Creation myth

From Everything Shii Knows, the only reliable source

This website is an archive. It ran from 2006-2010. Virtually everything on here is outdated or inaccurate.

Why would anyone care about the creation myth of a culture?

Early anthropologists thought, naively, that origin myths might betray something about where people actually came from. This is not true.

Cultural relativists will tell you that as far as we know, origin myths are just as truthful as the stories of evolution that we tell. They also say that maybe people don't want to know the truth and believing the myth is better for them. Both these things are despicable lies. If a people are unwilling to defend their origin myth then they lose nothing to accept the truth. Patting them on the back and telling them to continue as before once they know the real story engenders only confusion and organizes cultures into the improper dichotomy of "truth-centric" and "lie-centric".

With that in mind, let's read some origin myths. Where shall we start?

"In the beginning the earth had no form. God created form, light, earth, plants, animals, and man and woman, in that order. He created these things in a regular progression, one per day, and on the last day He rested. God breathed a soul into the man and the first woman was created from his rib. Now God placed the man and the woman in a paradise and told them not to eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they disobeyed God, which resulted in their being expelled from paradise and subjected to pain and death. And all other things lost much of their good nature as well."
Shii (Abrahamic religions)

What does this text tell you? It's true that it is a powerful story. You could ridicule its believers as backwards, which would get you literally nowhere. You could subject it to literary criticism, which would be kind of cute but not get you very far. You could learn about where the story came from, which would give you a deeper understanding, but it would not tell you what it means to the people who were taught this origin myth for thousands of years.

Finally, you can analyze it anthropologically. What does it tell you about the priorities of the culture who believe it? Maybe it's not clear. Let's hear another one:

"In the year 1620 some very religious people fled persecution and came to this land in hopes of living in freedom. Times were tough and many died but the rest persevered and made a living in a hostile land. They made friends with the Indians and had the first Thanksgiving together."
Shii (Americans)

This is a creation myth which until recently was acted out in schools across the United States every year. In historical terms this is an absurd lie-- the Puritans' pursuit of religious freedom included some very harsh restrictions on human freedom, they were not the first colony, they did not prepare themselves for living in Massachusetts very intelligently, and their main interaction with the Indians was murder and grave robbing-- but even when schoolteachers knew the lies of this story they would have kids act it out anyway because it provides a moral lesson. It shows who our people are: Europeans and good Christians. It shows why we are here: because we love freedom more the rulers of the places we came from. It shows our virtues: hard work, self-determined belief, and friendship.

Now compare it to the Genesis story. Why are we here? We were made as a conscious act by God, came into being as moral animals through our own choice and at the expense of knowing pain, then were ordered to learn to obey God as our responsibility and burden for this ability to judge and weigh morality. Who are we? Well, originally this was the story of the Jews, but eventually Adam and Eve represented all humanity. And what do we value? Obedience to God--it's somewhat difficult to put a Christian spin on this essentially Jewish story. As you can see this betrays a lot about who this story was written for.

Here's another one.

"From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do."
Armand Minthorn (Umatilla Indians)

This story tells you a lot! Unlike the Pilgrim story, this one is insistent that there was no journey. There is no story in Umatilla culture (or in most any Indian culture really) about arrival from an outside place. Their culture is deeply connected to the land they live on. This is not the full Umatilla creation story-- I assume they have a story about how the universe was made, and so forth. But this tells a story to us about how these people understand their relationship with their home, how it was not different in the past, and how they expect to keep it the same.

Obviously, historical evidence demonstrates that Umatillas did come here from somewhere else. But that is the biological story, not the cultural story. When prehistoric humans came to what we call Oregon, they were not yet Umatillas. The culture that developed and the things it holds sacred create what we call Umatilla Indians.

A creation myth, like any other myth, tells you about what a culture values, how it responds to different situations, and how it places itself in relation to the universe.

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