Creation from Chaos

Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia. Editor: David A Leeming. Volume 1. 2nd edition. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

In the creation from chaos myth the potential for creation already exists in some form of material that is eternal, much as the Supreme Deity-Creator exists eternally in the ex nihilo myth. In short, when the creator begins the act of creation, creative material containing the potential for creation is already there. The creative material does not emerge from the creator himself or herself. To quote Charles Long, “Even in its indeterminate form of chaos, the possibilities of a cosmos were always present” (110). The material of potentiality may be an undefined disorganized combination of darkness and, often, water, sometimes directly labeled “Chaos” or it may be more defined representations of chaos such as bits of clay or other forms of earth, a primal mound, or, most frequently, a cosmic egg. The ex nihilo creator creates from himself—from scratch, as it were. The creation from chaos creator gives form to already existing material. It must be said at the outset that the line between the ex nihilo and creation from chaos creations is sometimes thin—even invisible—and that in such cases the categorization of myths is highly subjective, dependent more on tone and feeling than on specific elements. The problem derives from the fact that the ex nihilo creator can exist in a physical context such as darkness and water but not depend on that material for his creative acts, whereas in the creation from chaos myth the assumption is that the material existed before the creator and will be directly used in the process of creation of cosmos (order) out of chaos (disorder). The result, inevitably, is a creator who is less powerful, less omnipotent than in the ex nihilo myth. The creator may emerge powerful from the cosmic egg, but the egg existed first, suggesting that even the creator must have a mother—the dark maternal waters of the universal womb.

The creation from chaos myth, then, begins with a form of chaos. The basic stuff of the universe in Chinese myths is the “breath of the universe,” a primeval vapor containing yin and yang principles, a shapeless mass known as the “Great Glory.” The Ainu in Japan believed that before the creation there was only a mixture of mud and water. The Yuki Indians of California believed that in the beginning there was foam that wandered around on the surface of fog-covered waters. The Ijaw of Nigeria tell of a table that descended to Earth with a pile of creative earth on it. The California Cahto Indians say that Nagaitcho created the world, beginning by “repairing the old sandstone sky” that obviously existed before he did. The Kojiki, a sacred text of Shinto Japan, reports that “there was a time when there was only chaos until Heaven and Earth separated,” implying that the conjoined Heaven and Earth was itself chaos waiting to be separated—that is, ordered and differentiated. Chaos for the Inuit Netsilik people was darkness in which undifferentiated animals and people were all the same and talked in the same way. The Mesoamerican Mixtec creation begins with a chaos made up of the earth covered in water and darkness and a sea covered in green slime. The Romans, following the Greek Hesiod, accepted that chaos was a “formless mass” in which everything got in the way of everything else.

Born of this chaos, and making constructive use of it, were creator gods like the Cahto god mentioned above. The pre-Greek myth of the Pelasgians reports that in the beginning the great goddess Eurynome emerged naked from a chaos that was water and sky. She then “divided the waters from the sky so she could dance lonely upon the waves.” For the Achomawi of northern California there was only water and a clear sky in the beginning when suddenly a cloud appeared and turned into the creator, Coyote.

The ancient Iranians reported that Yima, the god of fertility, used a golden arrow to pierce the latent but pre-existing earth to make it pregnant with creation. The Ainu creator Kamui decided to use already existing mud and water to build the world on the back of an already existing huge fish that took in the waters and blew them out to create the ocean tides. Time began for the Mixtec deer god, Puma-Snake, and his wife, Jaguar-Snake when they took human form and tamed the chaos. The Fulani of West Africa say that world was created from a drop of milk that somehow appeared. For the Guarayu-Guarani people of Bolivia, the beginning came when Mbir, the creatorworm, slithered about in pre-existing water and bulrushes and made things. The Haida people of British Columbia say that Raven turned a little island in the chaotic waters into both the Haida home and the larger world. The Inuit Netsilik believe that words were the “most powerful things in those days” of creation and that Hare began things by saying “Day” to create day. The Central Asian Tungus people tell of how their creator used fire to burn part of the primordial sea so that an island—Earth—could emerge.

