Ex Nihilo Creation

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

The central fact of the creation from nothing, or ex nihilo, creation myth type is a supreme deity, existing alone in a pre-creation emptiness or void, who consciously creates an organized universe on his own. Thus the God of the Hebrews in Genesis simply decides to create, and He “made Heaven and Earth.” The ex nihilo creation is firmly imbedded in the collective psyche in the parts of the world dominated by the monotheistic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, religions centered on an all-powerful supreme deity who embodies in himself all of the elements assigned to various deities in polytheistic systems.

But the ex nihilo creation is not limited to the three Abrahamic religions and is not the exclusive product of the monotheistic cultures. In fact, it is ubiquitous in all parts of the world and is arguably the most common of the five types. It existed in ancient Egypt, in the ancient Rig Veda of India, and is present to this day in the mythologies of many animistic cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North America.

The mythological ancestors of the ex nihilo creator are, in all likelihood, the sky gods of earlier religions; the personifications of the elements of nature we associate with the heavens. The ex nihilo creator often maintains characteristics of ancient storm and weather gods and embodies the power of the sun. For example, the creator of Genesis can divide seas and inundate the world with flood waters. The creator gods of Egypt are closely associated with the blazing desert sun. The ex nihilo creator also owes something of his personality to the ancient role of the father god who fertilizes the earth. The creative acts of the Zuni sky father or the Rig Veda creator are acts of fecundation.

At the beginning of the ex nihilo ur-myth the creator is introduced in his precreative state, sometimes composed of several parts but always without a mate. Kiho, the Tuamotuan version of the Polynesian creator, “lived alone in the emptiness under Havaiki, or nonland. His only company was his double, his Activating Self.” The Mariana Island creator, Na Arean was alone in the beginning, “a cloud that floats in nothingness.” The Tahitian creator, Taaroa, like the Indian Purusha of the Rig Veda, was always the universe itself. For the Bantu speaking Fan people of Africa “In the beginning there was only Nzame (God), made up of three parts: Nzame, Mebere, and Nkwa.” For the Christian gospeler John, in the beginning there was “the Word”—the Logos, the essence of another three-part God. For the Mayans in Mesoamerica, in the beginning there were only the creators, Tepeu and Gukumatz, the Feathered Serpent, in the void. In the Indian Chandogya Upanishad, “There was only Non-Being in the beginning.” The Inupiat (Eskimo) creator, Raven, “woke up in Heaven and suddenly became aware of himself” in the primeval darkness. “Gradually he examined himself, feeling his mouth, nose, ears, and other body parts. He became aware, too, of the little bump on his forehead that later would become his beak.” Among the Central Asian Chukchee, Raven was “self-created.” The Winnebago creator Earth Maker “came to consciousness and realized he was alone.” The Marshall Islands creator Lowa, the uncreated, suddenly realized he was alone. The Amazonian Uitoto myth maker suggests that first there was only a vision, an illusion that affected the supreme being, Nainema, who at that time was himself the illusion. Nothing else existed.

The person of the supreme deity creator who existed before existence teases the human mind and leads to inevitable questions: where did the ex nihilo creator come from and how did he come about in the void, what was there before there was anything? These are, of course, unanswerable questions; the human mind is a product of existence and inevitably fails in its attempt to imagine pre-existence. Jinasena, the Jain sage, suggests that people who think of a creator are misled. “If God is the creator, where was He before creation and how could a non-material being make anything so material as this world?” The composer of the Indian Rig Veda asks, “If in the beginning there was neither Being nor Non-Being, neither air nor sky, what was there? Who or what oversaw it? What was it when there was no darkness, light, life, or death? We can only say that there was the One, that which breathed of itself deep in the void, that which was heat and became desire and the germ of spirit.” In short, the ex nihilo creator always was; he is not controlled by time or by any previous creation. As the Tierra del Fuego people say, he was the “forever existing.” For those who acknowledge him he is, in fact, ultimate reality, and the potential for material creation exists only within him and has to emerge from him. When the Egyptian creator god of Heliopolis, Atum or Ptah in his form as Khepri, comes into being “being itself came into being.”

