Origin Myths

Robert L. Carneiro
American Museum of Natural History

In the beginning there was a period of Chaos, when air, water, and matter were combined in a formless mixture. On this floated a Cosmic Egg, from which arose Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). These deities created the earth and its creatures and the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Thus the Greeks accounted for creation.

In the beginning there were Holy People, supernatural and sacred, who lived below ground in 12 lower worlds. A great flood underground forced the Holy People to crawl to the surface of the earth through a hollow reed, where they created the world. Changing Woman gave birth to the Hero Twins, called "Monster Slayer" and "Child of the Waters" who had many adventures. Earth Surface People, mortals, were created, and First Man and First Woman were formed from ears of white and yellow corn. Thus the Navajo accounted for creation.

Among the most basic questions raised by human beings are those of origins. How did the human species arise? How was the earth created? What about the sun? the moon? the stars? Why do we have night and day? Why do people die? No human society lacks answers to such questions. While these answers vary greatly in detail, they are, for primitive peoples as a whole, similar in their basic form: people and the world exist because they were brought into being by a series of creative acts. Moreover, this creation is usually regarded as the work of supernatural beings or forces. The accounts of the ways in which these supernatural agents formed the earth and peopled it are known as origin myths.

Until the rise of modern science, origin myths provided the only kinds of answers possible to such questions. Thus, myths embody the state and limitation of human thought about origins for more than 99% of human history.

Although origin myths are usually assigned to the province of religion, they contain one element of science: explanation. While moral lessons may be scattered here and there throughout them, origin myths are basically ways of accounting for things as they are. Explanation, then, is not unique to nor did it begin with science. Science shares explanation with mythology. What distinguishes science from mythology is verification. Not only does science propose answers, it proceeds to test these answers, and if the answers prove incorrect, they must be rejected or modified. Mythology differs from this. An origin myth offers an explanation that is to be believed. Acceptance, not verification, is what is called for. Ancient Norsemen believed the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) were reflections of light off the shields of the warrior maidens the Valkyrie; modern astronomers tell us they are caused by solar winds interacting with the earth's magnetic field and atmospheric gases. Both are explanations, but only one of these explanations can be verified.

What is explanation? At bottom, it amounts to translating the unknown into the known, the unfamiliar into the familiar. And what do human beings know best? Themselves. They know how people think and feel and act. And from a very early stage of culture, people have projected human thoughts and emotions into the external world, endowing objects and forces of nature with human personality and greater-than-human power. The personalized supernatural beings thus created were assigned the role of providing plausible and satisfying explanations for the unknown. In this way, origin myths were born.

One more word about explanation. At the heart of explanation lies causation. The idea of causation, again, was not born with modern science, nor from the early Greek philosophers. It is much older than that. Indeed, causation is very deeply rooted in human thought. Among the Kuikuru Indians of central Brazil, for instance, a tribe I have studied in the field, a cause is quickly found when something untoward or unusual happens. Thus, one man attributed a toothache to someone's having worked witchcraft on a piece of sugar cane he had chewed. Another man, whose manioc garden was being ravaged by peccaries, decided than an enemy had put a picture of a peccary in his garden to draw these animals to it. The pattern of causal thinking I found among the Kuikuru occurs among primitive peoples everywhere. I think it is safe to say, then, that the quest for causes, which is so central to modern science, is actually a legacy bequeathed to science by our pre-scientific Old Stone Age ancestors.

However, the kind of causation employed by primitive peoples is of a very special kind. It is personal causation. That is, the agent responsible for an action generally has the attributes of human personality. Impersonal causation, a hallmark of modern science, is regarded as insufficient by primitive peoples.*   Impersonal forces may be the immediate cause of something, but they are always underlain by ultimate causes, which are usually personal in nature. Thus, the Kuikuru know it was the wind that blew the roof off a house, but they carry the search for explanation one step further and ask, "Who sent the wind?" Their implicit assumption, which they never seem to question, is that some personality, human or spirit, had to direct the natural force of the wind to produce its effect. How could it be otherwise? The members of a pre-literate society could not possibly know the physical causes of cyclonic storms generated high in the atmosphere by complex meteorological forces.

To be sure, primitive peoples apply causation to more than just immediate questions like why a man's tooth hurts or why his roof blew off. They are also interested in more remote and enduring questions. Who was the first man? How did people learn to plant? Why is the moon's face marked? What happens after death? For tens of thousands of years people have been crafting answers to these questions,answers that are embodied in the vast body of imaginative narratives we call origin myths. Over the last hundred years, anthropologists have developed a keen interest in origin myths and have made very extensive collections and analyses of them.

Certain myths are all but universal, and their extensive distribution attests to their great antiquity. The best example of this is the famous Flood myth. The Flood story recorded in the Bible was by no means original with the ancient Hebrews, but was derived by them from the earlier Gilgamesh Epic of the Babylonians. But the Babylonian version in turn drew on a pre-existing Flood myth that no doubt went back thousands of years earlier. So old is the Flood myth, in fact, that it has had a chance to diffuse far and wide. Indeed, it is known to practically every human society from aboriginal Australia to Tierra del Fuego.

