils for those who battle evil. Earthquakes and droughts ravage the land and hordes of demons invade Persia. During this age, however, three saviors rise up among the righteous people, and the last of these, Soshyant, finally triumphs over evil on the Day of Judgment.
In Ireland, because writing was not widely practiced among the Celtic followers of druidism, the history of the ages is chronicled by Christian scribes who add a Biblical context to myths circulated in an oral tradition. The monks’ twelfth century work, Leabhar Gabhala (Book of Invasions), describes the six successive periods of Ireland’s colonization and details the ways in which each group of invaders contributes to the legacy of Irish culture. Indeed, the Book of Invasions tells not only of how the people who settle Ireland civilize the island, but also of how they manage to reconfigure its landscape. To link Ireland’s legendary past with the history of Christianity, the monks begin the Book of Invasions’ narrative during the time of the great flood described in Genesis. According to the account the Christian scribes provide, the leaders of five of the peoples who invade Ireland are descendents of Noah.
The first age in Ireland’s history is a short one and abruptly ends when Noah’s flood inundates the world. According to the Book of Invasions, the first group of people to reach Ireland includes three men and fifty-one women who travel from their homeland in the Near East. Although his name is not mentioned in Genesis, one of the men, Bith, is said to be the son of Noah. Because his father refuses to allow Bith to board the ark, he and Ladhra and Fintan build the boat that carries their families to Irish shores. Shortly after the settlers divide up the land, Ladhra becomes the first human being to die on Irish soil. Bith soon dies as well, and shortly thereafter Ireland’s first settlers are drowned in the flood.
Partholon, a descendent of Noah’s son Japheth, is the leader of the twenty-four men and twenty-four women who next invade Ireland. When the settlers arrive, they find that the island contains only three lakes, nine rivers, and one treeless, grassless plain, and so they add to their new home seven additional lakes and three new plains to cultivate. They bring cattle to Ireland, introduce agriculture, build the first houses, and brew the first beer. They begin to establish a legal system, and it is during the age of Partholon that the first legal judgment is rendered—ironically, against Partholon himself. It is also during the second era that the inhabitants of Ireland first turn back the assaults of the Fomorians, a race of misshapen monsters descended from Ham, the son Noah cursed. After many battles, Partholon drives the Fomorians to Tory Island off the coast of Donegal. Ireland’s second era lasts three hundred years, and during that time its population grows to five thousand. The age of Partholon comes to an end when a deadly plague strikes down all the people.
Ireland’s third age begins when Nemed, another descendent of Noah, leads four men and four women to a new home on the island. As the Nemedians grow in number, they add four more lakes to Ireland’s landscape and establish twelve new plains to grow their crops. Agriculture flourishes during the third age, and when the Nemedians introduce sheep to the island, their prosperity increases. Like those before them, the Nemedians must stave off the Fomorians, who look with envy at the settlers’ agricultural successes. The Nemedians defeat the Fomorians in four initial battles, but when a devastating epidemic kills Nemed and two thousand of his people, the monsters seize their chance to take control of the island. The evil Fomorians demand a tribute from the conquered people: every year on Samhain the Nemedians must relinquish two-thirds of their children as well as two-thirds of their milk and corn. Desperate to throw off the burden of their tribute, the Nemedians attack their enemy’s stronghold on Tory Island and succeed in killing the Fomorian’s king. However, of the sixteen thousand who go into battle, only thirty Nemedians survive. The third age of Ireland’s history therefore ends when the last of the Nemedians flee from their island home.
Ireland’s fourth age is the era of the people known as the Fir Bolgs. In the Book of Invasions, the Christian monks link the history of these people to the story of Noah’s flood by claiming that the Fir Bolgs, or “Bag Men,” are the descendents of the Nemedians who travel to Greece when they sail away from Ireland at the end of the third age. Other accounts of their origin suggest that they might have come from Spain or Gaul, or that they might be the indigenous people who inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. In any case, the Fir Bolgs are the first of the races to survive on Irish soil, for although they are defeated in battle by the invaders of the fifth age, their survivors remain in Ireland, either in Connacht or on the Aran Islands. During the fourth epoch the people maintain the successful agriculture established during earlier periods, and, because the Fir Bolgs are warriors as well as farmers, they introduce to Ireland the heavy spearhead made of iron.