Material creation can emerge from the ex nihilo creator in a myriad of ways. The creator can create from his mouth by way of saliva, from his genitals as semen, even from his anus as fecal matter. The Egyptian Atum created by masturbating or, as some texts claimed, by expectorating. In some northern myths the popular trickster-creator Raven defecated the world into existence. The Boshongo creator vomited the universe into existence. The Bagobo of the Philippines say that the creator, who lived in the sky, was white. He constantly “polished his whiteness and he made the earth out of the dried skin that came from this polishing.” The African Fon tell of their mother-creator Mawu, who created everything from the back of the rainbow serpent Aido Hwedo, the principle of motion that keeps the celestial bodies moving. The creator can create from his mind as thought or word. In some places in Egypt the original god created himself by calling out his own name. The Hebrew creator said “let there be light” and there was light. The Maori creator, Io, was alone and “inactive.” So as to overcome the inactivity he used words, “calling on darkness to become ‘light-possessing darkness’.” The Islamic-influenced Swahili creator has always existed; he is “beyond birth and death” and he creates by words: “He creates by merely speaking.” For instance, “Let there be light, he said, and, of course, there was light.” The Samoan creator existed in empty space before the universe had form. He told a rock to split and it did, and hit the rock and it gave birth to Earth and Sea. “In the beginning there was only Wakonda, the Great Spirit, and all things—plants, animals, and humans—were spirits in his mind,” say the Omaha storytellers. The Laguna Pueblo Thinking Woman made thoughts and the names of things, and thought things into existence. The Indian absolute, Brahman, the Self-Existent, in the Laws of Manu, thought of the waters, and they were.” The Lenape Indian creator had a vision of existence as a world and brought that vision to life by thinking about each of its elements.

An important stage in the ex nihilo myth is the creation of humans. The Creek Indians of North America say that the Creator decided to make the animals to enjoy his newly created world, that the animals felt a lack of purpose in their lives, so the creator made humans for the animals to teach and assist in learning to survive. The Hebrew god, like many others, made humans in Genesis 1 “male and female … in His image” and gave them guardianship over his creation (In Genesis 2 the story is different; we are told that Eve was created from one of Adam’s ribs). In a Pawnee Indian myth, the creator, who was originally Space itself, recognized the need to populate his newly created Earth and had Evening Star marry Morning Star. The couple produced Mother of Humanity while another couple, Sun and Moon, produced Father of Humanity. These were the first people. In Africa, the Maasai creator Enkai created the first humans out of a tree that he split into three parts, resulting in the Maasai father, the Kikuyu father, and the Kamba father. The Tahitian creator, Taaroa, made the first man, Ti’I, out of the earth, that is, out of himself, and he created the first woman, Hina, as well; “she could see backwards and forwards.” The creator of the Mapuche of Chile first made a world and then people imbued with his spirit—first a woman and then, as her companion, a man. Frequently the first people are children of an incestuous relationship among the gods. A myth of the Yolugu Aborigines of Northeast Arnhemland in Australia explains that the people are descendants of such a relationship between a brother and sister with oversized sexual organs who created the Yolugu world as they roamed about in an ancient dream time.

In many cases the seemingly perfect world created ex nihilo by the supreme deity is undermined by an inherent evil or mischievous force that somehow enters creation. The Devil enters the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent in the Hebrew myth of Genesis and corrupts Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat a certain fruit forbidden them by the creator. The Central African Ngombe people are among the many peoples who also tell of the first woman being corrupted by a devil figure, this one a hairy figure whose handsomeness when she shaves his body leads to her seduction and the fall of humanity. The second wife of the Tanzanian Nyamwezi creator brought death into the world when she disobeyed her husband. The eastern Congo Baluba creator, Fidi Mkullu, was threatened by a trickster-devil figure, Kadifukke, who claimed that he had been born directly of the earth, that he had not been created by Fidi Mkullu. The creator was never able to completely defeat his enemy.

The struggle between good and evil in the universe is always reflected in the human world, where in the myth, evil often prevails and the humans become corrupt. The Andean Aymaran creator Kun becomes furious with his people. So does the Yahweh of the Hebrew Genesis and the creator of the Bushmen. The Bantu Fang high god Nzambe had created a creature, Fam, in his image, but Fam became arrogant and eventually decided to stop worshipping Nzambe. “Let Nzame be where he is; I rule here,” he sang. The Lenape Indian creator’s emissary on Earth was defeated by an evil spirit, and Earth became “a place of turmoil.” The Mande people of West Africa were plagued by the endless struggle between the good Faro and the evil Pemba. Among the Chilean Mapuche a similar struggle between two serpent spirits had a terrible effect on human life. The Mayan creators had made humans out of wood. These humans “walked and talked and made more of themselves, but they were too inflexible, too mindless, and without inner being. They did not think of their makers, and they caused troubles on Earth.” Madumda, the California Pomo Indian creator, created people, but in time they “began to misbehave, killing each other and not caring well enough for their children.”

