The Babylonian epic Enuma Elish is one of the oldest creation myth that we know of. In the beginning, there was no earth and sky. There was only a void, in which Apsu, freshwater, and Tiamat, the primordial ocean had “mingled” their waters. At first glance, this Babylonian description of the 2nd millennium BC does not seem very far off from what the modern science labels as the Primordial soup of elements. But there is more…
Myths of the Cosmic Ocean
Numerous ancient cultures began their creation stories with the “cosmic ocean“. The idea is extremely ancient and it exists in all corners of the world. And the most popular version comes from the Book of Genesis 1:2. There was no earth, just darkness… “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.”
It seems that even Orpheus had a similar idea as that of Enuma Elish. There was something in this “cosmic water” that was able to solidify and create the first earth. In Theogonies, Fragment 54, from the 3rd century BC we read:
“Originally there was water and mud, from which the earth solidified: These are the first principles, Hydros and Ge…”
Hydros and Ge? By the bizarre coincidence, these two words together sound like hydrogen, the first element of the periodic system.
Hydrogen and the primordial waters
Of course, the word “hydrogen” does not mean “water-earth” but rather “the creator of water”. The second part, “gen”, relates to the word “genesis” – to create, to give birth”. Hydrogen got this name because it is a gas, not a liquid, but it produces water when burned.
Due to its simple structure, (one proton and one electron), it is the first and the lightest element in the periodic table. It is also the most abundant chemical substance in the Universe, constituting roughly 75% of all baryonic mass. By the way, this amount of hydrogen in the universe is similar to the proportion of the water on our planet, as well as water in our bodies. From this perspective, the ancients were not wrong when they proposed water as the first principle.
Modern science claims that hydrogen dates literally to the dawn of time – it was there before anything else in the universe. After the “Big bang” Hydrogen moved through space in the shape of warm, foggy clouds. Again, one cannot help but think of the Genesis verse: “…and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters…”
Let there be Helium
Another commonplace in the ancient creation myths is the separation of light and darkness. Enuma Elish does not directly imply this connection, but the “mingling” of the water (sometimes represented as dragons) does remind on the image of Yin and Yang.
The book of Genesis, however, gives us a clear idea. We already saw the verses one and two. The next two verses go as follows:
“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light…and God divided the light from the darkness.”
Interestingly, the second element of the periodic system of elements is Helium. Its name comes from the Greek word Helios, meaning Sun and light.
The mingling of the water, or nuclear fusion for dummies
The first atoms of helium were formed already in the Big Bang. But it is still produced by the stars, in the process of nuclear fusion. Our Sun is one of those stars.
In short, the gravitational force is moving the atoms of hydrogen. As these atoms are being drawn closer to the gravitational point, they begin to collide. These collisions create heat. The atoms become unstable and start losing their electrons. In the end, the accumulated heat leads to fusion, in which two hydrogen cores join into one core of Helium.
This process is known as nuclear fusion (nucleus = core). The mass of the new core of helium is smaller than the mass of two individual cores of hydrogen before the fusion. The remaining mass is released in the form of energy and light.
This is how the stars are made. Their size depends on the gravitational force as the stronger force will attract more of the Hydrogen gas. And then as a consequence create more light.
Now, this was a scientific explanation, but we have to admit that it sounds eerily similar to the stories of the mingling “water” that will result in the creation of light?
The world egg, or the primeval matter
Another commonplace in the ancient mythologies is the motif of the world egg. There are already numerous examples in the highlighted Wikipedia article, so we will only name a few. A 5th century BC work, Birds, by Aristophanes, states:
In the beginning, there was only Khaos…
Firstly, black-winged Nyx (Night) laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Erebos (Darkness),
and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his glittering golden wings.”
Once again, we see something that sounds almost like a poetic depiction of nuclear fusion. In the dark, chaotic space, the Hydrogen atoms started to collide producing stars and light.
We see a similar idea in Ancient China, Egypt, Scandinavia, and numerous other places. In fact, this tradition is still alive in some of the Orthodox Christian Easter traditions. However, one of the oldest mentions certainly comes from Vedas. (see Hiranyagarbha). The main principle is always the same: there were darkness and chaos through which the primordial egg floated. Then, the egg broke, and its pieces created the universe.
Now, besides being the perfect description of the first Hydrogen atoms floating through the chaotic universe, the egg is also a perfect symbol of galaxies, the Earth’s layers, and finally the fertilized egg from which we all came from. We must pause here, and give credit to the wise men of the old, as there could have hardly been a more perfect symbol for the beginning of creation, in both macro and microcosmos. But of course, the atoms, the shape of the galaxies, the Earth’s structure and the process of conception – all of these things were supposed to be unknown to them.
The myth of the world egg was quite popular in the scientific circles of the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, it gave birth to the theory of the Big Bang and the ever-expanding universe. Albert Einstein was one of the supporters of this theory.
The cosmic serpent and the world tree – starting the motion
We cannot speak of the common archetypes of ancient stories without mentioning the serpent and the world tree. Sometimes, these two symbols have their separate stories, but often they belong to the same narrative, as in the case of the Vedic “Churning of the ocean of milk“.
In the briefest of explanation, the story goes as follows: The Devas (gods) and the Asuras (demons) tied the gigantic snake Vasuki around the mount Mandara, and used it as a churning rod. By pulling the snake back and fort they churned the ocean of Milk, producing the nectar of immortality. In the process, they created numerous other things.
