Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia. Editor: David A Leeming. Volume 1. 2nd edition. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
The world parent myth involves the breaking apart of a static primeval state. In one form of the world parent myth the beginning consists of the eternal union of the parents, a union that has to be broken in order for creation to take place. Another sort of world parent myth, sometimes a second part of the first, involves a stage of creation in which it is the body of a world parent that is itself separated, usually by an act of dismemberment. The body parts of this sacrificed deity parent actually become the world.
In the first type of world parent myth sexuality and genealogy are crucial elements. The world parents—more often than not, identified as paternal Sky and maternal Earth—are locked in a perfect if somewhat passive union and appear content to remain so. The result is a dark and cramped world where, as in the Celtic myth, “Heaven and Earth were so close that there was little room for creation between them.” The Diegueños people of California say that the male sky came down over the female earth, and the creator and his brother were “cramped” between them. The Krachi people of Togo and Ghana tell how in the beginning male Sky lived on top of female Earth and that Man lived between them, but with little room to move. The Gilbert Islanders of Micronesia also say that the creator was cramped—this time in a clam shell, an image that is reminiscent the cosmic egg. A Japanese myth tells how Heaven and Earth were so close that the word “chaos” characterized the space between them. In Greece the original Mother Earth goddess, Gaia, was covered by Ouranos, the Sky, angering the couple’s offspring. In the famous Egyptian gender-reversed variation, the female Sky, Nut, and the male Earth, Geb, formed a stultifying union. The Northern Indian Minyong people have a world parent creation myth in which the love-making of the primal female, Earth, and the primal male, Sky, threatened to crush their offspring. The same fear arose among the children of the Polynesian Rangi and Papa (Heaven and Earth) who found themselves in the darkness between the coupling parents.
The logical next step in the world parent creation myth is the necessary and often violent separation of the parents. One of the children of the Celtic Heaven and Earth separated the pair by castrating the father. The Titan Kronos (Time) did the same thing in Greece, thus expressing the substitution of time for the timeless coupling of his parents. In Egypt Shu (Air) came between the amorous Geb and Nut, leaving Geb’s longing phallus reaching up helplessly towards his mate. In the Babylonian myth the god-hero Marduk defeated the chaotic monster Tiamat—the original mother— and separated her body into Heaven and Earth, thus combining both forms of the world parent myth.
The Gilbert Islands creator separated his clam shell home into Sky and Earth. The Krachi say that Man’s squirming irritated Heaven so much that he left and went up above, leaving Earth. The Minyong Sky left his Earth wife when a being called Sedi-Diyor hit him hard in the stomach. In Polynesian mythologies one of the children of the world parents separated them by standing on his head and pushing his father off of his mother with his feet as the parents cried out in agony. The Zuni of the American southwest say that “Earth Mother cast off Sky Father and sank in comfort part way into the waters”, thus forming islands and other land masses.
As in the Zuni myth just mentioned, the separation of primal parents always results in creativity and order as opposed to passivity and disorder, and to light and space as opposed to darkness in a contained place. Often the post-separation creator is associated with the sun. The Babylonian Marduk, a thunderbolt wielding sun-weather god like Zeus in Greece and Thor in Northern Europe, created a whole ordered universe over which he presided as a general policeman of Babylonian law and order. The separated Dhammai Sky and Earth let light into the world and produced the first humans. In many Polynesian myths the separation of the world parents resulted in light in which “the people were revealed.” The Diegueños creators made the four directions and a light—the sun—that rose every day to overcome the darkness. Later, they made hills, valleys, lakes, and people. In Egypt the god Ra became the dominant force in creation, watching over it with his Eye—the sun—the symbol of order, light, and reason. In his dark shell, the Gilbert Islands creator god found a big snail and a little snail living with him, so he made the big one into the sun and the little one into the moon and thus brought light into the world before continuing the creation process. When the Japanese Earth and Heaven were separated, the creators made the passive and active principles, Izanami (Female who Invites) and Izanagi (Male who Invites). These two were the first ancestors and world creators. After the separation of Heaven and Earth, Izanagi became aware of the new light; he “washed his eyes, and the sun and moon were released.” At this point the sun goddess Amaterasu became dominant. For the Minyong, a daughter of the separated world parents became the sun—the light of the world—making ordered life possible. Hesiod tells us that after Kronos (Time) castrated his father and thus separated his parents and took over control; he mated with his sister Rhea and, in turn, was separated from her and overpowered by his son Zeus, who married his sister Hera and fathered many of the Greek Olympians, establishing light and order in the world as understood by the Greeks.
