The Creation Account of the Earliest Time
in the Bible and in Ethnology
Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954)
In my contribution to the work Religion Christianity, Church by Esser-Mausbach (Munich, 1911)... I wrote in conclusion: "All the details which we learned here make it plausible that the report of Holy Writ about the times of the earliest revelation really belongs to the oldest period of mankind's development, which can have been true to reality in what it describes only at that time. For all other, later levels of development it would be inappropriate and display a many-sided anachronism... If ... we now meet such a strikingly fitting portrait of that earliest time in the Holy Book of the Israelites, this can only be due to the wings of tradition thousands of years old and reverently preserved—traditions which cannot be much younger in their earliest recordings than the time they are meant to portray."
More than twenty years have passed since I wrote these words. Since then our knowledge of the earliest ethnological time has made tremendous headway both quantitatively and qualitatively, so that its foundations have significantly gained not only in breadth but also in firmness and clarity....
As I now resume this comparison, l refer to the first three chapters of Genesis in the Bible which contain the biblical creation account... As regards ethnology, l take the factual research ... from the [first] six volumes of my work Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (The Origin of the Idea of God), in which I have collected and explained the entire available material about the religions of the ethnologically oldest peoples, the earliest cultures [Urkulturen]....
The Creation of the World
In awe-inspiring greatness the idea of creation meets us immediately in the first words of the biblical account. It meets us in its highest form, creation exclusively out of nothing by the omnipotent will of God. We meet this same idea of creation in some form among all ethnologically ancient peoples. In the North American earliest culture belief in creation out of nothing, without matter or tools, alone by the thought and will of the Creator, is also clearly enunciated with several peoples, nor is it absent with the Pygmies and Southeast Australians.
Among the peoples of the earliest culture some place the creation of the world first, others the creation of man, yet others combine the two. The latter is the case with North Central Californian and West Algonquin Indians. The Pygmies put the creation of man more into the foreground; the South Australians have representatives of both types. In the biblical creation account the first chapter of Genesis begins with a detailed description of the creation of the macrocosm, but only in order to stress all the more impressively the high position of man as the master of the earth appointed by the Creator Himself. The two following chapters then describe in loving detail the creation of man and of the family.
With regard to man's creation the biblical report of the first chapter emphasizes the preceding thought and plan of God, and with regard to the creation of the world, the Creator's own pleasure after the creative act. In a number of North American Indian tribes the Creator prepares Himself for the creation of the world with festal joy and well-planning wisdom. Several North American Indian tribes testify to His pleasure in His creation in their accounts of the creation of the world; the Fox and Winnebago Indians and the Kulin in Southeast Australia also speak of His pleasure in the creation of man.
In the first chapter of Genesis the six-day creation work of God and His rest on the seventh day is made a pattern for the six working days and the seventh day of rest of man, and thereby man's whole life is dedicated religiously. We also see how with the North Central Californian Indians the creation account forms the basis for the education of grown-up youth; from it all religious, moral and social obligations are deduced. We find similar conditions also with South Australian tribes. With the West and East Algonquin Indians creation is solemnly celebrated in richly arranged, profoundly meaningful feasts of seven, eight or twelve days, and it is dramatically portrayed with a few tribes.
The creation account of Genesis concludes with the words of the Creator to mankind whereby He transfers the earth to them with everything is produced so that they might have dominion over it. We most with something similar in the North American earliest culture. With the Maidu the Creator tells man that he may freely take everything he sees and desires, from wild game to fish, birds, nuts, seeds and berries; for He made all these things for man. With the Delaware the first man says of himself: "The Great Spirit is my Father. He gave me the whole earth with all animals to rule it." With the Joshua God tells the first man that He made the whole world for him; He also admonishes him to have more children, and the man had 16 (4 x 4) children from his wife. The Creator warned man, however, not to fell more tress and not to kill more animals than he needed. With the Northeast Selish the Creator tells men that everything on earth is subject to them and is for their enjoyment as they are His children; and all men are to have equal rights to and equal shares in everything. This is the reason why all food was shared among men and no one thought of keeping someone else from access to the necessities of life. In the last two examples we see the two limitations which God has set for the dominion rights of men: they may not use His gifts unnecessarily and wastefully, and they must give of their goods to those without possessions.
