1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cosmogony
COSMOGONY (from Gr. κόσμος;, world and γίγνεσθαι, to be born), a theory, however incomplete, of the origin of heaven and earth, such as is produced by primitive races in the myth-making age, and is afterwards expanded and systematized by priests, poets or philosophers. Such a theory must be mythical in form, and, after gods have arisen, is likely to be a theogony (θεός, god) as well as a cosmogony (Babylonia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Polynesia).
1. To many the interest of such stories will depend on their parallelism to the Biblical account in Genesis i.; the anthropologist, however, will be attracted by them in proportion as they illustrate the more primitive phases of human culture. In spite of the frequent overgrowth of a luxuriant imagination, the leading ideas of really primitive cosmogonies are extremely simple. Creation out of nothing is nowhere thought of, for this is not at all a simple idea. The pre-existence of world-matter is assumed; sometimes too that of heaven, as the seat of the earth-maker, and that of preternatural animals, his coadjutors. The earth-making process may, among the less advanced races, be begun by a bird, or some other animal (whence the term “theriomorphism”), for the high idea of a god is impossible, till man has fully realized his own humanity. Of course, the earth-forming animal is a preternaturally gifted one, and is on the line of development towards that magnified man who, in a later stage, becomes the demiurge. Between the two comes the animal—man, i.e. a being who has not yet shed the slough of an animal shape, but combines the powers—natural and preternatural—of some animal with those of a man. Let us now collect specimens of the evidence for different varieties of cosmogony, ranging from those of the Red Indian tribes to that of the people of Israel.
2. North American Stories.—Theriomorphic creators are most fully attested for the Red Indian tribes, whose very backwardness renders them so valuable to an anthropologist. There is a painted image from Alaska, now in the museum of the university of Pennsylvania, which represents such an one. We see a black crow tightly holding a human mask which he is in the act of incubating. Let us pass on to the Thlinkît Indians of the N.W. coast. A cycle of tales is devoted to a strange humorous being called Yehl or Yelch, i.e. the Raven, miraculously born, not to be wounded, and at once a semi-developed creator and a culture hero. His bitter foe is his uncle; the germs of dualism appear early. Like some other culture-heroes, he steals sun, moon and stars out of a box, so enlightening the dark earth. These people are at any rate above the Greenlanders, but are surpassed by the Algonkins described by Nicholas Perrot in 1700, and by the Iroquois, whom the heroic Father Brébeuf (1593–1649) learned to know so well. The earth-maker of the former was called Michabo, i.e. the Great Hare. He is the leader of some animals on a raft on a shoreless sea. Three of these in succession are sent to dive for a little earth. A grain of sand is brought; out of it he makes an island (America?). Of the carcases of the dead animals he makes the present men (N. Americans?). There is also a Flood-story, an episode in which has a bearing on the great dragon-myth (see Deluge). The Iroquois are in advance of the Algonkins; their creator-hero has no touch of the animal in him. Above the waters there existed a heaven, or a heavenly earth (cf. Mexico, Babylonia, Egypt), through a hole in which Aataentsic fell to the water. The broad back of a tortoise (cf. § 6) on which a diving animal had placed some mud, received her. Here, being already pregnant, she gave birth to a daughter, who in turn bore the twins Joskeha and Tawiscara (myth of hostile brothers). By his violence (cf. Gen. xxv. 22) the latter killed his mother, out of whose corpse grew plants. Tawiscara fled to the west, where he rules over the dead. Joskeha made the beasts and also men. After acting as culture-giver he disappeared to the east, where he is said to dwell with his grandmother as her husband.
3. Mexican.—The most interesting feature in the Mexican cosmology is the theory of the ages of the world. Greece, Persia and probably Babylon, knew of four such ages. The Priestly Writer in the Pentateuch also appears to be acquainted with this doctrine; it is the first of four ages which begins with the Creation and ends with the Deluge. The Mexicans, however, are said to have assumed five ages called “suns.” The first was the sun of earth; the second, of fire; the third, of air; the fourth, of water; the fifth (which is the present) was unnamed. Each of these closed with a physical catastrophe. The speculations which underlie the Mexican theory have not come down to us. For the Iranian parallel, see § 8, and on the Hebrew Priestly Writer, Gunkel, Genesis, pp. 233 ff.
