Thursday, July 23, 2009

Same As It Ever Was

Anthropologists would know better than I, but along with flint knives and huts made out of those gigantic leaves, every primitive society seems to have a creation myth. Whether they live in the jungles of New Guinea, or the Holy Land, everyone has a story about how it was formerly the case that "the darkness was upon the surface of the deep," but then something happened, and now things are pretty normal. The framework of these stories is broad, accommodating a lot of different myths. Surely a perusal of Wikipedia is at hand! And as usual, that online Spiritus Mundi has plenty of images to trouble our sight:
...nothing but water and darkness, ruled by the giant Mbombo... brought with him a chicken, a shell full of sand, and a palm kernel...two loons which dove to the bottom of primeval waters to retrieve a piece of the bottom...formed from an egg that was broken...After that, other animals emerged in different sequences: Bear, Deer, Snake, Frog, Otter...Whatever was thought of by Tepeu and Gucamatz came into being...
This is all very amusing, and if you somehow haven't encountered these peculiar stories before, please take a moment to roll your eyes. Heaven knows I've taken plenty in my life with regard to this topic, but now I have a question. Why don't any societies, primitive or advanced, have a null creation myth? Why doesn't anybody seem to believe, "it was always pretty much like this," with unbroken time stretching infinitely into the past?

In looking, the nearest thing I could find was the Jain belief that the universe was not created, but rather "passes through an endless series of cycles." Unless their concept of "cycles" is very petty (we have a day cycle, then a night cycle!), and I don't think it is, then this isn't the static universe we're looking for.

The null creation myth has a lot to recommend it to the hunter-gatherer mind. Most obviously, from the point of view of a typical tribe, things have (to a fair degree of approximation) "always been like this." Ancestors have always been dying, babies have always been being born, hunters and gatherers have always been hunting and gathering. Traditions (or so I am told by the anthropologists) develop, of such old vintage that nobody in the tribe can remember how they began.

I can hardly say that a given tribesman's life is exactly like his father's or grandfather's, but the differences -- a larger or smaller territory, different food sources, new songs or dances -- can seldom be called momentous. Indeed, it's hard to see what could change in a stone-age lifestyle to make it a reasonable inference (so reasonable an inference that almost every society in the world has leaped to it) that the world must have begun.

I understand that this is probably a "religion thing," which of course I do not understand. Possibly the idea that "nothing much happened ever" is too quotidian to have a lot of sacred appeal. But I should note that the belief in an eternal universe is not inconsistent with most of the elements of religion, including all the ones that people seem to find important. After all, even those cultures that postulate a created universe often say that an eternal god created it, and what goes better with an eternal creator than an eternal creation? Miracles, prayers, spirits, priests, sacraments and liturgy, all can fit completely unchanged into a non-creationist framework.

I certainly don't expect every jerkwater religion to embrace my null creation myth. To see it universally ignored, however, in favor of the theory that the universe began is a little galling. To the pre-modern mind, I think I have a good theory. I'm almost prepared to believe it myself.

Ironically, astronomy and modern physics teach us that the tribesmen were right all along: Things really haven't always been like this. The universe is expanding from a pinpoint, and at one time, darkness was upon the surface of the deep. Still no word about Mbombo, though.


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