The Creation of Man
The end of the first chapter of Genesis turns to the creation of man. Already in this brief summary a pair of one man and one woman is created, which is made the ancestral parental couple for all mankind by the Creator Himself. This institution of monogamous marriage and of the family in the very creation of man is then elaborated in a marvelously profound manner in the second chapter. The creation of an ancestral parental couple—not of an individual or of an indeterminate number of people—is also the only form of the creation of mankind in the South Australian earliest culture. In the great Arctic-American earliest culture it represents the oldest form of the creation of man, and it is also manifest in two Asian and two African Pygmy tribes, thus an element belonging already to the earliest culture of man.
In the report of the second chapter of Genesis the body of the first man is formed from the dust of the ground. This is the oldest form of man's creation with the North Central Californian Indians, and the only form of man's creation with the Algonquins. This form is also present with the Tierra del Fuego Indians (Selknam), with one tribe each of the African and the Asian Pygmies, and with the Southeast Australians. It is thus wide-spread enough among the earliest cultures that it can be accepted as an integral part of the oldest religion. In Genesis the soul is breathed into the earth-made body of man by God; at first sight corresponding accounts are less prevalent elsewhere. We do find them in the Arctic-American as well as the Pygmy and Southeast Australian earliest cultures, but in all three rarely and atypically though appearing as the more frequent among the numerous other kinds of man's ensoulment. But we must keeps in mind that in all earliest cultures the oldest and originally most probably the only form of the soul is not the shadow or image soul but the breath soul which also returns to the Creator in heaven when man dies.
The biblical account reports that the woman was created after the man. This is also reported by a few North American, one Asian and one African Pygmy tribe, and by one Southeast Australian tribe. But apart from this weak dissemination, the profound tendency of the biblical account to express the intimate togetherness of man and woman in close connection with the birth of language as the chief instrument of human association is also lacking. However, this tendency is not altogether absent from the ethnological reports; it appears touchingly in the creation accounts of two North American Indian tribes, the Kato and the Joshua. It is expressed in the praise and the dedication of conjugal life which form essential integral parts of precisely the celebration of the creation mystery with the West Algonquin tribes of the Arapahoe and the Cheyenne.
In the biblical account the man names the animals, and the woman gives him to eat of the fruit of the tree. This agrees with the economic functions of the man and the woman in the earliest culture: the man stands in closer relation to the animals from which he gains the food of meat by hunting, the woman to the world of plants from which she gathers plant food.
I have already shown in my earlier work that the biblical words: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Gen.2: 24) in no wise show the existence of a so-called matriarchate in which the mother is the chief person in the family and the title holder of the property which she passes on to her daughters while the man, marrying her from the outside, remains a stranger in the family. This economic development appears only after the earliest culture in the primary culture when the woman exchanges the gathering of wild plants which she did in the earliest culture for growing plants and thereby becomes the first individual owner of land. Nothing can be seen of this [later] level of economy in the biblical words. They rather want to state expressly that the love of the man for the woman is so great that it even breaks the bonds of reverence and gratitude which tied him to his parents, up to then the persons dearest to him: he will leave the parents, and with them the former family community, for the sake of the now more loved wife in order to found with her a new family, his and her own. This is in complete agreement with the far-reaching freedom both marriage partners enjoy in the earliest culture in the choice of their life partner so that they can follow their own inclination of love. It is also in agreement with the independence of their own family which they now found and which remains tied to the family of their parents only by certain obligations of gratitude.
The closeness in which God walks with men on earth and deals with them in familiar naturalness is characteristic for the creation account in the second and third chapters of Genesis. We find exactly the same with the majority of peoples of the earliest culture. In the beginning God does not dwell in heaven but on earth where He creates men and then gives them basic teachings and lows for their religious, moral and social life Himself or through the ancestral father. This is found especially beautifully with the North Central Californian tribes of the Wiyot, Kato, Joshua, Maidu and Wintu, then with the Gabun and Ituri Pygmies, and also with the Andamanese and the Kulin in Southeast Australia.
