A myth is a narrative projection of a given cultural group's sense of its sacred past and its significant relationship with the deeper powers of the surrounding world and universe. A myth is a projection of an aspect of a culture's soul. In its complex but revealing symbolism, a myth is to a culture what a dream is to an individual.
A creation myth is a cosmogony, a narrative that describes the original ordering of the universe. The word cosmogony is derived from the Greek words kosmos, meaning order, and genesis, meaning birth. A given culture's cosmogony or creation myth describes its sense of how cosmos (order, existence) was established. Just as individuals and families are preoccupied with their origins, cultures need to know where they and the world they live in originated. So it is that virtually all cultures have creation myths.
Like all myths, creation myths are etiological—they use symbolic narrative to explain beginnings because the culture at one point lacked the information to explain things scientifically. In such myths, then, we find the origins of certain recognizable rites, of places and objects sacred to the culture. We also find more general explanations of the “How‐the‐Leopard‐Got‐Its‐Spots” sort. In a more important sense, however, creation myths, and other myths, describe an understanding that is significant whether advanced science exists or not. A modern Hindu scientist might well subscribe to the “scientific” big bang theory of creation and in another part of his or her being have faith in the Hindu creation myth as a true metaphor for an ultimate reality that transcends science. A creation myth conveys a society's sense of its particular identity; it reveals the way the society sees itself in relation to the cosmos. It becomes, in effect, a symbolic model for the society's way of life, its world view—a model that is reflected in such other areas of experience as ritual, culture heroes, ethics, and even art and architecture.
The complex ceremony of the whirling dervishes of Islam provides mystical experience of the perfectly interrelated geometric universe created by the mysterious power that is Allah. The Navajo sand painting is a visual metaphor of creation, through contact with which the individual in need of curing can begin life again. In the old form of the Christian ceremony of the Eucharist, in which the communicant partakes of the sacred meal, the rite was concluded with a recitation of the Christian creation myth of John I (as opposed to the older Judaic myth of Genesis), indicating its deep structure as a curing ceremony of re‐creation. The divine nature of the Christian culture hero, Jesus, is a reflection of the idea of the eternal Word or Logos that is revealed in John's creation story as the beginning of all that exists (“In the beginnning was the Word”). The ethics of Judaism are a logical derivation from the “just” and paternalistic creation expressed in Genesis. The Hopi underground kiva, where men weave and the most sacred ceremonies take place, is a microcosmic expression of the emergence creation story centered in the world womb of the ever‐creatively‐spinning Spider Woman.
While it is true that each creation myth reveals the priorities and concerns of a given culture, it is also true that when creation myths are compared, certain universal or archetypal patterns are discovered in them. Behind the many individual creation myths is a shadow myth that is the world culture's collective dream of differentiation (cosmos) in the face of the original and continually threatening disorder (chaos).
The basic creation story, then, is that of the process by which chaos becomes cosmos, no‐thing becomes some‐thing. In a real sense this is the only story we have to tell. Story‐telling, like painting, singing, dancing, lovemaking, and eating, is a form of recreation, and it is well to remember that recreation has as its goal renewal or recreation. The longing for this re‐creation lies behind the painter's attempt to wrest significance from the resisting chaos of the blank canvas, behind the poet's struggle to convey meaning in overused words that long to become trite. It lies behind our attempts to “make something” of our lives, that is, to make a difference in spite of the seemingly universal drive toward meaning‐lessness or mere routine. In short, the archetype of the creation myth speaks to the equally universal drive for differentiation from nothingness that is expressed by everything that exists in the universe.
Creation myths convey the great struggle to exist in several basic symbolic structures about which, with some variations, scholars are in general agreement. Creation occurs primarily in one of five ways: 1) from chaos or nothingness (exnihilo), 2) from a cosmic egg or primal maternal mound, 3) from world parents who are separated, 4) from a process of earth‐diving, or 5) from several stages of emergence from other worlds. In every case there is a sense of birth—both of the world and of humans. Several of these structures can appear in a given creation myth.
A myth often attached to the creation myth is that of the Deluge. In this story the creator feels a mistake has been made or is disgusted with early humanity and clears the boards by sending creation back to the chaos of the Flood; although destructive of the old creation, the waters are also the maternal source for a new birth. They often support an ark or similar structure in which the seeds of a second creation are protectively contained.
Several archetypal characters appear consistently in creation myths. These include 1) a creator or the creatrix—the primal, ordered form that wrenches cosmos from chaos, sometimes from clay, sometimes from the fluids of its own body, and sometimes in conjunction with an equal and opposite natural power; 2) the trickster, who is sometimes a negative force and sometimes a culture hero who dives to the depths of nothingness to find form; 3) a first man and first woman, who continue the process of creation in our time and space and who sometimes fall from the creator's grace and are punished; and 4) the flood hero, who, floating in the placental ark, represents our never‐ending urge for a new beginning.
All of the motifs, structures, and characters mentioned above will be confronted in some detail as particular creation myths are considered in this book. They are all elements of the symbolic dream language through which the human species fulfills an aspect of its role as the consciousness organ of creation.