In Ireland’s fifth age, the Tuatha De Danann, the people of the goddess Danu, invade the land of the Fir Bolgs. Said to be a race of gods, the Tuatha De Danann bring with them to Ireland the magical powers of their warriors and druids as well as a legacy of poetry and music. Although several of the leaders of the Tuatha De Danann bear the names of the Celtic gods of Gaul, the Christian monks once again establish a connection between the fifth wave of invaders and the lineage of Noah: as the Book of Invasions explains it, the Tuatha De Danann are the descendents of those Nemedians who travel north when they flee from Ireland. Two great battles take place during the fifth age. In the first, the mighty heroes of the Tuatha De Danann defeat the Fir Bolgs, and in the second they finally overwhelm the Fomorians and drive them away from Ireland forever.
The sixth age brings to Ireland the Gaels, the ancestors of the people who currently live there. The Sons of Mil are mortal beings who must defeat the race of gods to make claim to their new homeland. The Milesians invade Ireland with two purposes in mind. On the one hand, they seek vengeance for the death of Mil’s grandfather Ith, slain by the Tuatha De Danann, and, on the other, they follow the counsel of their druids, who believe that Ireland represents the destiny of their people. Their destiny is also recognized by Eriu, a goddess among the Tuatha De Danann, for when the Milesians first come ashore, she foretells their victory and requests that they name their island after her by calling it the land of Eriu, or Ireland. The three kings of the Tuatha De Danann are killed during two great battles with the Milesians, and after their defeat, the survivors of the race of gods move into the fairy mounds of the Otherworld that lies beneath the realm of the Milesians.
The world, in the myths of several cultural traditions, is born of an egg, a natural symbol of the genesis of life. In these creation stories, the image of the egg appropriately suggests a self-explanatory account of the origin of the cosmos—which develops from a primordial seed. Also known as the mundane egg (the world egg), the universal egg, the Orphic egg, or the Golden Germ, the cosmic egg contains the original potentiality of all existence enclosed within its shell. Arising from the pre-creation void, the egg represents in microcosm all that will come to be when the world assumes its shape. In the process of creation, the oneness of the cosmic egg is broken open to reveal the differentiation that is necessary to order the universe. In the Chinese tradition, for example, the opposing principles of yin and yang come into being when the egg breaks apart. Interestingly, some myth scholars have noted that the Big Bang Theory can be regarded as an analogue of the cosmic egg creation myth. Like the primeval egg, the original fireball described by the theory contains within itself the whole of creation. Just as yin and yang emerge from a broken egg, so too does differentiation occur in the universe when the Big Bang’s primeval fireball explodes.
In some accounts of the cosmic egg, creation begins when a serpent or a bird lays the fertile egg on the primal waters, while in others an egg simply arises from the empty void. In a few myths, the creator emerges from the cosmic egg or assumes the form of an egg that then gives birth to order as the creation unfolds. Occasionally the human race itself emerges from the cosmic egg. In the Orphic tradition, the world born of the oval egg is egg-shaped itself, and, in some of the creation tales, an egg divided in half is used to form the heavens and the earth. The cosmic egg, in certain traditions, is described as being silver or gold, the colors of the moon and sun. Similarities among the accounts of the primal egg found in the Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Indian and Tibetan creation myths suggest the possibility that all originate in a common source. Variations of the cosmic egg motif also occur in the myths of Polynesian and African peoples, and a Finnish account is recorded in the nineteenth century epic, the Kalevala. A cosmic egg is present as well in the creation myth of the Pelasgians, the inhabitants of ancient Greece.
