Origins of the Human Mythos

There are as many origin stories as there are early regions on earth.

There are as many origin stories as there are early regions on earth. They all describe processes that resulted in one version of life or another.

Here’s one from the Bakuba people who flourished in the southeastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

“Darkness was over the earth which was nothing but water. Mbombo ruled over this chaos. One day he felt a terrible pain in his stomach and vomited the sun, the moon and the stars. The sun shone fiercely and the water steamed up in clouds. Gradually, the dry hills appeared. Mbombo vomited again, this time trees came out of his stomach, and animals, and people, and many other things: the first woman, the leopard, the eagle, the falling star, the anvil, the monkey Fumu, the man, the firmament, the razor, medicine, and lightning.” –Knappert, J. (1977). Bantu myths and other tales. Leiden: Brill.

In this version, Mbombo had a dark earth covered in water to work with and it was the rest of the universe that he (it’s a “he”) brought into being. Whether they were all causing a pain in his stomach (why wouldn’t they?) or whether vomiting was just what one did during the process of creation is not clear. This single act of emesis wasn’t sufficient, so the rest of his stomach’s contents populated the now-illuminated mix of dry hills and water that composed the planet. He also had an anvil, a razor, lightning, a meteor/comet, the discipline of medicine, woman (apparently emitted first), a few animals, and man causing his distress. The myth goes on; you can read it, along with some other myths of Africa at the link.

 

brooklyn_museum_22-1582_mwaash_ambooy_mask
Mask of the Bakuba people used in religious rituals to represent their earliest ancestors

 

The Bushmen or San people of southern and southwest Africa have a different view of how it all began. Here’s a nice video that shares one version of the story (virtually any of these differ in some details as they were all told to a western ethnologist by whoever was willing to share):

It is interesting that people and animals were all present but living in a paradise beneath the earth. The creation involved growing a tree, digging a hole to let all of them out, and warning them not to play with fire. Their punishment was that they no longer were able to communicate with their previous under-earth cohabitants. I am certain that if Prometheus heard this story he would beg Zeus for relitigation of his case.

Ethiopians, in the central eastern section of Africa, had a different take on how it all began:

It seems that Wak was a caretaker god for the skies and earth but was not an angry god (a cool feature for a god to have). We get a foreshadowing of the “rib of Adam” bit, although there was no clay involved and animals and demons were all progeny of the first marriage.

The oldest creation myth from the Rg Veda, one of the four scriptures on which Hinduism is based, is complex:

“Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it. Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food. Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven. With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not. From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.
When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.
The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers]. From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it. From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep. When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called? His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born. The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born. From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds. Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim. With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.” – The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.

This is an entirely different level of complexity than we see in the above myths or in the one most westerners know. One observation is to notice that Purusha is both the everything and is offered as a sacrifice and is born of Viraj, who was (of course) born of Purusha. To make it even more complicated, another version of this occurs in Manusmriti, another scriptural text of many but this one designating Hindu law. In this version, Purusha creates time and also designates the duties of the various castes.

(n.b. Purusha is the Featured image for this post.)

From southern China, the story went like this:

“In the beginning , the heavens and earth were still one and all was chaos. The universe was like a big black egg, carrying Pan Gu inside itself. After 18 thousand years Pan Gu woke from a long sleep. He felt suffocated, so he took up a broadax and wielded it with all his might to crack open the egg. The light, clear part of it floated up and formed the heavens, the cold, turbid matter stayed below to form earth. Pan Gu stood in the middle, his head touching the sky, his feet planted on the earth. The heavens and the earth began to grow at a rate of ten feet per day, and Pan Gu grew along with them. After another 18 thousand years, the sky was higher, the earth thicker, and Pan Gu stood between them like a pillar 9 million li in height so that they would never join again.

“When Pan Gu died, his breath became the wind and clouds, his voice the rolling thunder. One eye became the sun and on the moon. His body and limbs turned to five big mountains and his blood formed the roaring water. His veins became far-stretching roads and his muscles fertile land. The innumerable stars in the sky came from his hair and beard, and flowers and trees from his skin and the fine hairs on his body. His marrow turned to jade and pearls. His sweat flowed like the good rain and sweet dew that nurtured all things on earth. According to some versions of the Pan Gu legend, his tears flowed to make rivers and radiance of his eyes turned into thunder and lighting. When he was happy the sun shone, but when he was angry black clouds gathered in the sky. One version of the legend has it that the fleas and lice on his body became the ancestors of mankind.

“The Pan Gu story has become firmly fixed in Chinese tradition. There is even an idiom relating to it: “Since Pan Gu created earth and the heavens,” meaning “for a very long time.” Nevertheless, it is rather a latecomer to the catalog of Chinese legends. First mention of it is in a book on Chinese myths written by Xu Zheng in the Three Kingdoms period (C.E. 220-265). Some opinions hold that it originated in south China or southeast Asia.

“There are several versions of the Pan Gu story.

