Emergence Creation

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

Central to most creation myths is the creation of human beings. In the creation myth types discussed above, the creation of humans is usually only one aspect of the overall creation of the universe. But in the type of myth known as emergence creation, the emphasis is squarely on the creation of humanity. In this myth type the focus is on a process by which humans emerge in stages into this world from under the earth. Emergence creation is, for the most part, peculiar to Native North Americans, particularly—but not exclusively—of the southwest region. A visitor to the ancient Anasazi ruins of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico will be struck by the little hole in the center of the floors of the sunken kivas—places of ancient social and religious activities. If one could enter the kivas of present day pueblo tribes along the Rio Grande in New Mexico and in northwestern Arizona, the same hole would be evident. This hole is the sipapu, the symbolic opening from which the people emerged finally from the lower world—from Mother Earth. The emergence myth is about the gradual creation of particular people—literally, “the people”—of a particular place marked by the particular emergence site. Thus it is that the names of so many Native American tribes of the southwest literally mean “the people,” and each tribal village is the de facto center of the world, where the people emerged.

The first stage of the ur-myth that can be derived from the many emergence myths takes place in that lower world. Keresan-speaking people such as those of the Acoma, Laguna, and Zia pueblos of New Mexico tell of two sister-spirits living in the darkness of an underworld where they were taught and fed by a goddess figure called “Thinking Woman” or “Prophesying Woman.” The Tewa tribes of the Rio Grande valley also originated in the darkness of the underworld and were taught there by a goddess known all over the southwest as “Spider Woman” or “Spider Grandmother.” Further west and north, the Hopi Indian villages have several versions of the emergence, involving several “worlds” that existed “Under the World,” where the precursors of the Hopi people were guided by the same Spider Woman. The nearby Zuni began in the underworld darkness nurtured by “Mother Earth.”

Other peoples present variants of the prevailing southwest pattern. The Arikara say they emerged in the East but traveled to the West, which, in fact, they did, and that they were led and supported by “Mother Corn.” The Apache and Yuma people say they originated in the wet darkness of earth as do some Sioux groups. A striking example exists among those Kiowa who say that they began in a hollow log.

Whatever the nature of the original emergence starting place, the beings who exist there begin what is usually an arduous process involving several stages in their movement towards the world of light—our world. In the Acoma myth the two sister-spirits “grew slowly and knew one another only by touch.” When they were ready, Thinking Woman, who had taught them language, gave them “baskets containing seeds for all the plants and models of all the animals that would be in the next world.” The sisters, always with Thinking Woman’s help, took tree seeds from the baskets and planted them, and a pine tree finally grew high enough to break a hole through to the top of the underworld, letting in a little light. Then the sisters gave life to some animal models in their baskets, and these animals helped prepare the hole for the emergence. Eventually the sisters climbed the pine tree with their baskets and broke through into this world. In an Apache myth the underworld beings had to call on the buffalo to use their horns to build a ladder up to a hole that allowed them entry into the world. The Arikara pre-people dug their way out. The Hopi, guided by Spider Woman, made their way through three worlds, developing morally and physically as they went, and entered this world—the Fourth, through a hollow reed and a sipapu. In a similar myth, the Navajo begin as lower forms as beings and develop through several worlds, struggling against moral shortcomings before they finally emerge into this world. The Kiowa people are a small tribe because as they squeezed their way through a hollow log and a pregnant woman got stuck and blocked the way for the rest.

Invariably, the emerging people are greeted by light and warmth in the world into which they emerge. As in other types of creation myth, the sun in the emergence myth is often associated with a sky god creator, the husband, in a sense, of Mother Earth, whom he warms and fertilizes. The light, as always, represents the possibility of order and knowledge. But the presence of the light requires a major transformation among the people used to the protective darkness of the Mother. The brightness of the sun caused painful tears among the emerging Zuni until they were forced to recognize the father sun. The Tewa people came out into a “new world full of blinding light” and were terrified. But Spider Woman gently got them used to the new world.

The emergence myth is clearly derived from the phenomenon of birth. The people gestate in various forms within Mother Earth, are usually watched over by what is, in effect, a midwife-goddess, and they struggle in stages to emerge from a hole in Mother Earth as “the people” in a place that then becomes the de facto world center for those people. The fact that the father god has at best a minor role in the emergence creation emphasizes the mother-based birth process itself. The father god appears—as the sun—only when the creation process is complete, and even then, it is usually the guiding goddess, now acting as a culture hero, who directs the establishment of civilized life.

The emergence myth very likely has ancient precedents. It would have been logical for early cultures to find creation metaphors in the familiar mammalian birth process, or perhaps from the plant death and rebirth process rather than in the much more esoteric ex nihilo, creation from chaos, or world parent processes. In either the birthing act or the vegetation cycle, the feminine principle is necessarily dominant over the masculine, whose role in the pre-gestation period is somehow distant and perhaps unclear. Even now we naturally think of “Mother Earth” rather than “Father Earth.” This is because it is earth, not sky, that appears to give birth to the elements of this world as opposed to the cosmic elements of the universe. For indications of this early use of the female—the Mother—as the primary metaphor for creation, we need only consider the ubiquitous existence of female figures and drawings in Paleolithic art—works that emphasize breasts, hips, and genitalia in apparent celebration of feminine sexuality and creative power.

The underworld where the emergence myth begins, then, stands for us as a womb; a dark, wet place that contains the potential for life to come. The unformed or partially formed beings that dwell there are, as Charles Long says, “seeds within the body of earth” (38). The underworld is the cosmic egg of the emergence myth, and the beings in the emergence womb long to become something more, as do the beings in the cosmic egg of the chaos myth. In psychological terms, the beings in the emergence underworld are expressions of the longing for consciousness— for full realization. When they finally reach the light to which the Mother leads them, the created people are able to see and to make the connections on which society depends.

People of the emergence creation myth, like those whose creation myths are of different sorts, celebrate their creation and attempt to keep the creative process alive in sacred ceremonies. The sick Navajo sits in the center of a sand painting representing through symbols the act of creation, and the shaman sings the creation myth. In this way the sick person becomes a part of the creation process and will perhaps have a chance to begin again. For other peoples, certain dances are dances of creation that provide the same opportunity for renewal to the whole tribal body.