The multiple versions of early Tibetan creation myths represent the regional variations of peoples or clans who were separated from one another by mountain ranges. All of the pre-Buddhist stories, however, describe the original presence of the primal void, and many include accounts of the egg—or eggs—from which the world is born. In one of the most ancient of the myths, five primordial elements (hardness, fluidity, heat, motion, and space) fuse to give form to two great eggs. One egg, named Radiant, is composed of white light, and the other, called Black Misery, is made of darkness. When the god of wisdom strikes Radiant, splinters of light become gods called the thorsas, and Sangpo Bumtri, the shining god with turquoise hair, emerges from the broken shell to make the world and produce its living beings. Another figure, Munpa Zerdan, is hatched from Black Misery, and as the king of non-being, he brings ignorance, madness, pestilence, and demons into existence. In a slightly different version, the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and wood give shape to a single egg that splits into eighteen smaller eggs during the process of differentiation, and in other variations it is a beam of light that originally engenders the cosmic egg.
The Indian tradition, too, offers many distinct accounts of creation, but in one of the best known among them, Brahma emerges from the Golden Germ to initiate the cycle of creation. In most of the creation myths from India, it is consciousness, or brahman, that wills order into being. Through the power of consciousness, the primal waters appear and a seed is made to float upon them. The seed becomes a shining, golden egg that contains Brahma, who remains enclosed within its shell while he meditates for the duration of one year. (It is said that because it requires a year for Brahma to split open the golden egg, it also takes a year for a cow to give birth.) When Brahma emerges from the cosmic egg, he makes the sky and the earth from its two halves, and then, through the powers of meditation, he creates the rest of the world. The process is one that Brahma performs many times over, for in India’s vision of cyclical time, the universe is always destroyed before the creator once again splits open the Golden Germ.
Although the earliest of the Chinese creation myths do not mention the cosmic egg, the most familiar account, which dates from the third century AD, tells of Pan Ku’s emergence from a gigantic egg. In the beginning, chaos takes the form of an egg that contains within itself all the elements of the cosmos in the form of the body of Pan Ku. As Pan Ku slumbers inside the egg for eighteen thousand years, he grows to become a giant, and when he breaks forth from the shell, the white of the egg (yin) rises upward to become the sky and the heavier yolk (yang) sinks down to become the earth. To prevent yin and yang from merging into chaos once again, Pan Ku spends another eighteen thousand years pushing them apart. When he at last lies down to rest, and dies in his sleep, the world takes its shape from the parts of his corpse. Because this version of a creation myth includes both the theme of the cosmic egg and that of the body transformed to become the world, scholars speculate that the tale was probably influenced by the Hindu tradition of Central Asia, where these two themes earlier emerge. In its turn, Chinese tradition appears to have influenced the creation myths of Japan, for some of them also feature a primal egg in which the lighter and heavier elements (In and Yo) separate to form the “High Plain of Heaven” and the world beneath it.
In a creation myth that is remarkably similar to the Chinese story of Pan Ku, the people of Tahiti describe the original existence of a cosmic egg within the void known as Havaiki. Tangaroa-tahitumu, or “Tangaroa the origin,” resides inside the egg until he grows restless and cracks the shell in half. Finding himself alone, the feathered creator god begins to shape the world from the materials at hand. First he lifts one half of his shell high above him to create the sky, and then from the other half he creates the earth. He uses his own backbone to form mountain ranges, he makes clouds from his intestines, and from his other organs he creates the creatures in the sea. Tangaroa’s feathers become plants, his blood provides the world with color, and his flesh gives form to deities and people. The feathered god indeed uses all of his body except his head to shape the cosmos, and therefore the Tahitians, who worship the head, find their creator and his shells in all that exists. According to the people, the sky is the shell that contains the sun and moon and the earth is the shell of all living things.
