The American Heritage Dictionary defines "myth" as "a popular belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal." There are many myths in the current world but not all of them capture as much attention as creation myths. Every religion, every culture in the world seems to have its own creation myth. There are similarities as well as differences between the creation myths in different religions and different cultures.
Despite the similarities and differences, it is very difficult to find a single source of those creation myths, and it is also difficult to determine which culture borrowed the myths from which. But it is very interesting to observe these similarities and differences because these similarities and differences not only showcase the beliefs and perceptions of people following these religions and cultures, but also give us a chance to analyze and become familiar with them.
Major world religions have their own versions of creation. Islamic religious books reveal that God called his angels and told them that he wanted to create a vicegerent for Himself on earth. According to Qur'an, "God chose a sounding clay and mud to make man. God then breathed His spirit into dry mud and man came into being. The spirit that God breathed in man represents His own Soul" (Shariati).
Hinduism does not mention particularly about the creation of man but it mentions the creation of universe and the world as a whole. According to Chandogya Upanishad,"There was only one Existence and no other. The One thought that there should be many others and that they should grow. So the One created a universe out of Him and created beings. Then the One himself entered into every being" (Fisher 87).
The Hindu creation myth clearly shows that God did not differentiate between His creations, and valued them equally. Hence he entered into every being including humans.
The Christian creation myth seems like a combination of Islamic and Hindu myths. According to the Bible, " In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1.1-1.2), "And the Eternal God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2.7). This description of man being created from dust, and God breathing life in man is similar to the creation description in Islam. The Bible also mentions God as saying "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens" (Gen.1.20-1.30). This description is similar to the Hindu description of creation where God creates other creatures along with man.
The major similarity that can be seen in the above creation myths is that God created man and other beings. But Islam and Christianity show that man's creation was more important. On the other hand, Hinduism shows that the creation of every being was equally valued. More interesting things will be revealed if we take a closer look at the description involving creation of man in Islam and Christianity because of the importance placed on creation of man.
According to Bible, God said, "Let us make man in our own image according to our likeness. Let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over ALL the earth, and over everything that creeps or moves" (Gen. 1.26).Thus Bible gives an idea that man was God's favorite creation, and that God made man superior than other beings. Another interesting thing to note is that God says "us" and "our". This is enough to make us realize that there was not one creator; there were two or more of them. Could it be two male Gods? Could it be a male God and a female Goddess? The Bible shows the possibility of multiple Gods creating the universe with equal contribution. Also, man is made in "their" own image, which is a vague statement because the image could be mental, psychological or physical. This image is not mentioned clearly. This mystery in Christian myth makes it stand out from Hindu or Islamic myths.
Like the Bible, Qur'an also mentions man as God's favorite creation. God made man from mud and blew His own soul into him. Thus man is a two-dimensional being formed from mud and God's spirit."One dimension tends toward mud, lowliness, sedimentation, and stagnation while the other dimension aspires to the loftiest imaginable point possible. Man's significance and grandeur lies in the fact that he possesses two poles (mud and spirit of the Lord). It is up to man to choose where to go, towards mud or providence. And as long as he has not selected either of the poles as his fate, struggle will perpetually rage within him" (Shariati). The two dimensional nature of man perhaps explains why man is free to behave in any ways he chooses to. This "will" is the characteristic of man that differentiates man from God's other creations. Qur'an clearly shows how important and favorite man was to God.
The similarity between Islamic and Christian creation myth is not limited to man being God's favorite creation. There are a few references in Qur'an and Genesis that are similar and yet carry different meanings. For example, Genesis mentions woman being formed from Adam's ribs, and Islam mentions woman being created from man's nature. The word for nature in Arabic and Hebrew is "rib" (Shariati). So could it be that what Genesis wanted to mean was actually "Eve was created from Adam's nature" instead of "Eve was created from Adam's ribs"? Who knows?
It is very interesting to observe the similarities between creation myths of different world societies with those of major religions. The Egyptian myths suggest that in the beginning, Atum created himself using his thoughts and will. He was without a mate and so he made a union with his shadow, and created more gods. This description of Atum suggests his bisexual nature, and this is why Egyptians call him the 'Great He-She' (Piankoff 24). Although Egyptian myth suggests a single bisexual creator, the probability of multiple creators cannot be completely disregarded. Egyptian myth could be compared to Christian myth where God says "us" and "our". Could the Bible and Egyptians be referring to a single bisexual creator? Or could both these myths be referring to multiple creators? The names 'Atum' and 'Adam' sound so similar, and could as well be the same person.
The Japanese creation myth mentions that a deity called Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Mikoto, the Deity-of-the-August-Center-of-Heaven, rose up from the boundless and shapeless mass. Next, the heavens gave birth to a deity named Takami-Musubi-no-Mikoto, the High-August-Producing-Wondrous-Deity, followed by a third deity named Kammi-Musubi-no-Mikoto, the Divine-Producing-Wondrous-Deity. These three divine beings are called the Three Creating Deities (Brians). The Japanese myth thus is similar to the Egyptian and Christian myth in terms of multiple creators. But Christian and Egyptian myths are not clear about multiple creators where as Japanese myth clearly states that there were three creators.
