Paganism and Myths of Creation

FireHeart 6 Cover for EarthSpiritPaganism and Myths of Creation
A Ritual of Transformation
by Walter Wright Arthen ©1991

“In the beginning……”

These words open the book of Genesis, but they also find their echo in every great system of myth. Traditionally, myth has told us about origins, about how things began, and in doing so, it orients us. It tells us where we are from, and, therefore, who and what we are and how we should live. What happens in principio is creation: of the world itself, its physical features, and the realms of beings within it. For the traditional myth teller, to know how a thing came to be is to know something of what it is, and not to know the origin of a thing is not to understand it truly.1 So, in the first place, creation myths have always been myths of origin.

But we live “downstream” from the time of origins, Eliade’s in illo tempore.2 We have probably read Joseph Campbell’s works, and we know lots of myths. We have seen Star Wars, heard about Adam and Eve in the Garden, and may even have read the Akkadian Enuma Elish.3 We have some sense of scientific cosmology and the “Big Bang” theory. More significantly, we have lived through a century of myth-breaking. As our science gets better, the world gets older, and the “time of origins” gets deeper and more incomprehensible. In short, we know so many different origin stories, as well as their refutations, that no creation myth can completely absorb us. There are many “stories” and no Story. In that sense, we “moderns” are one and all skeptics.

In the second place, myth is participation as well as origin. Since the seventeenth century, our culture has been learning distanced scientific rationality, unlearning myth, and cutting the participatory cords that bind people to their world. We live in a world made banal by technological systems of control, and yet one that remains unfathomable to us. We conceive everything in our world as “raw material” or “resources” for development and use for human ends. We see ourselves as masters of the Earth, and yet we are not able to control even our personal greed or to halt the expanding processes of destruction and devastation that are gradually rendering this planet uninhabitable. We are like the white men whose fate is lamented by Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man when he says, “they do not know where the center of the earth is.” We have lost touch with our origins and with participation, and we have thereby created a world of dead manipulables, subject only to rational ordering and control. A world like that is without participation.

Third, traditional myth is perfection. It tells us of worlds that are pristine, or are complete fulfillments. The worlds built by these old myths provided total explanations of everything in a way we can no longer endorse. Neither a late arriving God who will save everything nor an ultimate cataclysm will work here, because our world is removed from the perfection of myth in at least two ways. First, it is irretrievably broken. When canisters of plutonium sit decomposing on the ocean floors, when every newspaper tells us about holes in the ozone layer, and when today’s awful weapons of war – chemical, biological, and nuclear – can still be deployed for some incalculable use, the world is vulnerable in ways that it has not been before. And we have brought it to that state. Secondly, the outcome of all these problems is uncertain. No simple foreclosures, in any direction, are creditable now. We are in a time of hazard. The possible futures are momentous and uncertain.

Therefore, in a radical way, we are in front of the problem that Nietzsche foresaw under the heading of “nihilism.” We do not know our origin and seem to have lost touch with even the possibility of a “ground”; hence, we do not know who our relations are or how to act. We stand in the midst of a world of which we seem somehow no longer a part, a world whose “perfection” is incomprehensible. The orienting origin is no longer “out there” creating a world of meaning. Whatever world there may be must be of our own making. Of course there is no lack of hucksters willing to tell us about their various versions of the ultimate ground. A range of “fundamentalisms” and systems of true belief abound, telling us how to get “it”. Then again, we can always tune in to the culture’s consumption machinery. But these shoddy goods are unappealingly evident as what they are. Therefore, we must either find our own path back to the self-concealing ground or learn to live without any simple origin, without myths. When the stories can no longer tell us how the world was created, we must begin to create it ourselves, and we must do so “more carefully and creatively than we have been.”4

Can we create new myths? Or find them? Is there a way back to the ground? Can we act and live without origins? Can we make a habitable world? It is true that some scientists and philosophers are beginning to talk about “the re enchantment of the world,” and the renewed relevance of mythical thinking.5 There are hints everywhere of new myths in the offing. We can explore these interconnected questions by moving in three different directions: by looking at some representative traditional creation stories to discern some of their common elements, by examining the concepts of “creation” and “origin” to pry them apart from our usual understanding of them, and by taking up the challenge of articulating a way of life without the orientation provided by the old understandings.