4. Peruvian.—In Peru, as in Egypt, the sun-god obtained universal homage. But there were creator-gods in the background. A theoretical supremacy was accorded by the Incas to Pachacamac, whose worship, like that of Viracocha, they appear to have already found when they conquered the land. Pachacamac means, in Quichua, “world-animator.” The “philosophers” of Peru declared that he desired no temples or sacrifices, no worship but that of the heart. This is conceivable; Maui, too, in New Zealand had no temple or priests. But most probably this deity had another less abstract name, and the horrible worship offered in the one temple which he really had under the Incas, accorded with his true cosmic significance as the god of the subterranean fire. Viracocha too had a cosmic position; an old Peruvian hymn calls him “world-former, world-animator.” He was connected with water. A third creator was Manco Capac (“the mighty man”), whose sister and wife is called Mama Oello, “the mother-egg.” Afterwards, the creator and the mother-egg became respectively the sun and the moon, represented by the Inca priest-king and his wife, the supposed descendants of Manco Capac. Dualistic tendencies were also developed. Las Casas reports a story that before creation the creator-god had a bad son who sought, after creation, to undo all that his father had done. Angered at this, his father hurled him into the sea. We need not suspect Christian influences, but the parallelism of Rev. xx. 3, Isa. xiv. 12, 15, Ezek. xxviii. 16 is obvious.
5. Polynesian.—Polynesia, that classic land of mythology, is specially rich in myths of creation. The Maori story, told by Grey and others, of the rending apart of Rangi ( = Langi, heaven) and Papa (earth) can be paralleled in China, India and Greece, and more remotely in Egypt and Babylonia. The son of Rangi and Papa was Tangaloa (also called Tangaroa and Taaroa), the sea-god and the father of fishes and reptiles. In other parts of Polynesia he is the Heaven God, to whom there is no like, no second. In Samoa he is even called Tangaloa-Langi (Tangaloa = heaven). And if he is the sea-god, we must remember that there is a heavenly as well as an earthly ocean; hence the clouds are sometimes called Tangaloa’s ships. It is true, the popular imagery is unworthy of such a god. Sometimes he is said to live in a shell, by throwing off which from time to time he increases the world; or in an egg, which at last he breaks in pieces; the pieces are the islands. We also hear that long ago he hovered as an enormous bird over the waters, and there deposited an egg. The egg may be either the earth with the overarching vault of heaven or (as in Egypt—but this is a later view) the sun. The latter received mythical representation in that most interesting god (but originally rather culture-hero) Maui, who, in New Zealand practically supplants Tangaloa, and becomes the god of the air and of the heaven, the creator and the causer of the flood. Speculation opened the usual deep problem; whence came the gods? It was answered that Po, i.e. darkness, was the begetter of all things, even of Tangaloa.
6. Indian.—India, however, is the natural home of a mythology recast by speculation. The classical specimen of an advanced cosmogony is to be found in the Rig Veda (x. 129); it is the hymn which begins, “There then was neither Aught nor Naught!” Another such cosmogony is given in Manu. It is “the self-existent Lord,” who, “with a thought, created the waters, and deposited in them a seed which became a golden egg, in which egg he himself is born as Brahmā, the progenitor of the worlds.” The doctrine of creation by a thought is characteristically Indian. In the şatapatha Brahmana (cf. Deluge), we meet again with the primeval waters and the world-egg, and with the famous mythological tortoise-theory, also found among the Algonkins (§ 2)—antique beliefs gathered up by the framers of philosophic systems, who felt the importance of maintaining such links with the distant past.
7. Egyptian.—In Egypt too the systematizers were busily engaged in the co-ordination of myths. They retained the belief that the germs of all things slept for ages within the dark flood, personified as Nûn or Nû. How they were drawn forth was variously told. In some districts the demiurge was called Khnūmu; it was he who modelled the egg (of the world?) and also man. Elsewhere he was the artizan-god Ptaḥ, who with his hammer broke the egg; sometimes Thoth, the moon-god and principle of intelligence, who spoke the world into existence. A strange episode in the legend of the destruction of man by the gods tells how Ra (or Re), the first king of the world, finding in his old age that mankind ceased to respect him, first tried the remedy of massacre, and then ascended the heavenly cow, and organized a new world—that of heaven.
