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Myths of Creation
Theogony and Cosmogony
Text and Tables

Prometheus 1 : said to have moulded man. 7734: Prometheus. Perhaps by Tomasso Cazzaniga, active 1486-1499. Marble. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Theogony and Cosmogony

"Creation" means, in this context, Creation of the World, which is also called Cosmogony or Origin of the Universe (Cosmos). Cosmogony normally includes, not only an account of the origin of the world, but also a description of its physical qualities, declaring, for example, whether there is light or darkness in Cosmos, or of which parts it is formed. Likewise Theogony (Origin of the Gods) does not limit itself to give an account of their coming into being, but it also establishes their number and describes their nature and functions.

Cosmos created through Love and intercourse

Cosmogony and Theogony cannot be completely separated because the myths have established that the parts of the Cosmos are gods, saying, for example, that the Earth (Gaia) and Sky (Uranus) are at the same time physical realities and deities endowed with the kind of power and intelligence that is the exclusive attribute of the divine. For this reason, the Cosmos may be said to have been created by the gods, yet not as a result of the work of constructors or demiurges, but through Love and intercourse. Primeval Chaos, which some have called a void and others have equalled with disorder, appears sometimes as a being capable of intercourse and procreation. Likewise Tartarus, described by some as a gloomy place in the Underworld, being "as far distant from earth as earth is from the sky" (Hesiod, Theogony 720), has fathered several creatures.

Creation and Procreation

Since Cosmos is not a lifeless stage where actors perform their deeds, but instead the stage and the actors at the same time (these actors being divinities), it may be asserted that the myths make no difference between Cosmogony and Theogony, or between the Cosmos and the gods. For the gods create new segments of Cosmos by consorting with each other, and these new segments, being gods themselves, are both created and procreated. Therefore the mythical accounts, though differing in their details, regard Creation and Procreation as one and the same thing. In this view, "creation is the outcome of an encounter, and genesis is a product of interaction." (Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History).

Night without starry Sky

But if the different sections or gods are created through procreation, then there were times when some of them did not exist, being the children of those who came before them. So, for example, when Nyx (Night) appeared in the world, there was no starry sky by night, since there was no Sky (Uranus) at the moment, and the stars were yet to be born. Going thus back in the chain of Creation or Procreation, one should come to the ultimate ancestor, or as some have said afterwards, a first cause. Some have called this ancestor Chaos, whereas others have called him otherwise, or also pointed out several simultaneous ancestors. Nevertheless, some beginning is often found, either in Chaos or in them.

Beginning or not

Now, what is before that beginning remains unknown, for nobody has explained whence Chaos (or whoever else) came, and the poet only asserted:

"In truth at first Chaos came to be ..." (Hesiod, Theogony 116).

... without ever declaring how Chaos came to be. Some have found it an aberration to assume that Chaos came out of nothingness; for then Chaos, being the first, had nothing to come from and nowhere to go. This is why they concluded that no one of these things came first or second, but that they existed always.

No agreement

These and many other cosmogonic and theogonic questions have been addressed, throughout the history of mankind, first by the myths, and later by philosophy, religion, and science. However, in spite of all extraordinary efforts and sometimes genial presentations of the subject, no general agreement has ever been reached. On the contrary: the legion of cosmogonies and theogonies has continually increased since the dawn of human civilization up to our days; and among the Greeks, as among other peoples belonging both to the past and to the present, there have circulated through time myths, beliefs, theories, and all kind of speculations concerning the origin of the world and the gods, and the nature of them all.

Theogony and Cosmogony separated

An ingenious and rather successful device, to which both science and later religions have resorted to when addressing these issues, has been to separate Cosmogony from Theogony, and Creation from Procreation, making of the Cosmos just a stage where immortals and mortals may perform their deeds. In some later philosophical and religious views, the Cosmos is, except for those sections which are biologically alive, a lifeless scenery, either created by a demiurge or by a single God. Science, which has reached farther than any other discipline in systematically describing and explaining natural phenomena, is not seldom seen approaching the issue of the origin of Cosmos in our days with the help of pseudomythical images such as Superdensity or Big-Bang, which attempt to explain how the Cosmos evolved but not its coming to being. Likewise, expressions like "Long ago ..." or "Once upon a time ..." have been, on the ground of observations, rephrased by scientists and transformed into "Some two thousand million years ago", or similar.

Highest authorities disagree

As a result, Existence itself has not been accounted for, and the highest authorities disagree so radically that anyone could suspect the unavoidable works of Discord. For in the course of history, some have said that there are many gods, and others that there is only one single God. Still others have said that there is neither gods nor any God at all. And concerning the universe, some have said that there is one, and others have declared that there are many. So, when it comes to this sort of question, only partial agreement is to be expected among mortals; and authorities do not only argue about the number of gods and universes, or whether they have come into being at a certain point, or whether they have existed eternally, but also about their nature. And so, for example, some have believed that the universe is a terrible place created and governed by some devil, whereas others have said that its constructor is good, the cosmos being his amazing work of art, or he being the Cosmos itself. And since these discussions are endless, mortals either turn to themselves, or else start debating the Soul, whether it is mortal or immortal, or whether there is a soul at all. And since no agreement is reached in this issue either, they then, eager to see tangible results, might take History as their supreme teacher and turn to matters of social, economical and political organization. For these structures and functions are believed to be easier to grasp than those of the universe, and consequently, they reason, their endeavours might yield visible results; and these are never underrated.

