Exploring the World's Creation Myths

Liane Hansen speaks with David Leeming, author of the just-published Oxford Companion to World Mythology. He discusses the role of myths in culture and the staggering variety of creation myths around the globe. In relation to the intelligent design debate, Leeming says that the importance of myths is metaphorical, and they were not meant to be taken literally.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The debate over the inclusion of intelligent design curricula in science classes has renewed an interest in creation stories. Supporters of intelligent design claim the universe is too complex to be explained by the concept of evolution and that room should be made for supernatural explanations of human origin. Scientists say there's plenty of room for exploring ideas of religion and spirituality, just not in science class. The story of creation as told in the Book of Genesis is the most recognized in the West, but it's not the only one. The "Oxford Companion to World Mythology" has just been published by the Oxford University Press. Author David Leeming has written numerous other works on mythology. He's professor emeritus in English at the University of Connecticut and he's in our New York studio.

Welcome to the program.

Professor DAVID LEEMING (English, University of Connecticut): Thank you. It's nice to be here.

HANSEN: Before we get into specific stories, give us just a brief kind of overall description of the role that myth plays in every culture.

Prof. LEEMING: Well, I think you have to start by remembering that myths are primarily stories and that in a way humans are defined by the fact that they tell stories, and particular myths reflect particular cultures, but they also reflect the human culture. So if you put together all of the myths of the world, you'll get a picture of the human mind, as it were.

HANSEN: If they are, indeed, stories, are they taken metaphorically or are they taken literally?

Prof. LEEMING: Well, that depends on who you are. I would take them metaphorically. What defines a myth is that--a myth is a story that's often considered sacred, but essentially it's a story in which the events that take place don't take place normally in our everyday lives. In our lives, we don't see people rising from the dead. We don't see people ascending into heaven and we don't see people being born of virgins and so on. They're stories that aren't literally true, but they're obviously stories that have been very important to various cultures over time--to all cultures. In some sense, they define cultures. They've very important to identity--self-identity of a culture.

HANSEN: Talk about some of the other creation myths in other cultures.

Prof. LEEMING: Well, let's start with Mesopotamia. Let's start with the Sumerians, one of the earliest of the great cultures. The Sumerian myth is essentially female-centered. It sees the origin of life as being feminine, based in the waters. There's a goddess figure called Nammu who is the prima materia; that is, she's the mother who gave birth to heaven and Earth, as the Sumerians said. She's also called Apsu which means `sweet water' and ocean water; that is, maternal waters. Now this is logical given our observance and certainly early Sumerians' observance of human birth and of plant growth and of the importance of water and the association of water with human birth and so on.

Now when you get to the Semitic peoples of Babylon who came later, you still have the old Sumerian tradition and the old Sumerian gods, but we have stamped on it a new cultural patriarchal arrangement; that is, the Babylonians were centered around their city god, the god Marduk who was very much a male. In their great creation myth, the enuma elish, Marduk, the city god of patriarchal Babylon, defeats the old mother goddess, now a mother monster called Tiamat. And he creates the world out of her dismembered parts.

Or you could listen to a Native American creation myth. For example, here's one from Zuni in the American Southwest: (Reading) `In the four-fold womb of the world, all terrestrial life was conceived from the lying together of Earth Mother and Sky Father upon the world waters. Earth Mother grew large with so great a number of progeny she pushed Sky Father away from her and began to sink into the world waters, fearing that evil might befall her offspring. Suddenly a great bowl filled with water appeared nearby and Earth Mother realized that each place in the world would be surrounded by mountains, like the rim of the bowl. She spat in the water and, as foam formed, she said, "Look, it is from my bosom that they will find sustenance. The waters of life falling downward into my lap, where our children will nestle and thrive, finding warmth in spite of your coldness." In this way and many others, Earth Mother and Sky Father provided for their progeny, the people and other creatures of the world.'

HANSEN: It's so interesting to listen to the different myths and hear how they do connect. In all the research that you've done and the inquiry that you've done into the creation myth, is there a place in that myth for the stories of humans now?

Prof. LEEMING: Oh, yes, sure. I mean, I think myths reveal where we are. If we try to think according to the stage that we've achieved now as human beings in terms of our understanding and our educational level and so on, which is after all different than that of the Sumerians, we realize that our role in creation--remember I said that human beings are differentiated by the--from other species by the fact that they tell stories. Could it be that our role in creation is to make creation conscious of itself? Which is in itself an extraordinary idea, I think, and an extraordinary role that we can play in a universe that now, we understand, was not necessarily created by something or some being in seven days or by--some people in Central Asia would say by the trickster god, Raven, defecating the Earth onto the ground--that these things didn't literally happen. But what they all point to is that we are here to make Earth conscious of itself and that Earth itself is an interconnected, complex, ecological reality that involves us all, and that our various creation myths are simply various cultural metaphors to talk about that fact.

HANSEN: David Leeming is the author of the "Oxford Companion to World Mythology," and is professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. He joined us from New York.

Thanks a lot for your time.

Prof. LEEMING: Thank you.

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