The Golden Chain
Long ago, well before there were any people, all life existed in the sky. Olorun lived in the sky, and with Olorun were many orishas. There were both male and female orishas, but Olorun transcended male and female and was the all-powerful supreme being. Olorun and the orishas lived around a young baobab tree. Around the baobab tree the orishas found everything they needed for their lives, and in fact they wore beautiful clothes and gold jewelry. Olorun told them that all the vast sky was theirs to explore. All the orishas save one, however, were content to stay near the baobab tree.
Obatala was the curious orisha who wasn't content to live blissfully by the baobab tree. Like all orishas, he had certain powers, and he wanted to put them to use. As he pondered what to do, he looked far down through the mists below the sky. As he looked and looked, he began to realize that there was a vast empty ocean below the mist. Obatala went to Olorun and asked Olorun to let him make something solid in the waters below. That way there could be beings that Obatala and the orishas could help with their powers.
Touched by Obatala's desire to do something constructive, Olorun agreed to send Obatala to the watery world below. Obatala then asked Orunmila, the orisha who knows the future, what he should do to prepare for his mission. Orunmila brought out a sacred tray and sprinkled the powder of baobab roots on it. He tossed sixteen palm kernels onto the tray and studied the marks and tracks they made on the powder. He did this eight times, each time carefully observing the patterns. Finally he told Obatala to prepare a chain of gold, and to gather sand, palm nuts, and maize. He also told Obatala to get the sacred egg carrying the personalities of all the orishas.
Obatala went to his fellow orishas to ask for their gold, and they all gave him all the gold they had. He took this to the goldsmith, who melted all the jewelry to make the links of the golden chain. When Obatala realized that the goldsmith had made all the gold into links, he had the goldsmith melt a few of them back down to make a hook for the end of the chain.
Meanwhile, as Orunmila had told him, Obatala gathered all the sand in the sky and put it in an empty snail shell, and in with it he added a little baobab powder. He put that in his pack, along with palm nuts, maize, and other seeds that he found around the baobab tree. He wrapped the egg in his shirt, close to his chest so that it would be warm during his journey.
Obatala hooked the chain into the sky, and he began to climb down the chain. For seven days he went down and down, until finally he reached the end of the chain. He hung at its end, not sure what to do, and he looked and listened for any clue. Finally he heard Orunmila, the seer, calling to him to use the sand. He took the shell from his pack and poured out the sand into the water below. The sand hit the water, and to his surprise it spread and solidified to make a vast land. Still unsure what to do, Obatala hung from the end of the chain until his heart pounded so much that the egg cracked. From it flew Sankofa, the bird bearing the sprits of all the orishas. Like a storm, they blew the sand to make dunes and hills and lowlands, giving it character just as the orishas themselves have character.
Finally Obatala let go of the chain and dropped to this new land, which he called "Ife", the place that divides the waters. Soon he began to explore this land, and as he did so he scattered the seeds from his pack, and as he walked the seeds began to grow behind him, so that the land turned green in his wake.
After walking a long time, Obatala grew thirsty and stopped at a small pond. As he bent over the water, he saw his reflection and was pleased. He took some clay from the edge of the pond and began to mold it into the shape he had seen in the reflection. He finished that one and began another, and before long he had made many of these bodies from the dark earth at the pond's side. By then he was even thirstier than before, and he took juice from the newly-grown palm trees and it fermented into palm wine. He drank this, and drank some more, and soon he was intoxicated. He returned to his work of making more forms from the edge of the pond, but now he wasn't careful and made some without eyes or some with misshapen limbs. He thought they all were beautiful, although later he realized that he had erred in drinking the wine and vowed to not do so again.
Before long, Olorun dispatched Chameleon down the golden chain to check on Obatala's progress. Chameleon reported Obatala's disappointment at making figures that had form but no life. Gathering gasses from the space beyond the sky, Olorun sparked the gasses into an explosion that he shaped into a fireball. He sent that fireball to Ife, where it dried the lands that were still wet and began to bake the clay figures that Obatala had made. The fireball even set the earth to spinning, as it still does today. Olorun then blew his breath across Ife, and Obatala's figures slowly came to life as the first people of Ife.
David A. Anderson/Sankofa, 1991, The Origin of Life on Earth: An African Creation Myth: Mt. Airy, Maryland, Sights Productions, 31 p. (Folio PZ8.1.A543 Or 1991)
This story comes from the Menominee or Menomoni people of northern Wisconsin. The Menominee derived much of their food from the sturgeon that came into the Menominee River and Wolf River each year to spawn. When forced to accept life on a reservation by the U.S. government, the tribe chose a reservation on the Wolf River so that they could continue their way of life. However, in 1892 a dam was built downstream, and the sturgeon have since been barred from coming upstream. A Sturgeon Ceremony is still held each year, but only with sturgeon hauled from downriver.
The Menominee and Manabush
When Mashé Manido, the Great Spirit, first made the earth, he also created a large numbers of manidos or spirits. Some of these spirits were benevolent, but many were malevolent, and they went to live beneath the earth. Kishä Manido, the Good Spirit, was one of these spirits. He took a bear who lived near where the Menominee River flows into Green Bay and Lake Michigan and allowed the bear to change his form. The Bear, pleased at this gift from the Good Spirit, came out of the ground and changed into the first human.
Bear found himself alone and called to an eagle to join him. The eagle descended from the sky and took the form of a human too. Bear and Eagle were deciding whom else to ask to join them when a beaver came by and asked to join their tribe. Beaver too became a human and, as a female, became the first woman. When Bear and Eagle came to a stream, they found a sturgeon, and Sturgeon became part of their tribe as well. It is from these early people that the Bear, Eagle, and Sturgeon clans of the Menominee originated.
One day when Bear was going up a river, he got tired and stopped to rest. As he was talking to a wolf, a crane flew up to them. Bear asked the crane to fly him up the river, promising to take Crane into his tribe in return. As Crane and Bear were leaving, Wolf asked if he could join them, both for the trip and in their tribe. Crane took both of them on his back and flew them up the river, and this is how the Crane and Wolf clans came into the tribe of Menominee people.
Bear took the name Sekatcokemau. He built the first wigwam for his people, and built a canoe so that he and his people could catch fish like sturgeon. The Good Spirit provided the people with corn, and with medicinal plants. However, the Good Spirit realized that the Menominee were afflicted by hardship and disease from the malevolent spirits. To help his people, the Good Spirit sent his kindred spirit Manabush down to earth.
Once there was an old woman named Nokomis who had an unmarried daughter, and the daughter gave birth to twin boys. One of the boys and his mother died. Nokomis wrapped the surviving boy in dry grass and put him under a wooden bowl to protect him while she buried the other boy and his mother. When she returned, she picked up the bowl and found a little white rabbit. She raised the rabbit, and he became the Great Rabbit, which is "Mashé Wabösh" in Menominee, or "Manabush".
When Manabush came of age, he had his grandmother make two drum sticks with which he drummed to call the people together to a long wigwam he had built. He taught them many useful things and gave them powerful medicines to cure diseases. He gave them medicine bags that were made of the hides of mink and weasel and rattlesnake and panther. From that first meeting comes the Grand Medicine Society of the Menominee today.
Manabush went on to accomplish many great feats for his people. Once there was a great water monster who killed many people, especially fishermen. Manabush let the monster eat him and then stabbed it from inside and killed it. To get his people fire, Manabush went far to the east across the water to the wigwam of an old man and his daughters. The daughters found a little rabbit shivering outside their wigwam and took it in to warm it by their fire. Manabush grabbed an ember from the fire and fled back with it across the water, bringing fire to his people. Once he climbed a mountain and stole tobacco from a giant who kept it there, and he had to flee from the giant to bring tobacco back to his people. As he fled, he hid himself just before a cliff, and the giant ran past him and over the cliff. When the giant climbed back up the cliff, bleeding and bruised, Manabush grabbed him and threw him to the ground, making him the grasshopper that today can only chew at the tobacco plants in the fields.
Once Manabush was out hunting and deceived some birds into singing with him. When they were close, he caught a swan and a goose on a sand bar and killed them for his dinner. However, by then he was tired, so he buried the birds up to their necks in sand, built a fire around them to cook them, and lay down to take a nap. When he awoke, he was hungry, and so he went to get his cooked birds. When he pulled at the necks, he came up with the heads and necks, but the bodies of the birds were missing. He ran out on the sand bar just in time to see people in canoes disappearing around a point of land. Realizing they had stolen his meal, he ran after them yelling "Winnebago! Winnebago!", which is the name the Menominee have used ever since for their thievish neighbors to the south.
Walter James Hoffman, 1890, Mythology of the Menomoni Indians: American Anthropologist, p. 243-258, reprinted by Judd and Detweiler, Washington, D.C., 1890. (Mfc E151.P350 I 311). A shorter version of this story and other versions can be found at http://www.menominee.nsn.us or via http://www.menominee.edu .
This story comes from the Mossi people. Before the colonization of Africa, the Mossi lived in the Mogho kingdom, which today would be in Upper Volta. The story was first written down by Frederic Guirma, who learned it from his Mossi ancestors.
The Naba Zid-Wendé
In the beginning there was no earth, no day or night, and not even time itself. All that existed was the Kingdom of Everlasting Truth, which was ruled by the Naba Zid-Wendé. The Naba Zid-Wendé made the earth, and then they made the day and the night. To make the day a time to be busy, they made the sun, and to make the night a time of rest, they made the moon. In doing so, they made time itself.
At first the earth was covered with fire, but the Naba Zid-Wendé blew on the earth to cool the fire. They ordered the fire to live inside the earth, so that the surface would be safe for the humans they were going to make. Only very resentfully did the fire go into the earth.
First the Naba Zid-Wendé made a chameleon, to see if the earth's outer crust would hold it up. When the crust held it up, the Naba Zid-Wendé made snakes to crawl on the earth, to see if it was cool enough to live on. When the snakes did not complain about their bellies, the Naba Zid-Wendé made the large animals, the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the buffalo. The crust was strong enough to hold up even them, and so the crust was solid and cool.
Finally the Naba Zid-Wendé were ready to create humans. They made them very black, because black is a strong color, and to make them different from the sun, which is red, and from the moon, which is white. The Naba Zid-Wendé used their breath to blow a soul into the humans that they had made.
The smile of the Naba Zid-Wendé at their human creations became the sky, and they hung the sky so low that humans could reach it and eat it for their food. They made stars out beyond the sky, and they made many other wonderful things for their humans. The humans nonetheless became arrogant and suspicious, and the humans began to claim that the Naba Zid-Wendé had hidden something valuable from them under the mountains. The humans dug under the mountains, but they only found a leper living there, and they let the leper go free from his subterranean prison.
This leper, however, was really the fire, and he soon burst into flames. Still angry at the Naba Zid-Wendé and jealous of the humans, the fire was evil, and it burned the sky. The sky withdrew in pain, and withdrew all the way beyond the stars, back to the Kingdom of Everlasting Truth.
No longer could the humans get their food from the sky � their arrogance had ended that. The Naba Zid-Wendé nonetheless made clouds and rivers and streams to keep the earth wet, and they made plants for humans to have food and trees that produce fruit for them. They made flowers to make the earth beautiful, and made the scents of the flowers to provide the smell of life.
The humans, however, multiplied and became more and more arrogant. To wash away the arrogance, the Naba Zid-Wendé made a big blue lake in which the humans should bathe. The humans were too busy to come to the lake, however, and that gave the evil fire time to throw hatred and envy in the lake. Only when the Naba Zid-Wendé sent the sun to dry up the lake did the humans finally go there to bathe. The first group that went in bathed in the waters of hatred and division, and they came out white from head to toe. The second group that went in come out yellow from head to toe. The same happened to third group that went in, except that they came out copper-red. By the time the last group went in, only a little water was left from the sun's efforts to dry up the lake, and the last group could only wash their hands and feet. They came out with soles and palms of white, yellow, or red, but the rest of their bodies were still black.
The Naba Zid-Wendé came to earth later to see what they had created, and they were shaping one last animal out of a lump of clay as they came. The plants and animals celebrated the coming of the Naba Zid-Wendé, but the human races were too busy dividing up the land and enslaving each other to notice. The Naba Zid-Wendé were so sad to see what the humans were doing that they forgot their last creation, until it cried out to be given a head, legs, and a tail. The Naba Zid-Wendé sadly finished their lump of clay, which is why the turtle has the shape it has.
Frederic Guirma, 1971, Tales of Mogho: New York, Macmillan, 113 p.
This story is a synthesis of three stories from classical Chinese mythologiy. The stories come from The Classic of Mountains and Seas, an anthology of stories collected in the first century B.C. that were nearly as ancient then as the anthology seems to us today.
Pan Gu and Nü Wa
Long, long ago, when heaven and earth were still one, the entire universe was contained in an egg-shaped cloud. All the matter of the universe swirled chaotically in that egg. Deep within the swirling matter was Pan Gu, a huge giant who grew in the chaos. For 18,000 years he developed and slept in the egg. Finally one day he awoke and stretched, and the egg broke to release the matter of the universe. The lighter purer elements drifted upwards to make the sky and heavens, and the heavier impure elements settled downwards to make the earth.
In the midst of this new world, Pan Gu worried that heaven and earth might mix again; so he resolved to hold them apart, with the heavens on his head and the earth under his feet. As the two continued to separate, Pan Gu grew to hold them apart. For 18,000 years he continued to grow, until the heavens were 30,000 miles above the earth. For much longer he continued to hold the two apart, fearing the retun of the chaos of his youth. Finally he realized they were stable, and soon after that he died.
With the immense giant's death, the earth took on new character. His arms and legs became the four directions and the moutains. His blood became the rivers, and his sweat became the rain and dew. His voice became the thunder, and his breath became the winds. His hair became the grass, and his veins became the roads and paths. His teeth and bones became the minerals and rocks, and his flesh became the soil of the fields. Up above, his left eye became the sun, and his right eye became the moon. Thus in death, as in life, Pan Gu made the world as it is today.
Many centuries later, there was a goddess named Nü Wa who roamed this wild world that Pan Gu had left behind, and she became lonely in her solitude. Stopping by a pond to rest, she saw her reflection and realized that there was nothing like herself in the world. She resolved to make something like herself for company.