The Japanese myth is also significantly different from the other myths in that it doesn't attribute the creation of man to the three creators. A pair of immortals were born from the earth. These divine beings were summoned by the heavenly deities and were bestowed with powers to rule the land on earth (Brians). Could these two divine beings be the first humans, Adam and Eve? If yes, then Japanese myth shows that male and female were created at the same time, unlike what Christian myth suggests. But the creators bestowing the power on the humans to rule the land on earth does seem similar to God's words to man in the Qur'an and the Bible, where the creator bestows man with the power to rule everything on earth. Japanese myth is different from the myths in the Qur'an and the Bible, and yet so similar.
The Mongol creation myth attributes the creation to a single creator called Udan. When Udan was one thousand years old, he divided the heaven and earth into separate entities. He thus created a nine-story heaven, a nine-story earth, and nine rivers. Finally he created a man and a woman out of clay (Bayer and Stuart 323). This Mongol myth of a single creator creating everything is similar to the Hindu myth. Also man being created with mud (clay) is similar to Islamic and Christian myths. The Mongol myth mentions man and woman being created at the same time like the Japanese myth, and unlike Christian myth.
The Mongol myth mentions that God ascended to heaven after creating man and woman out of clay. God ordered his dog and cat to protect the clay people from devil. But the devil deceived the dog and the cat, and urinated on the clay people and fled. God brought holy water from heaven and animated the clay people. "Man and woman should have been immortal because of the holy water but instead they became mortal because of their defilement by the devil" (Bayer and Stuart 323). This incidence during creation in the Mongol myth is very important because none of the myths so far have ever mentioned the existence of devil during creation. Unlike other myths, the Mongol myth provides an explanation to the mortality of man, and hence it should hold an important place among the creation myths.
An account from the Boshongo, a central Bantu tribe of the Lunda Cluster in Africa mentions that, "in the beginning, in the dark, there was nothing but water. And Bumba was alone." After creating everything else, Bumba created many men, but only one was white like Bumba (Leach 145-6). This African creation myth suggests two things- first, there was a single male creator, and second, the creator was white. The suggestion of the creator being white makes one think if this particular African myth shares the same creator as the Bible or the Qur'an.
One of the Chinese creation myths mentions that "In the beginning, the heavens and earth were still one and all was chaos" (Chinese). This description of presence of "chaos" before creation is strikingly similar to other myths. For example, The Japanese myth mentions "Before the heavens and the earth came into existence, all was a chaos, unimaginably limitless and without definite shape or form" (Brians). Egyptian myth also mentions, "In the beginning there was only the swirling watery chaos, called Nu" (Piankoff 24). The similarities in these myths are very striking and suggest that the source of these myths must have been the same. Since major religious myths are older than these regional myths, we could try and link them. But it is very difficult to link these myths to major religious myths because there is no clear mentioning of "chaos" in major religious myths.
The Chinese myth also mentions, "The first living thing was P'an Ku. He evolved inside a gigantic cosmic egg, which contained all the elements of the universe totally intermixed together"(Doyle). This is similar to the Hindu myth. According to Chandogya Upanishad,"In the beginning this world was non-existent. It became existent. It grew. It turned into an egg. It lay for the period of a year. It burst open. Then came out of the eggshell, two parts, one of silver which is this earth, and one of gold which is the sky" (Radhakrishnan 151-2).Based on many such similarities we could try and link many myths together in order to observe and find out the source of these myths. But the similarities between myths are not enough to link the myths. And neither do the differences allow us to conclude that the various myths have their own different origin despite having so many similarities between them.
Therefore it is very difficult to come up with one single source for various myths, and it is not sure if anyone will ever be able to. But one thing is for sure, and that is, creations myths from around the world will always be able to capture our attention and fascination because each myth is creative, different, and similar at the same time. The myths will be studied and there will be many researches done on the subject, but there's a doubt if we ever will be able to solve these myths. The origin of these myths will always be a secret, and these myths will never cease to be myths. This reminds of what Albert Einstein once said: "The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."
Bayer, Nassen, and Kevin Stuart. "Mongol creation stories: man, Mongol tribes,The natural world, and Mongol deities." Asian Folklore Studies Oct.1992.
Brians, Paul, et al, eds. Reading About the World, Volume 1. 3rd ed. Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing, 1999.
"Creation Myths-Chinese." 1 Mar. 2004. Morgan's Observatory 18 Apr. 2004.
Doyle, Bernard. "Creation Myths." 3 Mar. 1997. Encyclopedia Mythica 27 Dec 1998
Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions. 4th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.,1999: 87.
Leach, Maria. "An African Cosmogony." The Beginning 1956: 145-6.
Piankoff, Alexander. The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1955: 24.
Radhakrishnan, S, ed. The Principal Upanishads. New York: Harper & Row,1953: 151-2.
Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Glasgow: Wm Collins & Sons, 1952.
Shariati, Dr. Ali. Man and Islam. Book Dist. Center, June 1981.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
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