Egyptian creation myths are notably complex and various, existing in somewhat different versions at particular times and places. The cosmic egg, however, appears in a version told in Khemenu—or Hermopolis, as it was known to the Greeks. The cult town of the Ogdoad, the eight primeval deities who personify the forces of chaos, Khemenu is said to be the place where the sun first rose in Egypt. In the myth, the cataclysmic coming together of the four male and four female elements of chaos causes a mound of earth to rise up from the primal waters. A cosmic egg of gold rests upon the mound, and Ra, the god of the sun, emerges from it to ascend into the sky in the form of a brilliant sunrise. In a similar account, this time from Heliopolis, a sacred bird called the benu lays its egg on the primal mound, and when the egg is hatched, the sun god comes forth and rises to the heavens.
Another bird, a small duck called the teal, also lays its eggs above the primal waters in a creation myth from Finland. According to the Kalevala, the sun, moon, stars, and all the lands appear when the eggs are broken open by a ferocious storm. A bird named Manuk Manuk, the blue chicken that is the consort of the primordial deity, lays the cosmic eggs in a myth from Sumatra. From the cosmic chicken’s three eggs emerge the three gods who create the three realms of the universe—heaven, earth, and underworld. And in a myth from Borneo, two creator spirits in the form of birds swoop down to the primal waters and gather up two eggs. One egg is made into the sky, and the other becomes the earth. In a Greek myth told by the Pelasgians, a people who predate the classical Greek tradition, the great goddess Eurynome arises from chaos to dance upon the primal waters. Her dancing stirs up a wind, and from it she shapes a mighty serpent named Ophion. Eurynome assumes the form of a dove and lays a cosmic egg that is fertilized by her serpent consort. When the dove’s egg hatches, the heavens and the earth and all the animals and plants come into being. The cosmic egg is featured in yet another Greek creation myth, that of the Orphic mystery cult of the seventh century BCE. In this account, Time (personified as Kronos) creates a silver egg that gives birth to Phanes, the androgynous creator of the universe who possesses two pairs of eyes and magnificent wings of gold.
Among the variations within the cosmic egg motif are those accounts in which human beings emerge from the eggs. In a tale from the Admiralty Island, for example, people are born of the eggs laid by the world turtle, and many similar stories can be found throughout Polynesia. In Tibet, where egg myths abound, some of the narratives recount the origins of different orders of people. One myth, for instance, tells how the water spirits from four original eggs produce the classes of people who make up Tibet’s social order. From the water spirit of a golden egg come those who are kings, and those who are servants come from a turquoise egg. An iron egg produces religious leaders or holy men, and social outcasts come from a bronze egg. In similar fashion, another myth relates how Tibet’s six traditional clans originate in six yellow eggs that are carefully cracked open by a blacksmith sent by the spirits. According to this tale two great birds lay eighteen primal eggs that are yellow, blue, and white, the colors of the earth, sea, and sky. The clans of people emerge from the six earth-colored eggs after a blacksmith from the gods cracks open six white eggs and a smith from the water spirits opens six blue eggs.
While Tibetan tradition offers accounts of creation from a cosmic egg as well as stories of human beings’ emergence from eggs, other egg myths are also commonplace. Indeed, many regional myths describe how eggs give birth to mountains or other features of the landscape. One of these, for example, recounts how cosmic eggs produce the four lakes that lie at the foot of Mount Kailash, one of Tibet’s sacred mountains. According to the tale, the four eggs arise from the void and give form to bodies of water with distinctive characteristics. Gungchu Gulmo, born of a silver egg, resembles the moon, and Gurgyal Lhamo, which comes from a white egg, shines like a mirror. The lake of the gods, Gurgyal Lhamo contains the treasures of the water spirits. An island sanctuary lies in the middle of Lake Rakastal, which is born of a golden egg, and people make pilgrimages to the island to seek spiritual enlightenment. Manosawar, the fourth lake, comes from a blue cosmic egg and is known for the medicinal plants that grow near its shores. One of these, a healing flower with eight petals, is the turquoise-blue color of the egg and its lake. Because tales of the cosmic egg are widespread throughout the ancient Tibeto-Mongolian culture, it is not surprising that the tradition’s greatest hero, the legendary Gesar Khan, is also born of an egg, one that springs from his mother’s head.