“Among the Miao, Yao, Li and other nationalities of south China, a legend concerns Pan Gu the ancestor of all mankind, with a man’s body and a dog’s head. It runs like this: Up in Heaven the God in charge of the earth, King Gao Xin, owned a beautiful spotted dog. He reared him on a plate (pan in Chinese ) inside a gourd (hu, which is close to the sound gu ), so the dog was known as Pan Gu . Among the Gods there was great enmity between King Gao Xin and his rival King Fang. “Whoever can bring me the head of King Fang may marry my daughter, ” he proclaimed, but nobody was willing to try because they were afraid of King Fang’s strong soldiers and sturdy horses.

“The dog Pan Gu overheard what was said, and when Gao Xin was sleeping, slipped out of the palace and ran to King Fang. The latter was glad to see him standing there wagging his tail. “You see, King Gao Xin is near his end. Even his dog has left him,” Fang said, and held a banquet for the occasion with the dog at his side.

“At midnight when all was quiet and Fang was overcome with drink, Pan Gu jumped onto the king’s bed, bit off his head and ran back to his master with it . King Gao Xin was overjoyed to see the head of his rival, and gave orders to bring Pan Gu some fresh meat. But Pan Gu left the meat untouched and curled himself up in a corner to sleep. For three days he ate nothing and did not stir.

“The king was puzzled and asked, “Why don’t you eat? Is it because I failed to keep my promise of marrying a dog?” To his surprise Pan Gu began to speak. “Don’t worry, my King. Just cover me with your golden bell and in seven days and seven nights I’ll become a man.” The King did as he said, but on the sixth day, fearing he would starve to death, out of solicitude the princess peeped under the bell. Pan Gu’s body had already changed into that of a man, but his head was still that of a dog. However, once the bell was raised, the magic change stopped, and he had to remain a man with a dog’s head.

“He married the princess, but she didn’t want to be seen with such a man so they moved to the earth and settled in the remote mountains of south China. There they lived happily and had four children, three boys and a girl, who became the ancestors of mankind.” – China Creation Myths

We are the descendants of a dog-headed god who was also the source of heavens and earth… well, after he broke open the black egg with a broadax. The dog-headed bit explains a lot but why did the princess marry him? That remains a mystery to this day, dear readers.pangu

 

Pangu (Attribution)

 

Here’s a story from the Lakota Native Americans:

“There was another world before this one. But the people of that world did not behave themselves. Displeased, the Creating Power set out to make a new world. He sang several songs to bring rain, which poured stronger with each song. As he sang the fourth song, the earth split apart and water gushed up through the many cracks, causing a flood. By the time the rain stopped, all of the people and nearly all of the animals had drowned. Only Kangi the crow survived.

“Kangi pleaded with the Creating Power to make him a new place to rest. So the Creating Power decided the time had come to make his new world. From his huge pipe bag, which contained all types of animals and birds, the Creating Power selected four animals known for their ability to remain under water for a long time.

“He sent each in turn to retrieve a lump of mud from beneath the floodwaters. First the loon dove deep into the dark waters, but it was unable to reach the bottom. The otter, even with its strong webbed feet, also failed. Next, the beaver used its large flat tail to propel itself deep under the water, but it too brought nothing back. Finally, the Creating Power took the turtle from his pipe bag and urged it to bring back some mud.

“Turtle stayed under the water for so long that everyone was sure it had drowned. Then, with a splash, the turtle broke the water’s surface! Mud filled its feet and claws and the cracks between its upper and lower shells. Singing, the Creating Power shaped the mud in his hands and spread it on the water, where it was just big enough for himself and the crow. He then shook two long eagle wing feathers over the mud until earth spread wide and varied, overcoming the waters. Feeling sadness for the dry land, the Creating Power cried tears that became oceans, streams, and lakes. He named the new land Turtle Continent in honor of the turtle who provided the mud from which it was formed.

“The Creating Power then took many animals and birds from his great pipe bag and spread them across the earth. From red, white, black, and yellow earth, he made men and women. The Creating Power gave the people his sacred pipe and told them to live by it. He warned them about the fate of the people who came before them. He promised all would be well if all living things learned to live in harmony.

“But the world would be destroyed again if they made it bad and ugly.” – Lakota Creation Myth

In this one, we have a cataclysmic flood that kills the initial people and destroys nearly all animals but is replaced by people made of mud brought to the water’s surface by a turtle.

There’s no need to go into the western version and it is beyond the scope of any decent post to provide every story that I’ve found in doing this research on the web. You can do the same, of course, provided you have the curiosity. It is rewarding to read as many of these stories as you can, particularly if it results in some humility in the face of all the imaginative metaphors for creation that coexist with the western versions, evolving out of the Middle East as they did (hint: there are more than one version of how creation occurred). There are many shared elements in the stories but there are many elements that are unique to their cultures.

Why should we put aside some of these stories and glorify others? I would propose that is nothing more than western cultural chauvinism to do so. We celebrate what we know and denigrate that which we do not.

So let’s not do that so much. If you’re interested in learning about humankind, learn as much as you can about the huge number of disparate cultures that have evolved and don’t marginalize one or another because their source was “primitive” or not in “The Bible.” We were all primitive once. Our antecedents share that. As should we.

I think I’ll stick with more modern versions…

 

ilc_9yr_moll4096
Attribution

 

Original

 

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

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