One should not make the error of believing, however, that just because a myth is known throughout the world, it must necessarily reflect an actual occurrence. The near-universality of a flood story is no more proof that a flood once covered the earth than the widespread belief in a Fall-of-the-Sky myth is proof that the sky once actually fell.

Myths are not merely explanations, but also function to assure, encourage, and inspire. They are also literary creations: narrative epics, full of drama and romance, of novelty and imagination, of quest and conflict. But while often having great literary merit, origin myths should not be thought of as the work of a few creative geniuses. They are, instead, the product of untold thousands of narrators who, in telling and retelling a myth, have embellished it here, dropped a character there, transposed two incidents, amplified a cryptic part, given greater motive or justification to an action, and so on. Because they continuously change, then, there is no "official" version o f a myth. Indeed, even in the same village one may readily obtain half a dozen versions of the same myth.

With these general considerations in mind, let us turn now to a brief survey of the kinds of origin myths found in the primitive world.

The view that the earth is the center of the universe, which, until Copernicus, prevailed throughout Europe, was by no means unique to Western thought. It is no doubt a legacy from Stone Age times. After all, since the earth is the place where people live and is what they know, and since people create the myths, why shouldn't they place their planet at the center of the cosmos? Moreover, if the earth is of prime importance to them - as it is - why not make its creation primary in time as well? Thus, in primitive mythology, it is the rule that the world was created first, and that the sun, the moon, and the stars follow it. In fact, the sun, moon, and stars are often mythological characters who first lived on earth but who, after a series of adventures or misfortunes, ended up in the sky to find their ultimate resting place as heavenly bodies.

A few societies have no myth to account for the origin of the world. For them, the world has always existed. More commonly, however, the earth is thought to have been created by the actions of supernatural beings. Rarely, though, does a deity create the world out of nothing: generally, he or she has something to work with. Some Polynesian peoples, for example, believe that the sea was primeval, and that the land was created by a god, Tane, who drove to the bottom and came up with mud from which to fashion it. The Norse gods Odin, Vill, and Ve made the world from the body of the giant Ymir, using his blood for oceans, his bones for mountains, his hair for trees, and so on. It is not unusual for several gods or culture heroes to be involved in the creation, each contributing his or her portion to the final structure.

Beliefs about the origin of human beings fall into three main types: (1) they have always existed on earth, (2) they did not always exist but were created in some way, and (3) they previously existed, but in another world, and had somehow to be brought to this one.

The first belief is exemplified by the Yanomamo of Venezuela about whom Napoleon Chagnon says, "The first beings cannot be accounted for. The Yanomamo simply presume that the cosmos originated with these people." Usually, though, there is a specific creation of the human species. The Norse god Odin created man from ash wood and woman from alder. The Machiguenga of Peru believe the were made by a god, Tasorinchi, who carved them out of balsa wood. The Tlingit of Alaska say the Raven created not only the first human beings, but also the first animals, as well as the sun, the moon, and the stars. And of course, in the Biblical account, it was God who created the progenitors of the human race, fashioning Adam out of clay and Eve from one of his ribs.

The Warao of the Orinoco delta, on the other hand, believe men first lived in a skyworld where the only animals were birds. Then one day a hunter shot a bird with such force that his arrow pierced the ground of the skyworld and continued to the earth below. Peering through the hole and seeing a rich land beneath them, teeming with all manner of game, the hunter attached a long cotton rope to a tree and lowered himself to earth. There he was ultimately joined by his fellows, who finally decided to abandon the skyworld and settle permanently on earth. The Karaja of central Brazil reverse the process. Their ancestors, they say, once dwelt in an underworld until one day one of them climbed up a hole in the ground and out onto the surface of the earth, where his fellow tribesmen later followed and where they eventually settled.

Origin myths also explain the variety of animal life that covers the world. Makunaima, a Guiana Carib culture hero, climbed a large tree and with his stone axe cut off pieces of bark which he threw into the water. One by one, they turned into all the animals in the forest. Sedna, according to the Eskimo, cut off her fingers, which turned into seals, whales, walruses,and other ocean mammals. Often, particular incidents are introduced into an animal creation myth to account for the size, shape, color, and peculiar habits of each animal.

In almost all primitive myths there is a close association between animals and men. Countless episodes tell of the transformation of human beings into animals, or vice versa. Animal-human matings occur commonly. Indeed, it is not uncommon for animals to be regarded as the precursors of the human species - a crude foreshadowing, in a way, of the theory of organic evolution.