The Traditional Myths

In the beginning there was only Tokpefla, Endless Space.”6

So begins a Hopi creation legend, as retold by Harold Courlander. Into this endless, featureless space, Tawa, the Sun Spirit, puts some of his substance, mingling it with the elements of that place. By this act, he begins an evolutionary process of successively better worlds, which emerge as Tawa’s creatures improve from empty, shadowy simulacra to full blooded human beings capable of independent thought and action – and hence, one might add, of evil. Nearly all of the great creation myths share this pattern. The Hebrew, Christian, and Greek myths certainly do, and one can find evidence of a similar pattern in East Indian traditions. A divine, creative act injects principle and order into a pre-existing nothingness or chaos.

How do these stories operate in their commonalities and differences? What can we learn from reading them to guide us in our own search for an understanding of creation? Three elements among others deserve mention: the extraction of order from chaos, the centrality of act, and the resemblance between “creator” and “created.”

Creation begins from emptiness. Before “being” and its orderings stand chaos and eternal night. Mythic creation is a movement from non-being to being, from formlessness to form. This void both is the medium in which order emerges and is presupposed by all order, but it is not itself ordered or ordering. This “dark” is not the dark that stands in contrast to light and that manifests as shadow or contrast. It is the primary dark before any differentiation at all. It is neither feminine nor masculine; in fact, it is not polarized in any way. Therefore, this dark is literally and completely incomprehensible. It is nowhere, has no qualities, and stands in no relations.7 It conveys more than the natural cyclic alteration of light and dark, suggesting too the possibility of total disruption and utter non-being. This primal darkness plays a double role in myths of creation. On the one hand, absence stands before the beginning of order as the field in and from which creation occurs; but, on the other hand, it also haunts the world as a perpetual threat of disorder. The monsters and powers of the time of chaos are not destroyed; instead, they are held at bay by underworld dungeons or magical protections. But there is the constant danger that at the end of things – and even now – dissolution may once again have the upper hand, as in both Scandinavian and Indian myths. In both roles, chaos is the background to what there is. it is implicit in all orderings as the Unmaker.8 In traditional myths, however, the void primarily plays a role as the site of original creation. This is its first and most dominant role. For us, however, its other role has become more important.

In each creation story, order somehow emerges from this sheer absence. The essence of these myths is this ungraspable moment of emergence. And the myths represent this moment in many different ways. The Pelasgian story of ancient Greece uses birth.9 The All-Goddess Eurynome (who is herself void) copulates with the void (as the serpent Ophion) and begets all things. The Egyptian god Ptah creates the world from his own substance by masturbation, YHWH and Allah create through speech and simply call order into existence (“God said ‘Let it be!’and it was”). In the Enuma Elish, Marduk conquers the void (as the water goddess Tiamat) and uses her broken flesh as material for shaping the world. For the Hopi, Tawa, Spider Grandmother, Masauwu (Ruler of the Upper World, Caretaker of the Dead, and the owner of Fire) and other divinities all have a cooperative hand in bringing human beings into this “fourth world” we now inhabit, But in every story cycle, the problem is essentially the same: how does the transition from disorder to order occur, and how is disorder held at bay?

Despite the variety of shapes given to this moment of emergence, all of them involve action. Myth says, “The world comes to be as a result of an act.” This apparently simple observation is actually of very great importance. As Kenneth Burke points out, the two most basic ways of talking about the world differ on whether action or sheer motion is the paradigmatic term.10 Scientific discourse systematically excludes talk about agency purpose, motive, excuse, and all the other elements of “dramatic” discourse. It gives us a world of meaningless movement composed of mindless elements and their accidental interactions. For science, the point of transition from chaos to order is to be explained without appeal to antecedent intention, mind. consciousness, purpose, or any other term that suggests agency.11 In this respect, scientific discourse excludes the participation of the knower in the known. As Starhawk, among others, has pointed out, scientific knowing as a mode of power-over essentially involves alienation and fragmentation. For myth, on the other hand, order is always evidence of the presence of action, intention, and also of mind. Its meanings are wholly participatory, and creation in its terms is always oriented toward agency. Myth structures, legitimates, and requires acts.

