Creation As Seen Through Greco-Roman, Norse, And Mesopotamian Beliefs Essay, Research Paper
Creation as seen through Greco-Roman, Norse, and Mesopotamian Beliefs
For as long as human beings have had language, they have had myths. Mythology is our earliest form of literary expression and the foundation of all history and morality (1, Back Cover). Myths form many purposes in society. In some societies the myth is used for the purposes of entertaining the masses. In other cases it is used for educational purposes such as explaining why certain things occur like the rising and setting of the sun or what occurs to us when we die or the changing of the seasons. There is also another use for myths, they help us to philosophize as to who we are and where we came from as well as where we are going (the beginning and the end) (2, xvi). All the different uses of myths are astounding especially when viewed from the point that with all of the different cultures that have formed in so many different atmospheres all over the world all throughout time. The majority of them have many similarities in the way that they used their myths as well as to what occurs in those myths. Particularly interesting is how the theories of creation developed and the parallels that can be found in many of these cultures.
If we take a closer look at some of the different theories of creation one of the most interesting reoccurring themes is the belief that all was created from nothingness. Each culture has a name for it but it is commonly referred to as the void.
For example, The Greco-Roman theory of creation refers to the void as Chaos. In the beginning, there was only Chaos, who is not quite a god but a shapeless and confused mass of elements. This was all there was for who knows how long (3). The Norse believed that at the beginning of time there was Niflheim which was an icy region, Muspell which was a fiery region and a large void called Ginnungagap (4). In Mesopotamian myths, Tiamat is a huge, bloated female dragon that personifies the saltwater ocean, the water of Chaos. She is also the primordial mother of all that exists, including the gods themselves. Her consort is Apsu, the personification of the freshwater abyss that lies beneath the Earth (5). The first two concepts mentioned have obvious similarities. Both Chaos and Ginnungagap are quite similar in what they represent, nothingness, emptiness, and the calm before the storm. The Mesopotamian Myth on the other hand brings the concept of a female (Tiamat) and a male (Apsu) who will eventually become a part of the creation process.
Some myths do not have the entire universe created from these voids or unions, rather there are only certain elements that are created such as the world or emotions.
The Greco-Roman myth of creation is an excellent example of how only a few things are created instead of all things from Chaos, eventually, Nyx and Erebus was born. Nyx was Night, and Erebus is the “unfathomable depth were death dwells.” This was all, and there was nothing else. Then from Night and Death, Love, or Eros, and Aether, or “upper air”, was born, and that’s when things started to turn around, bringing beauty and order, as Love created Light and Day. Nyx, alone, was the mother of Hypnos, Thanatos, and Moros, who are “sleep”, “death” and “doom.” In some instances, she is also the mother of The Fates and Nemesis (3). Only two basic concepts are created from the void known as Chaos, night and the underworld. The other concepts that emerged as depicted from the excerpt were not created from Chaos, rather Death, Love, and Aether are spawned from the creations of Chaos and then the cycle continues when Love decides to make creations of his own. While these things are important in explaining the creation of the universe, they do not explain the creation Zeus, the head of the pantheon. Zeus origin starts with Gaea, or Mother Earth, who came from somewhere that is mysterious and unexplained. She was the first of all the gods Her husband, Uranus, or Father Sky, was also her son. He was born as Gaea slept, and was equal to her in all ways. Together, she and Uranus had their first two sets of children, who were the Hundred-Handed Ones and the Cyclopes. They then produced the Titans, who reined supreme in the universe for untold ages. Uranus was very cruel to his children, and he kept the Hundred-handed Ones locked deep inside the earth. Gaea was very upset over this and plotted with Cronus, her Titan son, to overthrow her husband. She gave him a scythe which he used to castrate his father, and threw his genitals from the heavens (6). After Cronus castrated his father he became the ruler of the gods and married Rhea. Rhea bore Cronus five children, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Ares, and Zeus (1, 48). In another version of the myth both Hades and Poseidon are also siblings to Zeus. This myth of godly is very violent, and has a tendency towards incestuous relationships.
