Critical Essay on Creation Myths in Ancient Cultures

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Creation myths are used to explain ideas about religion, social structure, cultural values, and beliefs, as well as events in the natural world. In ancient cultures, they are often an accumulation of ideas about the world that people were seeing and experiencing. These myths can have similar themes and influences over each other, especially with regard to biblical and Near Eastern examples.

Myths at their simplest are ancient stories. Oral traditions that have been passed down and performed, with no known authors. Few have survived in their entirety, and the ones that have are interpreted through epics and songs, tragic dramas, and narratives. Myths are reflected in art, from ancient rock paintings and crude fertility goddess statues to black-figure depictions of the Trojan War decorating Hellenic amphorae. They are a deeply ingrained aspect of society and culture, both in the ancient world and today, and are a form of entertainment, inspiration, and warning, often with a key moral focus. Creation myths are extremely important, as they explain how and why ancient cultures believed the world came into existence. Creation myths provide reasons for natural occurrences before the time of scientific explanation with similarities across different cultures and periods, like the importance of water. Some specific examples are shown within the biblical, Egyptian, Greek, and Near Eastern creation myths, which tell us about religion, society and culture, and the natural world.

Creation myths in ancient cultures can be used to explain the development of religious beliefs and practices often associated with the gods and the natural world. Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian creation myths are all centered around deities associated with elements of nature emerging from primordial chaos to create the known world. The biblical creation stories are quite separate from this, whilst containing some similar themes. Ancient Greek religion is polytheistic, similar to ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religions, with the gods central to the myth that existed as part of the natural environment. Plant believed that these myths were not religious texts, but explained religious practices and worship. The Greek creation story explains why some gods must be venerated as opposed to others, as the Olympians come to supremacy after defeating their forefathers. Each of these gods has a purpose but is very human in nature, so to please the gods and bring good fortune, particularly in warfare and harvest, they must be worshipped and honored. Like in the Greek myth, the Egyptian god Atum rose up out of the primordial waters named Nut. Over time, Atum became connected with the sun god Ra, and: “His emergence from the water was associated with the rising of the sun and the dispelling of chaotic darkness”. This became a continual process as the sun rises and sets each day, and ancient Egyptian mythology became greatly intertwined with these acts of daily creation. Similar themes continue in Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth from around 1900 BC. Once again, creation emerged from the primordial waters, with the gods, the world and the people quickly following. The myth was not intended as an origin story like many of the others were but instead as a way of praising Marduk, the main god of Babylon, and explaining his rise to kingship. The biblical creations within the Book of Genesis are the most separate from the others described, as they are based on the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity and are found in the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. These myths have many authors and versions, as they were originally oral stories passed down. All of the biblical creation myths center around one omnipresent and omnipotent God who created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. This is integral to ancient biblical religions, as part of the faith practice is the Sabbath or day of rest each week to commemorate God's rest. Similar to the other myths, creation emerged from a primordial substance.

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Creation myths are valuable for explaining social structures and political interests, as they reflect directly what was occurring in a culture at a given time. Greek creation myths are an important influence on social structure and politics as the myth follows the genealogy of the Greek gods, which reflects the concerns of elites in their status, which is often established by their ancestors. Greek kings and aristocrats often cited the gods and heroes as their ancestors, as divine succession was propaganda to build power. Pinder states: “Both gods and people had a common ancestor: they were both descendants of the earth”. The Olympian defeat of the Titans is an important explanation that power is not assumed, but must be won by the ruler, and that Zeus represented patriarchal rule and power. The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, is important socially and politically as it represents a time when Babylon rose to ‘political supremacy’ and Marduk became the national god. The myth is interpreted as a yearly ritual to renew the kings’ divinity and can precursor to religious and political changes. The myth is ritually performed on the 4th day of the new year festival – Nisan in Akitu. The festival represents the temporary reassertion of chaos and its defeat by Marduk – reenacting and conceptualizing the themes of creation found in the Enuma Elish. Biblical myths do not have as big of an impact on social structure and politics, as the type of religion developed in Judaism and Christianity is very different from the polytheistic traditions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Babylon. One God is the Creator and Ruler, and there is no social status depicted, all beings are equal under God. Like the Greek myth, the Egyptian gods had a hierarchy that people modeled themselves after. Monarchy evolved with the pharaoh as king with a divine connection to the gods.

Creation myths have a significant cultural value for societies as they explain or instruct aspects of the world that would otherwise be unknown. Myths were created to answer the unknown questions that humans have been seeking for centuries: ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where did I come from?’, ‘Where am I going?’, ‘Why am I here?’. The exact meanings can be difficult to dissect, as they have been retold throughout generations, where information that was deemed important at the time was added, and information seen as secondary was omitted. Creation myths are particularly important for culture as they can provide valuable insight into humanity’s purpose. In the biblical creation stories, humans were created for a purpose, to be custodians of the earth in the divine image of God: “Then God said, ‘Let us create mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’”. God created man in his own image makes them important, it gives humanity itself significance and comfort in existence. In the Egyptian creation myths, humanity’s creation was accidental: “After therefore I had united my members I wept over them, [and] came into being men and women from the tears [which] came from my eye”. Whilst humankind's creation was not intentional, it still holds value as the same Creator who made the earth they live in and the gods they worshiped also made them. Reflecting this view, pharaohs are often represented as divine themselves. Human value is less prominent in the Greek and Near Eastern creation stories, but the gods in these myths also have more human characteristics, which play out in competitions, love affairs, and rivalries. This creates explanations for human existence and how involved the gods are in human lives. Plant explains that myth explains the rule of the gods in very human terms. Humans are not created with great importance, but through external actions, they become more significant. In Hesiod, before Prometheus steals to fire to protect humanity, they were nothing more than the other animals that had been created, but they had no natural gifts as they had been given to other animals. The fire symbolizes physical protection as well as wisdom, which puts humanity on a level between the gods and the rest of life, giving them greater importance.

A culture's beliefs about the natural world are significantly impacted by how nature is represented in creation mythology. Within the Greek Parthenon particularly, the gods represent physical embodiments of nature and natural occurrences, like the seasons, weather, plants, and animals: “Then she brought forth long hills, the lovely homes of goddesses, the nymphs who live among the mountain clefts. Then, without pleasant love, she bore the barren sea with its swollen waves”. The ideas around primeval waters that appear in all four creation myths are extremely interesting and are prominent within nature and religion. Water, oceans, rivers, and streams have a lot of cultural significance, particularly in life and the life cycle. In Hesiod, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born out of the water, and water indicates the wet seasons in harvest when seeds shall grow. Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern religions have similar themes within their stories. The first lines of Enuma Elish state: “When there was no heaven, no earth, no height, no depth, no name, when Apsu was alone, the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat the bitter water, and that return to the womb, her Mummy, when there were no gods”. The water is referred to as the womb, a place of life-giving. All things are born from the water equally, the world, the gods, and man. Ancient cultures understood and respected this fact. Unknowingly, these myths in many ways signified scientific truth long before it was understood. All life evolved from the ocean, and the natural cycles of the seasons, day and night, and weather patterns had to be understood and utilized. Creation myths are a way for ancient cultures to explain the natural occurrences around them, to teach about the rising and setting of the sun, the seasons, and when the seeds should be planted, would grow, and be harvested. This is also reflected in the Nile for ancient Egyptians. The Nile River was a source of life, and tears, another form of water was the source of human life. Water and nature are also extremely significant within the biblical creation: “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures’”. God gave the earth to humans to protect and dominate it: “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have domination over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’”. Nature is so significant in creation myths as it is the basis of life and the world. The complexities and brilliance of the earth and its systems could not be explained without attributing the power and forces of gods and goddesses to it. Creation myths explain how ancient cultures viewed and valued the natural world around them, and understood how it enabled them to live.

We can learn a lot of significant information from ancient creation myths, particularly those of biblical, Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern origins. Creation myths were used to explain the world as it was known and the events that occurred around people. They often have similar themes around nature, and we can discern information about religion, society and culture, cultural and political conditions, and beliefs about nature. These ancient stories often have a moral focus, and were a form of entertainment, art, inspiration, and warning. Through stories of gods and ancient creation myths in their own ways, each explained how life was born from the primordial waters, the value of human life and social structures, and how to harness the natural cycles of nature, from day to night, from season to season. Creation myths tell us how people survived without an understanding of science for thousands of years, and how complex systems of information can be explained in simple and creative ways.

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Critical Essay on Creation Myths in Ancient Cultures. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
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