Soil of some kind is a common way of creating a world—especially in earthdiver myths, but also in many of the creation from chaos myths. The Indian Gond creator, Bhagavan, who sat in the primeval waters on a lotus leaf, used a fleck of dirt to create a crow that would seed the earth. In the Salishan Indian tradition, the Sky Chief, made the earth out of a lump of clay, which he “rolled out like a piece of dough.” More often earth—as dust, mud, or especially, and more logically, as clay—is used to create humans. When the Central Asian Altaic creator Ulgen saw mud floating on the primal waters, he saw a human face reflected in the waters and gave it life. The Congolese Efe creator made a man, Baatsi, out of clay, which he covered with skin and filled with blood. Some Inupiat Inuits of Alaska say that Raven made humans out of clay.

One day the creator of the Malagasy people of Madagascar “noticed his daughter making little clay dolls. He liked her dolls so much that he blew life into them and they became human beings.” The Polynesian god Tane made woman first out of red clay. The creation of humans in the world’s oldest mythology, the Sumerian, is both comic and tragic. The gods decide at a banquet that they need to create beings to serve them. Various gods in their drunken state attempt to create these new beings, but only Enki succeeds in creating new beings that could live and breathe. He does so with clay. It is because of the drunkenness involved in this creation that humans are so weak and burdened with problems.

Humans in the creation from chaos myth are created in other ways as well. The Melanesian Banks Island god Quat carved the pieces of the first humans from trees and then put the pieces together as puppet-like figures. The Ainu creator made the Ainu out of earth and sticks. The Guarani worm creator, Mbir, simply became human. The Haida god Raven heard sounds coming from a clam shell, and then he saw a small face there. Eventually five little people came out of the shell. These were the first humans. The Samoan creator made people out of worms found when he harvested Fue, the “people-making plant.”

By far, the primary source of creation of the world and of humans in the creation from chaos myths is the cosmic egg, the favored image of chaos. The cosmic egg or something like it appears in all parts of the world.

Some Dyak people of Borneo have a creation myth in which two birds floated on the primordial waters and produced two giant eggs that became the heavens and Earth. A Baltic myth exists in which a cosmic egg explodes, its yolk becoming the earth, its white the waters, and its shell pieces the sky with the celestial bodies. The Bambara of Mali have a cosmic egg that climbs a tree and falls. In the Banks Islands of the Pacific, the “mother-stone,” a type of cosmic egg, breaks open, releasing the creator Quat and his brothers. The cosmic egg for the Mande people of Mali is a pair of seeds. A wedding song of the Tibetan Bon tradition tells of the union of two deities at the beginning of time, a union that resulted in three eggs. A golden egg produced a golden male arrow of life with turquoise feathers. A turquoise egg gave up a turquoise arrow of the female with golden feathers. From a white egg came a golden spindle. The Southern Californian Cupeño have a particularly original cosmic egg that appears hanging in the initial chaos as a bag that opened and released the creators, Coyote and Wild Cat. The Alaskan Kodiak teach that Raven caused a bladder, containing a man and a woman to come down from the heavens and that the man and woman made the bladder into the world. The cosmic egg of the African Dogon people was shaken by seven huge stirrings of the universe, causing a division into two birth sacs, each containing a set of twins who were fathered by the supreme being, Amma, on the maternal egg. An Egyptian variant of the cosmic egg motif has it that the sun god, as primeval power, emerged from the primeval mound, which itself stood in the chaos of the primeval sea. In the Finnish creation epic, the Kalevala, the raised knee of Ilmatar, the Mother of the Waters, who floated in the primeval sea, formed a dry spot for a little teal to make a nest. The bird laid six golden eggs and one iron one. When Ilmatar moved her leg, the eggs fell into the sea and broke, the pieces becoming land, sky, stars, and sun. The Pelasgian creation myth of ancient Greece is dominated by a cosmic egg laid by the first being, the earth goddess Eurynome. This egg would eventually hatch the sun, moon, stars, and earth. Also in Greece, the cult of Orphism celebrated an original silver cosmic egg that hatched the androgynous container of all the seeds of life. The Indian creator as Prajapati emerged from a cosmic egg in some versions of his story, as did the “Self-Existent Brahman,” whose semen in the waters “became a golden egg, and out of the egg Brahman was born as progenitor of all.” The Polynesians of Samoa say that Tagaloa-Langi, the creator, lived in a cosmic egg and that when the egg broke, the pieces of the shell fell into the waters and became the Samoan Islands. Their Polynesian relatives in Tahiti have a similar story in which their creator, Taaroa, the germ of life, whose shell is the universe, broke out of the shell and held part of it up to become the sky.