The reaction of the ex nihilo creator— and, it should be said, of all types of creators—is strikingly similar. The creator sends a flood or something equally catastrophic to cleanse the world of evil. The Pomo creator punished his creation with a flood (and later with fire, ice, and wind). The South American Ipurina creator, Mayuruberu, presumably angry at humanity, caused a huge pot of boiling water in the sun to overflow and flood the earth. The Andean Aymaran creator used an “ice flood.” The impious fourth world created by the Mesoamerican Toltec gods was destroyed by flood, an earlier one having been destroyed by fire. The Mayan Popol Vuh reports that the gods destroyed the first humans in a flood, the few survivors having been chased by the animals into the woods, where they became monkeys.

In order that human life might continue, it is usual to find at least two people who are saved from the flood. The culture hero Faro of the Mande people is a personification of the River Niger. He floods the world to destroy the evil forces of his brother Pemba, leaving the good people to live. The Lenape creator sent a great flood to cleanse his creation, but the culture hero/spirit Nanapush carried a few humans and animals in his shirt and climbed a cedar tree on a mountain top, thus avoiding the waters until he could build a raft from the cedar wood. The Hebrew Genesis tells us that Noah and his family were saved in an ark when Yahweh sent the flood to cleanse the world of the evil descendants of Adam and Eve. Before that, the Sumerians and the Babylonians had reported in the Gilgamesh epic that when the gods flooded the world they had allowed Ziusudra / Utnapishtim to survive with his wife in an ark. The Wyot Indians of California say that Old Man in the heavens created people, but they turned out all furry, so he decided to get rid of them with a flood. But Condor found out about this and made a basket into which he got with his sister and was saved.

The result of the salvation of a few is the second chance for humanity; a new creation. Utnapishtim / Ziasudra and his wife were the parents of a new humanity under a covenant with the mother goddess. Noah’s sons fathered the future races of humankind under a new covenant with Yahweh. The Lenape hero Nanapush decided to “make use of powers given him by the Creator to create a new world.” The Wyot Condor decided to mate with his sister, and the first of the new people were born. “They looked just right, and they made more people. Old Man in the heavens was happy.” Sometimes the creator simply makes completely new post-flood humans. The Tlingit creator-trickster Raven “made new humans out of leaves and the old humans became stones.”

In order to interpret the universal dream that is behind the many ex nihilo creation myths, we need to ask ourselves how the myth speaks to us, what it means to us outside of the particular cultural contexts. The Hebrew god means something particular to the Hebrews and their Jewish descendants in the context of Jewish history. The Zuni father god means something particular to Zunis in the context of their understanding of their physical and spiritual place in the world. Those gods are but two of many embodiments of the concept of supreme deity in the larger world dream that is the universal ex nihilo creation myth. It is to that concept and the other primary concepts of the ex nihilo ur-myth that we must look for cross cultural or universal meaning. Polynesians created the Polynesian ex nihilo creation myths, Sumerians created the Sumerian ex nihilo myth, and Fang people the Fang ex nihilo myth, but the ur ex nihilo creation myth that is revealed by a comparison of all ex nihilo myths is the product of a significant element of the collective mind—a product of our cross cultural human experience.

The ex nihilo creation myth begins with a vision of the creator alone in the void—the emptiness of space or nothingness of pre-creation, pre-existence. The very fact that, unlike the creators of other creation myth types, he is alone, would seem to be significant. By placing the potential for creation within one being, a human longing for meaningfulness versus randomness is satisfied. The Supreme Being containing the elements of all earlier deities is the spiritual or psychological version of the scientist’s longed for unified field theory to explain all of existence. As human beings, possibly alone and vulnerable in the universe, we long for a universal axis mundi, a center that gives us meaning and significance. Like the Hebrews who envisioned Yahweh or the Egyptians who discovered Ptah, the ex nihilo followers as a collective long for a powerful parent who creates with a purpose. In the ex nihilo context, this parent is usually “Our Father,” whereas in the emergence creation to be considered later “Our Mother” is perhaps a more appropriate model.

