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I will now proceed in an inductive fashion to examine religious myths. The following three examples tell of the formation of the world.  The first is an Indian story from North America; the second is the Genesis story from the Bible, coming from the ancient Near East; the third is a Dreaming story from the Central Australian Desert. Each of these is part of a cycle of myths which give a fuller account of a people.  While ‘origin narratives’ may not be the most crucial part of these accounts they help orient the other stories of the cycle.

The Maidu Account of the Origins of the World

The Maidu are an Indian people living in a inland area of Northern California near Mount Lassen.  It would be more precise to call this a myth of the formation of the earth rather than a creation story, since in it tells about a number of primal beings with muted creator roles. The story was related in English to members of the Huntington California Expedition in 1902 by a Maidu elder.

The story had been told and retold among Maidu people from time immemorial. Like all such narratives in an oral tradition it has been conditioned and adapted in the retelling to fit the audience at hand.  By 1902 many of a storytellers’ listeners would be people with Christian backgrounds so it would not be surprising if echoes of Biblical decor have found their way into the narrative.

The Maidu story has characteristics that are similar to stories from the Dreaming that are told by Australian Aborigines. It would, however, be inaccurate to label this myth as a story from the Dreaming.  This story cycle does not, as in the case of Australian Aboriginal stories, tell of the formation of a specific land, nor does it precisely associate the Maidu society with any particular land or ancestor. It should be noted that Native American Peoples do not have a word equivalent to the Dreaming.

The Maidu people of California had a loose tribal organization with no visible expression of totemism.  Their main occupation was hunting and gathering in a rich semi-forested area.

Tribal life was not uncomfortable or impoverished. Families lived in well-built circular lodges 12 feet to 15 feet  in diameter. The roof, which was conical in shape, had a opening at the top which served as a smoke hole, and perhaps gave access to the sky.  There was one small, low door near the ground requiring everyone, in a symbolic action, to crawl into the lodge on hands and knees.

Only two rites seemed to have major importance–an annual “burning of possessions” and an ‘initiation’ ceremony for boys at puberty.  The burning ceremony was performed to honor and remember the dead, especially those who had died in recent years.  The old men, after careful consultation, chose only some of the eligible boys for initiation.  So initiation is perhaps not the best title for this Maidu rite.  Those initiated became yeponi,–members of a secret society–and were held in honor and looked up to.

The myth reported here has points of connection with the stories of the Wintum and Yana Indian groups located nearby in the Shasta and Pit River areas. The Algonquin, in the northeastern United States, have a creation myth that also speaks of an animal diving for earth, hence this was a widely distributed point of view on the North American Continent. Indian tribes in Southern California, however, sometimes spoke of God as thinking the world into existence from a void. So creation theories were also present. [1]

According to the Maidu:[2]

In the beginning there was no sun, no moon, no stars. All was dark, and everywhere there was only water. A raft came floating on the water. It came from the North and in it were two persons — Turtle (Anosma) and the Father-of-the-Secret-Society (Peheipe).[3] The stream flowed very rapidly. Then from the sky a rope of feathers (pokelma) was let down, and down it came the Earth-Initiate. When he reached the end of the rope, he tied it to the bow of the raft and stepped in. His face was covered and was never seen, but his body shone like the sun. He sat down and for a long time said nothing.

At last Turtle said, “Where do you come from?”

And Earth-Initiate answered, “I come from above.”

Then Turtle said, “Brother can you not make for me some good dry land, so that I may sometimes come up out of the water?” Then he asked another time, “Are there going to be any people in the world?”

Earth-Initiate thought for a while, then said, “Yes.”

Turtle asked, “How long before you are going to make people?”

Earth-Initiate replied, “I don’t know. You want to have some dry land: well how am I going to get any earth to make it?”

Turtle answered, “If you will tie a rock about my left arm, I’ll dive for some.”

Earth-Initiate did as Turtle asked, and then, reaching around took the end of a rope from somewhere and tied it to Turtle. (When Earth-Initiate came to the raft, there was no rope there: he just reached out and found one.)