Creation myths share another attribute. They teach that one purpose of creative activity is the production of beings who can mirror the nature of the creator. In this view, living things are not so much accidental collocations of unconscious meaningless parts as they are images or representations of the creative power itself. If creative activity is seen as “power-over,” then living beings are represented as a hierarchy and human beings, as the “acme” of creation, are given that kind of power vis-a-vis the natural world. If this creativity is seen as birthing, then females are special representatives of the world’s creative power. In the best known Hebrew and Christian example, Genesis describes a discussion within the divine power: “Let us make man (sic) in our image and after our likeness.” The Hopi story with which I began depicts Tawa, the Sun Spirit, as being unhappy with the human beings until they are able to remember him and their origin as well. The sipapuni, or the hole of emergence from the lower world into the next, is a sacred place because it is a link with the source. To be satisfactory, a world must mirror the essence of the creator. Hindu myths carry this same message, since the aim and perfection of human life is a return to undifferentiated identity with the divine source.

This homology between creator and created means that human lives, on whatever terms one may live them, have a significance in the whole for peoples who follow these stories. Whether a myth asserts survival of a physical death, a cycle of death and renewal, or some other pattern, human life is valuable and significant within the myth because life mirrors the greater whole. Therefore, those who live such myths experience themselves as belonging to the world. They participate in their world as agents and as representatives of the whole. They need not fear the alienation and anomie that have been a hallmark of our century and that hold us in a self-constructed prison of powerlessness.

These three themes – order and chaos, action, and the mirroring of creator and created – are clues to the larger problem of living without foundations or origins. But first we must consider “creation” and “origin” in their mutuality to see if we can think their meaning and relationship in a new way.

Creation and Origin

Hebrew and Christian influences are strong in our language and thinking. We cannot easily think “creation” without hearing the voice of the great patriarch saying, “Let there be light!” or seeing YHWH’s extended finger in the Sistine Chapel calling a world into existence. While “origin” is a more neutral term – invoking as it does the mathematical point of intersection of coordinate axes – the “creationist” imagery that has helped shape us encourages us to conceive of origin, too, in terms of temporal priority. Perhaps by attending to the words more closely, we can hear them in a different way.

“Creation” is derived proximally from the Latin verb creare. This in turn derives from the basic Indo-European root ker-, meaning “to grow.” It points toward Ceres (the goddess of grain and agriculture), increase, crescendo, accrual, decrease, procreation, kouros and kore, com, cranium, and Herne. Among animals, it suggests the names rook. raven, and kestrel. Elementally, ker- names the fires of hearth. ceramic and cremation. 12

“Origin” is again from the Latin – in this case, the noun origo and the verb oriri, “to rise.” It is from the IE root er-, “to set in motion.” Er- points toward forms of the verb to be (were and are), as well as ardor felt in battle (to be earnest), orientation, origin, and, in an extended form, run, running, rival, and rivulet. It also provides erne for eagle, ornitho for birds generally, as well as earth and various horned domestic animals such as Aries the ram.

Clearly, the semantics of the two families are closely allied. Both ker- and er- connote movements of arising and growth. They also refer to horns and horned animals, as well as birds. They suggest the emergence of power into manifestation a rising up. Yet, in this field of similarities, there are also significant divergences. Ker- connects to the element of fire. It is the hearth. carbon, and cremation. Fire is the vital, fertilizing energy of growth, development and change, and it is the consuming fire of the funeral pyre. Both of these aspects are present in ker-. It holds the rook and the raven, who are birds of death, and the agricultural bounty of Ceres and corn. Er-, on the other hand, is linked to the element earth rather than fire. As motion, it is running rather than growth. It is flowing out onto the ground rather than burgeoning emergence. It names what is set into motion.

These etymological considerations are suggestive rather than determinative. They point strongly to the semantic connections weaving ker- and er-, creation and origin, together. They also give us some tools for seeing them differently. Elemental associations suggest that ker- names a process of growth and emergence. Creation is a fiery emergence into order as growth. Creation is the fruiting corn; it is the kore playing in the fields: it is “cereal crescendo.” Origin, on the other hand, might be imagined as the site of this emerging. It is the place from which the stream of what there is flows. It is our original orientation on the Earth.

Further. these distinctions suggest how we might begin to see a little further and begin to experience creation and origin differently. Rather than seeing them as the first temporal events that bring what-there-is into being, we might see them as the self-feeding, self-consuming cycle of life that is its own support. Taken in this way, creation can be the ongoing emergence of the world as ordered in the face of the threat of radical disruption and chaos. As such, it can be freed from what happened first and brought into relation with what is happening now. In that way, we might come to see the sacred as presence rather than source, as our own responsibility and doing.