Strangely enough, while Norse myths tend to also contain incestuous scenarios and can be even more violent than the Greco-Roman myths, when it comes to the creation of the Gods, it is quite timid by comparison. Fire and ice played across the emptiness. And in the center of nothingness the air grew mild. Where the warm air from Muspell met the cold air from Niflheim, the ice began to thaw. As it dripped, it shaped itself into the form of a sleeping giant. His name was Ymir, and he was evil. As Ymir slept, he began to sweat. There grew beneath his left arm a male and a female, and from his legs another male was created. These were the first frost giants, all of whom are descended from Ymir. Then the ice-melt formed a cow, named Audhumla. Four rivers of milk flowed from her and fed Ymir. Audhumla nourished herself by licking the salty blocks of ice all around. By the end of her first day she had uncovered the hair of a head. By the end of her second day the whole head was exposed, and by the end of a third day there was a complete man, His name was Buri, and he was strong and handsome. Buri had a son named Bor, who married Bestla, the daughter of one of the frost giants. Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin, Vili and Ve (8). In this myth there is no violence whatsoever. The evil Ymir merely sweats, sleeps, and drinks the milk of Audhumla the cow. Unlike the Greco-Roman myth, there is no combat, no incest, nothing destructive at all.
On the other hand, the Mesopotamian creation myth begins to form some similarities to the Greco-Roman myth when it comes to the creation of the head of the pantheon. Tiamat and Apsu join together, also referred to as them having mixed their waters together . The product of this union forms various gods who in turn unite and have gods of their own. As this continues there is discord amongst the gods. Ea who knows everything found out a plot by Apsu to be rid of him. Ea attack and slays Apsu, afterwards he sets up residence upon the corpse Apsu. Ea and his lover Damkina live on Apsu in splendor and have a son Marduk (8, 233). The similarities of this myth in comparison to the Greco-Roman myth are apparent in the violent nature in which an the elder god Apsu is overthrown and slain by a product of his offspring just like Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus.
From this point things just become more violent in the myths as the main gods must overcome adversity in order to reign supreme in their respective pantheons.
Of the three myths mentioned, the Greco-Roman myth sets up the most barriers for Zeus to become the Ruler of all the gods. Zeus first barrier he had to overcome would be the madness and appetite of his father Cronus. Cronus feared the prophecy of the fates that stated one day a son of his would overpower him just as he had overpowered his own father . In order to circumvent this when his wife gave birth to their children he would take them from her and swallow them up so as to keep them from ever posing any threat to his power. Rhea bore Cronus six children all of which Cronus swallowed whole so as to keep them from threatening him. When Rhea found out that she was with child for a seventh time she feared for the life of her unborn child, so, she developed a plan to protect her child. When her seventh child, Zeus, was born she sent him to the island of Crete to be raised by nymphs. Knowing that Cronus was half-mad already it would be a simple matter to fool him. When the time came for Rhea to give Cronus her child to be devoured she replaced Zeus with a rock about the size of a newborn. Cronus swallowed the rock and was quite satisfied with the thought that he had again cheated the fates of the prophecy of him being overthrown by his own son. So it was that Zeus escaped the appetite of his father. In time Zeus came of age and returned to challenge Cronus. He poisoned Cronus in order to make him vomit the now full-grown children he had eaten over the years. Zeus and his siblings challenged Cronus and he retaliated not only with his might but also with the force of his fellow Titans. The conflict lasted for ten years with no victor for both sides were too evenly matched. With the help Gaea, Zeus released the Hundred-Handed Giants and the Cyclopes from their unfair imprisonment. In repayment for freeing them the Giants and the Cyclopes joined forces with Zeus and his siblings. When the battle was rejoined the gods were victorious with the help of their new allies. Afterwards the three gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades drew lots for their kingdoms. Zeus drew the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld (2, 8).