Cosmic eggs are especially notable for their production of an essential duality in creation. The de facto cosmic egg in Banks Island mythology, the “Mother Stone”, produces the positive creator Quat and his negative brother Tangaro, the Foolish One, who thought he could do what his older brother did but was only able to create imperfectly. In a California Cupeño myth, a mysterious bag, hanging in the primeval sky, produced Coyote and Wildcat, who then struggled for supremacy. The African Dogon eggs give birth to male and female opposites, as does the bladder-egg of the Alaskan Kodiak people. The Finnish cosmic eggs become sky and earth. When the Indian creator Prajapati emerges from the egg the sounds he makes become Earth and the heavens, light and dark. The African world egg is the source of the conflict between the twins, Pemba and Faro, for world domination. In the Orphic tradition of Greece, the silver cosmic egg is the container of an essential duality that affects all aspects of life.

Whether or not there is a cosmic egg involved, we find in the creation from chaos myths a conflict between the drive for order and the opposite drive towards disorder, or chaos. Order is associated with good, disorder with evil. The male Babylonian hero god Marduk must defeat the old chaotic waters represented by the female Tiamat. A Gnostic creation story reveals a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. The South American Guarani believe that evil existed with good almost from the beginning. The creator’s granddaughter, Karena, became the mother of seven monsters who had to be confronted by the forces of order. The Malagasy of Madagascar say the creator became jealous of Mother Earth because the people loved her and worshipped her rather than him. In Central Asian myths, such as those of the Mongolian, Turkic, and Tungus people there is always a duality in creation, represented by the creator and his devil assistant. Often there is a war between the good and evil forces early in the creative process. The Talmud tells of the war between the creator and certain bad angels. The African Wapangwa express the cosmic war as one between the first humans and the animals. For many Polynesians it is a war in Heaven that is transferred to Earth where the dark side of the male Ti’i is tempered by the good feminine force represented by Hina.

In many creation from chaos myths the duality or the disorder contained in the original chaos is reflected in the human life created by the gods. As in the ex nihilo myth, the humans in the chaos myth are often imperfect. The West African Fulani tell how the early humans were so arrogant that the creator blinded them. The early Gond people of India were punished with a flood. The South American Guarani speak of human life plagued by tricksters and monsters who bring about disorder. Different languages were seen by the African Kono as punishment for the sins of humans.

But even when human failings are evident in the creation from chaos myth the emphasis is on the ultimate establishment of order. Cosmos is formed from chaos. Culture heroes or good gods emerge to confront evil. Aionia is such a hero among the Ainu of Japan. The Banks Island hero is Quat; he establishes order over his chaotic siblings. Among the Polynesians of Tahiti it is the goddess Hina, whose teachings prevent the other gods from destroying chaotic humanity. When the California Cahto creator, Thunder, makes the world, he establishes both good and evil as natural components in an orderly form. For the Gnostics, too, the struggle between good and evil was natural, but Jesus established order through gnosis—true knowing. Order for the Inca of South America came through the establishment of the Inca emperor and Inca rule.

The archetypal pattern that emerges from a comparison of creation from chaos myths is more in keeping with a scientific or, some would say, realistic understanding of creation than the pattern that is the ex nihilo ur-myth. The reader who feels uncomfortable with the concept of a creator deity who always existed can perhaps more easily accept the concept of a void that is really not a void at all but a chaotic mass of potential—the Big Bang waiting to happen. Such a concept is implicit in many aspects of human life as we actually experience it.

