1902 Encyclopedia > Cosmogony


COSMOGONY, a theory of the origin of the world and its inhabitants. Such a theory is never found on the lowest stage of human culture. Thus, " it never occurred to the Eskimos," says Dr Brinton, "that the earth had a begin-ning ; " and the Abipones of South America " never troubled themselves about what went on in the heavens" (Sir J. Lubbock). And even when a theory of the world's origin is formed, it is at first of the simplest character. Two ele-ments, no more, are necessary. With regard to the first, there is a consensus of opinion among primitive races that, before the present order of things, water held all things in solution. Thus the Accadians, whose mythology passed into that of the Semitic Babylonians, " considered the humid ele-ment as the vehicle of all life, the source of all generation " (Lenormant). To " make pregnant " this " vast abyss " a creator or organizer is necessary, who is educed, at least not unfrequently, from the abyss itself. Thus, in a Japanese myth reported by Mr Tylor (Journ. of Anthropol. Inst., July 1876), " while the earth is still soft like mud, or like oil floating on the surface of water, there arises out of the mass the flag or rush called asi, from which there springs the land-forming god." Some, content with throwing the speculative difficulty further back, imagine the present creation to be rather a re-creation. Hence the notion of world-ages "rounded off by sweeping destruc-tions," the last of which was the deluge. Thus, among the non-Aryan Santals of Bengal, " the tradition of the creation is mixed up with one of the deluge, if indeed the creation with these less gifted races does not begin with the
flood The Santal legend describes rather the
subsidence of waters than a creation " (Dr Hunter, Rural
Bengal, pp. 150-1). Some simple-minded tribes suppose the earth to have been fished up from the depths of the sea, that is, from the transparent depths of their own Pacific (Waitz and Gerland, Anthropologie der Naturvölker, vi. 241). The egg is another common mythic element. It is found in Phoenicia, Egypt, India, China, Polynesia, and Finland, associated with one or another of the ideas of mixture, generation, fragility, the dome-like appearance of the sky, and the form of the sun and the planets. The Creator himself assumes the most Protean shapes, ranging from the magnified man to the musk-rat. From this brief introduction we pass on to a few specimen cosmogonies of the more important races.
Until the year 1876 our materials for the Babylonian cosmogony were almost entirely confined to second-hand extracts from Berosus (? 280-260 B.C.) Many (Niebuhr was not among them) doubted their trustworthiness. But the reign of scepticism is over. The late talented decipherer, George Smith, has, it would seem, actually discovered some of the cuneiform tablets from which the priest of Bel compiled. No doubt Berosus was uncritical— he was an Euhemerist, like his contemporaries. But he was honest and learned in cuneiform, and enjoyed access to unmutilated documents, whereas the tablets in our possession are fragmentary, and their interpretation is only inchoate. We cannot, therefore, yet afford to ignore the Berosian narratives, which Syncellus and others have pre-served. (See Müller's Fragmenta Histor. Grcec., ii. 497, and with caution Cory's Ancient Fragments, by Hodges, pp. 58-60.) One of these contains a cosmogony, or rather two cosmogonies, the latter of which is fragmentary, and fitted rather awkwardly into the former. Its resemblances to Gen. i. are obvious, such as the primaeval flood, which Berosus calls Thauatth( = Tihavhi or Tihamtu),&ná. creation by cutting or dividing. But the divergences are equally striking—e.g., Berosus tells of certain composite beings who dwelt in the dark primaeval water. This seems to indicate that the water means the aether, which is in fact one of its mythic senses, and that the monsters are the constellations. Mr G. Smith compares this narrative with a tablet derived from the city of Cutha (Chaldcean Account, &c, pp. 102-3), but the parallel is fallacious. Tiamat, the primaeval flood, is only mentioned in the latter in-cidentally, and the monsters are placed on the earth, not in Tiamat.
But there is a much more important cosmogony, for which we are indebted to the library of King Assurbanipal (673-626 B.C.). The tablets (probably twelve in number) are copies of much older originals, which Mr G. Smith would place near 2000 B.c., i.e., at the beginning of the literary period. This is perhaps too early, to judge from the absence of a statement in the colophon that the copy had an " old " original (Mr Sayce in Academy, ix. 4). But " late " in Babylonian history is still early from the point of view of Greek and Hebrew literary history. The frag-ments have been arranged by Mr Smith on valid internal grounds in an order corresponding to the cosmogony in Gen. i. The Babylonian parallels are very striking, and would probably be still more so if the tablets were complete. They are—(1) the general arrangement, (2) the introduc-tion of a god speaking, (3) the notion of the primaeval flood, called tiamat (feminine) like the telwm (masculine) of Gen. i., (4) the repeated eulogy on the previous creative work as " delightful," and (5) the mention of the stars as placed to determine the year. The chief differences arise from the polytheism of Babylonia, and yet some have seen a survival of polytheistic language in Gen. i. 26.