8. Iranian.—The Iranian account of creation is specially interesting because its religious spirit is akin to that of Genesis i. From a literary point of view, indeed, it cannot compare with the dignified Hebrew narrative, but considering the misfortunes which have befallen the collection of Zoroastrian traditions now represented by the Bundahish (the Parsee Genesis) we cannot reasonably be surprised. The work referred to begins by describing the state of things in the beginning; the good spirit in endless light and omniscient, and the evil spirit in endless darkness and with limited knowledge. Both produced their own creatures, which remained apart, in a spiritual or ideal state, for 3000 years, after which the evil spirit began his opposition to the good creation under an agreement that his power was not to last more than 9000 years, of which only the middle 3000 were to see him successful. By uttering a sacred formula the good spirit throws the evil one into a state of confusion for a second 3000 years, while he produces the archangels and the material creation, including the sun, moon and stars. At the end of that period the evil spirit, encouraged by the demons he had produced, once more rushes upon the good creation to destroy it. The demons carry on conflicts with each of the six classes of creation, namely, the sky, water, earth, plants, animals represented by the primeval ox, and mankind represented by Gāyōmard or Kayumarth (the “first man” of the Avesta). Four points to be noticed here: (1) the belief in the four periods of the world, each of 3000 years (cf. § 3); (2) the comparative success for a time of Angra Mainyu (the evil principle personified); (3) the absence of any recognition of pre-existent matter; (4) the mention of six classes of good creatures. Each of these deserves a comment which we cannot, however, here give, and the third may seem to suggest direct influence of the Iranian upon the Jewish cosmogony. But though there are in Gen. i. six days of creative activity, and the creative works are not six, but eight, if not ten in number, and indirect Babylonian influence is more strongly indicated. Jewish thinkers would have been attracted by the emphatic assertion of the creatorship of the One God in the royal Persian inscriptions more than by the traditional cosmogony. See further Ency. Bib., “Creation,” § 9.
9. Phoenician and Greek.—Phoenician cosmogonies would appear, from the notices which have come down to us, to have been composite. The traditions are pale and obscure. It is clear, however, that the primeval flood and the world-egg (out of which came heaven and earth) are referred to. See Ency. Bib., “Creation” § 7; “Phoenicia” § 15; Lagrange, Religions sémitiques, pp. 351 ff. Greek cosmogonies (the orientalism of which is clear) will be found in Hesiod, Theog. 116 ff.; Aristophanes, Birds, 692 ff.; cf. Clem. Rom., Homil. vi. 4. See Miss Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, chap. xii, “Orphic Cosmogony.”
10. Babylonian and Israelitish.—Of the Babylonian and Israelitish cosmogonies we have several more or less complete records. For details as to the former, see Babylonian and Assyrian Religion. With regard to the latter, we may notice that in Gen. ii. 4b-25 we have an account of creation which, though in its present form very incomplete, is highly attractive, because it is pervaded by a breath from primitive times. It has, however, been interwoven with an account of the Garden of Eden from some other source (see Eden; Paradise), and perhaps in order to concentrate the attention of the reader, the description of the origin of “earth and heaven” as well as of the plants and of the rain, appears to have been omitted. In fact, both the creation-stories at the opening of Genesis must have undergone much editorial manipulation. Originally, for instance, Gen. i. 26 must have said that man was made out of earth; this point of contact between the two cosmogonic traditions has, however, been effaced.
The other narrative, Gen. i. 1-ii. 4a, is a much more complete cosmogony, and since the theory of P. A. Lagarde (1887), which ascribes it to Iranian influence (see § 8), has no very solid ground, whereas the theory which explains it as largely Babylonian is in a high degree plausible, we must now consider the relations between the Israelitish and Babylonian cosmogonies. The short account of creation first translated in 1890 by T. G. Pinches is distinguished by its non-mythical character; in particular, the dragon of chaos and darkness is conspicuous by her absence. This may illustrate the fact that the dragon is also unmentioned in the Hebrew cosmogony; to some writers the dragon-element may have seemed grotesque and inappropriate. We must, however, study this element in the most important Babylonian tradition, even if only for its relation to non-Semitic myths and especially to some striking passages in the Bible (Isa. xxvii. 1, li. 9b; Ps. lxxiv. 14, lxxxix. 10, 11; Job iii. 8, ix. 13, xxvi. 12, 13; Rev. xii. 3, 4, xx. 1-3). One may also be permitted to hold that the mythic figure of the dragon, if used poetically, is a highly serviceable one, and consider that “in the beginning God fought with the dragon, and slew him” would have formed an admirable illustration of the passages just now referred to, especially to those in the Apocalypse.
