The Origin of Creation Myths
Almost every culture has a creation myth. On Biblical creation presuppositions, they are all basically variations of the core theme of the God-given creation account found in Genesis. A number of researchers have concluded that the source of all creation myths stems back to a common point, probably actual historical events in history (Van Over 1980; Roth, 1981). They all come from one early source and are different only because time and local cultural circumstances have embellished or altered them. This is the reason why the details in the creation myths vary, but either the basic outline is similar, or at least they share common elements.
Van Over, one of the leading "creation myth" researchers concluded (1980: 10), "The surprising and perplexing fact is that the basic themes for (creation) myths in widely different geographical areas are strikingly similar." Furthermore, these basic themes are contained in the record found in the second chapter of Genesis. This similarity has intrigued scholars for years. Rooth (1981) analyzed 300 North American Indian creation myths and found that, aside from variations according to culture and other factors, the entire group had only a few basic themes.
As Van Over (1980:11) asks, "Why such similarity of mythic ideas and images throughout these distant cultures?" Many scholars have puzzled over this phenomenon; among them is the renowned Claude Levi-Strauss (1963: 208) who, after years of studying myths, says there is an "astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions (of the world)" and that "throughout (creation) myths resemble one another to an extraordinary degree." (Quoted in Van Over, 1980:11) Another eminent researcher, Kluckhohn (1965:168), concluded that "there is an outstanding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions." Regarding this similarity Van Over (1980: 11) concludes, "The scholarly argument has raged for decades and it continues to this day. No definite answer seems yet to have developed, but theories abound."
THE MEANING OF ANCIENT CREATION MYTHS
Of the major difficulties in understanding creation myths is answering the question "to what degree did the ancients understand them as literal?" If, ten thousand years from now, archeologists unearthed some remains of contemporary American civilization, based only on this evidence, they could easily assume that Americans believed in literal creatures called Santa Clauses, flying reindeer, tooth fairies, and odd white men who wore the label, "Mr. Clean," to name but a few examples. Few persons today in fact believe that the sun rises or sets, the earth has four corners, that rain falls (it is pulled). automobiles are self-movers, (auto self, mobile = move) motion pictures are pictures that move, movement of finger or other bone joints is "cracking one's knuckles" or that cameras "take" a picture (after the picture is taken," the "picture" is obviously still there). These vivid figures of speech we take for granted, and no one except possibly children and retarded adults understands them literally.
These few examples illustrate the difficulty of understanding culture from a few isolated artifacts, including words. Likewise, there is good evidence that the ancients did not literally believe that Zeus caused rain, the sun was a god, or any of the other myths which we today enjoy reading (Ellis, 1982). Mankind has always loved stories, and most of the ancient myths were stories, and should be viewed as such today unless there are compelling reasons not to (Sproul, 1979). Of course, there is no doubt that past generations believed many things which we today recognize are wrong. Ellis (1982: 1 2) concludes that:
If one is acquainted with the nature of myth (even on an elementary level), one is aware that even the ancient peoples who constructed them did not subscribe to a "literal" interpretation of them. The truth content of myth was considered to be higher, in a moral or religious sense, than merely a description of physical reality. For anyone in the twentieth century to ascribe "literal" reality to these ancient myths is almost too comical in itself to need further ridicule.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
The most famous of all non-Biblical creation myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh, as is true of many such myths, was not, as we will show, written to tell the story of creation, but the tragedy of life. Sandars (1978: 7) summarized the story as follows:
Gilgamesh is not the first human hero . . . but the first tragic (nonBiblical) hero of whom anything is known and (is) the most typical of individual man in his search for . . . understanding, and of this search the conclusion must be tragic. It is perhaps surprising that anything so old as a story of the third millenium B.C. should still have power to move, and still attract readers in the twentieth century A.D., and yet it does. The narrative is incomplete and may remain so; nevertheless, it is today the first surviving epic poem from any period until the appearance of Homer's Iliad; and it is immeasurably older.
The Gilgamesh epic is most famous for its account of the flood. The modern re-discovery of this account occurred only in the previous century. George Smith, of the Society of Biblical Archeology, reported in 1872 that he located an "unknown" account of the flood among the Assyrian tablets in the British Museum (Hasel, 1974; Hoberman, 1983). He soon published the Chaldean Account of the Deluge and interest was immediate and widespread. The deluge tablet, though, was incomplete and so a search for more tablets ensued. In time, Prof. Smith found many of the missing lines of the description of the flood which was then, and still is today, "the most complete best perserved part of the whole Epic" (Sandars, 1978:10).
