Despite the diversity of these stories, many themes recur. Perhaps the most obvious is reference to the dominant physical elements of the environment in which the tellers lived. Thus the Maori story largely explains storms and the sea, and it devotes considerable attention to fish, whereas in the Jicarilla Apache story fish are created only incidentally, and the creation itself doesn't mention oceans or lakes. Likewise, the Norse story of Ymir involves ice and cold, whereas ice isn't even mentioned in most stories. The Native Americans living around the Great Lakes, like the Potawatomi, tell stories in which the earth floats on or is suspended in water, whereas the Jicarilla Apache assume the earth surface is underlain by a vast dry cavern. The ancient Hebrews lived in a dry region, and thus their image of the paradise from which they were barred is a lush garden.
Another recurrent theme is the superiority of the storyteller's people. The Mossi tell how black-skinned people were least contaminated by the arrogance in the water of a lake in which other peoples of other colors bathed. The Potawatomi tell how white-skinned and black-skinned people were created with flaws and impurities before the more successful creation of people with red skins. The Hebrews tell how one of their ancestors negotiated a special relationship with the only true god. The Menominee tell how the name of their neighbors became synonymous with "thieves". Strikingly, but not surprisingly, no culture has an origin story that justifies the superiority of another people, or even the equality of all people.
Many of the stories either omit the role of women or condemn women. Izanami speaks first and spoils the first effort of Japanese creation. The female of the Upanishad is raped repeatedly. In the Hebrew story, Eve gets humanity expelled from Eden, and no other female is mentioned for generations thereafter. Young girls are likewise responsible for disaster in the Apache story.
Many of the stories justify the human exploitation of nature. The Hebrew myth tells how Yahweh told humans to go forth and multiply on an earth made for them, and the Maori story of the Separation of Heaven and Earth tells how the god of humanity struck back at his brother gods in revenge for their weakness in the face of the winds. Likewise the Jicarilla Apache story tells how the Hactcin told the Jicarilla that plants and hoofed animals would be their food, and that they could roam across the world as their home.
Many stories also justify exploitation of, or at least discrimination between, humans themselves. In the Babylonian creation, humans are created to manipulate and exploit nature, but only as servants of the gods (and their priests). The Chinese story explains that the ancestral upper classes were hand-made by a deity, whereas the lower-classes were mass-produced. The Japanese and Hawaiian stories are even more specific in justifying the position of individual ruling families. There is thus a clear pro-establishment nature to many of these stories.
Many of these stories begin in darkness, and the generation of light is part of the creation itself. Many metaphysical explanations could be offered, but a practical one emerges from Opler's description of story-telling among the Jicarilla Apaches. Stories were told at night, and in fact were a means of whiling away the hours of darkness. Among industrialized peoples, the telling of stories around a campfire or at bedtime persists. Given the dark environment in which these stories were told, it's hardly surprising that darkness and the light that broke through it were a common feature in stories of creation.
In many stories, humans and other beings are made from clay. That's hardly surprising in light of many cultures' use of clay as medium to make both vessels and figurines. Creation from clay has often been cited as evidence of a primitive culture, at least by people from cultures with stories of creation ex nihilo (from nothing). Two stories from seemingly primitive cultures nonetheless have elements that accord well with modern science. The Jicarilla Apache story in which a human is made from a variety of mineral and organic materials is consonant with our modern view that the human body physically consists of many chemical substances, and that our intake of "minerals" is critical to our health. The Menominee story of change of animals into humans provides a striking parallel to the modern understanding of human evolution. One can only wonder what story might have been told if Menominee culture had developed in a region where other primates, as well as humans, lived.
The tremendous diversity of these stories in their materials, characters, and themes suggests they developed independently, rather than being derived from one primeval story told by the first human storytellers. The stories' promotion of their tellers' cultures and races, at the expense of others, likewise suggests independent development rather than common origin. By including what we would consider racism, sexism, violence, and exploitation of nature in their accounts of the origin of the world, storytellers may have inadvertently said much about human nature too.
Despite their diversity, the great commonality of all these stories is a desire to explain the world and its history. Humans today have the same desire, and they satisfy it with microscopes and telescopes, with satellites and seismographs, and with analysis of DNA. Explanations developed millennia ago could not draw on such sophisticated technologies and so seem quaint today, and they were overprinted by the social and political agendas of their tellers, but they reflect the same human desire to understand the world around us.
Back to the Table of Contents of Creation Stories from around the World.