Turtle said, “If the rope is not long enough, I’ll jerk it once, and you must haul me up; if it is long enough, I’ll give two jerks, and then you must pull me up quickly as I shall have all the earth that I can carry.”

Just as Turtle went over the side of the boat the Father-of-the-Secret-Society began to shout loudly.

Turtle was gone a long time. He was gone six years; and when he came up he was covered with green slime, he had been down so long. When he reached the top of the water the only earth he had was a very little under his nails: the rest had all washed away. Earth-Initiate took with his right hand a stone knife from under his left armpit and carefully scraped the earth out from under Turtle’s nails. He put the earth in the palm of his hand and rolled it about till it was round; it was as large as a small pebble. He laid it in the stern of the raft. By and by he went to look at it: it had not grown at all. The third time he went to look at it, it had grown so that it could be spanned by the arms. The fourth time he looked, it was as big as the world, the raft was aground, and all around were mountains as far as he could see. The raft came ashore at Tádoiko, and the place can be seen today.

What shall we make of this story? It might be described as a creation narrative with Earth-Initiate as the creator figure.  However, as already noted, it would be better to describe it as a formation story.  There is the Father-of-the Secret-Society who shouts out loudly both here and later on at other key points in the story, which we have not been able to include here.  There is a third figure, Turtle who announces that he wants a rock tied to his left arm before he goes over the side for six years to search for land to multiply.  He manages to bring up a little bit from the bottom of the sea – so that the earth is primordial.  Finally there is the mundane reality of Tádoiko, a place that you can see to this day if you know where to look.

We have an apparent history and possible scientific discussion, but we are intuitively aware even at the first reading that the story is designed to tell more than meets the eye.  The world of Anosma, Peheipe and Earth-Initiate is hardly a world of science or engineering.  Turtle was gone for six years and when he came up he was covered with green slime, but that is a pretended fact imitating a human observation.  The story transports us to a place where all mundane questions and answers can be suspended.  Listeners soon find that they must be comfortable in a world where extraordinary events occur, but where incomplete and even inconsistent descriptions of them are put forward by the narrator without any apparent embarrassment.  They are in a realm of fluid thought with numerous non-sequiturs.

As we pursue the Maidu story further we find a querulous Turtle still complaining:

“I can’t stay in the dark all the time.  Can’t you make a light, so that I can see?”

Earth-Initiate replied, “Let us get out of the raft, and then we will see what we can do.”

So all three got out.

Then the Earth-Initiate said, “Look that way, to the east!  I am going to tell my sister to come up”

Then it began to grow light, and day began to break; then the Father-of-the-Secret-Society began to shout loudly, and the sun came up.

“Which way is the sun to travel,” Turtle asked?

Earth-Initiate answered, “I’ll tell her to go this way and go down there”

After the sun went down the Father-of-the-Secret-Society began to cry and shout again, and it grew very dark.

Earth-Initiate said, “I’ll tell my brother to come up”

Then the moon rose.

Then Earth-Initiate asked Turtle and The-Father-of-the-Secret-Society, “How do you like it”

And they both answered, “It is very good.”

Turtle’s demands are, of course, quite inconsistent. The Earth-Initiate was described as radiant and a source of light as he sat in the raft before Turtle began his dive. But this story, like so many other religious myths has no problems with inconsistency, nor for that matter is it concerned with fussy, pettifogging details about Turtle’s as a person. What is important to the story is Turtle’s place in the action.  It is he who dives to the bottom of the sea to get land for the Earth-Initiate to multiply.

The Story in Genesis

In the origin story from the Bible the mythic patterns appear again. Although the first chapter of Genesis opens with an origin story it is by no means the oldest part of the book. It was probably set down in its present form after the exile of the Jews from Judea to Babylon in 587 BC. This story too had been told and retold, and was borrowed in part from an earlier mythology of the Middle East.[4] According to Genesis:[5]

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

The story goes on to discuss the work of the second and third days.  That work involves a division of the waters into those above and below, and the formation of the vault of heaven, or rather the dome forming the sky.