The world parent sacrifice-dismemberment motif, as noted earlier, involves the sacrifice and usually the dismemberment of a being who is turned into the various orderly elements of creation, thus becoming, in the literal sense, the world parent. This motif emphasizes an animistic sense of the spiritual source and, therefore, the sacredness of everything around us. When the gods of Vedic India sacrificed the primal man, Purusha, his broken body became the social castes as well as the animals, plants, rituals, and the sacred Vedas themselves. From Purusha’s mind came the moon, from his eye the sun, from his breath the wind, from his head the sky, from his feet the earth, from his navel the atmosphere. In Chinese mythology, when the firstborn, Pangu, died, his breath became the wind and the clouds, his voice thunder, his eyes the sun and moon, his arms and legs the four directions, his blood and semen water, his veins the earth’s arteries, his flesh the land, his hair and beard the stars, his bodily hair the plants and trees. The mites on his body became the black-haired people. The Canadian Algonquin Earth Mother died and the creator-culture hero Glooskap created animals, humans, and other elements of nature from her broken body. The Aztecs of Mexico tell of a terrifying giant goddess who was devouring the world until the gods intervened, cutting the goddess in two, and making one part earth and one part sky. Her hair became plant life; her eyes became water, her mouth rivers, her shoulders hills and mountains. Her violent separation led to her literally becoming our ordered world. In a similar fashion, the Babylonian hero Marduk, after defeating and thus separating the primordial chaotic parents, divided the original goddess, Tiamat, “like a shell-fish into two parts”—Earth and Sky. Then he established cosmic and earthly order making Tiamat’s stomach the path of the sun—a symbol, as always, of light and order. The blood and bones of Tiamat’s lover were turned into human beings. In the Norse myth we are told that the gods killed the frost giant Ymir and that “his bones became the mountains and his teeth and jaws became rocks, stones, and pebbles, his skull the sky.” The Nez Perce Coyote killed a worlddevouring monster and, with the help of his companion, Fox, cut up the monster and made various Native American tribes out of its body parts. From the feet they made the Blackfoot, from the head the Crow and Salishan (Flat Heads). From the monster’s blood sprang the Nez Perce people. The son of the Gilbert Islands creator killed his father and made the sun and moon out of his eyes, and placed his spine on end as the axis mundi on the island of Samoa. From the dead body of the monstrous primeval Worm of the Dhammai of Northern India Earth and Sky were rescued so that a new creation could take place. In the Indonesian Ceramese myth, the maiden Hainuwele is murdered in a ritual dance, but her dug up body parts are planted and they grow into Ceramese food staples.
The motif of the planting of a dismembered goddess finds expression in the many corn mother myths of the native North Americans The Arikara people tell how corn grew from the body of the murdered Corn Mother. The Keresan people of the Southwest tell how Corn Mother planted her heart in the earth, saying that corn would be the milk of her breasts.
The idea of world parents before the separation as well as the single world parent—especially as a monstrous being— before dismemberment or sacrifice, is clearly related to the state of chaos in the creation from chaos type of myth. In the united parents there is the potential for further creation that waits for a catalytic agent. The united parents are much like the cosmic egg waiting to be broken and the offspring caught between give us a perspective on the cramped world of the pre-hatched egg. The monstrous world parent who must be divided up as creative material is also chaotic material waiting to be used for orderly creation. And even the good Corn Mother is a form of unrealized but potential creativity—in effect, a seed waiting to be planted. The superficial difference between the chaos myth and the world parent myth is precisely the existence of the world parents as recognizable anthropomorphic beings as opposed to eggs or even less defined and less differentiated forms.
