You are here

2. Cosmogonical Myths

Modern science seems to expose the concept of creation as a myth. In this second lecture I want to study what cosmogonical myths really are. Let me begin by considering the meaning of the words “cosmogonical myth”.

The Greek word kosmos means order, ornament, and beauty. The Pythagorean philosophers made it mean the world which is of perfect beauty because it is ordered. In the Christian tradition it comes to mean the world as distinct from God. The final syllables—gonical—are derived from the Greek root—gen—which indicates birth and more generally every way of coming into being, every becoming. Cosmogony then is, objectively speaking, the way in which the world came into being, or it is, subjectively speaking, the teaching about this way.

The Greek word mythos originally means nothing but word or speech. In a narrower sense it means a story told. At all times people asked: Who were our forefathers? Who gave us bread, tools and weapons? Whence came birth and death? Whence came Heaven and Earth? As an answer they are told a story. This story is a mythos, a myth.

I should like to read to you a genuine cosmogonical myth in full. But that would take me not much less than an hour for reading and another hour or two for explaining. Instead I want to use the first half of this lecture in indicating briefly the contents of three relevant cosmogonical myths, and the second half in discussing their meaning. I choose a Babylonian myth, a Greek myth and a Scandinavian one.

The Babylonian Epic of Creation was written by men who lived as many years before Christ as we live after Christ; it will become relevant for our interpretation of the Old Testament, for there can be no doubt that the author of Genesis 1 knew it and despised it. The Greek Theogony as told by Hesiod was known to every Greek philosopher; Plato was certainly convinced that he had done better than Hesiod when he had written his Timaeus. The verses and tales of the Icelandic Edda were written down less than one thousand years ago; they may give us at least some hint on the views of our own medieval ancestors before, by being baptized, they were exposed to the tradition of the ancient world.

When on high the heavens were not named,

And beneath a home bore no name,

And Apsû primeval, their engenderer,

And the Form, Tiâmat, the bearer of all of them,

There mingled their waters together;

Dark chambers were not built, and marshlands were not seen;

When none of the gods had been brought into being,

And they were not named, and fates were not fixed:

Then were created the gods in the midst thereof;

Lahmu and Lahamu were brought into being and were named.

For ages they grew up and became lofty.

Ansar and Kisar were created more excellent than they.

The days lengthened themselves and the years increased.

Anu their son, the rival of his fathers,

Ansar made Anu his first-born equal to himself,

And as to Anu he begat Nudimuned his equal …

Thus, in S. Langdon’s translation,1 begins the long ritual song which was sung every year in springtime in ancient Babylon at the New Year festival. It is a document of the same great period of Mesopotamian culture as Hammurabi’s book of law; but it was still in use 1500 years later, in the time of Alexander the Great. The text which we possess was found in the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal, who lived in the 7th century BC.

You do not need to remember the perplexing abundance of divine names which are here solemnly introduced. But then a drama develops and I repeat those names which are important as dramatis personae.

Apsû and Tiâmat are primeval waters. Apsû is known as the ocean of fresh water stretching beneath the earth, from which springs and wells are supplied. Tiâmat is the salt-water ocean. Here they are man and woman, engenderer and bearer of everything to come. Of the long generations of gods deriving from them the younger ones were the great gods of the Babylonians. Anu, the last but one in the above quotation, is the Lord of Heaven in Babylonian religion. Nudimuned “whom he begat his equal”, is another name of Ea, the Ruler of the Sea.

A deadly conflict arises between the eldest couple Apsû and Tiâmat and their offspring. “The brothers, the gods … troubled the thoughts of Tiâmat with singing in the midst of their abode.” Apsû says to Tiâmat:

Their way has become grievous to me.

By day I am rested not, by night I sleep not.

I will destroy them and confound their ways.

Let tranquillity reign, and let us sleep, even us.

But this first fight is won by the younger gods. Ea, the young god, “the exceedingly wise, the clever in skill”, bewitches Apsû and slays him in his sleep. Then he “fixes upon Apsû his dwelling”. The slain body of Apsû becomes the palace of his killer. And this is consistent, since Apsû is the Water and Ea is the Lord of the Waters.