On the forth day new lights are made for the sky.  Dry land that is separated from the sea is made to appear at God’s command.  After that, the land is then called upon to bring forth vegetation of all sorts.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.”  And it was so.  And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.  And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

On the fifth day the waters are allowed to teem with an abundance of living creatures and birds populate the sky.  They are told to, “Be fruitful and multiply…on the earth.”

On the sixth day the earth is invited to, “Bring forth cattle and creeping and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.The invitations to the sea and the earth to be fruitful can be interpreted as simply a literary flourish; but the more likely purpose is to emphasize that it is God who actually initiates everything that comes to be.  On this sixth and final day of creation God created human beings:

“Let us make man in our image, and after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth…”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

The original couple were blessed and told to, “Be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and to subdue it.”  They were explicitly given dominion over all living creatures whether in the sea, the sky or on the earth.[6]

At length, on the seventh day God, “Rested from all the work he had done … and saw how good it all was.”

In the Genesis account the constant repetition of the phrase “God saw how good it was” makes it clear that all creation is good and that the ordering of all the works of creation is good as well.  Although nothing is explicitly said, we are left with the distinct impression that position, arrangement, separation and order are quite important values in the Divine scheme of things.  This is no doubt appropriate since Genesis is the preface to the Torah the book of the Law.

In Genesis we come upon mild contradiction, disruptions, and highlighting in service of its agenda of the sort we saw in the Maidu story.  Great emphasis is placed on the creation of light in Genesis.  It is God’s first activity, and it came forth at his command.  He separates it from the darkness so that it becomes possible to speak of a first day.  This action is significant, presented dramatically and not the sort of thing that is likely to be forgotten.  But, as in the Maidu story, it seems to be forgotten almost at once.  Although God has already said, “Let there be light” lights are created in the dome of the sky.  Taken out of the mythical context these two descriptions would require some justification.  They could be considered as simple contradictions of a forgetful author, or as anachronisms, or as the conflation of two separate stories sewn together in a ‘ham handed’ way

These descriptions present no difficulty at all, however, in a mythical landscape.  Such discontinuities are common-place for those who think in terms of myth.  As the schoolmen of the Middle Ages noted, disembodied light and the visible light of the sun can, of course, be regarded as two separate entities entitled to a separate creation by God.  The story can be treated as if it were stubborn or esoteric science, but the ensuing complications are enormous and the results usually unsatisfactory. The pages of patristic, medieval and even modern biblical exegesis are littered with attempts to force Genesis to make historical or scientific sense.

Upon hearing a myth listeners realize it can say more than one thing.  Genesis may seem to say the heavens-and-the-earth in the first instance lay about as a formless wasteland, a dark abyss of wind-swept waters.  On the other hand, it can seem to say the heavens-and the-earth came forth directly from God’s creative hand.  The context must supply meaning!

By means of layered imagery and apparent inconsistency, repetition and discontinuity, difficult concepts like non-existence, effortless multiplication of objects, the conditions of the earth as it was formed, are gradually made, if not understandable, at least accessible.

The Genesis story, as well as the Maidu narrative, and so many other creation stories, invite us to suspend normal historical and scientific curiosity because they have something more important to say.  We are invited to disengage our thoughts and our concerns about the ordinary pattern of life, suspend our disbelief and listen to what they are saying.  Myths attempt to tell us what is truth that cannot be known in any other way.

Through myth we learn about the way the cosmos unfolds.  In Genesis the God who produced light acts alone.  As the story unfolds He is the solitary actor who shapes and forms all that comes to be.  There is no need, nor any room, for a second principle to assist with creation.  One by one the animals are all presented by God to Adam for him to name, but only to name.  God is alone without father or mother; without family, spouse, or helper.

Arrernte Story of Creation

The following is an origin story from the Arrernte (Arunta, Aranda), an aboriginal people who live south-east of Alice Springs in central Australia.  This story was told to Spencer and Gillen–and recast by Mircea Eliade.[7] It is a fragment of a long series or cycle of myths of the Achilpa (Tjilpa), a sub-group of the Arrernte.