If myths are cultural dreams, we naturally look for the symbolic meaning of such a phenomena as the conjoined primordial parents. The first thought that comes to mind in connection with this image is the positive ideal of unity, a kind of androgynous union of the genders. The parents are one, and we all strive for unity and for union with something or someone. But union can also be ultimate entropy, the absence of the differentiation necessary for creativity. In this mythical union of the world parents the parents are concerned only with themselves—their act of union. The humans faced with the sexually joined first parents are placed in what is, at least among those influenced by the Freudian view, the psychologically disturbing and even dangerous position of the child observing the sexual act of parents—the so-called “primal scene.” The mixed reaction of the child in question is apt to be horror and misunderstanding and, most of all, a desire that the act terminate immediately. Furthermore, in the myth, the coitus of the world parents is generally nonproductive in the sense that although there might be offspring, what the parents do they do in the cosmic darkness, leaving no room for light or for the creative activity of their children, who are literally smothered by the blind togetherness of the preoccupied and unresponsive parents. In both the Freudian and archetypal sense there is only one solution to this problem: separate the parents. How many parents have been disturbed by the child who climbs into the family bed, seemingly with the primary purpose of keeping the parents apart so they can pay attention to the child? In world parent myths and, metaphorically speaking, in the real world as well, being between becomes itself the problem, especially if the union of the parents is never-ending, as it is in the myth. The mythical offspring are between; being smothered and cramped in such a way as to make their lives useless. At some point, like their real life counterparts, they long to be free altogether of the restriction of their parents, who all too often resist the differentiation, the development of individuality and the experimentation necessary for creativity. The world parent Mother in mythology is a nurturer, but she can also be a devourer. She is Earth, and Earth takes back in death what she gives. The Father can be a protector but he can also be a jealous destroyer and a dangerous adversary, as the myths of Gaia and Ouranos and Kronos and Rhea in the Greek tradition make clear. The desire to overcome the combination represented by the parents—to escape the darkness of life between them—is perfectly natural.
The method of separation is, of course, of psychological and general cultural interest. In many of the myths above, separation and the consequent freedom from parental interference is sufficient. In other myths more violent action—especially castration of the enemy father—appears to be necessary and supports an obvious Freudian interpretation. In the case of castration of the father, the myth seems to say, to become creative the offspring must delete the fertile powers of the dominating father, thus making him irrelevant as far as the mother—Earth—is concerned. Earth can now be the creative playground of the offspring of the world parents. Or, looking at the separation of or destruction of the world parents from another psychological perspective, it might be suggested that in order for the psyche—collective or individual—to develop, old ways must be revealed, confronted, and eliminated. In psychological as well as religious development we must die to the old way and be born to the new. Historically speaking, the death or separation of the world parents may also stand as a metaphor for a change in cultural perspective. In the Babylonian myth, for example, the feminine chaotic Tiamat can stand for what the Babylonians might have seen as the old Mesopotamian agricultural/matriarchal culture, while the hero Marduk stands for the new male/warrior dominated Babylonian one
Once the separation is achieved, the offspring proceed with their new creation. In the new space between the separated parents, light—usually in the person of a new sun god—appears. The sun is a new source of fertility at least partially replacing the old earth mother/sky father fertility, and the light is associated with cosmic and cultural order. To quote Charles Long, “The movement of the sun through the heavens each day is a sign of order and regularity. It symbolizes the victory of the sun over chaos and is simultaneously a symbol of immortality” (77).
It remains to be emphasized that at the base of any creative act—in art, in history, in psychological development—is the necessity of sacrifice. “It is not possible to create something without destroying something else at the same time,” writes psychologist Marie Louise von Franz (154). To find the light we must separate or destroy the old authority, but it is the old authority itself or its broken pieces that will often serve as the material for new creation. We can free ourselves from the world of our conjoined parents, but their values are imbedded in us in some way. The old earth father will become the sky of our world, the mother the earth. The cosmos and our world will be made of them. Or, if we destroy the monster type of world parent we will use the pieces of its body to make the new world. Thus Tiamat is divided by Marduk into a new sky and earth.
The necessary sacrifice involved in new creation can be illustrated visually in elements of modernist art such as cubism, in which, maintaining the goal of art as the representation of reality, the artist breaks up the old conventional view of subject matter and reassembles the bits and pieces to shed new light on inner structure of reality. Psychiatry attempts to do the same thing with the pieces of the re-examined psyche, the historian with bits and pieces of the past, the reproducing feminine body with her genes and those of others.