Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Creation Myths

These are not intended as symbolic answers to scientific questions about the physical origins of the Universe and life. They embody the ideas of a people (or its ruling class) about the relationship between humans and the spiritual and physical world they inhabit now. Writers of fantasy who work in this area are doing the same thing: they employ sf as social fantasy, and their alternative creations are a commentary on their contemporary world. CMs show different assumptions about male/female, cyclic/progressive, immanent/ transcendent, cooperation/strife. Yet certain symbols recur across the world, and cannot simply be explained by cultural diffusion: often enough the same image is used to reinforce quite different values.

Among the oldest symbols is that of the Earthmother Goddess who engenders all life. An Indian hymn praises "the Cause and Mother of the World, the one Primordial Being, Mother of innumerable creatures, Creatrix of the very gods: even of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer". Often the goddess-mother mates with her son, who may be sacrificed to maintain the cycle of creation. Welsh Madron, the Mother, mourns for Mabon the Son, imprisoned since time beyond memory.

The universal mother may be the primeval deep. In Sumer, she was Nammu, giving birth to An-Ki (Heaven-Earth), joined as a cosmic mountain over the watery abyss. Their son Enlil, the air-god, tore them apart, and then called out the multitude of deities Ki had given birth to, to fill the created world. When the gods tired of doing their own work, they appealed to Mother Nammu. She woke her son, Enki, the wise water-god. At his prompting she pinched off clay from under Ki and shaped a body. Ki went into labour and birth-goddesses delivered the first human, whose descendants would work for the gods.

Here is the worldwide symbol of conjoined parents, separated by their offspring. Space and air are needed for the younger generation to grow and fill the earth with created things. In Egypt we find another version. Nut is the Sky-Mother arching over Geb the Earth-Father. It was Ra their father who separated them, not their son. This sense of the original androgyny of the Universe is depicted by Aristophanes, who saw humanity as a two-headed, four-limbed being which had to be split. The two halves desired so much to embrace again the gods had to keep them apart to prevent them starving. With the Dogon of Mali the same image appears. Amma made the Universe, like a potter, from clay. He wanted to copulate with Earth, but was frustrated by an anthill. Instead of the twins she should have borne, she gave birth to a single Jackal. A pair of male/female twins followed. They presented their mother with a life-giving skirt which gave her the power of creative utterance. Jackal raped her to steal the Word. Amma decided to create more beings without her, but the twins were afraid there would be no more pairs like themselves. They drew a male and female on the ground, embracing. Therefore all humans have twin souls and are bisexual until puberty.

Symbols of the one-becoming-two merge into the universally found Icon of the cosmic egg, or other ovoid. In Oceania, the Naruau story says there was only water, with Old-Spider hovering above. She saw a giant hollow clam and squeezed into its darkness. She found a snail and slept with it under her arm for three days. It opened the shell a little, becoming the Moon. A worm expanded the opening. Its sweat was the salt sea. A larger snail became the Sun. The fully opened halves of the shell are the sky and the Earth.

In the Finno-Ugric myth, the source of ovulation becomes ambiguous. Luonnotar, daughter of the air-god, is a lonely virgin. She lets herself fall into the sea, which makes her fertile. When she has floated for seven centuries a bird appears. He builds a nest on her knees, lays eggs and sits on them. Feeling a scorching heat, she bends her knees and the eggs roll into the "abyss". The lower egg becomes Earth, mother of all, the upper, sky. Yolks make the sun, whites the moon, other fragments are stars and clouds. She shapes the land.

Patriarchal mythologies transfer creative power to a male deity. Zeus bears Athene from his head. In India, the World Lotus is said to grow from Vishnu's navel, reversing the myth of the Lotus Goddess Padma, whose body was the Universe. When the Babylonians took over Mesopotamia, the creation myth of Sumerian Nammu also changed. The primeval goddess Tiamat gave birth to a son, with Apsu – the Deep – as father. Pairs of gods and goddesses followed. Their disturbance pained the first parents. Apsu was for destroying them; Tiamat advocated tolerance. Wise water-god Ea cast a spell over Apsu, then killed him, and Tiamat produced Monsters in revenge. Only the younger-generation god Marduk was brave enough to fight them. He killed Tiamat, splitting her like a shellfish so that her two halves separated the waters above and below the Universe. He made humans to serve the gods from the blood and bones of her evil offspring. The fecund Deep now represents Chaos, which must be vanquished.

The theme of taking many parts of one body to make a differentiated world is widespread. In Nordic Europe, the giant Ymir was formed where the glacial streams of Niflheim met the warm air of Muspelheim. As he slept, he sweated. From under his left arm came a man and woman, frost-giants. A primeval cow licked the ice to reveal a man-figure. He fathered the gods Odin, Vili and Ve. These killed Ymir and made land from his flesh, waters from his blood; his bones became crags, his teeth gravel, his hair trees. The heavens were his skull set on four pillars, lit by sparks from fiery Muspelheim. Such dismemberment carries a memory that death is required for the creation of life.