The fact that Our Father lacks a mate and is notably alone in many cases— especially those of the monotheists— suggests a source outside of the generative cycle of birth, life and death; a source that is eternal and that by so being provides some sort of immortality to his creation. This vision of the ex nihilo creator is expressed best intellectually in non-personal concepts such as the Vedic / Hindu Brahman, the essence of existence that is neither male nor female and is everywhere and nowhere. For most ex nihilists, however, an “Our Father” is a more comforting idea.

The Supreme Being typically exists in the Void, a difficult concept for mortal humans to comprehend. Perhaps empty space is the closest we can come to a vision of no-thing-ness. The ex nihilo creator creates from nothing, and “nothing” is a concept that negates time and place. If Our Father existed and created in the Void, he presents us with the vision of a possibility of making something of nothing, a vision that is related to but not the same as the vision of the Creation from Chaos myth to be studied later. More important, since the Void is timeless and without boundaries, he presents us with a vision of eternity, possibly suggesting eternal life.

The Supreme Being who exists as eternal potential energy in the Void seems suddenly to awaken. In his aloneness he longs for something more, the way a baby one day seems suddenly to awaken to his surroundings. The deity takes on a personality and finds a way of materializing elements of his creative desire for company. In so doing he becomes a creature of our sometimes childish imagination. How does a mateless being create from within himself? Masturbation is an obvious solution, spitting, vomiting, and defecating are others. All of these acts in children are primitive models for creation. The Deity’s awakening into the possibility of creating from within himself is a metaphor for our awakening into consciousness, into our possibilities as creators. The child is proud of his feces and bodily fluids. The products of the child’s body are creative steps on the way to more fully planned creative acts that mirror the planned creation of the creator deity.

The deity also creates by word, thought, and touch. In so doing he speaks to our sense of the crucial necessity of being creative. Humans are driven to create, to mirror the creator in thought, word, and touch. We imitate reality, imitate creation, imitate the creator—first in our thoughts, then in the various forms by which we make our thoughts and imaginings concrete. We paint and write and build, not only for utilitarian purposes but because we have to express creativity, because that is what humans—as opposed to other animals—do. From the first instances of painting in Paleolithic caves, we have been driven to do what only we do; we have been driven by an overwhelming need to make creation conscious of itself. And our creations are modeled on the creator’s plan or on the assumption that the creator had a plan. The Islamic Sultan’s garden, the cathedral, the city center, the idealized heroic statue, the portrait, the abstract painting are all re-presentations of the consciously planned creation of the Supreme Deity.

Once the creator has completed the realization of his consciously developed plan for the created world, usually after he has established the sky, the earth, the plants, seas, rivers, and mountains, and even the animals, he realizes that something is missing. The paradise is complete, but something—a tension, a provocation, an element of the creator himself—is needed to give life to the creation. This is where we come in. The Supreme Deity is said to have created a being “in his image”—the human—to watch over his creation, thus, in fact, establishing the fact that humans, the creators of the story, see the god as being like them. In this assumption, humans inject the element of pride into creation and both undermine its perfection and provide it with the energy of life. If we are made in the image of the god we can act like the god. So enters the devil figure who personifies the sensuality, the roving imagination, the duality, the ambiguity, and the imperfection of humans—the qualities that are precisely the elements that characterize their greatest creative works. The devil infects the paradise of the eternal one’s creation and endows it with the possibility of new creative powers and, of course, also with the power to destroy. The price we pay for these powers is death, death being a necessary component of the procreative process by which we participate in the life cycle and also part of the related process by which we make cities, objects of art, and other creative forms that mirror our image of the original planned creation of the ex nihilo creator.

But to “Our Father” all of this adds up not to the healthy development of his children into adulthood, individuality, and creativity, but to disobedience and corruption. The natural instinct of the defied patriarch is to punish the wrongdoers, those who defy him even as they imitate him and his creation. So comes the flood that will wipe the slate clean and provide the possibility of a new creation. The waters are, of course, a model for the waters of birth and the ark is the placenta of rebirth. Chosen representatives of an obedient humanity become the fetuses of that rebirth and will participate in a new creation, the success of which, of course, remains to be seen. The assumption of the obedient descendants of the chosen is that the Supreme Deity is still there controlling his creation.