Creation lore

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Creation lore

Creation lore

Throughout world literature, creation lore elicits questions about the divine right of sovereignty. Cosmogony, or origin theory and myth, takes many forms: verse, epics, dialogues, narratives, PSALMS, and mystic chants, all attempting to explain the creation of matter from nothing. From oral traditions of a supreme being or creator come scriptures, doctrines, liturgies, and philosophies of reality, the focus of the Genesis Apocryphon in the DEAD SEA SCROLLS (130-27 B.c.); AZTEC codices; YEHUDA HALEVI'S pietist philosophy in Kuzari (ca. 1125); the Finnish book of folklore, KALEVALA (1836); Hawaiian queen Liliuokalani's Kumulipo (The beginning, 1897), a sourcebook of Hawaiian cosmogony (see AUTOBIOGRAPHY); and the Martinican author Aime Cesaire's A Tempest (1969), a stagy resurgence of Nigerian spirits evoked to cleanse the French Antilles of imperialism. In a translation of Valmiki's Hindu Ramayana (ca. 400 B.C.), King Rama I, founder of the Chakri dynasty, added creation myth to produce a Thai version, the Ramakien (1797). The interpolation of Thai origination stories turned the Hindu original into a unique epic.

The style of the creation myth veers away from dominance toward wonder and mystery, as in Pharaoh Akhenaten's “Hymn to the Sun” in the Egyptian BOOK OF THE DEAD (ca. 1240 B.C.). The text, composed by Egypt's ruler, marvels at the power of the divine over all life: “You give breath to all your creation, / Opening the mouth of the newborn / And giving him nourishment” (quoted in Roberts 1991, 141). The compilation of verses by the Punjabi guru known as Arjan Dev in the GRANTH (1604), the Sikh holy book, expresses similar elation in the strength of the Almighty. Among his most inspired verses are creation praises that look beyond earthly empires to the universe: “Many times the expanse of the world was spread out. Many worlds of many kinds were made. From the Lord they emanated and in the Lord they are absorbed” (Adi Granth 1877, c). The author expresses the whole-heartedness of the man of God: “Into whose heart thou givest thy name, they are made pure” (138).

The earliest models of cosmogony, the Egyptian Creating the World and Defeating Apophis (2000 B.C.), and the Babylonian agon, or contest story, “Nisaba and Wheat” (ca. 1900 B.c.), imagine struggle as the source of being, a concept characterized in 1864 by the naturalist Charles Darwin as “survival of the fittest.” To the Egyptian priests at Heliopolis, the contest pitted the sun god Ra in a sea fight against the underworld water serpent Apophis, an emblem of dark anarchy and strangulation. From their struggle emerged the universal elements of land, sky, water, and wind. Central to creation mythology is the naming of phenomena, an act of identifying and classifying that initiated the literary and artistic depiction of the world.

Like the prophetic poem Voluspa in SNORRI STURLUSON’S Icelandic Prose Edda (1225), the Indian Rig Veda (ca. 1200 B.c.), the original Hindu scripture, ranges from nature imagery to metaphysical or abstract ideas of unimanifested power and being. The narrative legitimizes numerous myths of creation, including a cosmic conflict and a divine separation of earth from heaven by the All-Maker. The compiler describes the acts of the sages as a straining of the word, the equivalent of bakers forcing flour through a sieve. The “Hymn of Man” pictures humankind as a cosmic creation, “the ruler of immortality” who “spread out in all directions, into that which eats and that which does not eat” (Rig Veda 1981, 30). The text concludes with the anointing of Man for the altar, a sacrifice motif common to world mythography. From the fat exuding from man’s immolation arise birds and herds of cows, goats, horses, and sheep, which become food for the earth’s carnivores.

Mythic Beginnings of Power

Source material for creation varies within cultures. The DAODEJING (Tao-Te Ching[Classic of the way of power, 300 B.c.]) of the Chinese philosopher Laozi (Lao Tsu) pictures the shaping of the universe as ineffable, the ultimate enigma that transcends power and materials as rivers and streams flow back into the sea. He attributes the emergence of empires to self-serving human ambitions that view the universe superficially as plunder. The wise individual, who is only a guest in the world, seeks tranquility by valuing the earth not as a source of personal wealth but as a nourishing mother. In a similar vein, Islamic tradition envisions the gift of life as a form of divine grace—a gift that humankind does not have to deserve. According to the KORAN(A.D. 633), the first acts of Allah involved the regulation of nature: “He gave all plants their male and female parts and drew the veil of night over the day” (Koran 13:3). The abundance of foodstuffs applies to the fauna and flora of Muslim countries in the declaration, “He brings forth corn and olives, dates and grapes and fruits of every kind” (Koran 16:10). The somber paean to the almighty influenced the Persian poet FIRDAWSI’S epic Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, ca. 1010). He opens his dynastic list with the omnipotent maker of life, “Who gives the sun and moon and Venus light, / Above all name and thought, exceeding all / Of his creation, and unknowable” (Firdawsi 2006, xiv). Firdawsi’s epic belittles the vainglorious attempts of humankind to build their empires and imitate the control of God over Earth.