According to the traditions of the Achilpa:

…the ancestral figures the Nambakula arose from nowhere (out of nothing) far to the South.  Traveling north from his camp at Lamburkna one established a Dreaming track.  As he went he shaped the mountains, rivers, and produced all sorts of plants and animals.  He also brought forth the kuruna (spirit children) which were inside his body.  He made the tjurungas which imaged the things he was making and made sacred store houses to keep them in.  This was before any human beings existed. …the kuruna came out of the cave to become the first Achilpa men…[8]

In this Dreaming story an ancestral being, whose origin is unknown,  comes upon the land to shape all the geographical features of the Arrernte landscape and to populate it with all the plants and animals of the area.  Before his coming the area was formless and indefinite without rivers, seas, mountains or physical features of any kind. The Nambakula was just one of the many creative beings who made a trek across the Continent during the period known as the alchera,[9] or the Dreaming.

The work of the Dreaming ancestors formed the Australian landscape as it is; and probably in the minds of Aborigines, as it should remain.  The origin stories of the different tribes of Australia tell of many ancestral beings.  These stories foster a polycentered understanding of creation since the interactions of the ancestors do not appear to have proceeded in any particularly coordinated manner.

The action of forming and shaping the land and populating it with plant and animal life is emphasized in this myth.  Australian Aboriginal origin myths, focus most of their attention on the land itself leaving aside for the most part references to sky or water.  The land and the power of ancestral figures residing in the land is of central significence.  Although a dominant and an authoritative figure, the Nambakula does not create the land.  Land is primordial.  It existed before him, or at least was contemporaneous with him, and he requires it to work out the ordering of creation.

[1]Cf., Encyclopedia of Religion 10:506-7.

[2]Quoted from Roland B. Dixon, “Maidu  Myths,” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, xvii 39 Pt. 2, (N.Y. June 30, l902)  pp. 39-40.

The Huntington Expedition first gathered Maidu stories in 1902 and published them in 1912 in the publication American Ethnological Society Ed. Frank Boaz.

A Maidu man, Maym Benner Galligher, recognized the voice of the speaker in the recordings as that of Tom Young (Hánc’ibyjim) the last of the great Maidu story tellers.  See The Maidu Indian Myths and Stories of Hánc’ibyjim, Edited and Trans. William Shipley,  Berkeley, Heyday Books 1991.  Shipley’s book has a somewhat different Maidu origin story.  In it two figures, Earthmaker and Coyote, are in a raft looking for earth in a world where there is only water.  A small meadow lark’s nest came floating on the water.  Under Earthmaker’s direction the nest is stretched in all four directions by Coyote until it is big enough to sustain Earthmaker and eventually all other animals.  Note that in the Shipley and Dixon accounts more than one figure is required to form the world.

[3] At the time when this myth was reported, Peheipe played the part of a clown in the dances of the Secret Society.

[4] A full discussion of Genesis would take us too far afield.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary in “The Narrative of Genesis” 5:913-955 and in “Mythology and Bible Study” 4:946-955 make a helpful introduction to study to Genesis.

[5]Cf. Gen 1:1-31.

[6]Note, in the Maidu myth there is uncertainty whether men and women will be created at all.

[7]This story was told in a remarkable meeting of a party with the elders of the Arrernte tribe in 1896.  W. B. Spencer a professor of anthropology at the University of Melbourne was leader of the party.  F. J. Gillen who was there was a telegraph officer at Alice Springs.  Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) a historian of religions who taught in Bucharest and Paris before joining the University of Chicago, makes reference to this Dreaming story in The Sacred and the Profane Harcourt, Brace and World.  N.Y. 1957  pp. 32-33.  There is some criticism of Eliade’s account.  For example see To Take Place, Jonathan Z. Smith. Chicago University Press 1987 p 3 et seq.

[8]W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen  The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London 1899).

[9]The term alchera is Arrernte, other terms are used in other tribes.  For example, the Murrinh-patha refer to da murntak warra, the early days, for this period.