A particularly interesting account of the cosmic egg comes from the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa. In some versions of their creation myth, the creator god Amma assumes the form himself of a great cosmic egg that contains the potentiality of the entire cosmos. The elements essential for creation—fire, air, earth and water—all exist within the god, whose name is said to mean “The One Who Holds.” Amma is split open by seven tremendous vibrations or explosions, and from him fall the Nummo (water) deities in the form of five sets of male and female twins. The Nummos give shape to the sky and the earth, divide the day from the night, create the changing seasons, and organize the societies of the people they produce. In their representation as twins, these water deities symbolize duality, the differentiation that gives rise to order. Because the Dogon believe that water is the element from which all life arises, the Nummos take the form of that essential element. This myth, with its intriguing description of the explosive shattering of the cosmic egg, is one of those that call the Big Bang Theory to mind. In its emphasis on the importance of water to life, it also resembles scientists’ accounts of a primordial soup.
See also CREATION MYTHS, YMIR MOTIF.
Creation myths, narratives that address the question of how the universe or the earth and its inhabitants first came into existence, can be found in almost all cultural traditions. With relatively few exceptions, peoples from around the world seek to explain their origins and thereby define their cultural identities in their creation myths. In circumstances where a story of creation is not extant, as with the early Celtic settlers of Ireland for example, scholars believe that tales that once existed have in fact been lost. Although Christian scribes of the twelfth century compiled druidism’s legends of Ireland’s colonization, the monks did not record any pre-Christian creation myths that might have been part of their ancient culture’s oral tradition. Fortunately, stories of creation from Germanic cultures, where a rich oral tradition also flourished before the coming of Christianity, were preserved by Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson, who recorded them in his Prose Edda during the thirteenth century. In the instance of the Inca, another people whose legends were transmitted by storytelling, the sixteenth century writer Inca Garcilaso de la Vega chronicled traditional myths in The Royal Commentaries of the Inca.
Although the world’s creation myths are wonderfully various in their details, myth scholars have identified several recurring patterns among them. Tales of creation, which characteristically depict the emergence of order from a state of chaos, commonly begin with a description of the void; in many if not in most of these narratives, the original chaos is represented as the primal waters that exist before creation begins. In some creation myths, the universe, the earth, the original deities, or the first living beings are born of a cosmic egg. In myths of this kind, an image of the fertile egg serves as a familiar emblem of the source of existence. In other myths, creation arises from a primal mound, a small bit of earth that rests upon the surface of the primordial sea. In creation myths that feature the earth-diver motif, the world grows from a primal mound that is created when a deity, animal, or some other agent swims to the bottom of the primal void to recover and then bring to the water’s surface a particle of earth. In this type of myth, creation follows an act of descent, but in another category of tale, the emergence myth, creation is completed only when human beings or animals ascend from the depths of the earth to reach the world that exists on its surface.
The imagery of birth that is expressed in the conception of a cosmic egg is also present in tales of both the earth-diver and the emergence. In myths of the earth-diver, the primal waters give birth to the cosmos, and in stories of the emergence, life comes forth from the womb of the earth. In yet another type of creation myth, primal parents give birth to the world. Primal parents, usually conceived as Earth Mother and Sky Father, must be separated before creation can occur, for when they are joined as one they represent the undifferentiated unity of the void. Myths of the primal parents often explain the need for separation by pointing out that when earth and sky are linked together, there is no space for creation to exist or for the parents to give birth. When earth and sky are pulled apart, the order of the world is born out of chaos. Although the earth represents the primal mother in most myths of the world parents, in the creation tale from Egypt, Nut, the goddess of the sky, is separated from Geb, the god of the earth.