In the Norse creation myth a slight similarity can be seen with the Greco-Roman myth in that siblings band together to defeat a common foe. The brothers Odin, Vili, and Ve hated the brutal frost giant Ymir, and they slew him. So much blood flowed from the slaughtered giant that it drowned all the frost giants save Bergelmir and his wife, who escaped in a boat made from a hollowed tree trunk. From Ymir’s flesh, Odin and his brothers made the earth, and from his shattered bones and teeth, they made the rocks and stones. From Ymir’s blood, they made the rivers and lakes, and they circled the earth with an ocean of blood. Ymir’s skull they made into the sky secured at four points by four dwarfs named East, West, North and South. They flung sparks of fire from Muspell high into the sky to make the sun, the moon, and the stars. From Ymir’s brains, they shaped the clouds. The earth was made in the form of a circle and around the edge of it lay the great sea. Odin and his brothers gave one area, Jotunheim, to the giants. They also established the kingdom of Midgard, protecting it from the giants with fortifications made from Ymir’s eyebrows (7). Even though the three brothers all contributed to the defeat Ymir they do not all share in the spoils of victory, for in the end it is Odin who rules all, his brothers defer to him like children to their father (9, 122).
In Mesopotamian myth there are more similarities to Greco-Roman myth than Norse. Many of the younger gods join forces to overthrow Tiamat, the root of their lineage. These gods are all related in one way or another just like Zeus, his siblings, the Giants, and the Cyclopes were. Also, Zeus and his band overthrow Cronus just as Marduk overthrows Tiamat. When Marduk finally slays Tiamat he splits her broken body into two parts, one half he makes the sky and the other the earth. From Tiamats eyes the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were formed, her breasts formed rich hills and with part of her tail heaven and earth were joined (10, 67). Not only are their similarities between Greco-Roman myth and Mesopotamian myth, using the body of Marduks slain enemy to form the world rings similar to the Norse myth as well.
Now that the gods have sorted out who will rule the heavens they have more time for mundane things, such as creating man.
In the Greco-Roman pantheon the job of creating man was given to Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus Epimetheus had already given all the best gifts to animals and discovered he had nothing left to give man. So he asked his brother for help. Prometheus agreed and thought of ways to make man superior to animals. So, he made them walk upright like the gods and gave them fire (11). Zeus was angered that the gift of fire was given to man so in retaliation Zeus went to Hephaestus and had him create a beautiful woman out of clay. The Four Winds blew life into her, and the gods gave her a box, warning her never to open it. Her name was Pandora, which means “gift to all,” and she was the first woman. Pandora was then sent to Epimetheus as a gift. His brother had warned him never to accept gifts from Zeus, but obviously, he didn’t listen. Eventually, curiosity got the best of Pandora and she opened the box. Plagues, sorrow, and mischief flew out, but she closed the lid in time to save Hope (12).
While Zeus is portrayed as selfish and childish in the creation of mankind, Odin and his brothers are much kinder in their gifts. One day, as they walked along the shore of the great sea, Odin and his brothers came across two logs. Odin gave them breath and life; Vili gave them brains and feelings; and Ve gave them hearing and sight. These were the first man, Ask, and the first woman, Embla, and Midgard was their home. From them, all the families of mankind are descended (8).
The Mesopotamian myth is a bit different from the earlier two. Man is created in a similar fashion as to how the world was created. Kingu, Tiamats consort after the death of Apsu is captured after Tiamats defeat and brought to godly justice it was deemed that it was he who stirred up Tiamats anger and led her to battle. For his punishment, he is put to death. They cut his arteries and from his blood they created man (13).
Perhaps the roles played by the different gods can be better understood if examined more closely. The obvious place to look would be the ruler of each particular pantheon.
Zeus, the supreme deity of Greco-Roman mythology is represented as a stern but benign figure (14, 300). These attributes are readily apparent in his dealings with the Hundred-Handed Giants and the Cyclopes. What is not apparent is why he is also so petty with the gifts he bestows upon man. Perhaps he fears that if man were to grow to powerful they would overthrow the gods just as Zeus overthrew Cronus.
To view a more cerebral god in his dealings one can turn to the all-father Odin. Several themes recur in the course of the many of the many tales and stories that are associated with Odin s name, most notably the quest for wisdom and knowledge Odin is often found in the sources engaged in a battle of wits (9, 123). This leads one to believe that the of slaying Ymir by Odin and his brothers was a good and just act, as well as any other things that Odin may do.
In the Mesopotamian myth, Marduk is presented as an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god. Unfortunately he is sometimes presented as a greedy god as well Anshar summoned an assembly of the gods and they instructed Marduk to defend them. He accepted on condition that he was given supreme power (10, 66). Can those following that god be any different than the god they worship?
