Myth and Explanations for Creation

Myth can explain the world around us and the creation of the universe

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817
Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

When you think of myth, you may think of stories about heroes who are sons of gods (making them demigods) with either incredible strength or a god on hand to help the demigods in amazing adventures against the evils of the world.

There is much more to myth than the heroic legends.

Myth serves as explanation accepted by the people who share the myth. Very basic aspects of the world around us that myth explains are

  • Day and night
  • Seasons,
  • Mysteries of life
  • Death, and
  • Creation (of everything).

Here we're looking at creation.

Creation Myth, Chaos, Big Bang: What's the Difference?

Whether we call it myth, science, fiction, or the Bible, explanations for the origin of man and the universe have always been sought after and popular.

Creation Myths

Take an introspective look at what you know about the creation of the world and mankind.

  • Do you know how the world was created?
  • Were you there to see it?
  • What proof do you have that what you believe happened actually did happen?

Today there are two main theories:

(1.) The Big Bang.

(2.) A world that was god-generated.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ancient Greek versions did not require a god. Nor were the people who wrote about Creation familiar with a big bang.

If we look at one of popular the ancient Greek creation myths, the world was originally CHAOS. Like its namesake in daily life, this Chaos was

  • an un-ordered,
  • un-anything,
  • not quite imaginable (like the universe),
  • shapeless state.
From Chaos, ORDER suddenly appeared [ Boom! sound effects might be appropriate here], and from the inevitable conflict between Chaos and Order, everything else came into existence.

When we look at the capitalized words CHAOS and ORDER that represent personifications (~lesser gods) we may see "primitive superstitions."

That is, actually, fair, but so is turnabout.

Today, we have plenty of personifications -- like The Law, Liberty, Government or Big Business, and many of us offer worship at their proverbial altars. We should reserve judgment on how "backwards" someone must be to explain reality in terms of invisible powers.

Questions to Consider About Chaos and Order
  • What do you think the Greeks meant by Chaos?
  • Have you heard of Chaos Theory?
  • Do you think it would be easier to conceive of Chaos by means of a picture? If so, try drawing it.
  • What would this primeval Order be like?

Did the Greeks Believe in Their Gods/Myths?

Although there was variety among the Greeks, as there is among modern people, belief in the gods and goddesses, if not the individual stories about them was important for the community: Important enough that Socrates' brand of atheism led to his execution.

The Big Bang vs. The Creation Myth

How different is this allegory of the emergence of the world from Chaos from the modern Big Bang Theory with its inexplicable components?

To me, the answer is, "not much, if anything." Chaos and Order may be just other words describing the same phenomenon as the "Big Bang." Instead of an explosive force originating out of nowhere, but coming from within the cosmic soup, the Greeks had a kind of primeval, disorganized and chaotic soup, with the principle of Order suddenly asserting itself.

Out of nowhere.

In addition, I suspect that people in the ancient world were as varied as they are today. Some believed the literal, some the allegorical, some something else entirely, and others never even considered what happened in the beginning.

What Is the Difference Between Myth and Science?

How Do We Know Anything?

Questions closely related to the nature of myth are the existential "what is truth?" and "how do we know anything?"

Philosophers and other thinkers have come up with such statements as Cogito, ergo sum 'I think, therefore I am', which may reassure us, but don't stipulate a reality that is the same for all of us. (For example, I think, therefore I am, but maybe you don't think or maybe your thinking doesn't count because you're a computer, for all I know.)

If this isn't immediately obvious, consider these questions about truth:
Is truth absolute or relative?
If absolute, how would you define it?
Would everyone agree with you?
If relative, wouldn't some say your truth is a falsehood?
It seems fair to say that myth is not the same as scientific fact, but what exactly does even that mean?

Shades of Gray

Explanations of What Seems Magical or Supernatural

Maybe we should say that myth is like scientific theory. That would work for the creation of the world out of Chaos.

Will it work when we examine supernatural stories from mythology that appear to defy scientific knowledge?

A Scientific Hercules?