The sacred archives, now lost, of the Phoenicians were known, it seems, to Sanchoniathon, who found a translator^) in Philo of Byblus (end of 1st century A.D. 1). The origin and value of Philo's work (only known from the extracts in Eusebius) have been discussed by Ewald and M. Renan, with a tolerably satisfactory result. The latter, writing from the shores of Phoenicia, calls it " the admirably faith-ful mirror of that which I have under my eyes" (Rev. archeol., iii. 172). Distorted and discoloured as the myths in Philo may be, they are such as no forger could have invented. Among them are parts of two, if not three, cosmogonies (Miiller, Fragm. Hist. Gr., iii. 505, comp. with caution Cory's Anc. Fragments, pp. 1-5). The text is here and there corrupt, and its mythic meaning obscure. Movers and Bunsen are fantastic, nor can we accept Mr Sayce's theory (Academy, March 20, 1875), though he is right in seeking for a clue in Babylonia. The first part, however, is clear, with its chaos black as Erebus, and its wind (comp. Gen. i. 2) which became enamoured of its own elements. The explanation of this is due to M. de Vogue (Melanges, pp. 60, 61). The wind is the creating deity regarded as one; the apvat are the two sides or persons of the deity when analyzed. In the inscriptions we find both Baal and Tanith "the Name, or Face, of Baal," i.e., the male and female principles, the conjugal union of which produced creation. In another cosmogony we meet with the woman Baau, " which is interpreted Night," probably the bohu, or chaos of Gen. i. 2 (a Babylonian parallel has also been found). On the whole these cosmogonies agree with the Babylonian and portions of the Hebrew, though laying a somewhat greater stress on the life-evolving power of matter (which may be due to the systematizers), and in one case (" Chysor, the opener " = the Egyptian demiurge Ptah) influenced from Egypt. The Semitic (and probably pre-Semitic) notion of creation by division is, however, no longer traceable.
Such were the myths current among the near relatives of the Israelites. But what beliefs had the Israelites them-selves] The Old Testament contains three cosmogonies:— Gen. i.-ii. 4a; Gen. ii. 46-7; and Prov. iii. 19, 20, viii. 22-31 (with Job xv. 7, 8). Only the first is perfect. The second seems to be fragmentary, and adds but little to our knowledge. The third is poetical and speculative. All three apparently proceed from the lettered class, and have been attributed to an outburst of historic and prehis-toric study in the Babylonian and Persian period. It would be too much to say that the Israelites had no cosmogony before the exile, but the probability is that it was com-paratively undeveloped, and in the competition of beliefs had fallen into the background. The chief characteristic of Gen. i. is the union of two apparently inconsistent phraseo-logies, the supernaturalistic and the evolutionary. Thus the pre-existence of matter seems to be asserted in vv. 2, 3. " Now the earth was (i.e., was involved in) chaos [Heb. tohu va-bohu], and darkness was upon the face of the flood [Heb. tehom], and the wind of Elohim was hovering upon the face of the waters"—-this describes the circumstances under which the following act took place; " then Elohim said, Let light (the condition ef life) be, and light was." The writer uses language common to other cosmogonies, but strives to accommodate it to his own high type of religion. It was not, he consciously or unconsciously implies, a blind force inherent in nature, which produced the first beginnings of life, nor was the Creator himself the offspring of chaos; his demiurge was a supernatural being, whom some ortho-dox commentators have identified with the Logos of later writers, and who was from the first preparing the " rude mass" for its human inhabitants. The peculiar expression, " the wind of Elohim was hovering," suggests different comparisons ; thus, on a far lower stage of religious pro-gress, the Polynesians often describe the heaven-and-air-god Tangaloa as a bird hovering over the waters (Wartz, vi. 241). In the earliest form of the narrative in Gen. i. it may have been "the bird of Elohim;" "wind" seems to be an interpretation. Another peculiar form of expres-sion is the creation of the light before the sun (v. 3), which may be supposed to be paralleled by similar expressions elsewhere. The Egyptian god Thoth, the demiurge, is said to have " given the world light when all was darkness, and there was no sun;" and the Orphic light-god Phanes is anterior to the sun. But it is the place of a com-mentator to trace similar phenomena throughout the first cosmogony, and also to exhibit the evidence of the various redactions through which the section has passed. For, as Dr Schrader (1863) and Mr B. Martineau (1868) have shown, the narrative in its original form did not divide creation into days, but merely gave a catalogue of divine works. We need only add that the word for " to create" in Gen. i. originally meant " to carve." The Hellenistic Jews, it is true, took it in the sense of "to create out of nothing," but many think this is not favoured by the context in Genesis. The problem of the origin of matter seems not to have arisen among the Jews of the 6th century B.C.
The Egyptians have left us no ancient cosmogonical system, though speculation was early rife among them. They appear to have had three great creative deities. Ptah, " the opener " (of the world-egg ?), was probably the god of the cosmic fire, who prepared matter for Amen-Ba to organize. But it was to Ra that the honour of creation was chiefly ascribed (see the unsurpassable hymn in Records of the Past, ii. 129-136)—to Ra, i.e., the sun-god, as the people supposed, or the anima mundi, as the priests. One of Ra's (later) manifestations was Chnum, the divine breath which stirred the primeval waters (as in Gen. i. 2, except that Chnum is never represented as a bird), and the fashioner of gods and men (see Records of the Past, ii. 145, and comp. Gen. ii. 7). Thoth, originally the moon-god, became the principle of creative intelligence, and with him were worshipped the eight cosmic forces called Sesennu. He is called "the tongue of Ra," though elsewhere Ra himself is said to create by a word, and this ascription of speech to the deity is, according to M. Naville, one of the most important points in common between the Egyptian and the Hebrew cosmogonies, to be added therefore to those we have already mentioned,—chaos, the divine breath, the creation of light before the sun, and the moulding hand of the deity.
We hasten on to the Aryan nations of the East. The Iranian parallels to the early chapters of Genesis have been greatly exaggerated. The only really valuable ones are those contained in the Avesta, which, though the date of its final redaction is uncertain, is probably in the main earlier than the return of the Jews from Babylon. The cosmogonical parallels are (1) the ascription of creation to the will of a supernatural deity, and (2) the ideal perfection attributed to the newly created world. Yet even here some deduction is necessary. For apparently the world is produced out of pre-existent matter, according to Genesis (see above); out of nothing, according to the Avesta. And though Ahura-mazda (Ormuzd) is generally described in the Avesta as the sole creator, there is an ancient passage (Yasna, ch. xxx.) in which a good and an evil spirit are spoken of as joint-creators. Still, in the period of Darius and Xerxes (to which the first Hebrew cosmogony in its final form probably belongs) we have the best possible evidence for the sole creatorship of Ahura-mazda, for the great cuneiform inscription at Naksh-i-Rustam describes him as the great God of gods, who made heaven and earth, and made men," and similar language occurs in the royal inscriptions at Elvend, Van, and Persepolis.
There is a well-known Vedic hymn (" Nor aught, nor naught existed," &c.), which has been adduced to prove the antiquity of the most refined speculations among the Hindus. But it seems unwise to adduce this as a typical race-myth, for it probably marks the end rather than the beginning of a theological stage (Goldstiicker's Pdnini, p. 144, comp. Max Muller's Anc. Sansk. Lit., pp. 559-565). Another hymn of the same Mandala (Big Veda x. 90) embodies the comparatively naive conception of the world as the covering of the divinity, Purusha being represented as a prodigious body, from which the various parts of crea-tion proceeded. This is intermixed, however, with the much less simple theory of the sacrifice of the cosmogonie agent himself, the primitive unity parting into different forms as the limbs of the victim are severed on the altar. In the S'atapatha Brâhmana we meet again with the primeval waters and the world-egg, which according to one account produce Prajâpati, and according to another are produced by him. In the same Brâhmana we find the first mention of the tortoise-theory, the origin of which has been well pointed out by Mr Tylor (Early History of Mankind, p. 340). The cosmogony in Manu (Dr Muir's Sanskrit Texts, iv. 26) is still more deeply tinged with speculation. Here we meet with " the self-existent Lord," who " with a thought created the waters, and deposited in them a seed," which becomes a golden egg, in which egg " he himself is born as Brahmâ, the progenitor of all the worlds." Contrast this theory of the speculative Hindu, ascribing creation to a thought, with that of the more energetic Semites and Egyptians—" God said, Let it be, and it was so."
Turning to Africa, we find that Old Cahbar and Zulu-land are among the few regions where cosmogonical spe-culation seems to have at least germinated (see Bastian, Callaway, Tylor). Even the important myths of the American and Polynesian races must on this occasion be dismissed in a few lines. With regard to the former, Dr Brinton's Myths of the New World and Mr Bancroft's Native Races of North America will supply the reader with much food for thought. Let him not neglect the poetic narrative of the Quiches, with its Hurakan (comp. " hurricane "), the thunder-god, the Heart of Heaven, and the Creator, nor the still mora important myth of the north-west Athapascas, nor, for its curiosity, the " Darwinian theory " of the Ahts of Vancouver Island. With regard to the latter, the sixth volume of Waitz and Gerland, and the works of Sir George Grey (Polynesian Mythology) and Mr Gill (Myths and Songs of the South Pacific), are full of suggestive material and remarkable parallels to the myths of more civilized races. The cosmogony, however, which opens Mr Gill's fascinating collection is too complicated and artificial to be ancient or even (perhaps) indigenous. Even Sir George Grey's delightful story of the rending apart of Heaven and Earth (comp. Gen. i. 6-10) must be pronounced modern as compared with the simple stories of the heaven-god Tangaroa. It is only in the last stage of a religion that cosmogonies are systematized,—
' ' Greek endings, each the little passing bell That signifies some faith's about to die,"
though the death-struggle may be prolonged, and may issue in a higher life.
Besides the works already expressly cited see Bastian, Geo-
graphisehe Slider (for a remarkable Old Calabar story) ; Naville, La
litanie du soleil (translation from the Egyptian, with commen-
tary) ; The Funeral Ritual (or Book of the Dead), by Dr Birch, in
Bunsen's Egypt, vol. vi. ; Spiegel's Aiiesta, &c. (T. K. C.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries