New Worlds: In the Beginning

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Where does everything come from?

Humans have been asking that question for a long time, and we’ve come up with many different answers. The Big Bang. “Let there be light.” The world hatching from an egg. All of these possibilities, be they scientific or mythological in nature, fall under the header of cosmogony, i.e. the origin of the cosmos.

Does every society have a cosmogonic myth? It’s hard to say for sure. There’s no such thing that I’m aware of in, say, Irish mythology. The Lebor Gabála Érenn, one of the main texts to touch on this subject, is a medieval work and just borrows the Christian tale for how the world was created, before proceeding to an account of the successive waves of invasion that constitute Irish mythic history. Does that mean there was no indigenous, non-Christian cosmogonic narrative? Or does it just mean that we don’t have a record of that narrative, it having been overwritten by later Christianization? Short of a time machine, we’ll never know for sure.

(As a brief aside: when I say “myth,” I’m using that term in the technical sense, as referring to sacred stories about the origins of things. Since we also use “myth” in a more dismissive sense, I feel it’s important to clarify when I’m discussing matters of religious faith.)

Scholars have spent a lot of time looking for commonalities among world cosmogonies, with limited success. For unsurprising reasons, images like seeds or eggs lend themselves well to explaining the origins of everything, but they’re far from universal. Primordial waters appear fairly often — cue lots of speculation about parallels with evolution and the idea that life originally came from the sea — but that’s not universal either; I believe that in Vedic cosmology, everything starts with heat, while Norse cosmology posits a bipolar arrangement of heat and cold, which between them began to generate the world.

You also have the question of whether this process just sort of happened, or was directed. Monotheistic cosmologies generally assume that God existed from before the start and directed the creation of the world — though, having said that, now I think it would be interesting to see a fantasy cosmos where the godhead forms after creation! (I will not fall down the rabbit hole of what is required to call an entity a god. We already did that one in Year Four, anyway.) Polytheistic cosmologies are more varied in this regard. Often there are one or more primeval deities involved in creation; while these can be the heads of their later pantheons, it’s also common for them to fade into the background, with later, more humanized deities taking center stage.

The origins of those deities is called theogony, a concept closely related to and often folded in with cosmogony. (It’s specifically the title of a work by Hesiod, but sometimes used as a more general term.) Once a few gods have been established by whatever means, mythology frequently arranges the rest into a family tree; there’s a strong tendency for us to think of our deities in human-like terms, with spouses and children and so forth. But mythology being what it is, those relationships may not form in quite the usual way: instead of sexual reproduction, you get Aphrodite being born from the sea foam produced by the severed genitals of Uranus, or Amaterasu Ōmikami coming into existence when Izanagi-no-Mikoto purifies his left eye after visiting the underworld. (Mythology being what it is, you also get variant stories where Aphrodite is the more conventional daughter of Zeus and Dione, or Amaterasu Ōmikami is the daughter of Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto. One of the most realistic things you can do with your fictional religion is have it include contradictory tales.)

Other origins can also be included under the broad umbrella of cosmogony. It’s quite common, for example, to have tales explaining how celestial bodies like the sun and the moon were created — often in some linked fashion. But there’s kind of a gradual slope for these types of creation: the sun and the moon are likely to be established very early on, while things like specific constellations come later. Not later to the extent of being set in historical time, of course, but at a point when the fundamental operation of the cosmos is in place and humans have probably come onto the scene.

Ah yes, humans. How central we are to the tale does vary; hunter-gatherer beliefs tend to contextualize our species as being on a more comparable footing with the natural world (not just animals but plants and environmental phenomena), while agricultural societies are more likely to see it as a hierarchy, with humans on top. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re unique, though: in Aztec and Mayan mythology, for example, the gods tried multiple times to create people, destroying their earlier, unsatisfactory efforts before finally arriving at a design they liked. Don’t assume that it necessarily began with one man and one woman, either; the Mayan Popol Vuh features a quartet of motherfathers. Wives later come into existence for them, retroactively implying masculinity for the motherfathers, but since no explanation is given for where the wives come from, you can just as convincingly read that as the original quartet differentiating into male and female.

Now, having gone over all of this . . . do you actually need it for fiction?

Epic fantasy used to be derided for delivering big ol’ wodges of cosmogonic myth at the hapless reader, and I think a number of authors still feel like the creation of their invented world is one of the first things they need to work out for their religion. I’m not going to say there’s no merit in that; creation myths reflect fundamental aspects of a culture’s worldview. Ergo, knowing whether the gods overthrew some primeval enemy or sacrifice was required for the creation of the sun and human beings could set parameters that shape how you design other details of the setting.

But the road can also go the other way. Designing your setting in a particular fashion might imply things about how the world and its gods were created, if and when that starts to matter for your narrative. Emphasis on if: it’s entirely possible to write a whole series without ever establishing where its cosmos came from. And unless you’re writing the sort of tale whose central conflict involves a confrontation with a dark god locked away at the beginning of time (which, to be fair, a lot of those aforementioned epic fantasy authors were), cosmogony might not be the most important religious element for you to figure out. Other, more everyday details are likely to matter more.

We’ll move onto some more of those soon enough. But next week, we’ll flip this timeline on its head . . . and look at where it all ends.

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6 thoughts on “New Worlds: In the Beginning”

  1. The epic fantasy myths also had the downside of being unquestionably accurate. It made it hard to add mystery.

  2. This is one thing that I believe The Wheel of Time did well. Early parts of the series featured characters saying a sort of pseudo-prayer to themselves:

    “The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time.”

    As the series goes on (and starting quite early, really), the characters and the reader discover that the catechism is incorrect, and that the previous 3000+ years corrupted what had happened in the Age of Legends from history into myth. The belief even runs contrary to other ideas, like the cyclism of the world that is commonly believed by the population. That doesn’t stop people from believing both ideas, though.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Yes, one thing fiction often misses is the frequency with which religions (and not just religions) encompass contradictory ideas, without anybody having a problem with that.

  3. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series, matter came first, with the 5 gods [completely spirit] appearing later, as an emerging property of matter.

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