In some cases the myth is a metaphor for a major historical change, in which an old way, perceived as disorderly or chaotic, is replaced by a new order. Thus, for instance, the Babylonian story Enuma Elish is a reflection of the displacement of an agricultural and perhaps matriarchal culture and religion by the new patriarchal and urban order represented by the hero-god Marduk and his city state of Babylon. Or, in a psychological context, such a myth can represent the stage of pre-consciousness in which the potential for full consciousness or self-awareness already exists.

Another example of the chaos to cosmos concept exists in the experience of the artist. Although some might see in the artist an analogy with the ex nihilo creator, it must also be recognized that the artist works not only in the void that is the canvas or the page but in the chaos that is the world around us. The artist must make order out of that disorder; without the already existing material— material that the artist did not create—art would be impossible. When William Carlos Williams wrote his poem “The Red Wheel Barrow” he created a visual and verbal metaphor to describe this fact.

So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
—(Litz, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 224)

Not only does the poem remind us of the importance of the world around us but of the importance to the artist of ordering that material in such a way as to turn it into significant information. If Williams had simply written the prose sentence, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” we would be faced with what is essentially a meaningless statement— a chaotic idea. “So much depends upon it for what?” would be a natural response. But when the poet breaks up the material and re-orders it in lines, he forces us to participate in an ordering process through which we view this apparently mundane material—a wet wheel barrow and some white chickens—as a painting composed of a red wheel, a glazed quality, and whiteness. So much depends on chaos for cosmos, he seems to say. In another sense the poet is reminding us of a fact of nature. We need the unexpected to keep chaos at bay. If we get too used to what is around us and stop considering it, it becomes meaningless—chaotic. To keep chaos ordered we need to constantly experience it in new ways. The artist and we become analogous to the creator god or gods who chose to make order out of the primeval chaos.

Ceremonies are another means by which we overcome the negative power of chaos—the power of disorder. The unwell Navajo sitting in the sand, painting and listening to the shaman singing the creation myth of his people is getting a second chance, a chance to overcome the chaos in his mind or body by re-participating in the original cosmos from chaos process. The same might be said of the participant in the dance ceremonies of various animistic peoples, whose ritual dances hold the chaos of entropy and meaninglessness at bay. The dancing Tewa Indian or Bantu African is creating order out of chaos.

In scientific terms this all makes perfect sense. The struggle between cosmos and chaos, significant information and entropy, is a fact of nature. Whatever is ordered or differentiated tends to go back to non-differentiation or disorder. This applies to machines, bodies, the cosmos itself. So it is that in the creation from chaos myths we find a duality in the created world—a very realistic conflict between order and the pull towards entropy—what in the myths becomes good and evil, light and dark, creator versus undermining force.

From another perspective, whatever form it takes, the primeval chaos can be seen as a feminine principle. Whether the waters, a drop of milk, the primal mound, a mysteriously appearing birth sac, or, most especially, the cosmic egg, the source of creation in the creation from chaos myth is the undifferentiated mother. A creator might create but, as Charles Long suggests, “He does not create from ‘nothing,’ but from the creative stuff of the feminine structures of being” (119). In the creation from chaos myth the feminine egg definitely comes before the chicken. And, furthermore, the cosmic egg contains all that is, all the opposites: male and female, good and evil. Often these dualities are represented by twins such as Pemba and Faro of the African Mande people. Sometimes the creator who will mold chaos—the one who will fertilize the mother—is contained in the egg itself, as in the Polynesian myth.

This existence of the dualities from the beginning make the humans of the creation from cosmos myth somehow less to blame for their shortcomings than the supposedly perfect beings formed in the image of the ex nihilo creator who, mateless, skips the cosmic egg maternal stage of creation. So it is that in this type of myth the emphasis is more on how cultures are stabilized in the face of the pull towards disorder—either by a culture hero or direction from above—than on the punishment of evil. The creation from chaos myth is first and foremost a celebration of the human need to make creation conscious of itself by creating cosmos out of chaos, in society and in the psyche, and in so doing to accept the dualities as reality and as the potential for further creativity.