The Evolution of Creation Stories
“We have language, the primary medium of culture, and language has opened up new regions of Design Space that only we are privy to.” – Daniel C. Dennett
In one of Professor Grobstein’s lectures he asked, “Is there any reason to think that religions and cultures could be anything more than their history?” This is a good question, but it begs another question: Why do we have a concept of history in the first place? Obviously history exists, but just like the human ability to conceive of the future, history (or at least as I understand it) seems to be a rare phenomenon tied with our ability for language and the telling of stories. What’s even more fascinating is the human ability to make up a history or to tell a story, such as a creation myth, that seeks to explain something that has not been witnessed by anyone and does not have any role in finding food or creating shelter. We do not have a physical need to know how the earth came to be or to know how it is that we came to be here. Still, creation stories exist in almost all human cultures and, amazingly, many share many of the same elements. The question is, why? Is it a coincidence that so many of them share the same elements? By looking at a comparison of two creation stories, we should be able to understand the meaning of these similarities better.
Just look at two creation stories side-by-side and you should easily see their similarities. Perhaps the easiest way to do this would be to take one unknown creation story and compare it to one from one’s own culture. Below is an example of a Mongolian creation myth:
Long long ago God descended to earth and made a man and a
woman out of clay. Before returning to heaven to get some holy
water with the power to animate anything, he ordered his dog and
cat to protect the clay people from the devil. After God ascended
to heaven, the devil came to harm the people. The dog and the
cat protected them, though, thwarting the devil's plan. Finally,
the devil deceived them by giving a piece of meat to the dog and
a bowl of milk to the cat. While the dog ate the flesh and the cat
lapped the milk, the devil urinated on the people and fled.
When God returned with the holy water and discovered what
had happened, he was enraged. Scolding the dog and cat for
neglecting their duty, he forced the cat to lick the hair off the bodies
of the people whom the devil had defiled (God created humans
with hair all over their bodies). The cat licked off the hair everywhere
except their heads, armpits, and crotches, since the former
had not been dirtied and the latter two were hard for the cat to
reach. God then put the hair that had been licked away by the
cat onto the body of the dog, so that humans are now naked and
dogs have hair. The Mongol saying that the tongue of the cat
and the hair of the dog are dirty has its origin here. Man and
woman, who were animated by drinking the holy water, should
have been immortal but became mortal instead because of their
defilement by the devil. (Nassen-Bayer and Stuart, 324-325)
This, could easily be compared to excerpts from Genesis, such as:
“But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered
the whole face of the ground.
7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
And this one:
“And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of
the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”
By looking at these two excerpts from Genesis in comparison to the Mongolian creation story, you should see that there is an interesting similarity between them and that differences exist mostly in the symbolism: the Mongolian story tells that humans were made of clay where the Bible version says “dust”, the Mongolian story describes the devil as some kind of urinating beast, where Genesis describes it as a “serpent”; the Mongolian story says that the first man and woman became naked by having the cat lick the hair off that had been urinated on while the Bible describes the nakedness as a state that was realized after biting the apple.
These kinds of similarities are common among creation stories. Many tell a common story. There could be a few simple explanations for their commonality:
1.) They all originated from one story and changed as people spread away from a single point to many and the stories evolved or adapted to fit the different environments that the people telling it lived in.
2.) They were all different stories that picked up elements from one another through communication between different cultures telling different stories so that they began to be quite similar after many years of intermingling.
3.) They all were developed separately based on different understandings of how the world works by different peoples and share a commonality due to the fact that the world’s basic mechanics are similar world-wide.
While it is plausible that any of these explanations may be correct, it is evident to me that these stories must have gone through some kind of evolutionary process in order to accrue the similarities that they have.
Both of the creation stories above make use of known, non-abstract objects and situations to communicate something that is slightly abstract. This may signify that the formation of a creation story was possibly an important first step in the generation of more abstract ideas and concepts in language.
An interesting situation to note is that of the Pirahã. The people of this Brazilian tribe have a very simple language of whistles that seem to limit them in various ways. Tests have revealed that the simplicity of their language may limit them. One test revealed that they have an inability to count or comprehend large numbers as their language has words for only “one”, “two”, and “many”. They also live only in the now. This may be one of the few (if not only) cultures without a creation story… much less an art or communication of abstract subjects.(Everett) This is an odd case that seems to prove that creation stories are highly linked to language and the development of a culture. However, it would not be fair to say that these people are less evolved. Instead, it would seem that their language is less evolved and so they do less with it.
At some point, there had to be a time when we had evolved to a point in which we were able to tell stories. Maybe, originally, this would have been helpful in telling others where to find food or in teaching offspring lessons that had been learned by previous generations so as not to have to repeat the learning process over again. Sometime, early people decided to make use of this ability in a somewhat non-utilitarian way: to explain how they came to be. This story may have originated from one place and then spread out with the spread of people. Or perhaps there were multiple stories that took on elements of the other stories when they were mixed. Overall, though, what could these creation stories possibly signify? Consider the possibility that perhaps it is not only a human’s ability to conceive of the future, but also the past that makes his/her mind unique and especially the creation or understanding of an abstract, unknown past. With this knowledge, it could easily be argued that to argue with the idea of creationism is to argue with the result or stepping stone of a process that allowed our minds to conceive of our first abstract thoughts or at least the result of our ability to communicate information between one another. Perhaps the universality of the creation stories is the most important trait to consider. Maybe it is not only the human ability to conceive of a future, but the ability to conceive of a past that makes the race so unique. Maybe the answer to that question the Professor Grobstein asked is a simple yes, there is reason to think that religion and culture are something more than their histories and that is the stories that they can tell about their histories.
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Everett, Daniel L. "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in PirahÃ£." CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY 46 (2005). PNG Languages. 10 Nov. 2005. 12 Mar. 2009 <http://www.pnglanguages.org/americas/brasil/PUBLCNS/ANTHRO/PHGrCult.pdf>.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. American Bible Society. 13 Mar. 2009 <http://www.bartleby.com/108/01/3.html>.
Nassen-Bayer, and Kevin Stuart. "Mongol Creation Stories: Man, Mongol Tribes, the Natural World, and Mongol Deities." Asian Folklore 51 (1992): 323-34.