Creation in Myth and Literature
by Tala Bar
“And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3).
One of the greatest mysteries in Nature for human beings is the creation of the world. That mystery must be the reason for the numerous and various stories describing creation in many cultures around the world. The statement quoted above is taken from the story of creation appearing in the book of Genesis of the Old Testament, but other mythologies tell it in different ways.
There are three basic ways of creation as humans have understood it for thousands of years: giving birth or laying eggs; creating order out of disorder; and giving form to a formless matter. My contention is that it was the Great Mother Goddess who was the main creator in ancient times, and that her essence has remained even in later stories up until modern times.
The most common way for the creation of the world and all that is in it is giving birth to the earth, the heavens, the gods, and all life on earth including human beings. In the natural world, it is usually the female of the species who gives birth or lays eggs and usually she is called “a mother.” In the mythological world, she can be defined as the Mother Goddess, Great Mother, Mother Nature or, as in the Hebrew myth of human creation, Mother of all Living Beings — the Biblical Havah or Eve. In a similar way, the ancient Hindu goddess Shakti is called “The Womb of Everything” and the Aztecs of America tell of a first goddess who gave birth to the other gods, who in turn gave birth to humans.
As happens in the natural world, the birth in myth is often connected with water. The Sumerian creation story tells of the goddess Namu, the incarnation of the sea, who gave birth to the whole world. The Babylonian parallel to the Sumerian Mother goddess was the Sea goddess Tiamat. Likewise, a Micronesian myth tells of Ligoupup, a great goddess that was never born because she herself created the world and all that is in it. She is the mother, or grandmother, of both the oceans and the underworld, as well as of the gods of the sky. Another Micronesian Ocean goddess is Pere, who created the sea itself and gave birth to the islands.
In African Nigeria, there was Mama Watta, the Mother of Waters, who gave birth to all the world’s waters. She is a very popular African divinity to this day. Another African deity is Yemaya of the Yoruba tribe (see link below). She is the goddess of the living Ocean and considered the Mother of All, the source of all the waters including the rivers of Western Africa.
Other goddesses laid the Egg of the World instead of giving birth to it. It has been said of the Greek goddess Eurynome that she rose out of the sea and, in the form of a dove, laid the World Egg. Even the Hindu supreme god Brahma is described as “a seed born of an egg.” The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology tells the Finnish myth in which Luonnotar, whose name means “Daughter of Nature,” laid eggs in the ancient waters. It must be noted that no divinity is assigned here as Nature, making it an abstract idea. Luonnotar’s eggs were used (again, it does not say by whom), to create the world: the earth and the sky were made from the remains of eggshells, the sun from the yolk, and the moon from the white of the egg.
A modern Internet site called Mother Goddess (see link below) expresses in the following way the connection between birth and water: “Seas, fountains, ponds and wells were always thought as feminine symbols in archaic religions. Such passages connecting to subterranean water-passages were often thought as leading to the underground womb. Currently science partly substantiates these archaic beliefs. It is known that huge quantities of microscopic plants and animal live close to the ocean surface... To this extent the ocean, which seems to contain the beginning stages of life, may be thought as the Mother’s womb.”
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Next to water, the most important creator entity is the Earth, who is an even stronger female divinity than water. The best known Earth goddess is probably the Greek Ge, or Gaia, who has given her name to the actual Earth as the mother of all living beings. The Romans worshipped her as Tellus, or Terra Mater, who was called by Varro “the Great Mother.”
The idea that both gods and humanity came out of Earth must be the most common in ancient myths. In his poems, Hesiod tells of Gaia, the Greek Mother Earth, who gave birth to the Titans, who preceded the Olympic gods. Another of her appellations is Pangaea, the Universal Mountain Mother. A mountain, as the Hebrew word “har” denotes, represents the Earth as a pregnant woman, as expressed in the Hebrew word “hara”.
Two Hindu goddesses are considered to have been Earth Mothers (see link of goddesses’ names): Privithi, who is a very ancient divinity, and Kali. About the latter it is said that she is called Black Earth Mother, a Conqueror of Time, Goddess of fertility, death and regeneration. She is the Dark Mother, the Hindu triple Goddess of creation, preservation and destruction, a Mother of Birth and Death. In the site Women in Prehistory (see link below), Christopher L.C.E. Witcompbe equates the many figures of Mother Earth with the known female statuettes called Venus of Willendorf.
Additional qualities appear in the figure of the African Earth Mother Goddess Ala, belonging to the Ibo tribe of Nigeria, as well as in the Hindu Kali. Besides the Creator of the living, they also feature as Queen of the dead, Provider of communal loyalty and the Lawgiver of society. Thus, the Earth goddess, having the Underworld in her bowels, is also connected with the special traditional quality of that realm, which is wisdom.
This quality can be seen also in the Navaho’s depicting of Mother Earth in the figure of the ancient goddess called Changing Woman, who gets old with the seasons of the year and becomes young again every spring. From her mating with the Sun, the twin heroes were born, and their Mother Earth taught them all their wisdom and skills.
Since the most ancient and the first of all deities was the Mother of the World, of gods and humans, changes in social structure and attitude toward female power affected also the mythological world. Male deities took over the power of creation and even tried to give birth in various ways. The Hindu god Vishnu, for instance, called the Creator, had Shakti’s womb inserted into his own body to make him able to give birth to the world.
In a different way, the Egyptian god Atum managed to give birth to the land of Egypt and to the first gods through masturbation. Significantly, Atum himself is said to have emerged from the primordial water, which, in mythological terms, means that he was born from the ancient Water Mother Goddess. It seems then, that rather than Freud’s false theory about women’s “penis envy”, it would be more accurate to talk about men’s “womb envy”.
