Creation-story motifs

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A student of mythology may recognize many recurring motifs in creation stories and other myths, and several people have proposed various classifications of them. A good classification is Marta Weigle's from her Creation and Procreation:

  1. Primordial elements meet or mingle or otherwise get disturbed.
  2. A god creates by secreting something, like sweat or blood or semen or a parthenogenetic child or a spun web or excretions.
  3. A god either sacrifices him/herself or gets sacrificed to form the raw materials for creation.
  4. The hatching of a cosmic egg or dividing a closely-embraced earth and sky.
  5. Someone dives into the primordial ocean to get some sand or mud to create land with.
  6. The first people emerge from a small, cramped world into our larger world.
  7. There are two creators who either cooperate or compete.
  8. Deus faber is the "divine maker"; where a god forms something out of some material.
  9. Ex nihilo is "out of nothing", often creation by a god's command (ab mandato?).


Some of these motifs are easy to recognize in various creation stories:

  • The first Genesis story has #9, of course, though it also has a vestige of #3 in the form of God doing three separations.
  • The second Genesis story has #8, with God forming Adam out of dust and Eve from Adam's side or rib; it also has a bit of #2 in God breathing the dust Adam into life.
  • Hesiod's Theogony starts off with #1 and continues with #4 (Kronos separating Ouranos (Uranus) and Gaia) and lots of #2 (gods having children). It also has some #7 and #8 in Epimetheus and Prometheus creating humanity and animals.
  • The Norse one in the Elder Edda starts off with #1, and contains #3 (the dismemberment of Ymir) and #8 (creation of the first people, Ask and Embla, from wood).

Scott Leonard and others

Scott Leonard in Myths and Religion has collected and discussed many of them, along with various types of deities and trickster figures like Loki and Coyote. He notes several attempts to classify them:

... Eliade does distinguish cosmogonic stories from other types of myth, and, in From Primitives to Zen: A Thematic Sourcebook of the History of Religions, he classifies these specialized myths into four basic types: 1) creation ex nihilo, in which a divinity creates the cosmos by thought, word, dream, or from bodily effluents; 2) Earth Diver creation, in which a divinity sends waterfowl or amphibious animals or itself dives to the bottom of a primordial ocean to bring up mud or sand from which the world grows; 3) creation by dividing a primordial unity like earth and sky, form from Chaos, or the cracking open of a “Cosmic Egg”; and 4) creation by dismemberment of a primordial Being, like the sea monsters Yam or Tiamat in ancient Near Eastern texts, the Giant, Ymir, in the Eddas, or the various Corn mothers of the Americas. Charles H. Long, one of Eliade’s students, in Alpha: The Myths of Creation, adds a fifth classification, emergence myths, in which a people travels through a series of chambers or worlds until it emerges into this one.

Others have provided alternative classification schemes. Raymond Van Over, for example, suggests, rather than a typology of myth, six “basic themes”:

1) The idea of a primeval abyss (which is sometimes simply space, but often is an infinite watery deep) … 2) The originating god (or gods) is frequently awakened or eternally existing in this abyss … 3) … the originating god broods over the water; 4) Another common theme is the cosmic egg or embryo … 5) Life [is] also created through sound , or a sacred word spoken by the original god … [and] 6) A peculiar theme, but quite common, is the creation of life from the corpse or parts of the primeval god’s body… .(Sun Songs 10)

David Maclagan suggests, in Creation Myths: Man’s Introduction to the World, that cosmogonic narratives are patterned after the following themes: 1) inner and outer; 2) horizontal and vertical; 3) something from nothing; 4) the conjugation of opposites; 5) world-order and the order of worlds; 6) descent and ascent; 7) Earth-body and sacrifice; and Death, time, and the elements. In these various schemes, we see areas of overlap, which suggests that a finite number of motifs are at work in creation myths.

Marta Weigle’s Creation and Procreation: Feminist Reflections on Mythologies of Cosmogony and Parturition presents the most nuanced typology of creation myths. Building upon Eliade and Long, as well as upon Marie-Louise von Franz’s Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths and Anna Birgitta Rooth’s journal article “The Creation Myths of the North American Indians,” Weigle constructs a 9-part typology: 1) Accretion or conjunction; 2) Secretion; 3) Sacrifice; 4) Division or conjugation; 5) Earth-diver; 6) Emergence; 7) Two creators; 8) Deus faber; and 9) Ex nihilo.

Scientific origin

The history of the Universe according to modern science also fits some of these creation motifs.

  • Biological evolution is #2, where the mode of secretion is ordinary reproduction without anything special. Charles Darwin's great insight was to show how it can happen with only that mode of origin.
  • Abiogenesis is vaguely like #1.
  • The origin of the Solar System is #1, where an interstellar cloud collapses under its own weight. And likewise for the origin of galaxies, which also originated in that fashion about a billion years after the start of the Universe's expansion.
  • The origin of the Universe remains a mystery, but it is often speculated to have originated from a quantum fluctuation (everything came from fluctuation in a vacuum), something which is essentially #1. The Big Bang itself is much like #4.

This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).

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