Many scholars now believe that the Gilgamesh narrative of the flood was written primarily in order to elucidate the struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. It was not meant, they contend, to be an historical account. Thus Sandars (1978: 40) notes:
Although the Gods play a great part in the epic. . Gilgamesh appears to have been . . . a secular poem . . there is no suggestion that it was recited as part of a religious ritual as was the great Babylonian poem of creation, The Enuma Elish, though it contained quasi-religious material in the laments over the dead, and in the set pieces of "wisdom." it is a separate narrative, divided into loosely connected episodes covering the most important events in the life of the hero.
THE PURPOSE OF CREATION MYTHS
Many other so-called "creation accounts" are likewise stories, written not necessarily to inform the reader of the means of physical creation, but to teach some moral principle via obvious folk-hero stories or to instruct a culture about some tradition (Hasel, 1974). In this regard they are quite distinct from the Biblical account which contains much of what Hasel (1974) calls "antimythical polemic." In other words, the Bible contains statements indicating that it is not lobe considered mere "myth." Many creation myths, on the other hand, only incidentally refer to creation. Their primary purpose is not, it seems, to describe creation. Many, like the Gilgamesh Epic discussed above are concerned primarily with problems of living and life (Doria. 1976; Fahs and Spoerl 19831. Nonetheless, there is a basic similarity between most creation myths and Genesis. Among the aspects of the early history of the world found in Genesis which are also found in many or most creation stories are the confusion of tongues at Babel, and the flood account. In addition to Scripture, aspects of the Tower of Babel account are also found in Syrian, Sumerian, Greek, Babylonian, Chinese, Hindu, Persian and even the Estonian, Irish, American Indian, Toltec and Cholulan creation stories. As regards the great flood, Warshofsky (1977:1291 notes:
With variations, that Biblical account of a great. universal flood is part of the mythology and legend of almost every culture on earth. Even people living far from the sea the Hopi Indians in the American Southwest, the Incas high in the Peruvian Andes have legends of a great flood washing over the land, covering the tops of mountains and wiping out virtually all life on earth.
The essential categories of all creation myths are directly taught or at least reflected in Genesis. In the Biblical perspective these concepts had their origin in a set of events which actually occurred and which were transmitted to later generations by the first humans. The first humans, Adam and Eve, gave their immediate descendants information which became part of later historical records, parts of which are found today in Genesis. As the descendants of Adam scattered, they carried what they remembered (the essential elements) of the history found in Genesis. In time this history was altered, embellished and changed as the various cultures developed. Nevertheless, in most cases the essential story remained the same. Currently available evidence is consistent with this picture (Long 1963). All of the creation myths appear to be basically derived from the factual events that Genesis is based upon. although in some cases only small remnants of the original Story are left.
Doria, Charles and Harris Lenowitz. "Origins" Creation Texts from the Ancient Mediterranean. Garden City: NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976.
Ellis, Harry W. "Creationism Discussion Continues" Physics Today, Vol. 35, No.10, Oct.1982, p.12,13.
Fahs, Sophia Lyon and Dorothy T. Spoerl. Beginnings: Earth, Sky, Life, Death. Beacon Hill: Boston, 1983.
Hasel, Gerhard. "The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology. The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol.46, No.2, April-June 1974, p.81-102.
Hoberman, Barry "George Smith; Pioneer Assyriologist "Biblical Archeologist, Winter 1983, Vol.46, No.1.
Kluckhohn, Clyde. "Myths and Rituals: A General Theory." in Reader in Comparative Religion. Ed. by Wm. Lessa et al. NY: Harper and Row, 1965.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. "The Structural Study of Myth" in Structural Anthropology. NY: Basic Books, 1963.
Long, Charles. Alpha: The Myths of Creation. New York: Collier Books, 1963.
Rooth, AG. "The American Indian Myths," Unpublished manuscript, 1981.
Sandars, N.K. (Translator) The Epic of Gilgamesh. Great Britain, Penguin Books, 1 978.
Sproul, Barbara. Primal Myths: Creating the World. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.
Van Over, Raymond. Sun Songs: Creation Myths from Around the World. New York: New American Library, 1980.
Warshofsky, Fred. "Noah, The Flood, the Facts." Readers Digest. Vol.111, Sept. 1977 pp.129-134.