Creating Order from Chaos
The new social order led men to regard female rule as chaos. Thus, creating the world took on the meaning of making order out of disorder. It is significant that in this idea lies also the notion that female rule of society preceded male rule. This former order is called “abyss” and “chaos,” known in Hebrew as Tehom and To’hu, which in the Old Testament book of Genesis precede the appearance of God. Scholars usually identify the Abyss, or in Hebrew Tehom, with the name of the ancient Babylonian Mother Goddess Tiamat.
A special interpretation, hinted at in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, equates that concept with the idea of the “womb” which is never satiated. It is also useful to notice the phonetic closeness between the Tehom — Abyss, and the To’hu — Chaos, as a male notion of female entities. In Israel, God created order out of disorder by banishing both Tehom and Tohu. In Babylon, it was the young god Mardukh who killed the ancient Mother of the gods, Tiamat, and created the Earth out of her body — thus accepting the idea that Tiamat is the Earth.
The Abyss features prominently in the Germanic creation myth. A chaotic world of clouds and shadows appeared out of the initial Abyss, from which the ancient waters were formed, seemingly, by themselves. It may be noted that the Babylonian Tiamat was basically a Sea Mother Goddess.
The power to overcome the ancient disorder is that of the mind, perhaps showing the way the spiritual masculine world is stronger than the female physical world. Thus, in the book of Genesis, God uses his word for this purpose: “The land was in chaos, darkness (lay) over the abyss and the Spirit of God hovered above the waters. Then God said, Let there be Light, and there was Light.” The function of the male god is, then, to bring the Light of masculine Rationality to shine over feminine Emotional Darkness.
The creative Word also takes an important part of the Hindu myth. The sound “oam” caused the creation of the initial light; the syllable O expresses the sunlight, and the syllable M expresses the moonlight. Brahma, who is the Hindu most high god, was created from the sound Ah. Vishnu, who is the creator god and said to have a female womb, was created from the sound O. Shiva, the destroying god who carries the seed, or sperm (interesting to note here the connection between the carrier of the sperm and the character of destruction), was created from the sound M.
In modern literature, the idea of creating by uttering is expressed in the fantasy literature, where witches and wizards can create a different reality, or change creatures from one form to another, with the help of an uttered spell or incantation.
Giving Form to Formless Matter
Possibly the most common way of creation is that of giving form, usually by hands, to a formless matter. Matter, or material, is the same clay taken from the soil of the earth, from which ancient artifacts were fashioned by humans. There is evidence that such work was initially done by women. The Great Earth Goddess Mawu of the Dahomey tribe in Africa, is said to have created humanity from clay and water. This kind of creation is perfectly accessible to men, as well, and in some cultures the craft has been completely taken over by men.
One of the best known stories of this kind from the ancient world is that of the Babylonian god Mardukh, mentioned above, who, after killing Tiamat, proceeded to form the earth out of the goddess’ body. Male creators, though, seem to have an unexpected problem. They are able to give the matter any form they like, but they are not able to give life, or soul, in the way creatures are born or hatch alive as they emerge from the female’s body.
The Jewish God seems to have been able to breath into Adam and Eve the ancient Spirit of God (which in Hebrew is a female entity) but other creator gods had to resort to more circuitous ways. Mardukh, when creating people, had to do it from blood — “because the blood is the soul,” as we hear from the book of Deuteronomy, and creatures formed from the earth have no blood in them. The Melanesian god Kat, however, who had created his people out of wood, gave them life and soul by dancing around them. Here life is connected with the movement of the dance, as it is with life.
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Stories of creation through formation have lasted till our day. They passed from ancient myths to fairy tales until they reached modern literature. The main difference between ancient and modern creation is the difference between the formation of human beings in general and the creation of individuals. But one problem remained as it was: how to bring to life, how to give a soul to a newly formed body.
One of the ancient legends dealing with this problem tells of the Greek sculptor Pygmalion, who had fallen in love with the goddess Aphrodite and made her image in ivory. That image, though, was lifeless, so he prayed to the Goddess. She breathed life into it, making the sculpture into the woman Galatea, whom Pygmalion took to be his wife.
Another known creator is the Jewish Rabbi Livay from Prague who formed the Golem (“dummy”) out of dirt. Livay brought the Golem to life with the name of God written on a piece of paper and put inside the Golem’s mouth. Here, the Spirit of God is expressed by the letters of his name. In the story of Pinocchio, though, it is his Fairy God-Mother (or Mother Goddess), who brings the wooden puppet to life and gives it a soul. It is interesting to note that while the Golem is active only when the note with the name is in his mouth, Pinocchio, once given his soul by the Fairy, stays a live human being for ever.
One of the greatest creations by formation in modern fantasy literature is that of the humanoid robot, and perhaps the greatest creator of those is Isaac Asimov, in his prominent series about the human detective Elijah Baley and his robot assistant Daneel Olivaw. It is interesting to note that in I, Robot, in addition to having his robots created in a factory, Asimov also needed a human, a woman psychologist in the figure of Susan Calvin — in essence, the Great Mother Goddess — to care for their souls, solving the old problem of giving life to what otherwise would be a “dummy.”
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology , New York: Prometheus Press, , 1959.
- African goddess Yemaya
- Mother Goddess
- The Mythic Image Collection
- Names of goddesses
- Prehistoric Pottery made by Women
- Women in Prehistory
Copyright © 2008 by Tala Bar