A tribe's mythology accounts not only for its own origins but also for that of other tribes. However, the origin assigned to an enemy is likely to be unflattering. The Saliva of Columbia, for example, say that their hated Carib enemies arose from large worms in the putrefying entrails of a serpent-monster killed by a Saliva culture hero. A common belief in the primitive world is that all peoples were once a single tribe, living together and speaking the same language. But then something happened (among the Tikuna of the Upper Amazon it was the eating of two hummingbird eggs), and thereafter people began to speak different languages, split into separate groups, and dispersed far and wide. Here we see a clear parallel to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

Many primitive myths tell of a Golden Age during which life was easy and pleasant, discord was unknown, tools worked by themselves, no one ever died, and the like. Then something went wrong, and ever since, travail, misfortune, and death have been the lot of mankind. This notion of a Fall of Man is likewise familiar to readers of the Bible.

In contrast to a Golden Age, there is often a belief in the notion of a Primordial Simplicity. According to this view, the earliest stage of the human race was one of ignorance and innocence out of which the benighted were lifted by a god or culture hero. This mythical being taught them many things - how to make tools, how to build houses, how to plant crops, even how to copulate properly.

Among many elements of culture purportedly unknown to the earliest people was fire. However, rather than being given fire by the gods, most primitive peoples say they had to steal it. In myth I recorded among the Amahuaca of eastern Peru, fire was stolen from the stingy ogre, Yowashiko, by a parrot who flew away with a burning brand in its beak. Angered by the theft, Yowashiko tried to douse the flames by sending rain. However, other larger birds spread their wings over the parrot, thus keeping the flames alive so that eventually fire became available to everyone. This account is of course reminiscent of Greek mythology, in which Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.

Origin myths often tell of a rudimentary earth with many shortcomings and imperfections that, one by one, had to be removed or overcome. One belief is that at first, night did not exist and there was only day. The sun stood at zenith all the time and its rays beat down unmercifully on the ancestors. Sleep was all but impossible, and people lacked the privacy that only darkness can afford. Some tribes say night did exist but it was the hidden possession of some mythical being, and before everyone could reap its benefits, night had to be found and released. The Tenetehara of eastern Brazil, for instance, say that night belonged to an old woman who lived deep in the forest and who kept it enclosed in several clay pots. It was finally wrested from her and given to the tribe by a native hero named Mokwani.

The Kamayura of central Brazil and many other tribes have the opposite belief. They hold that in the beginning there was only night. It was so dark, in fact, that people could not see to hunt or fish or plant, and so were slowly starving to death. Then they discovered that the birds owned day and decided to get it from them. Ultimately, they were successful, and day was sent to the Kamayura decked in the brilliant plumage of the red macaw.

The foregoing myths are not merely primitive curiosities, irrelevant to the Judeo-Christian view of the origin of the world. Many of the mythological episodes recounted here have close parallels in the Bible. These parallels, moreover, have long been recognized by students of comparative religion as being extremely significant. In his book, Folk-lore in the Old Testament (1918), Sir James G. Frazer, the well-known scholar, scoured the anthropological literature for these parallels and wrote "...I have attempted... to trace some of the beliefs and institutions of ancient Israel backward to earlier and cruder stages of thought and practice which have their analogies in the faiths and customs of existing savages." And in this effort, he was successful. There is very little doubt among anthropologists and Biblical scholars that many of the creation stories in the Bible are really pre-Biblical, going back thousands of years.

In the eyes of anthropology, no culture holds a privileged position. None is thought to be the unique recipient of divine knowledge or benevolence. Each is recognized as the product of two million years or more of a natural process of cultural evolution. During these countless millennia, each society added to its own store of origin myths elements from the mythology of near or distant tribes. The result was that each society gradually developed an elaborate cosmogony, which, while unique in certain particulars, nevertheless incorporated many features that ultimately derived from the four corners of the world.

Not until the rise of modern science during the last few centuries has a different account of human and cosmic origins emerged to challenge the picture presented by mythology. Applying newly developed concepts and instruments, science has given us a fuller and truer account of the origin of man and his universe than was ever possible before. These explanations, constantly subjected to verification and correction, have become ever more probable and more precise.

Perhaps the account of how the world began that has been patiently hammered out by science lacks the drama, emotion, and romance of mythology. But what it may have lost in color, it has gained in coherence and certitude. Anthropologists are ready to argue that the exchange has been worth it. Moreover, without having to accept the literal truth of origin myths, we can still glean from them a vivid picture of how primitive peoples interpreted their world, and how they used myth to justify the present and glorify the past. And while all this tells us little or nothing of how human beings and the earth actually began, it tells us much about the nature of human thought and its modes of expression. This knowledge is of the greatest interest and value to the science of the human race.

*  The exception to this rule is provided by magic, in which cause is thought to produce effect by a kind of irresistible mechanical process working its way without the intermediacy of personal agents.

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Suggested Readings

  1. Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1961. Sumerian Mythology. New York: Harper & Row
  2. Levi-Strauss, Claude.1969. The Raw and the Cooked. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Marriott, Alice, and Carol K Rachlin. 1968. American Indian Mythology. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.
  4. Robinson, Herbert Spencer. 1976. Myths and Legends of All Nations. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co.
  5. Wilbert, Johannes. 1978. Folk Literature of the Ge Indians. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications.
  6. Wolverton, Robert E. 1966. An Outline of Classical Mythology. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co.