In some creation myths chaos is the state of nothingness that exists before the creator deity brings the world into being. In most creation myths the order of the cosmos is unfolded in a series of stages, and, in tales where the world is shaped from nothing (ex nihilo), the creator usually makes the earth, heavens, and living beings by successive acts of thought, word, or deed. In other words, order might arise from creators’ thoughts, from words that are spoken or sung, or from an action creators perform. Sometimes, for example, creators mold human beings from clay, carve them from wood or stone, or fashion them from cornmeal. Sometimes creators make the world from their own secretions, from their sweat, vomit, spit, semen, or breath, and sometimes they perform as deus or dea faber (deity as maker), the artist who skillfully designs and constructs the world. Sometimes the process of creation requires a sacrifice, usually the offering of a god, and sometimes the cosmos is shaped from the dismembered body of a monster, deity, or primordial being. Named for one of the most familiar instances of this theme, that of the Norse tradition’s description of creation from the dismembered corpse of the first Frost Giant, this repeating pattern is known as the Ymir motif.
In many myths the recurring patterns of creation from a cosmic egg, from earth-diving, from an emergence, from primal parents, or from nothingness appear in various combinations. For example, in one version of the Hopi people’s accounts of their origins, the primal parents separate by dividing themselves into two beings: Spider Woman, the Earth Mother, becomes both Spider Woman and Huzruiwuhti, goddess of life’s forms, and Tawa, the Sky Father, makes himself into Tawa and Muiyinwuh, god of life’s energy. Tawa and Huzruiwuhti together produce the Sun Twins and the Great Serpent, and then Tawa thinks of the creation of other beings. When Tawa sings of his thoughts, Spider Woman molds his thought into clay and thus brings into existence the birds, animals, and fish. After Tawa and Spider Woman also think the people into being, Spider Woman guides them in the journey that leads to their emergence from their origins in the underworld. In addition to the motif of creation from primal parents, the intricate Hopi tale incorporates the themes of creation by thought, song, and deed as well as by emergence.
The creation myth recorded in the Babylonian epic, the Enuma Elish, also begins with the motif of the primal parents. Long before the heavens and the earth come into existence, Father Apsu, representing fresh water, unites with Mother Tiamat, the personification of salt water. From these original parents come the gods who emerge from the primordial waters to produce a pantheon of deities. The gods, however, do not live in harmony with one another, and the next stage of creation occurs when the young gods overthrow the first generation: Father Apsu is killed by his descendents, and then Marduk, who aspires to become king of all the cosmos, earns his crown by battling and overcoming Mother Tiamat. With Tiamat’s defeat a new order is established in the universe, and Marduk creates the heavens and the earth from the two halves of the primordial mother’s dismembered corpse. He makes rain clouds from Tiamat’s saliva, forms mountains from her skull, and causes the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to flow from her eye sockets. In the Babylonian account, the original void of the primordial waters is represented in the form of the primal parents. The Ymir motif is also present, as is the theme of deus faber, or deity as maker, for Marduk, who creates order in the universe when he constructs the heavens, the earth, and the landscape of the world, is indeed the god who configures the cosmos.
While some creation myths describe the birth of the cosmos or explain the origins of the primordial deities who create the world, others emphasize the origins of humankind or account for the history of a particular people. Among myth scholars, a story that recounts the birth of the universe is known as a cosmogony, and one that focuses on the origins of the gods is called a theogony. The tale that traces the origins of human beings (anthropogony) sometimes presumes the existence of the world and its creator deities. The Hebrew creation story recounted in the first chapter of Genesis provides a good example of a cosmogony. In this account, Elohim creates the entire cosmos from nothing by speaking it into being. In a series of stages, Elohim (or Yahweh) makes the heavens and the earth, the light and the dark, the dry land and the sea, the sun and the moon, and all the living creatures. In this account, the first of two versions recorded in Genesis, Elohim completes the process of creation when, on the sixth day, he creates a man and a woman in his own image and grants them dominion over the world.