The enemies of these gods were as magnificent as the gods themselves. They represented both good and bad aspects of human society.
Zeus main opposition, Cronus, represents paranoia. This must be overcome if a family or society is going to survive.
Ymir is never described in detail it is only known that he is evil, but then he is never shown committing any evil acts. When Odin and his brothers slay him it could be viewed in two ways the destruction of the root of all that is evil, or a slaying of an innocent being that is merely misunderstood.
Tiamat is a plotter who works both sides of a situation. She commits both good and evil acts, and it could be argued that she is merely defending herself and avenging her lost love Apsu. When Marduk slays Tiamat it is described in brutal detail as to how he mutilates her body, a truly brutal thing. But it can also be said that her death also represents the end of such conniving ways.
It is not fair to make summary assessments about people or their myths. First, the reasons why the cultures developed in that fashion must be examined. One of the factors that help to form the beliefs of a people are the people they come in contact with outside of their community. For example, the Greek and to a lesser extent the Romans were great seafarers that traded with many of the communities of the Mediterranean and beyond. Myths emerged as the common vehicle of Hellenic thought due to literary outpourings that spread beyond the narrow framework of cities, to colonization with its attendant swarms, to the development of commercial relations with all the lands bordering along the eastern Mediterranean, and, lastly, to the renown of some great sanctuaries, such as Delphi and Olympus in Greece and Miletus in Asia (10, 100).
The Norsemen were also well versed in the ways of sea travel. They also traded with those they came across. Also, Scandinavian exploration and settlement played an important role in the development of their myths. The wandering heart of the Vikings could be found as far west as North America and east as far as Uzbekistan (9, ix).
For the Mesopotamians, exploration did not hold the same appeal as it did for the Norse and Greco-Roman peoples. Their background is that of a very ancient, largely urban society, supported by agriculture and pastoralism, in which prosperity was assured by firm government capable of controlling irrigation for agriculture, and by extensive trading (8, xv).
Another element that could contribute to the development of a myth in society is the geographical region in which that society dwells. The Greeks and Romans both lived in the Mediterranean. The Greeks on islands, and to the west the Romans on a peninsula. These were heavily traveled trade routes not only by these people, but the Mesopotamians and to a lesser extent the Egyptians as well as some Germanic tribes. Their geographical placement was a key element to exposing these people to outside influences.
By comparison, The land and climate in which the Norsemen lived was much harsher than that of the Greeks. Life was difficult compared to the gentler climate of Greece and its more abundant sources of food. With a milder climate, agriculture was not as tenuous, from one year to the next, as it would have been in northern Scandinavia. It would seem that the Norse myths reflect this harshness, with characters and tales that embody this arduous life. There are not the same nuances about music and many of the arts in the Norse legends, as people would have had a lot less leisure time to develop these pursuits, being consumed with sustenance (15).
When observing Mesopotamian geographical location, the differences between them and the Scandinavians are readily apparent. Unpredictable weather scarcely affected life, and the forces of nature could be held in check, so the gods were usually compliant and democratic, taking their decisions by discussion in an assembly. Less predictable elements tended to be associated with sea and with mountains, both of which lie outside the boundaries of Mesopotamia (8, xv). Tiamat was that less predictable element that chaos and she is sometimes referred to as the salt water or the sea.
The parallels and differences in the creation myths of these cultures are many. Whether it is something as common as the creating of all things from a fallen foe, or something as obscure as a cow discovering the first god, to something that occurs in everyday mortal life such as quarrelling and warring upon others. The gods depicted in these myths are a reflection of humanity. Zeus pettiness in not wishing to share fire, Odins generosity in granting life to logs on the sea shore, or Marduks brutality in the slaying and dismembering of his fallen foe Tiamat. To help us understand ourselves, man created these myths. As time went on different cultures would come in contact with one another. These cultures would share their myths with one another. This was a way for travelers to learn more about people with which they ve had little contact as well as to get a feeling for the type of environment in which these people developed. Such parallels demonstrate that human beings everywhere have much in common; the primitive and the modern are not all that different as we might think. In reading these myths, the gaps between cultures narrow to reveal what is constant and universal in human experience (1, xiv).