The student should, however, notice that the dragon-element is not entirely unrepresented even in the priestly Hebrew cosmogony. It is said in Gen. i. 9, 10, 14, 15, that God divided the primeval waters into two parts by an intervening “firmament” or “platform,” on which the sun, moon and stars (planets) were placed to mark times and to give light. This division (cp. Ps. lxxiv. 13) is really a pale version of the old mythic statement respecting the cleaving of the carcase of Tiāmat (the Dragon) into two parts, one of which kept the upper waters from coming down. And we must affirm that the technical term tĕ hōm (rendered in the English Bible “the deep”), which evidently signifies the enveloping primeval flood, and which closely resembles Tiāmat, the name given to the dragon or serpent in the epic (cf. tiamtu and tamtu, Babylonian words for “the ocean”), can only be due to the influence—probably the very early influence—of Babylonia.
But we are far from having exhausted the evidence of Babylonian influence on the Hebrew cosmogony. The description of chaos in v. 2 not only mentions the great water (tĕhōm), but the earth, i.e. the earth-matter, out of which the earth and (potentially) its varied products (vv. 9-11), and (as we know from the Babylonian epic) the “firmament” or “platform” of the heaven were to appear. This earth-matter is called “tōhu and bōhu”; there is nothing like this phrase in the epic, but we may infer from Jer. iv. 23, where the same phrase occurs, that it means “devoid of living things.” For a commentary on this see the opening of the Babylonian account referred to above, which refers to the period of chaos as one in which there were neither reeds nor trees, and where “the lands altogether were sea.” As to the creative acts, we may admit that the creation of light does not form one of them in the epic (cf. Gen. i. 3), but the existence of light apart from the sun is presupposed; Marduk the creator is in fact a god of light. Nor ought we to find a discrepancy between the Babylonian and the Hebrew accounts in the creation of the heavenly bodies after the plants, related in Gen. i. 14-18. For the position of this creative act is due to the necessity of bringing all the divine acts into the framework of six working days. On the whole, the Hebrew statement of the successive stages of creation corresponds so nearly to that in the Babylonian epic that we are bound to assume that one has been influenced by the other. And if we are asked, “Which is the more original?” we answer by appealing to the well-established fact of the profound influence of Babylonian culture upon Canaan in remote times (see Canaan). An important element in this culture would be mythic representations of the origin of things, such as the Babylonian Creation and Deluge-stories in various forms. Indeed, not only Canaan but all the neighbouring regions must have been pervaded by Babylonian views of the universe and its origin. Myths of origins there must indeed have been in those countries before Babylonian influence became so overpowering, but, if so, these myths must have become recast when the great Teacher of the Nations half-attracted and half-compelled attention. More than this we need not assert. Zimmern’s somewhat different treatment of the subject in Ency. Biblica, “Creation,” § 4, may be compared.
Popular writers are in some danger of misrepresenting this important result. It is tempting, but incorrect, to suppose that a docile Israelitish writer accepted one of the chief forms of the Babylonian cosmogony, merely omitting its polytheism and substituting “Yahweh” for “Marduk.” As we have seen, various myths of Creation may have been current both in N. Arabia (whence the Israelites may have come) and in Canaan prior to the great extension of Babylonian influence. These myths doubtless had peculiarities of their own. From one of them may have come that remarkable statement in Gen. i. 2b, “and the spirit of God (Elohim) was hovering over the face of the waters,” which, until we find some similar myth nearer home, is best illustrated and explained by a Polynesian myth (see Cheyne, Traditions and Beliefs of Ancient Israel, ad loc.). It is also probably to a non-Babylonian source that we owe the prescription of vegetarian or herb diet in Gen. i. 29, 30, which has a Zoroastrian parallel and is evidently based on a myth of the Golden Age, independent of the Babylonian cosmogony. Gen. i., therefore, has not, as it stands, been directly borrowed from Babylonia, and yet the infused Babylonian element is so considerable that the story is, in a purely formal aspect, much more Babylonian than either Israelitish or Canaanitish or N. Arabian. We say “in a purely formal aspect,” because the strictness with which Babylonian mythic elements have been adapted in Gen. i. to the wants of a virtually monotheistic community is in the highest degree remarkable.
On the literary scheme of the Creation-story in Gen. i. see the commentaries (e.g. Dillman’s and Driver’s). On the other Old Testament references to creation, and on the prophetic doctrine of creation, see Ency. Bib., “Creation,” §§ 27-29. On the traces of dragon and serpent myths in the Old Testament and their significance, see Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos (1895)—a pioneering work of the highest merit—and Ency. Bib., “Behemoth,” “Dragon,” “Rahab,” “Serpent.” On the connexion of the Creation and the Deluge-stories, see Deluge. Cf. also the article on Babylonian and Assyrian Religion; and Cheyne, Traditions and Beliefs of Ancient Israel (1907). (T. K. C.)
- Cf. Miss Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, chaps. vi., vii., “The Making of a Goddess and of a God.”
- See Ratzel, Hist. of Mankind, ii. 147-148; Breysig, Die Entstehung des Gottesgedankens (1905), pp. 10-12.
- See Chamberlain, Journ. of American Folklore, iv. 208-209 (analysis of Perrot’s account); Brinton, Myths of the New World, pp. 176-179; Breysig, op. cit., pp. 15-20.
- On Michabo see Brinton, op. cit. (1876), pp. 176 ff., Essays of an Americanist (1890), p. 132. This scholar holds that “Michabo” has properly nothing to do with “Great Hare,” but should be translated “the Great White One,” i.e. the light of the dawn. The Algonkins, however, thought otherwise, and the myth itself suggests a theriomorphic earth-maker.
- See Schoolcraft, Myth of Hiawatha (1856), pp. 35-39; and cf. the myth of Manabush, analysed in Journ. of Amer. Folklore, iv. 210-213.
- The latest explanation of Joskeha is “dear little sprout,” and of Tawiscara, “the ice-one,” while Aataentsic becomes “she of the swarthy body.” Hewitt, Journ. of Amer. Folklore, x. 68. Brébeuf (1635) says that Iouskeha gives growth and fair weather (Tylor, Prim. Cult. i. 294).
- See Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients, p. 121, 1; Winckler, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament 3, p. 333.
- Réville, Religions of Mexico and Peru, p. 129.
- Garcilasso el Inca, Comment. de los Incas, lib. ii. c. 2; cf. Lang, The Making of Religion, pp. 262-270.
- Réville, p. 187.
- Réville, p. 158. Garcilasso (lib. i. c. 18) says that Manco Capac “taught the subject nations to be men,” and also founded the imperial city of Cuzco ( = navel).
- De las antiquas gentes del Peru (ed. 1892), pp. 55, 56.
- See especially Waitz-Gerland, Anthropologie der Naturvölker, vi. 229-302; Gill, Myths and Songs of the South Pacific; Schirren, Wandersagen der Neuseeländer; also an older work (Sir George) Grey’s Polynesian Mythology.
- See Schirren, op. cit., pp. 64-89.
- J. Muir, Metrical Translations, pp. 188-189.
- J. Muir, Sanscrit Texts, iv. 26.
- See Tylor, Early History of Mankind, p. 340; Primitive Culture, i. 329; Oldenberg, Religion des Veda, pp. 85 f.
- See Maspero, Dawn of Civilization, p. 127; also Brugoch, Religion und Mythologie der alten Ägypter.
- See illustration in Maspero, p. 157.
- See Maspero, pp. 146-147.
- Maspero, pp. 160-169.
- See Zoroaster, and cf. Ency. Bib., “Creation,” § 9: “Zoroastrianism,” §§ 20, 21.
- West, Pahlavi Texts (S.B.E.), vol. i., introd. p. xxiii. We need not deny that, late as the Bundahish may be as a whole, the traditions which it contains are often old.
- Fragments of older works are cited by Philo of Byblus (in Eusebius, Praep. Evang. i. 10) and Mochus and Endemus (in Damascius, De primis principiis, c. 125).
- See Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p. 428.
- See Bundahish, xv. 2 (S.B.E., v. 53).