The story of Hercules (Heracles) grappling with the Antaeus, a chthonic giant, is a case in point. Every time Hercules hurled Antaeus to the ground, he became stronger. Clearly this is what we might politely call a tall story. But maybe there is scientific logic behind it. What if Antaeus had some sort of magnet (if you don't like the idea of a magnet, you can invent your own scenario) that made him stronger each time he hit the earth and weaker when held away from his power source? Hercules defeated another giant, Alcyoneus, only by pulling him far from his origin. The magnetic force of the earth was overcome in these examples by pulling far enough in any direction. [See Hercules the Giant-Killer.]

Could Mythical Creatures Have Been Real?

Or how about Cerberus, the 3-headed hell hound? There are two-headed people. We call them Siamese or Conjoined Twins. Why not three-headed beasts?

Was the Underworld Real?

And, as far as the Underworld goes, some of the stories of the Underworld mention a cave at the western edge of the world that was thought to lead downwards. While there could be some scientific basis for this, even if there isn't, is this story any more a "lie" to be scoffed at than the novel/movie Journey to the Center of the Earth?

Yet people dismiss such myths as lies created by primitive people who lack scientific knowledge -- or as lies created by people who haven't found the true religion.

NEXT PAGE > Myth vs. Religion

Biblical Creation

For some people, it is the absolute, incontrovertible truth that the world was created in 6 days by an omniscient, eternal creator god. Some say the 6 days is figurative, but agree that an omniscient, eternal creator God created the world. It is a basic tenet of their religion. Others call this story of creation a myth.

We Often Condemn Myth as a Pack of Lies

While myths are stories shared by a group that are a part of their cultural identity, there is no completely satisfactory definition of the term.

People compare myth with science and religion. Usually, this comparison is unfavorable and myth is relegated to the area of lies. Sometimes religious beliefs are held in contempt, but as one small step up from myth.

Myth comes from the Greek word mythos. The Greek Lexicon Liddell and Scott defines mythos as:

  • word and
  • speech.

A synonym to mythos from the lexicon is logos. "Logos" appears in the Greek for the Biblical passage "in the beginning was the word." So there appears to be a connection between the world-changing, powerful word "word" (logos) and the often maligned word "myth" (mythos).

The same lexicon search provides other predictable meanings for mythos, including:

  • Tale or story
  • Rumor or saying and
  • Thing thought.

Like Bible stories, myths are often entertaining, morally instructive, and inspirational.

On this site, when I use the word myth as distinct from religion, it is to separate out descriptions of and stories about gods or legendary mortals from explicit tenets of belief, laws, or human actions.

This is a very grey area:

  • If the Son of God, Jesus, turned water into wine, should he be counted a supernatural being and therefore listed in myth?
    According to this treatment, yes.
  • If the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter, Moses, understood the speech of a burning bush, is this not also a supernatural power?
  • If Hercules, son of a mortal woman and the god Zeus, strangled snakes with his bare hands when he was newborn, doesn't that put him in the same category?

It is also called a myth if it appears magical to non-believers. On this site, the effects of Moses on the belief system of Ancient Semites are considered non-myth. He did it. Assuming he really lived, this did not involve magic or supernatural powers, but his physical presence and charisma, the oratory skills of his spokesman, or whatever. Burning bush -- non-fact. Killing the overseer -- fact, as far as we know. So also the attempt to draw up a chronology of the events in the life of Jesus is not a religious act. Almost everything else in this murky area -- like turning water to wine -- is myth(os), but this doesn't mean it's either true or untrue, believable or incredible.

Introduction to Myth

Who's Who In Greek Legend

What Is Myth FAQ | Myths vs. Legends | Gods in the Heroic Age - Bible vs Biblos | Creation Stories | Olympian Gods | Olympian Goddesses | Five Ages of Man | Philemon and Baucis | Prometheus | Trojan War | Myths & Religion |

Collected Myths Retold

Bulfinch - Retold Tales From Mythology | Kingsley - Retold Tales From Mythology | Golden Fleece and the Tanglewood Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Elsewhere on the Web - What is Myth?

What is Myth?
Myth in Art
What is Myth?
Classical Studies Supplement.

[URL = < www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gretaham/Teaching/mythclass/mythreader/godsajaxdemeter.htm >] "Study Guide Two: Approaches to Mythology" lists 8 approaches to myth:
  1. Ritualist Approach
  2. Rationalist Approach
  3. Allegory Approach
  4. Etiology
  5. Psychoanalytic Approach
  6. Jungian
  7. Structuralism
  8. Historical/Functionalist Approach