The Enuma Elish, which describes the Babylonian gods’ birth from the primal waters, offers an example of a theogony, an account of creation that focuses upon the emergence of the creator deities themselves. Hesiod, the Greek writer from the eighth century B.C.E., presents another example in his Theogony. Like the Babylonian myth, the story recounted in the Theogony explains how the primordial parents, Gaea the Earth Mother and Uranos the Sky Father, arise out of chaos and give birth to the generations of gods that eventually become the Greek pantheon. Just as Father Apsu is overthrown by his descendents, so too is Uranos usurped by his son Kronos, and then Kronos is defeated in battle by his son Zeus. Like Marduk, Zeus establishes a new order in the world after he becomes god of the sky and thus ruler of the family of Olympian deities.
While the cosmogony of Hebrew tradition describes the creation of the universe, and the Babylonian and Greek theogonies explain the origins of the gods, myths from many other cultures emphasize human beings’ appearance in the world. The emergence myths of North America’s native peoples, for example, recount the journeys of the first people from their origins in the depths of the earth to their ultimate destination, the world they discover when they reach its surface. In these myths the process of creation is completed when the people emerge to inhabit their new homes on the earth. Although Ireland’s Christian scribes do not include a cosmogony among their chronicles of early Celtic myths and legends, their account of the settlement of their island, culminating in the arrival of their own ancestors, serves as another example of anthropogony. The monks’ Book of Invasions traces the origins of the Irish people back to the last invasion of the island, the time when the mortal Milesians defeat a race of gods to make claim to their new home. Similarly, The Royal Commentaries of the Inca describes the emergence of the Incan culture as dating to the time when Father Sun sends two of his children to earth to teach the people, who live as wild animals, to grow crops, weave clothing, and build houses, temples, and cities. Under the guidance of their deities, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo Huaco, the Inca emerge as a people whose destiny it is to create an empire.
Within creation myths from around the world, the cosmos originally comes into being by a variety of means. In the tale told by the Boshongo people of Central Africa, for example, the creator god Bumba, who at first exists alone in the dark void of the primal waters, vomits up the sun. When the sun begins to dry the land, and rain clouds appear in the sky, Bumba vomits up the moon and stars, nine kinds of animals, and the first human beings. In this myth, Bumba is not the sole creator of the world, for the animals he produces create additional creatures, and then Bumba’s three sons complete the process of creation by making ants, the seeds of all plants, and the bird called the kite. The Boshongo tale features the motif of creation by excretion or secretion, and one of the creation myths of the Chukchi people of Siberia offers another version of this theme. The creator, in this Eskimo story, is the trickster Raven, who is called upon to make an earth where people can live soon after his wife suddenly gives birth to human beings. As the story goes, Raven does create the world by defecating and urinating as he flies across the sky: the mountains, hills, and valleys are formed from the trickster’s excrement, and his urine becomes the rivers, lakes, and seas.
In the myths from many cultures, creator deities think, dream, speak, or sing the cosmos into being. The creator, for example, in the myths of the Laguna people of New Mexico is called both Thinking Woman and Old Spider Woman. As her name indicates, Thinking Woman conceives within her mind the original being of all that exists. Thinking Woman makes the world, including the thoughts and the names of all it contains, and then her twin daughters, Uretsete and Naotsete, contribute to creation by thinking into existence additional names. In the Mayan myth recorded in the Popol Vuh, the creator deities talk and plan together in the darkness of the primal waters. After they have thought about creation, they bring the earth into being by proclaiming their desire. At their word, the world of mountains, valleys, plants, and streams arises from the void. Viracocha, the creator god of South America’s ancient Tiahuanaco people, shapes the landscape of the earth by waving his hand as he utters his commands, and Wanadi, the creator in the myths of Venezuela’s Yekuhana people, makes the first human beings by thinking, dreaming, and singing as he sits smoking his tobacco and shaking his gourd rattle. When the first people appear, they are exactly as he has dreamed them.
