More on cosmogonic myth

In a previous mention of creation mythology I neglected to point out what may not be obvious to some: that the dominant image for what preceded the physical universe as we know it is water. The KJV’s “form, and void” may be too Greek, but the following two clauses cannot be surpassed, either as myth or as poetry. In fact, when the Roman philosopher Longinus wrote his famous treatise On the Sublime, he cited the opening of the Hebrew Bible as Exhibit A:

And the earth was without form,
and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the breath of God moved upon
the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

– changing only the KJV’s Spirit to breath (ru’ah).

Now it goes almost without saying that this imagery has an ancient pedigree among dwellers of river-valley civilizations, for example among the worshippers of Marduk, among whom the exiled composers of the core of the Hebrew Bible found themselves. (This historical circumstance explains why, as many times as it surfaces in the non-historical books of the Bible, the primordial sea-monster mythos is expunged from the Genesis account. That would have been just too close to the Marduk religion for comfort.)

What is more interesting to me is how widespread this myth is, even among people who were swidden agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers. There is obviously a profound phenomenological basis for it: Earth is the Water Planet, after all. But the true connection undoubtedly is to the waters of the womb.

(Parenthetically, I suppose that the religious significance of shedding blood, as in the act of sacrifice or in holy war, is to mimic or in fact expropriate the birth-giving power of the divine feminine. I freely admit I am poorly read on this subject, however; I invite readers to correct me on this point. My only direct evidence for this substitution was something I recall from an interview with AIM leader Russell Means, where he described the Lakota Sun Dance as men’s attempt to experience something of the pain that women go through in giving birth, through the shedding of their own blood.)

How well the ancients may have anticipated modern, scientific theories of the origins of the universe or solar system is little more than a curiosity as far as I am concerned, being more agnostic than gnostic. But I have to admit it is pretty darn nifty that the notion of precipitation, of stuff kind of gelling, figures so prominently in Genesis and in its immediate antecedent:

When there was no heaven,
no earth, no height, no depth, no name,
when Apsu was alone,
the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat
the bitter water, and that
return to the womb, her Mummu, when there were no gods —

When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, featureless, then
from Apsu and Tiamat
in the waters gods were created, in the waters
silt precipitated . . .

– The Babylonian Creation, translated by N.K. Sandars in Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia (Penguin, 1971), 73.

Apparently – my source for this is Natural History magazine, sometime in the last two years – a new theory gaining currency is that the “original” Big Bang (a ridiculous and inaccurate term) may in fact have been, in some sense, a precipitation from within a larger Whatever, and that thus there may be many other universes like our own. But whatever. I am mainly interested here in the microcosmos, and the extent to which such formless Beginning may be conceived anew within the human soul.

One can apply the traditional Christian hermeneutic of allegory to the Old and New Testaments and come up with a myriad echoes of the original watery creation: Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the parting of the Jordan at the entry into Canaan, the baptism of Jesus. Not to mention numerous references to YHWH’s power as a sustainer of creation/civilization against the waters that are always threatening to break loose.

I encourage anyone interested in pursuing this topic to read Jon Levenson’s excellent Sinai and Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible (Harper, 1985). Referring to the extra-temporal dimension of the sacred, Levenson declares that “These great founding acts, which order reality, we shall call protological, that is to say, partaking of the nature of the beginning of things, on analogy with the term eschatological, which is commonly used by biblical scholars to describe the ‘last things,’ which occur at the ‘end of time.’ According to [B.S.] Childs [in Myth and Reality in the Old Testament], ‘the present world order established by a victory in the past does not continue automatically. It must be continually reactivated in the cult’ (103).”

Levenson goes on to stress that “The perception of time cannot be disengaged from the perception of space. In fact, the mythic symbols to be analyzed exist in radically different modes both of space and of time (p. 104).” This point is essential preparation for his discussion of Zion as the cosmic mountain.

At a secular level, Sinai and Zion should interest anyone who wants to understand how Jerusalem became such a charged place, a preeminent “world navel.” I close with a rabbinical midrash translated by Levenson (118): “The Holy One (blessed be he) created the world like an embryo. Just as the embryo begins at the navel and proceeds onwards from there, so the Holy One (blessed be he) began to create the word from its navel and from there it spread out in different directions.”

There’s no place like OM!

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