Only in this moment is the hero of the poem born. He is Marduk, the city-god of Babylon, the god of spring, of the sun and of the thunderstorm, greater than all the elder gods.

But Tiâmat prepares her revenge. She, the Mother of the Depth, the dragon of the sea, now gives birth to monsters; with poison-like blood she fills their bodies. Here are some of them: the Viper, the Raging Serpent, the Great Lion, the Gruesome Hound, the Scorpion-man, the Spirits of Wrath, the Fish-man and the Fish-ram.

In deep horror the younger gods transfer the dominion to Marduk who alone can save them. Armed with lightning he goes to war.

He made a net to enfold the belly of Tiâmat,

He caused the four winds to come under control that

nothing of her might escape …

He created the evil wind, the Tempest, the Hurricane,

The Fourfold-wind, the Sevenfold-wind, the

Devastating-wind, the Unrivalled-wind.

The raging winds filled Tiâmat’s belly, and Marduk let loose an arrow … it rent asunder her heart; he bound her and quenched her breath of life.

Now, when the struggle of the gods has come to an end, Marduk creates the world. He makes it out of the corpse of Tiâmat.

He split her into two parts, like an oyster.

Half of her he set up and made the heavens as a covering.

The lord measured the dimension of Apsû.

A vast abode its counterpart he fixed—even the Earth.

In the very last scene man is made. Perhaps a lost part of the poem has told that some service has weighed too heavily on the gods. Now a god, Kingu, who had been Tiâmat’s general, is killed.

With his blood Ea made mankind

In the cult service of the gods, and he set the gods free.2 And men build a city as a dwelling for Marduk, they build Babylon. At the end all the gods assemble and sing Marduk’s praise, calling his fifty names.

So much about Babylon. I shall speak more briefly of Greece and Iceland.

Hesiod says in his Theogony:

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods … From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day … And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.3

To Heaven, Earth bore many powerful and terrifying divine children. But Heaven “used to hide them all away in a secret place so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light; and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing. But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she thought of a crafty and an evil wile.” She forms a great sickle, and Cronos, her youngest son, vindicates her; when Heaven comes again, “bringing on night and longing for love”, Cronos emasculates his own father. Thus Heaven and Earth are separated.

Cronos now is Lord of the World. Fearing that his children will do to him as he did to his father, he devours them as soon as they are born. Zeus, the youngest, is cunningly saved, and when he is grown up he dethrones his father. Defending his rule against the Titans, his father’s elder brothers, with his weapon, the thunderbolt, he establishes the dominion of the Olympian Gods, a dominion which lasts to this day.

About the origin of man the Greeks told different stories. According to Hesiod “the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus” created five successive generations of men: men of the golden, the silver, the bronze age, the heroes and, fifth, our own age of iron. Others tell that the Titan Prometheus formed men out of clay and that for them he stole the fire from heaven. I shall not expand on these well-known classical myths.

Scandinavian seafarers who settled in Iceland wrote in the Edda:

Twas the earliest of times     when Ymir lived;

then was sand nor sea     nor cooling wave,

nor was Earth found ever,     nor Heaven on high,

there was Yawning of Deeps     and nowhere grass.4

The Younger Edda explains this, trivializing it a little. The Yawning of Deeps, Ginungagap in Old Norse, is a valley between the ice of Niflheim and the burning heat of Muspilheim:

Ginungagap was as warm and mild as windless air. And when the heat blasts from Muspilheim met the rime, so that it melted into drops, then, by the might of him who sent the heat, the drops quickened into life and took the likeness of a man who got the name Ymir … Evil was he and all his offspring … It is said that when he slept he fell into a sweat, and then there grew under his left arm a man and a woman, and one of his feet begat with the other a son. From these come the races that are called frost-giants.5

