Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Creation Mythology

According to Stephen Jay Gould — scientist, science historian, and writer — Abner Doubleday “didn’t know a baseball from a kumquat” (51). Baseball evolved slowly out of English stickball games and “no one invented baseball at any moment or in any spot” (46). But, says Gould, “we seem to prefer the alternative model of origin by a moment of creation — for then we can have heroes and sacred places” (48).

For some reason … we are powerfully drawn to the subject of beginnings. We yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favor of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace). The hankering after an origin myth has always been especially strong for the closest subject of all — the human race. But we extend the same psychic need to our accomplishments and institutions — and we have origin myths and stories for the beginning of hunting, of language, of art, of kindness, of war, of boxing, bow ties, and brassieres. Most of us know that the Great Seal of the United States pictures an eagle holding a ribbon reading e pluribus unum. Fewer would recognize the motto on the other side (check it out on the back of a dollar bill): annuit coeptis — “he smiles on our beginnings.” (45)

Scientists often lament that so few people understand Darwin and the principles of biological evolution. But the problem goes deeper. Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in theis area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories — for creation myths … identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular object as a symbol of reverence, worship, or patriotism. (57)

Indeed, creation myths seem partly to function as “etiologies” — that is, stories that serve to explain to a culture the origins of itself, its customs and practices, or of natural phenomena.

Creation themes among cultures worldwide include the creation of the world as a deliberate act by a divine being or beings, sometimes animals. Early mythologies tend to view the earth as emerging from a vast cosmic ocean, sometimes held up on a great turtle’s back. Cultures with dualistic tendencies in their outlooks often trace good and evil back to these mythological beginnings, with twins representing the two sides, or, in the case of the ancient Persians, eternal twin spirits Ahura Mazda (who created the physical world and humankind) and Ahriman, the evil counterpart.

Some interesting points of comparison and considerations when reading various creation myths cross-culturally include the following:

  • Is the focus on the creator or the creation? What will this say about the culture’s attitude towards the natural world?
  • Creation takes place using what substance and with what process? How stable is the world by implication?
  • How close are the relationships between humans, animals, and deities?
  • What do the humans call themselves? (In rare cases, for example, a tribal name may be a verb; e.g., the Kiowas called themselves Kwuda, “coming out.” How does your worldview change if you think of yourself as a verb instead of a sanctimonious noun?)
  • Is the emphasis on the individual or the group? Is creation elitist or a collective experience?
  • Do explanations of natural phenomena make good sense? (Are the Big Bang and genetics really all that superior in explaining anything?)

Work Cited

Gould, Stephen Jay. “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown.” Rpt. in Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991. 42-58.