Three Classical Creation Stories
Creation stories not only reflect current science, that is, the assumptions about the nature of the world, physical processes, and their relationships; but they are also blueprints for society. They reflect the assumptions about how the divine and the mortal, the mental and the physical, humans and other humans, male and female, humans, plants, animals, land, waters, and stars are related to each other. They both reflect the worldview of the culture and mandate that worldview to its ongoing heirs.
Three classical creation stories have particularly shaped the Christian world. Its normative creation story is the one found in the first chapters of Genesis, which the Christian church incorporated through its selective takeover of the Hebrew Bible from Judaism. Behind this Hebrew creation story lies a more ancient one, the "Enuma Elish," or Babylonian creation story, which was read yearly on the fourth day of the New Year Festival to assure the renewal of the cosmos. The epic in its Babylonian form was probably composed in the early part of the second millennium B.C.E. The priestly authors of the Hebrew creation stories, composed in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E., originally in Babylonia, were well aware of this Babylonian story, and composed their own story both to reflect their own cultic system and in selective appropriation and correction of this earlier story.
The third creation story discussed here is Plato's "Timaeus." Composed in the early fourth century B.C.E., it reflects both Plato's own cosmology and the cosmology that would be regarded as "scientific" for the rest of classical antiquity, as well as for the Middle Ages,until it was challenged by the heliocentric model of Copernicus and Galileo in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although Christians took the Hebrew story as theologically normative, for 1,500 years they read it with the cosmology of the "Timaeus "in the back of their minds.
THE BABYLONIAN CREATION STORY
The Babylonian creation story was itself rooted in earlier stories from the Sumerian world. These stories begin with a primal Mother who is the origin of both the cosmos and the gods. The story is thus both cosmogonic (generation of the cosmos) and theogonic (generation of the deities). The deities emerge in successive generations, representing the successive stages of the generation of the cosmos. First there emerges from her body the primal parents, Heaven and Earth; then the primal cosmic forces, water, air, and vegetation; and then the anthropomorphic gods and goddesses who represent the ruling classes of the city states.
The Babylonian story also assumes an intergenerational struggle between the older and younger deities, a struggle that represents both the political conquests of younger states over older states and villages, and also the struggle to harness and organize the machinery of political control and control of land and water against the "chaotic" social and natural forces that erupted periodically against this order. Droughts and floods threatened the agricultural system, which had been brought under the control of the urban elites of priestesses and priests, kings and queens. Social eruptions from the serfs and slaves who did the manual work and invasions from rival states and migrating nomads from outside all threatened the fragile order they had imposed ontheir "world."
The "Enuma Elish "was reworked from earlier creation stories to celebrate the ascendancy of the city of Babylonia and its deity, Marduk, over other cities during the first Babylonian dynasty (nineteenth to sixteenth centuries B.C.E.). In this reworking the ancient Mother Goddess, Tiamat, and her subordinate consorts, Apsu and Kingu, are made to stand for these forces of "chaos" that threaten the control of the new dynasty. Tiamat's consort Apsu is described as planning to kill the younger gods because their noise disturbs his peace. But Ea, their son, protects the younger gods by subduing Apsu. Ea rips off Apsu's tiara and puts it on his own head and then kills him. Ea assumes ascendancy over the cosmos and gods, establishes his cult, and withhis wife, Damkina, creates his son, Marduk.
Tiamat then prepares to intervene to avenge Apsu's death, fashioning an army of monstrous beings and placing them under the command of Kingu, whom she elevates as her new consort. The gods are thrown into consternation, turning first to the god Anu and then to the god Ea to protect them from Tiamat, but both fail to be able to face her. Finally they turn to the young champion, Marduk. Marduk meets Tiamat in hand-to-hand combat. Catching her in a net, he kills her with an arrow through her heart. Extinguishing her life, he casts her down and treads upon her lifeless carcass.
Marduk then splits Tiamat's body in half "like a shellfish." He raises one half upward as the sky, to seal off the waters above. He then fashions the stars and planetary abodes of the heavens in the underside of her body. Marduk then imagines an even more daring work. He summons Kingu, Tiamat's conquered consort,judges him guilty of supporting her, and kills him. He then fashions the humans out of Kingu's blood mixed with clay. Imposing servitude on these mortal creatures, he frees the gods for leisure.
What are some of the social messages we can surmise from this story? First, the lords of the newly ascendant city-state of Babylonia, and its god, Marduk, did not assume they preexisted the world. They knew they arose as a recent generation of power out of earlier stages of development, out of earlier states, and behind those, a pre-city-state world less under human control and more under the control of nonhuman forces.
Second, this earliest world is seen as matriarchal. The female is dominant, with subordinate male consorts. This world has been replaced in the generation of Marduk's father, Ea, by one of dominant male powers, with subordinate female consorts. Third, the earliest model of generation is parthenogenetic gestation. Apsu, the primordial begetter of all things, commingles in a single body with Tiamat, who bears all things. The gods and goddesses gestate within this commingled male-female union.