Then the melting rime formed into a cow whose milk streams fed Ymir. And the cow

licked the salt-stones that were covered with rime, and the first day that she licked the stones there came out of them in the evening a man’s hair, the second day a man’s head, and the third day the whole man was there. This man’s name was Buri; he was fair of face, great and mighty, and he begat a son whose name was Bor. This Bor married a woman whose name was Bestla, the daughter of the giant Bolthorn. They had three sons: Odin, Vili and Ve. And it is my belief that this Odin and his brothers are the rulers of heaven and earth.6

Bor’s sons slay Ymir, and in his blood they drown the whole race of frost-giants, except one who escapes. Then they make heaven and earth:

From the flesh of Ymir the world was formed,

from his blood the billows of the sea,

the hills from his bones the trees from his hair

the sphere of heaven from his skull.

Out of his brows the blithe Powers made

Midgarth for sons of men,

and out of his brains were the angry clouds

all shaped above in the sky.7

In other strophes the Edda tells how the three gods Odin, Hönir and Lodur made man and woman out of an ash-tree and an elm-tree which they had found, fateless, at the shore of the sea, by giving them life and soul.

Such are the tales. What is their meaning?

He who asks such a question is no longer a child of the mythical age; else the myths would tell him what they want to tell, without an explanation. Think of their little brothers, the fairytales. The youngster who asks what the fairy-tales mean has outgrown the age of fairy-tales. If, then, he should still wish to understand them, he must outgrow that age, too, in which he is proud of not believing in fairy-tales. Our situation with respect to the myths is very similar.

What are the myths? You can compare them to fairy-tales, but they contain another kind of greatness, of horror, of sanctity. Should we call them the great poems of the prehistoric age?

At least the free play of fancy seems to be common to myths and to poetry. Freely those myth-tellers invent generations of gods who live and act in a world like ours although they existed before heaven and earth were made and although they did deeds beyond every human measure. Here a god eats his children, there a sly old peasant thinks up the idea of a cow which licked the first man out of the ice. From a slain corpse the world is built, and nobody asks on what soil it rests. But as in poetry the imagination of the myth-teller is bound by laws of form. Poetry is older than prose; the first mythical texts are poems obeying rigid formal rules. Here liturgy would be a better comparison than our modern subjective poetry. Absolute strictness of form facilitates the oral tradition and implies the sanctity of the text. Even our children want to hear the same tales told in ever the same words.

Yet even the contents of the three myths I told you is far more strictly determined than may appear at first sight. The wild and delicate play of fancy is but an adornment, while in fact the three narrators seem to see and to tell the very same things. There is a beginning which nearly evades description by human words. Then we see an elemental power, dark or cold: water, earth, ice. Out of it bright, heavenly forces arise. They appear in human shape, they are gods. Strife arises between the old and the young divine powers, and the younger gods are victorious. The ruling god of our aeon makes men; in two of our three tales he first makes heaven and earth out of the slain body of the enemy.

Where do these correspondences come from? Certainly myths have migrated. But why have people been prepared to accept foreign myths and to retell them as their own? I want to maintain that these cosmogonical myths contain a common rational structure, a kind of philosophy. This philosophy, I think, is so reasonable that it should not surprise us to find it invented independently by different nations and even less to find it accepted when told by travellers. But it should be clear from the outset that this comparison of myths with philosophy is to be taken even less literally than their comparison with fairy-tales, poetry, or liturgy. A myth cannot be fully transformed into a system of unambiguous concepts. We, children of a later age, cannot understand a myth without tentatively applying our categories to it. It contains elements corresponding to all of them, identical with none of them. Thus our categories dissect the myth into incoherent aspects, and a true understanding of the myth, if we ever can reach it, must finally let these aspects disappear again in an integral body.

What, then, is the philosophical aspect of our myths? Philosophy means that we reflect on our own presuppositions. Philosophy would not tell a tale but ask how the tale can be meaningful; how it can be a possible tale. Let us ask this question by reversing the time-sequence of the tale.

Here we are, human beings in a world whose frame is heaven and earth. Where do we come from, whence came heaven and earth? We know only one way how such wonderful and incomprehensible works can have arisen: somebody must have made them.