Creative Action

Today then let us build a temple to the stars
we see above us now, burned out
ten million years ago: hosannahs
to the wind that shifts the silent dunes
without intent: amen to the deep rot
of the forest floor, the subatomic world
we’ll never see, the sweet collisions
and the million accidents of time
that gave us life – and all those miracles,
indifferent and inhuman as the waves
that Adam in his garden never dreamed
because they’re no more kin
to him than heaven is to kings
or what is natural to what is named.13

The ordering of the world need not be understood as a movement from what is first in time to what is later. Our familiar creation stories envision creative action as a movement from that “first time,” in which the patterning actions for all human living were set down, to a present which is fully real just to the extent that it fulfills these ancient patterns. But that is not the only possibility. The three characteristics of creation stories that we identified earlier can be a guide in moving toward a new way.

The first characteristic is the emergence of order from chaos. As indicated before, chaos is not just first, it is always. As well as being the primal dark into which the first creation comes, chaos is also present as the depth over which we move, threatening us with the perpetual possibility of engulfment, and which we, in our living, order. Because the region of temporal firstness is no longer accessible to us, our stories of creation and origin need to be different from the old ones. They cannot be about the first emergence from chaos into order, but they can tell us about how order and chaos dance here and now. But we must always remember that this dance can be deadly. Our partner, the primal chaos, may take the shape of militarism, of AIDS, or of “development’s” ongoing genocidal destruction of tribal people. We need stories that speak of cycles and of alternating light and dark without conceiving these movements as flowing from a single point of origin. We need stories that bespeak patterns of transformation, of how things change, without assigning a changeless venue. The rising, running movement of the origin flows always from everywhere – abundance without source or end. So origin is not long ago; it is here and now. We need these stories desperately. We need them to live ourselves and for the Earth to live.

But action, the second element, must be there too. It is action that orders the ever-present chaos. Again, this action need not be taken to be temporally first. The action that generates myth is a beginning as the present point of order’s emergence from chaos, rather than as the indefinitely remote past moment of first enactment. At every moment, act separates order from chaos. In any moment that we work to build the world, we are in harmony with the creative dimension of myth. But how is action possible in a world that is disordered? What can it mean?

Essentially, the myth-creating act will be the action we do ourselves as we call the world to order. Because, as the third theme suggests, the action cannot be merely the expression of the agent without regard for the condition of the world. The agent and the environing world cannot any longer be conceived as separate. They need to be related as “micro-” and “macro-” cosms, each reflecting the other in mutual participation. We are a part of the world and not apart from it. The world we inhabit now is imperfect and threatened in ways we have brought about. As the world is flawed and threatened, so are we, by our own devices. Our new myths must speak to that condition. We cannot invoke the Earth or nature spirits and ignore the damage we have done and are doing to them. We cannot honestly enclose ourselves within a simplistic, romantic view of how things are or of what is possible. The enormous fragile contingency, the insubstantiality of our “world order” cannot be overlooked. We and the world stand together in that fragility and insubstantiality. So the “doing” needed now must include recognition, reparation, and healing. Creation, as we vision it mythically, now will need to speak to the fragile hopes of a world renewed and preserved in the face of present, self-generated, overwhelming threats of desolation and annihilation. We must name what we have done and allowed. And this means speaking to the inconceivable, inhuman depths of nature: to “the light of stars burned out ten million years ago,” to “the wind that shifts the silent dunes without intent,” and to “the million accidents of time that gave us life.”

The great power of Starhawk’s Truth or Dare14 is that she takes this question of action as myth-making very seriously. Two suggestions arise from her work and Catherine Madsen’s that can give direction to our thinking on this question. The first involves new stories and the second involves new ways of hearing the old ones.

First, just as myths described the fundamental patterns of the ancients’ lives, we moderns – or “post-moderns” – can find in our own lives the materials for new creation stories: the experiences of transformation, resistance, loss, and hope, and the occurrence of meaning. Starhawk uses her own personal stories to weave a magical pattern, and she describes several group exercises in which telling our stories to one another becomes a medium of understanding, intimacy, and power. To dare the truth with one another is to open avenues to a new mythology that understands creation in the very terms required. She writes:

Telling our personal stories in ritual also moves us close to the realm of myth… Myth gives as a set of organizing symbols that places our own lives and events in a context that stretches back to the past and forward to the future… Our personal stories can become the ground of the new myths we need in order to create the world anew.15

Creation is not restricted to a long time ago. It happens now in moments of courage and healing. These moments are one source of the myths we need.