Often initiated by a sky god, the act of creating is a deliberate ordering of chaos by one deity, as demonstrated by the lyric beginning of the Hebrew book of GENESIS (ca. 500 B.c.) and the Mayan POPGL VUH (A.D. 1558). The Enuma Elish (ca. 1700 B.C.), the Babylonian creation myth, comprises oral myths dating to the beginning of the Babylonian empire. Written in Akkadian and recorded on clay tablets in Ashurbanipal (present-day Mosul, Iraq), it summarizes in 1,000 lines the birth and godhood of Marduk, the deity controlling the supernatural, water, plants, and wisdom. The energy for creation derives from the Almighty, expressed as emanations of light from the divine Marduk, the supervisor of 50 lesser divinities. The narration looks back on nothingness when “no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen; when of the gods none had been called into being, and none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained” (Enuma Elish 2004, 2). Marduk uses his own bone and blood to fashion humans to rule over other living beings. Like the Greek Zeus, Marduk overcomes prehistoric divinities and grasps the Tablets of Destiny, the source of primacy over all creation.

Gods and Emperors

Associating the cosmic order with the imperial order links the emperor to God and allows him to impose his will on his subject people. Anthologized during Japan’s Nara period (710-784), the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters, A.D. 712) was written by the scribe O no Yasumaro, based on the oral storytelling of the bard Hieda no Are. Like VIRGIL’S AENEID (17 B.c.) and GARCILASO DE LA VEGA’S Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (1617), O no Yasumaro’s lush passages validate the Japanese empire as the gods’ will. Beginning with the scriptural compilations of Emperor Temmu in A.D. 681, five- and sevenline poems composed orally as early as A.D. 400 stripped Japanese creation concepts of corruption from Chinese and Korean sources. In pure Japanese philosophy, the verses honor the Yamato dynasty as a source of order. Combined with the 30-volume Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan, A.D. 720), compiled by Emperor Sodoujinkei, the narrative begins with universal chaos in the “age of the gods” when “Heaven and Earth were not yet separated and [yin and yang] not yet divided” (Nihongi 2006, 1). The text synchronizes Japanese genealogy, nature myth, love lyrics, and dream cycles into a unified history concluding around A.D. 600 during the reign of Empress Suiko. In justification of empire, the narrative states, “The previous emperors therefore established an illustrious designation and handed down a vast fame: in magnanimity they were a match with Heaven and Earth: in glory they resembled the sun and moon” (29). The events and their “mollifying influence” formed the foundation of Shintoism, Japan’s earliest formal religion.

The mythic ordering of life on earth incorporates natural wonder tales with violence and blood sacrifice on a par with the sufferings of the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Prometheus. In Japanese lore, the divine couple, Izanagi and Izanami, who are sibling mates like the Greek Zeus and Hera, lean from a heavenly floating bridge to stir up eight islands with a swirl of a spear in the primordial soup “till it went curdle-curdle” (Kojiki 2005, 22). After Izanami’s death in childbirth, Izanagi, like the Greek Orpheus mourning his dead bride Eurydice, traverses the underworld to find her. He discovers that Izanami, like the Greek Persephone, has eaten the food of Hades, which binds her to death: “Maggots were swarming, and she was rotting” (42). The creator’s breach of the divide between life and death releases evil on humanity in the same way that the Greek Pandora unsealed the jar of evil and the Hebrew Eve disobeyed Yahweh and tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. To prepare himself once more for his tasks, Izanagi introduces purification rites that permeate national customs and ritual. Book II connects prehistory to history with the rule of Jimmu (660-585 B.c.) and concludes with Emperor Ojin in the early A.D. third century.


The Adi Granth, or, The Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs.

Translated by Ernst Trumpp. London: Great Britain India Office, 1877.

Brownlee, John S. Political Thought in Japanese Historical Writing: From Kojiki (712) to Tokushi Yoron (1712). Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991.

Enuma Elish: The Epic of Creation. Translated by L. W King. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.

Firdawsi. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Viking, 2006.

The Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters. Translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain. North Clarendon, Vt.: Tuttle, 2005.

The Koran. Translated by N. J. Dawood. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. Translated by W G. Aston. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2006.

The Rig Veda. Translated and edited by Wendy Doniger. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Classics, 1981.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.