Although Wanadi dreams and sings people into existence, and Raven’s wife gives birth to the first human beings, in many other creation myths the first people are shaped from various natural substances. In the Babylonian creation myth, for example, Marduk orders that human beings be made from the blood and bones of Kingu, the defender of Mother Tiamat who is slain at the time of her defeat. In Norse tradition, Odin and his brothers create Ask, the first man, and Embla, the first woman, from an ash and an elm tree. According to the Navajo, the first man and the first woman are made from a white and a yellow ear of corn, and, similarly, in the Mayan creation myth the creators shape human beings from a cornmeal dough. In the myth of North America’s Chelan people, the creator deity orders the animals to kill the Great Beaver and then make people from portions of its corpse. Eleven different tribes of human beings are created from Beaver’s body parts, and a twelfth, the bloodthirsty Blackfoot tribe, is formed from its blood. Viracocha, the creator deity of the Tiahuanaco culture, fashions human beings from stone and then paints features on all of the figures before commanding his divine helpers to bring them to life.
Creator deities are not always satisfied with the beings they first make, and some myths describe their efforts to refashion their creations. Viracocha, for example, creates a race of giant human beings when he first shapes the heavens and the earth, but because he is displeased by the behavior of the giants, he turns them into stone and then floods the world to cleanse it of his mistake. The Mayan creators are also disappointed with the beings they originally make, first modeled out of clay and then carved out of wood, and they too create a flood to rid the world of these imperfect creations. Indeed, the deluge motif is often associated with creation myths and frequently plays a role in emergence tales. In those traditions where a flood occurs long after the creation, as in the Hebrew story of Noah and his ark, the world must be created anew when the waters recede. According to Greek myth, Zeus destroys the original creation when he floods the world to punish wicked human beings. Deucalion and Pyrrha, two mortal beings who survive the deluge, follow the advice of the gods and create a new race of people from the stones of the earth.
Other myths, acknowledging the imperfections of creation or the differences that exist among human beings, describe mistakes that occur during the process of creation. In a tale told by Africa’s Yoruba people, the creator deity Obatala begins to carefully fashion human beings out of clay. When he eventually grows tired and thirsty, he refreshes himself with wine before completing his task. Unfortunately, the figures that Obatala models after consuming the wine are misshapen in various ways, but he does not realize this when he asks Olorun, the sky god, to breathe life into them. When Obatala recognizes what he has done, he vows that he will never drink wine again and that he will forever serve as the protector of all people with deformities. Similarly, in one of the creation myths from ancient China, Nu Gua, the mother goddess, models human beings from the wet clay of the Yellow River. When she tires of her painstaking work, she finds a means to make people more quickly: the goddess drags a rope along the riverbed and then shakes free the clumps of clay that adhere to it. According to this tale, the people Nu Gua shapes by hand become China’s aristocratic class, and those formed when she shakes the rope turn into the common people.
The creator deities of myth tradition bring human beings to life for a variety of reasons. In the Hebrew account, Elohim desires to crown his creation by granting dominion over it to the beings he makes in his own image. The Babylonian deities, who make people from the blood and bones of their vanquished foe, create humankind to serve the gods and to honor them in rituals, ceremonies, and sacrificial offerings. The Mayan creator gods long to give life to beings who will praise them, love them, and call them by their names, and are therefore displeased when the original people made of clay or of wood are unable to do so. After the deities form people from corn, the food that can nourish them, they give life to beings who indeed praise their gods and who also celebrate the beauties of the world their creators have made. Finally, the myth told by Africa’s Yoruba people offers yet another explanation of creators’ purposes. After Obatala, who creates land upon the primal waters to add variety to the cosmos, finishes the task of making the world, he discovers that he is lonely. Desiring the companionship of beings similar to himself, he models human figures out of the earth’s clay.
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