He who is to make such things must be able to reason as a man, but he must be immensely more powerful. Yet such beings, similar to mankind but immensely more mighty, were known to all the ancient nations: Who, living in such a nation, would not know the gods? I am not yet asking what gods are. I now take them as self-evidently known as they were in those times.

Everything made is made out of some material: bread from grain, weapons from metal, statues of the gods from burned clay, stone or brass. In the same way the gods have made us from the materials of their world. The gods, too, have a world and a history.

But does not this lead us into an infinite regression? If the gods live in their world like men, whence did the gods come, whence came their world?

The younger gods can be distinguished from the world that surrounds them. But in the beginning of the genealogies of gods we find beings that appear like acting and speaking persons as well as like elements of the primeval cosmic landscape. Apsû is the ocean. He is slain by his offspring Ea. Then Ea makes his dwelling on Apsû. The slain god is now the palace of his killer. If Apsû was the ocean, Ea can be distinguished from the ocean, being the lord of the ocean.

The god who is identical with his element is the earlier stage. The younger gods who can be distinguished from the element in which they rule are more man-like; and they are the gods who made heaven and earth, who made man and guarantee the world-order in which we live. Implicit in the distinction of the generations of gods is the idea that the material of the world is older than its present order. The god who gave it the order can be distinguished from his work precisely because of this order, while the shapeless original material is in an obscure way element and god alike.

But how could order ever arise out of primeval indistinction? By their very nature the first gods were no artisans who would have made a thing according to a plan. They could only bear order as a mother bears her child; she gives rise to what is different from her by a necessity beyond any will. Only an accidental effect like the licking of the divine cow offers an alternative, and this one seems to be a late invention. But the new world of order disturbs the quiet and the power of its ancestors: the elder gods fear and hate their children. They must be slain by their children; only then their dead body becomes the material from which a world of order can be built.

Have we understood the origin of the gods and their world? The first gods were gods and world in one. But whence did they come?

Somehow even earlier than the first gods there was a state which we now like to call by its Hesiodic name Chaos. But Chaos does not just mean disorder, because then there would at least exist something. Literally chaos means yawning. The same word appears in the Edda: Ginungagap is yawning of the deeps. This state can only be described by negations. None of the things that make our world were there: neither heaven nor earth, neither grass nor sea, neither name nor fate. If you want to describe an absolute beginning you cannot do it otherwise. It could not be the beginning if it contained anything that still might have an origin. The beginning must be a kind of nothingness; but since it is the beginning of something it must have some part in being. Let us call it nothingness pregnant with being.

The very first idea in the texts is usually a determination of time: “When on high the heavens were not named”; “Verily at the first …”; “’Twas the earliest of times.” Since this time is the time of the beginning you cannot assign it a definite moment or a definite duration, both of which would presuppose form and limits. The first time is as much and as little time as Chaos has turned out to be being.

This, I think, is the implicit philosophy of the cosmogonical myths. Has later philosophical speculation had any important idea to add? Leaving the material questions to later lectures we may say now: at least it added explicitness. This philosophy which we extracted from a told tale may have been present in it in the same way in which logic is present in the living speech of an intelligent person who never studied logic; the narrator who was far from possessing this philosophy explicitly would at least have felt an irritation whenever his tale violated it. Let us say that this philosophy is implicit in the myth. Hence the myth is at the same time explained and distorted by our explicit philosophical interpretation. Let us return to a more integral understanding of the myth.

The aspects which I mentioned before, as fairy-tale, poetry, liturgy, philosophy, are aspects of the form of presentation and reasoning. There are different aspects of the matter, too, of which the myths speak. So far we have only interpreted them as cosmogony, this word understood in its seemingly plain sense. But we had to defer a central question: the question what the gods mean. This question will open aspects quite different from what we consider to be cosmogony.