The first to describe the beginning


Concerning the beginning, it has been discussed, not just the beginning itself, but also who was the first to describe it. Some have thought that Hesiod was the first to systematically expose the origin of the gods; but others have said that the first to compose a genealogy of the gods was Musaeus, who having been trained by Apollo and the MUSES, wrote songs and poems, uttered oracles, and besides could fly. Also Linus 1—son of the Muse Urania 2, either by Apollo, or by Hermes, or by Amphimarus (son of Poseidon)—is said to have composed a poem describing the creation of the world in which he declared that all things were originally together, until Mind set them in order. Also Orpheus is named among the first who concerned themselves with the origin of the gods and the creation of the world. But on the ground that he charged the gods with all human suffering, some have refused to give him any credit, saying that Orpheus was not killed by women but punished by Zeus, who slew him with his thunder. The evidence, they say, was the epitaph in Orpheus' tomb:

"Here have the Muses laid their minstrel true,
The Thracian
Orpheus whom Zeus' thunder slew." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.4.5).

Most humans think about it

In the same manner, some have said that certain ancient peoples—other than the Greeks—were the first to explain the origin of the world and the gods. So, for example, the Egyptians—who ignoring the true form of the divinities symbolically represented them in the shape of animals—were known for having declared that matter was the first principle, establishing that the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) derived from it, and that all living species were produced after them. But the Egyptians considered the sun and the moon to be gods, and the universe as a sphere, both created and perishable. The stars, they said, were made of fire, and they believed that the moon is eclipsed when it falls into the earth's shadow, and that the soul survives death and is reborn. The Egyptians gave physical explanations to all other phenomena and so, for example, they believed that rain is caused by change in the atmosphere.

Some mythical accounts of the creation of the world
In the tables, descent is indicated by arrows from progenitors to offspring, and siblings are grouped in front of a shaded polygon.

In the Argonautica Orphica, attributed to Orpheus, Chronos (Time) was the first to exist.
According to Aristophanes (447-386 BC), Chaos, Nyx, Erebus and Tartarus were the first to exist, and an Egg laid by Nyx in Erebus gave birth to Eros, who caused all things to mingle.

Hesiod (ca. 750 BC) says that Chaos, a "Gaping Chasm," was the first to come into being, and after him came Gaia.

Hyginus (ca. AD 200) says that Mist existed before Chaos.
The generation of the gods is described by Plato (427-346 BC) as seen in this table; but the origin of the cosmos is philosophically explained by him, in the same work, as the result of the planned actions of a constructor or demiurge. The prominence of Oceanus is also confirmed by Hera, who speaks of him as being the progenitor of the gods: "For I am faring to visit the limits of the all-nurturing earth, and Oceanus, from whom the gods are sprung ..." (Hera to Aphrodite. Homer, Iliad 14.201).

Ovid (43 BC - AD 17), Metamorphoses 1.1:

First there was what men called Chaos: a rough unordered mass of things.
But God or Nature:
Rent asunder land from sky, and sea from land, and separated the ethereal heavens from the dense atmosphere. Then he set them each in its own place and bound them fast in harmony.
Moulded the earth into the form of a mighty ball and bade the waters to spread abroad, to rise in waves, and fling themselves around the shores of the encircled earth.
Then did he bid plains to stretch out, valleys to sink down, woods to be clothed in leafage and mountains to arise.
Cut the earth in zones: the central is hot, deep snow covers two, and two he placed in between and gave them a temperate climate.
Air being lighter than fire and water lighter than earth, the creator bade the mists and clouds to take their place in the air like winds, lightning and thunderbolts. But he divided the winds in order.
Then the stars began to gleam throughout the sky. So the stars occupied the floor of heaven, the sea fell to the fishes for their home, earth received the beasts, and air the birds.
Then man was born of his own divine substance, or perhaps the earth still retained some elements of its kindred sky. And though all animals fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to man an uplifted face and bade him stand erect and turn his eyes to heaven.

Flavius Philostratus, fl. c. AD 200:

According to certain traditions the cosmos is composed of four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. To these, some have added a fifth—ether—of which the gods are made; for, they say, just as mortal creatures inhale air, so do deities inhale the ether. The elements came into being simultaneously, and not one by one, just as living creatures are born complete, and not bit by bit. The universe is a living creature, neither male nor female, and through commerce with itself brings forth all creatures, fulfilling the role both of mother and father. This is so, they add, because this living creature (the universe) is possessed by a love for itself greater than the love that any creature can have for another. And this love knits the universe together in harmony. The universal creature shepherds itself, not with a single hand, but with many inscrutable ones, and great calamities occur, as a corrective, when justice is disowned by men. The creature appears to have been created by a supreme God; yet its many parts are governed by subordinate gods:

"... we may well assent to the statements of the poets, when they say that there are many gods in heaven and many in the sea, and many in the fountains and streams, and many round about the earth, and that there are some even under the earth." (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3.34-35).

Related sections Theogony, Underworld, The Children of the Myths, Chronos (Time)  

See above.