The story of the ocean of milk is a cosmological creation myth in disguise, although most of the symbols are quite obvious. The devas and the asuras represent days and nights. The snake is the constellation Draco, located in the vicinity of the polar star. The polar star, or the point around which the night skies rotate, is the top of the Mount Mandara. And the “milk” is obviously the Milky Way. The churning results in the creation of stars, planets, and constellations.
If we go back to Enuma Elish, we see a similar notion of the “churning” or “mingling”. Also, the snake or dragon-like deities are the first to emerge. In other Indo-European myths, the snake is sometimes wrapped around the egg or a tree. In the west, we see it every Christmas in the form of a long ribbon, wrapped around the Christmas tree, with the Polaris star on top.
As I mentioned, in ancient art the snake is sometimes wrapped around the egg instead of the mountain or a tree. And once again, with the knowledge that we have today, we see that there could have hardly been a better symbol than the serpent. Not only because of the obvious connections with the Draco constellation, in terms of the macro cosmos. Even in the microcosmos, the egg is fertilized by the snake-like spermatozoids. And the latest theories of quantum physics state that in the essence of all matter are vibrating “strings”. There is nothing truly “firm” around us. Everything is a product of vibration of the countless snake-like energies.
DNA, Kundalini and the Caduceus of Hermes
The story of the snake symbolic would not be complete without the Caduceus of Hermes and its similarity with the DNA helix. Of course, it would be very easy to label these similarities as a pure coincidence, especially for those who consider themselves men of science. However, we must not forget that the DNA helix discovery was a result of an LSD experience. Could it be possible that the ancients had their own ways of reaching the same place?
The cosmic spindle
Another common motif of the origins myths is the spindle and the weaving goddess. During the middle ages, it was a common belief of Christian tradition that Eve was spinning. Ariadne, the wife of the god Dionysus, possessed the spun thread that led Theseus to the center of the labyrinth and safely out again. The weaving was often related to destiny, and among the numerous other goddesses of weaving, we can list the Slavic Mokosh, Norse Frigg, Greek Penelope, Athena, Arachne, and many, many others. (look here for more examples) The Greek Arachne was connected with spiders, and the list grows even longer if we add some of the spider-goddesses from even more primitive folklore, with the same function.
In short, like most of the ancient crafts, weaving has been a magical process. It is hard to say what drove our ancestors to such a conclusion, but as it is clearly related to the myths of creation, we can perhaps assume that the logic is similar to the one described above. The spindle represented the invisible axes that set in motion our universe. In this light, this is a truly appropriate symbol, especially when we see our universe from afar.
The word of God
The book of John 1:1, states:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The word “universe” means one-verse or one word. Indeed, most of the ancient myths begin the creation with the voice of the creator. Enuma Elish starts: ” When on high the heaven had not been named…”. The god of Genesis follows the same path. Moreover, the Kabalistic tradition considers the name of the creator, YHVH as this all-powerful word. (see Tetragrammaton). In ancient Greece, this word was Logos, while in the Vedic tradition it is the sound of the mantra OM.
In short, these are just some of the ancient traditions that believe that the universe was created with one word. That word made a sound that set the whole universe in motion, and consequently, in existence.
This ancient idea is once again in unity with modern science. This time we are dealing with physics. Namely, Sonoluminescence is a phenomenon discovered relatively recently. Scientists have discovered that the water bubbles can emit small bursts of light when stimulated by sound. In short, the sound creates the motion, which causes the bubbles to implode. The movement results in heat and light.
This discovery is once again eerily similar to the ancient myths. In them, we saw how the word of the creator makes the light, out of the dark, watery void.
Moreover, in most Indo-European languages, the word for “mother” is related to the word for the sea. At the same time, the word for “son” is related to the word for “Sun”. And the father sets it all in motion, with the snake-like vibration of his voice.
Wrapping it up
We have discussed in brief, the most common symbols of Indo-European creation myths. They depict the creation of the universe and the four elements. In the beginning, there was a “watery” abyss that contained the “mud” with seeds of all creation. Stimulated by the moving air it created the heat and fire, that helped create the first matter. This order of the four elements should not be taken for guaranteed, as they all came into the existence more or less simultaneously. This fact caused many headaches to ancient Greek philosophers, who were determined to sort the elements in order. Modern science calls this idea “initial singularity“.
We also saw that the universe was a result of the “mingling” of the two opposites, one male and one female. The vocabulary of all creation myths is rich in allusions to sexual intercourse, whether we are talking about “mingling”, “churning”, “seeds” or “milk”. Aristotle conceived the formation of new individuals through a fusion of male and female fluids, completely in accordance with much older Enuma Elish.
But the ancients also understood that this duality first had to exist in One, just like in the symbol of Yin Yang. For this reason, some of the ancient gods were depicted as hermaphrodites, or two-headed. There are speculations that even Jahve had a wife in the most ancient scriptures.
The idea of a sole, male creator is much younger. I like to think that it would have caused a great deal of laughter to the ancients, who were practical and seemed to have a clearer idea of how the basic biology works.
The idea of this article was to provide a different perspective on the ancient creation myths. They are usually seen as primitive fairy tales, but as we saw, their symbolism is so potent that we can still use it to describe our world. In fact, it seems that we have just slightly modified the language, in order to make it sound more rational and scientific. But in doing so, perhaps we have lost a great deal of magic, and sometimes, it is precisely this magic that stimulates the imagination and takes us further and faster than our sterile, rigid world view.