The North American Apache reverse this symbolism with the creation of the first human by Black Hactcin. He had the birds and animals bring pollen to trace an outline on the ground, and laid minerals inside. The veins were turquoise, blood red ochre, the skin coral, bones of white rock, nails and teeth opal, eyes jet and abalone, marrow white clay. A dark cloud became hair, which would turn to white.

In other stories, creation takes place from a tiny fragment of primeval clay. Often it is necessary to dive for it. The first who attempt this fail. It is usually an animal-hero who succeeds. The North American Iroquois and Hurons tell of the celestial woman Ataentsic who married the Chief-who-owns-the-earth and bore a daughter, Breath-of-Wind. Her jealous husband uprooted the Tree of Life (> World-Tree) and threw wife and daughter into the abyss, watched by the water-creatures. First the otter, then the turtle dived. Lastly the musk-rat brought up some soil under his nails. He placed it on the turtle's shell, which swelled enormously to become Earth. Birds carried Ataentsic on their wings and set her on it. Breath-of-Wind died when her twin sons fought in her womb, her body becoming the sun and moon. One twin was unjustly accused by the other. Ataentsic threw him out, but he created good things, while his rival twin could produce only monsters. Sometimes this Earth-Diver becomes a Trickster, subverting the creator's work.

The need to explain the more uncomfortable aspects of creation gave rise to stories of cosmic struggle. The Greeks told of a primeval Chaos and of Gaia (> Goddess), the deep-breasted Earth. She gave birth to Uranus, the starry sky, who covered her. Their children were Titans, Cyclopes and hundred-handed Giants. Horrified, Uranus shut them in the depths of the Earth. Gaia first mourned, then raged. Drawing steel from her bosom, she made a sickle. Only Cronus, her Titan son, would volunteer. He castrated his father and threw his genitals into the sea. Blood fell on the Earth and gave rise to the Furies and monsters. From the debris on the sea came the white foam which gave birth to the goddess Aphrodite. Cronus, in turn, had to be defeated by his son Zeus, continuing the creation and the struggle.

Such myths of antagonism reached their height in Persia. From the beginning, Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light, Wisdom and Light, and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), Demon of the Lie, competed to create good and bad. Ahura Mazda made spiritual beings without tangible bodies. When Angra Mainyu saw their glory, he rushed to annihilate them. Failing, he created fiends. When Ahura Mazda's creation took physical form, Angra Mainyu flung planets to disrupt the heavenly order, attacked the Earth with drought, covered the ground with poisonous vermin, and pierced to the centre of the Earth, making the road to Hell. Angels restored plant-life and made the Tree-of-All-Seeds in the world-ocean, near the Haoma Tree of Immortality. Angra Mainyu created a lizard to attack it; 10 fish circled the base to protect it. Angra Mainyu brought Evil to kill the Sole-Created Ox. From its seed sprang wholesome things. To vindicate the Ox, Ahura Mazda took the spiritually existing first man and made him sweat briefly to form a physical youth. When this first man died, gold from his body produced a plant which grew into a human couple, so close you could not tell which was which.

Side-by-side with the earthy physicality of many myths is the story of creation by the spoken Word. The two can coexist. A Hindu Upanishad says that the Universe was originally only the Self in the form of a man. His first shout was, "It is I!" He was as large as a man and a woman embracing. He divided himself into male and female to make the human race and, in a Shapeshifting chase of the female, all other animals. His exultant shout was, "I am creation." In Egypt Ptah was the Demiurge who created the god Atum by thought and word, when the divine ibis hatched the world-egg. Atum spat out twins or created them by masturbation. In the earlier, more physical Hebrew creation myth, Yahweh makes Adam out of clay and divides this body by making Eve from a rib. In the later biblical cosmogony, Elohim speaks a word over the watery chaos, where his breath broods like a bird. The expected image of the egg is hidden, as the Word speaks forth light and darkness, and the rest of creation. Man and woman appear finally, both images of Elohim. In the same way, in Polynesia, Kio "mused all potential things and caused his thought to be evoked".

In many, especially Oriental, myths the creator is integrally part of creation and the creature can recognize that divinity in itself. This myth is cyclical: life/death/life. The monotheistic cultures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam move to a creator who transcends creation, existing before, beyond and after it. This is the myth of the world as a once-only, progressive story. The Christ-myth is of the God-human reconciling transcendent creator and the created.

Myth-making goes on, not only in fiction. Modern cosmologists now use language which sounds startlingly mythic, even religious. To communicate the results of mathematical calculations conducted in symbolic language, they resort to visual images and poetic metaphors: the big bang, black holes, cosmic worms. Scientific popularizations like Paul Davies's The Mind of God (1992) hit the bestseller lists. They speak to us through symbols, pictures and metaphorical storylines in a manner as old as those earliest cuneiform tablets of the primeval Sea-Mother. [FS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.