Creation myths are like opinions: everybody’s got one. Every culture, anyway. I’ve been reading two of them in Hesiod’s Theogony and Genesis, which is the first book of both the Christian and Jewish bibles.
I’m thinking of starting a creation myths matrix for the books covered in this blog, since I know there are a lot more of them on the way. Also, it gives me a good excuse to go back through the previous titles (Gilgamesh, Book of the Dead) and see what they have to say about how all this… stuff… came to happen.
So I’ll get started on that, now that I’ve digested all of my Christmas cookies, and post that sometime in the new year.
Meanwhile, I have these two stories to compare.
Who Wrote Genesis?
While Christian and Jewish tradition holds that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible under direct inspiration from God, scholars who don’t consider inerrancy an article of faith now believe that a few different hands were at work in the book of Genesis. They’ve assigned letters to the different writers they can detect, based on writing styles and old copies of source materials.
Chapter 1 of Genesis, where the creation week narrative is, is attributed to the source most scholars call “P”. He wrote this in a poetic format: it has a meter and repetitive phrases (“Evening came and morning came: the [nth] day.”) that indicate this story was probably sung or chanted out. Chapter 2, where a second creation story is laid out, is attributed to a source often called “J”, for “Jehovah” or “Yahweh”, this author’s preferred name for God. J was a prose writer rather than a poet, and his story is less mystical than P’s.
But both of the Genesis authors have a similar idea about how the world came to be: it was actively created by an all-powerful being (“ex nihilo”). You know this bit; it’s Genesis 1:1-5:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
This is God as the supreme being. He speaks, and it is so. He is removed and aloof, shaping things merely by naming them, by willing them. In Genesis 2, we have a God who is more humanized. He’s a sculptor, a gardener:
“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 the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
(Genesis 2:7-9) He also needs a break now and then:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.
(Genesis 2:1-3). This chapter then goes on to tell the story of Adam and Eve, and God continues to behave like a person– albeit a very powerful, all-knowing person.
Compare this to Hesiod. Here’s his account of the creation:
“Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations 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 (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.”
Got all that? There’s a lot of divinities there, and a lot of action, most of it SEXXAY in nature. It’s a very different, very crowded feeling than Genesis. It also just sort of… happens. There’s no creator who speaks and says “This must be.” There’s nothing, and then there’s Chaos, and then everyone else comes along and starts shagging everything they can.
I understand that this long string of names includes many gods and goddesses who were worshipped as devoutly as Yahweh, with bloody sacrifice and weird rituals and so forth, but they just feel so… different… from the Bible. I can’t tell if this is because of some lingering bias I have from being raised Christian. I can’t tell if it’s something to do with my preference for the beautiful language and thunderous cadences of the King James Version of the Bible.
Whatever it is, the bottom line is this: Genesis starts out as a mystical poem of spare beauty, where there is a creator whose motives seem to be based on the pure desire to create. God is an artist of awesome power. Then Hesiod tells us the world just kind of happened, baby, and kept moving with lots of hot lovin’, like an Aaron Spelling drama with togas.
If I think about it long enough, I might be won around by the hot lovin’.