Let there be no doubt: in asking what the gods mean we are as hopelessly naive as the boy who is proud that he no longer believes in fairy tales. To a man who believes in a god the god exists and the question what the god means is meaningless to him. If understanding a person means to be able to feel what the other person feels, an adequate understanding of religion would imply the question, not what gods mean but what gods are. This is just what our proud boy, scientism, does not want to admit. But let us not overstrain our powers. We cannot restore a lost faith by our will, and the faith in the gods of these myths is lost to us, whatever we may think of religion. Hence let us ask the only question within our present reach, and that is the question what these gods mean. Only let us not be satisfied by our own answers. Let them not keep us from further questioning.

Many of the gods evidently represent powers of nature. Marduk and Zeus are lords of the lightning and of the thunderstorm. Tiâmat is the water, Ymir is the ice. The victory of Marduk’s winds over Tiâmat’s water-monsters is the ever recurring victory of spring over winter; it is not accidental that the epic was sung every new year in spring. In that sense, however, the epic does not seem to be cosmogonical. It rather seems to celebrate a recurring event. I shall come back to this question soon.

The gods do not only represent powers of nature. They also represent political powers. And, strangely enough, the same god can show both aspects. Marduk is the city-god of Babylon. The younger gods were only able to resist Tiâmat after having chosen the youngest offspring, even Marduk, to be their ruler. His elevation above the other gods in turn elevates Babylon above the other cities of Mesopotamia. In older forms of the myth Enlil, the god of Nippur, was the hero of the tale; still other gods seem to have played the same rôle at other times and in other places. The Assyrians, who seem to have excelled in the military field more than in poetry, took over the Babylonian text, only replacing the name of Marduk throughout the poem by the name of their national god Assur; in this form most of the text has come down to us from Assurbanipal’s library. In each of these forms the myth celebrates some political act which, because of the sacred nature of the political bodies of that time, was at the same time a religious one. The victory of a town or of a nation was a victory of its gods. Perhaps the changing dynasties of gods reflect some changes of human dynasties, too.

Finally, the modern psychology of the subconscious mind, especially as presented by C. G. Jung, opens up quite a different understanding of the gods. To it the image of the god is a sign visible to the conscious mind but representing a far deeper reality in the soul. Let us try to interpret our myths as strictly as possible according to this understanding. Their drama of theogony then is really a drama of psychogony, of the becoming of the soul. In his representations of the becoming of the world then, man is projecting the powers that act in himself; he thus tries to see himself in objectivation. But the god is always more than the image that I paint of him. This is expressed clearly in the myth, saying that the gods made man, not vice versa. My consciousness is not the lord of those deeper realities in my soul that emerge in the images of the gods, but it springs from them, rests upon them and depends on them. In the depth of our souls is the battle of the gods. The shapeless dark powers of the unconscious are older than the powers of light and order, and they hate that order. Tiâmat is the water, and the water is well known by psychologists to mean the unconscious. Within our own soul the principle of light has to slay the principle of darkness if order is to be built. Even the firm soil on which we stand is still surrounded by “deep-swirling Okeanos”. Who, if he ever has learnt to know himself, will not recognize himself in this image?

Of the three interpretations of the gods which I have mentioned—the physical, the political and the psychological interpretation—I think the last one comes closest to answering the question what the gods really are. It penetrates most deeply into the origin of the immense power gods have always exerted on mankind; a power of which physical forces seem to be just a likeness and from which political dominions derive their very strength. For there is but one power I can never escape: the power of a voice speaking within myself.

Yet the psychological interpretation is just an aspect or an approximation. It cannot be the final answer, for two reasons. Firstly, it describes the reality of the gods in more or less atheistic language. Secondly, it still dissects the unity of mythical thought, taking out one aspect. The two shortcomings are interlinked, and they have their common origin in a way of thought which is still too naively modern. I shall try to explain both points.

It describes the reality of the gods in a more or less atheistic language. I say “more or less”, because the meaning of the language used depends to some extent on the speaker. In any case, the term “psychological” is apt to transform the gods into something merely subjective. This little word “merely” may undo the understanding of the gods which was reached in saying that we depend on them since they created us and we did not create them. What is merely subjective seems to be more or less my own creation. Making use of the psychologists’ own language I should like to point out the psychological meaning of this “merely”. It may be true that the visible image of a god is some kind of projection; an objectivation by which I put the god before myself, thereby freeing myself somehow of his overwhelming power. Probably for this reason the Jews were forbidden to make any likeness of God. But by describing the god as merely subjective I do precisely the same thing. Now I project his power, not outward on the plane of physical visibility, but inward on the plane of psychological fact. If this power called a god is just psychology, I am prepared to handle it. We have got doctors, after all. Well, wait and see!

The psychological interpretation is probably the best existing way of expressing the reality of the gods in the language of a scientific age. If I was right in the first lecture this expression cannot but be ambiguous. Speaking in philosophical terms I should probably say that the very distinction of objective and subjective reality, of matter and mind, of fact and idea makes it impossible to use any but ambiguous language in interpreting mythical thought. As to my views on the philosophical relevance of these distinctions I must refer your curiosity to the second series of ten lectures which will treat of the philosophy of science. One thing is certain, however, that the very concepts of mind, of subjectivity, or psychology as we understand them today are not appropriate to an expression of what the myths intend to say. In speaking of the soul instead of the mind, as I did several times when explaining the psychological interpretation, I may not have lessened the confusion; thereby I may just have replaced an expression of modern thought and Cartesian metaphysics by an expression of medieval thought and Aristotelian metaphysics. Myth, however, is pre-metaphysical as well as pre-scientific.

Here I come to my second point. The psychological interpretation dissects the unity of the myth. Its relative truth does not make the physical and the political interpretations less true. If I leave out the somewhat complicated political implications for the moment, I can certainly state that the myth tells the history of nature as well as the history of the soul. It portrays them in one great drama.

Even within the physical interpretation we already remarked the same unity of aspects which would be different to us: the same epic celebrates the unique event of the making of the world and the recurring event of spring’s victory over the waters of the winter. We must understand that to mythical thought the two events are essentially identical. Modern science refers recurring events to universal laws of nature. It would find the link between the origin of the world and the recurring events in the world in a cosmogonical theory explaining that unique event of the beginning by applying the same universal laws to it; we shall consider examples of such theories in later lectures. But mythical thought does not possess the category of the universal. Of course it remarks the recurrence of events and it describes them by words which can be generally used. But it tries to make clear the essence of what we describe by laws of nature by using particular illustrative examples. This inverts even its concept of causality as compared to ours. To us the first event could happen because the universal law held even then. To the myth the event can recur every year because it happened once. Because Marduk has overcome Tiâmat once, spring can now overcome winter every year. The god is not, as we might think, expressing the validity of the law, but the law is expressing the power of the god.

An analogous consideration is to be applied to the unity of the physical with the psychological interpretation. Mythical thought does not separate body and mind. In this it does not differ from our direct understanding of our fellow man. The mother who sees her child weep sees the grief present in the tears; that tears and grief are different is a later statement, a statement of reflection. If you listen to me and if you understand what I say you hear the thoughts present in my words; that words and thoughts are different, is again a statement of later reflection. You can only make such statements after the contact of understanding has been disturbed; reflection arises most easily out of that distrust which does not believe that this tear expresses real grief or that my words really say what I mean. Perhaps, if you try to cling to that pre-reflective state of mind, you will understand how the great powers of the soul can have been seen as the great powers of the cosmos, too.

But I cannot enlarge on this problem. The next lecture will lead us to an anti-mythical myth: Genesis 1.

  • 1.

    The Babylonian Epic of Creation, Clarendon Press 1923.

  • 2.

    Langdon, op. cit.

  • 3.

    Translation by H. G. Evelyn-White, Heinemann.

  • 4.

    The Elder or Poetic Edda, translation by Olive Bray, 1908.

  • 5.

    The Younger Edda, translation by Rasmus Anderson, 1880.

  • 6.

    Anderson, op. cit.

  • 7.

    Bray, op. cit.

From the book: