What Is a Creation Myth?
A creation myth is a story that is used to explain the creation of the world or the role of people in it, often using imagery and allegory. Nearly every culture, both ancient and modern, has some explanation of how it came to be, or why it exists. The vast majority of creation myths stem from age-old cultures, and many were recorded on tablets, scrolls, or incorporated as part of a cultural literature handed down from generation to generation. It is often easier in the modern age to identify theories or reasons of existence apart from myth and legend. Ancient mythology is not concerned with theory, but rather with colorful explanation.
Nearly every ancient culture used folklore to explain and interpret the world around it. A creation myth is a specific type of story that is centered expressly on origins, usually of people, of the Earth, and sometimes of supernatural beings like gods and goddesses. Creation myths tend to be very unique in different traditions, though some similar elements recur almost predictably throughout the majority of them.
A creation myth almost always has a heavy focus on nature and the natural world. The stories strive to explain how islands formed, how trees grew to be so tall, or why birds can fly. They usually also delineate the difference between men and women, and how that difference came to be. Most stories also involve at least one supreme being, often incorporating the language of divine creation into the narrative. There is also almost always some strife or conflict, either amongst the creators or within the creation.
In most cultures, the creation myth is very closely related to the dominant religion or common faith belief of the people. Creation stories were told both as a way to make sense of the unknown, and as a means of reinforcing commonly understood truths. Most of the time, a creation myth was presented as a true accounting, though scholars often question how many of the ancients actually believed in the veracity of their extensive legend literature.
Subjective beliefs notwithstanding, creation myths have long been regarded as important facets of cultural formation and societal ordering. Many ancient cultures oriented themselves off of their mythology, living out the truths, balances, and distinctions set out in the stories. Gender roles, respect for nature, and care of animals are only a few of the mores that, once epitomized in ancient creation myth lore, can still be seen manifest in the outward aspects of many cultures.
@MrsPramm - Creation myths are almost always beautiful and are actually a really good way of getting a handle on the world-view of the people who believe in them. If they believe that a trickster created the world, for example, they might be more light-hearted about religious matters. If they think of it as a very solemn business, then that could color the way they pray and if they think it was a struggle then that might influence them as well.
I particularly like it when they incorporate both male and female entities into the myth, because it speaks to the fact that they value both men and women in their culture.
I'm speculating, of course, because I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions to this kind of rule, but I do think that earth creation myths can tell you a lot about a culture.
@Mor - There is usually a fairly distinct myth for creation though, where nothing existed in one moment and then something existed in the next.
Or, at least, where the earth didn't exist and then it suddenly did. Often they will talk about chaos in the beginning and then someone or something will make order out of the chaos. Quite a few creation myths from around the world will mention land being drawn out of water, although I wonder if that particular myth depends on the culture existing near the ocean.
Creation myths and legends are often very beautiful and lay the foundation for many of the other myths and legends in a culture. The Maori creation myth, for example, introduces a lot of the different gods and goddesses from other stories and explains why some of them don't like each other and how they are all related.
It's also important to realize that our ideas of what constitutes creation might be different to what other people think of as creation. For example, there are separate stories in Maori legend to explain how fire was obtained, how the sun was slowed down, and so forth.
Post your comments