Second, however, creation myths for today need not be altogether new. If we can learn to listen again, if we can come to hear the potentials that have always been present in the oldest Stories, then, as Starhawk does with “The Descent of lnanna,”16 we can detect the traces of what we need to know now in the same stories we have always known. To do this, we need to move away from literal interpretations, and we need to hear these old tales as words about now instead of then. We need to remember how we have revisioned “creation” and “origin.” But if we can do this and can listen past what we already think we know, perhaps we can hear something about what creation needs to mean in our place and time. Because chaos and order do their fateful dance everywhere and always, we can see the dance wherever we look.

But, even to hear the old stories differently, we must act. When we hear what creation means in our place and time, we will be called to do something. There will be no cosmic assurances that what we have to do will be safe or right. Like all our forebears, we will face a step over the edge of the familiar into a dangerous dark. But step we must.

In these two ways – telling our own stories as myths and rehearing the old stories anew – it may be possible for the Pagan community to recover a connection with the event of creation that is fitting for the endangered world we now share. In coming to that understanding, we may also discover that the corrosive destruction of the old myths by science and enlightenment rationalism was not merely a loss. Perhaps losing the old myths was a necessary clearing which made possible the homeopathic healing of the damage we ourselves have engendered. Perhaps the place of loss is also the place of recovery, a place in which we can learn how to act fittingly – humanly – on the Earth.


  1. Logicians warn about the dangerous “genetic fallacy” which arises when one explicates what something is on the basis of how it came to be. Whether such explanations are actually fallacious may depend on what we mean by “genesis.” In any case, we can avoid this “fallacy” by conceiving origin myths as accounts of the world’s synchronic structure rather than its narrative history. Doing so is one of the primary aims of this essay.
  2. Literally, “in that time,” a phrase that Eliade uses to denote the magical time of creation in which the gods’ actions created the patterns for human action.
  3. This epic of creation can be found in I. B. Pritchard, Amcient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), p 60ff.
  4. Catherine Madsen. personal communication, 11/24/90. Catherine’s wonderful suggestions, including one about the importance of action, caused me to rethink an earlier draft of this article. She will recognize the extent of her influence on the result.
  5. Of course the work of the late Joseph Campbell is germane here, but note also Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).
  6. Harold Courlander, The Fourth World of the Hopis (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971).
  7. See Charles Scott, “Utter Darkness and Utter Light” in his Boundaries in Mind, (New York: The Crossroads Press, 1982).
  8. Orson Scott Card’s series, “The Tales of Alvin Maker,” (Book I The Seventh Son, Book II Red Prophet, and Book III Prentice Alvin) (New York: TOR Fantasy Books) raises this theme in a particularly powerful way by introducing “The Unmaker” as a cosmic principle. This shows once again the vitality of the best science fiction writing as a field for mythic exploration.
  9. Robert Graves. (The Greek Myths vol. I (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955), pp. 27-28.
  10. Burke takes up the conflict of “dramatism” and “scientism” In many places, but one of the clearest and most focused is, Kenneth Burke, “Terministic Screens,” which is Chapter III of Language As Symbotic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).
  11. Whether cellular automata, “chaos theory,” or the mathematics of fractals will resolve these questions is, at present difficult to say. I am. however, generally dubious about the prospects of resolving sentience to non-sentient processes of any sort.
  12. Wilitam Morris, ed. The American Heritage Dictimary of the English Lanquage (New York: American Heritage Publishing Group, 1969),p 1522. The appendix on IE roots contains five distinct ker* families. Because close semantic and symbolic connectons link the first four of these. I treat them here as connected.
  13. Eleanor Wilner, cited from IN MEDIAS RES: A New Liturgy by Catherine Madsen, copyright 1990. The first version cf this article was partially finished when Madsen graciously shared her work with me. The liturgies she assembles in her text speak directly to the perceptions developed in this article about what myths we need now.
  14. Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).
  15. Starhawk, pp. 123-124.
  16. Starhawk, passim.WALTER WRIGHT ARTHEN co-editor of FireHeart and a memberof the Board of Directors of the EarthSpirit Community. He is a frequent contributor to FireHeart. His writing blends wide experience with many spiritual paths and a commitment to building bridges betueen the Pagan community and secular culture.