Together with the test commandment God gave man He promised man eternal life of body and soul. It is also the teaching of the majority of the peoples of the earliest culture that the first people were not originally meant to die but to be immortal immediately from the start. This is not the form of belief in immortality held by later peoples, which is really a belief in resurrection after a few (two, three) days of real death. Rather it is taught in the religions of these earliest culture peoples that God originally wanted that there should be no death at all, that people should not age or, if aging, should be continually rejuvenated. This, in general outline . . . is the belief of the Wintu and Maidu Indians... the West Algonquin (Arapahoe, Cheyenne) and the Ituri Pygmies in Central Africa. Traces of this are also found with other North Central California tribes, the Tierra del Fuegans, the Samoyeds and Koryaks, and perhaps also with the Wiradyuri in Southeast Australia.
The time when God dwelt among men on earth, and death and illness did not yet exist, is depicted in the myths of many tribes of this earliest culture as absolutely the happiest of all periods of mankind's history. Then man lacked nothing, there was abundance of and easy access to food, and man had no worries of any kind. We find such portraits of this wonderful time [in many earliest peoples] ...
The Fall Into Sin
In the biblical account the final possession of eternal life is tied to the condition that men exactly observe a commandment established by God. However, an enemy of God incites the first people against God and seduces them to transgress the commandment, whereupon death becomes the lot of all men. An explicit adversary of the Creator who opposed Him in all things, spoils the Creator's good intentions with regard to men and finally also brings about death is also found with some of the earliest peoples ...
In the myths of the earliest culture God's enemy does not succeed in his plots because he is more powerful than the Creator or because he can apparently outwit God. Instead he succeeds in seducing men, and God then allows them to proceed and withdraws from them, though not to abandon them forever. In some myths this figure of the representative of evil coincides with that of the ancestral father who rebels against God ... But there are other tribes where a first fall into sin with all its fatal consequences is reported, yet without the participation of such an adversary of God....
In the biblical testing commandment the test of trust consists in the fact that while partaking of the fruit of the tree of life would grant eternal life (Gen. 2:22), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which is forbidden is placed in opposition to eternal, God-like life. God's adversary proceeds from this opposition, awakens from it the mistrust of the first human beings, insinuating that God wants to keep them from likeness to God ("recognizing good and evil," Gen.3:5, 22) and with it also from the tree of life and eternal life. This innermost, deepest kernel of the testing commandment—not to make man's moral autonomy absolute but rather to maintain it in a bond of dependence, indispensable to man, with the Creator Who alone knows and brings about the time of man's as well as the fruit's maturity—this deepest center of meaning is offered only by the biblical account. Yet the ethnological reports do touch upon this meaning in different ways, stressing now this, now that aspect. This is true especially for the more numerous group where the testing commandment relates to food granted by the Creator to mankind to sustain life, but with the limitations and conditions He alone is entitled to impose
The wealth of characteristics common to both the biblical creation account and the creation reports of the oldest peoples ethnologically accessible to us, those of the earliest culture, clearly shows us that the biblical account can come only from the time in which those oldest religious documents of mankind originated and that it does not fit any more recent time. However, its content is in no way surpassed by the remaining creation reports of the earliest culture; on the contrary, it surpasses them all in greatness, depth and loving intimacy and thereby also witnesses to its supernatural character, origin and preservation.
In addition there is the natural advantage that [the biblical creation account] was written down so early that it could be transmitted to all mankind all the more faithfully. The advances in ethnological research of religion in all parts of the globe and the long forgotten branches of the oldest populations of mankind now allow those voices to be heard which confirm [the biblical creation account's] basic ideas as well as many characteristic details in a surprising way. Thus the biblical creation account also receives the character of factual historicity and ultimately of divine revelation, as I have sought to prove for these oldest religious documents of mankind.
- First published in Stimmen der Zeit 68, 134 (1938), pp.295-305. Reprinted in Wege der Kulturen (Studia Instituti Anthropos), Vol. 20, 1964, pp. 151-161. Excerpted and translated from the German by Ellen Myers.