From the edge of the pond she took some mud and shaped it in the form of a human being. At first her creation was lifeless, and she set it down. It took life as soon as it touched the soil, however, and soon the human was dancing and celebrating its new life. Pleased with her creation, Nü Wa made more of them, and soon her loneliness disappeared in the crowd of little humans around her. For two days she made them, and still she wanted to make more. Finaly she pulled down a long vine and dragged it through the mud, and then she swung the vine through the air. Droplets of mud flew everywhere and, when they fell, they became more humans that were nearly as perfect as the ones she had made by hand. Soon she had spread humans over the whole world. The ones she made by hand became the aristocrats, and the ones she made with the vine became the poor common people.
Even then, Nü Wa realized that her work was incomplete, because as her creations died she would have to make more. She solved this problem by dividing the humans into male and female, so that they could reproduce and save her from having to make new humans to break her solitude.
Many years later, Pan Gu's greatest fear came true. The heavens collapsed so that there were holes in the sky, and the earth cracked, letting water rush from below to flood the earth. At other places, fire sprang forth from the earth, and everywhere wild beasts emerged from the forests to prey on the people. Nü Wa drove the beasts back and healed the earth. To fix the sky, she took stones of many colors from the river and built a fire in which she melted them. She used the molten rock to patch the holes in the sky, and she used the four legs of a giant turtle to support the sky again. Exhausted by her labors, she soon lay down to die and, like Pan Gu, from her body came many more features to adorn the world that she had restored.
Jan Walls and Yvonne Walls (translators and editors), 1984, Classical Chinese Myths: Hong Kong, Joint Publishing Company, 135 p. (BL1825.C48 1984)
A note on the next two stories:
The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, is known to modern readers from the Masoretic text, a compilation of Hebrew texts assembled by Jewish scholars in the seventh to tenth centuries A.D. from older scrolls and codices. That text, and thus the Old Testament, contain two creation stories. It is not unusual for cultures to have multiple creation stories, and throughout this booklet the paraphrases have melded two or more variations of a culture's creation story into one. However, because the two stories in the Old Testament are so different, the two stories are recounted separately here as "Yahweh" and then "The Elohim".
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This creation story is from Genesis 2:4 to 3:24 of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. Extensive analysis of its style and content have led scholars of the Bible to conclude that the story was written in about the Tenth Century B.C.. That was around the time of King Solomon's reign and in a time when Israel was a powerful nation. In contrast, the story in Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 was written three or four centuries later and under very different circumstances.
The author of the story in Genesis 2:4 to 3:24 is known to scholars as "J". That is because J referred to the creator as Yahweh ( or "YHVH" in ancient Hebrew, or "Jahweh" in the German native to many scholars of the Bible, or ultimately "Jehovah" in modern usage). The paraphrase below maintains J's use of the Hebrew name "Yahweh" rather than the English word "God". The latter is, after all, only a derivative of the German word "Gott" and is in no way tied to the Hebrew language of the Old Testament or even the Greek of the New Testament.
Some scholars have considered J the more primitive or rural of the two authors of the creation stories in Genesis. Others are more generous and characterize J as a poet rather than a priest. J was probably recording his or her people's oral traditions in written form. Certainly J's story is a more human story of temptation and punishment than the austere story written later by the author known as "P", and J's creator is more anthropomorphic.
In J's story, the humans that are created have names. To English speakers, "Adam" and "Eve" are just names, but "Adam" meant "man" in ancient Hebrew and may also have been a play on "adamah", the Hebrew word for "earth" or "clay". "Eve" was the word for "life".
On the day that Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the land was dry and barren until a mist came up from the earth and wetted the land. Then Yahweh took dust from the earth and shaped it into the form of a man, and he breathed life into that form, and it came to life.
Yahweh created a garden in a place called Eden. In this garden Yahweh placed all the trees that bear fruit, including the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden and watered the garden, and there it divided to become four rivers that flow to the four corners of the world. Yahweh put the man there and instructed him to cultivate the garden and to eat of whatever fruit he liked, except for fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Then Yahweh decided that the man should not be alone, and that he should have a helper. Thus Yahweh made the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and the man gave a name to each of them. However, none were fit to be his helper, so Yahweh made the man fall into a deep sleep and took one of the man's ribs, and he made it into a woman. This man was Adam, and the woman's name was Eve.
In the garden was a snake, and the snake persuaded the woman that she could eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil without dying, and that eating the fruit would give her Yahweh's knowledge of good and evil. She ate the fruit, and she gave some to the man too. For the first time they were ashamed of being naked, and so they made aprons for themselves.
When the man and woman heard Yahweh in the garden, they hid from him, but Yahweh called them out and asked why they had hidden. The man explained that they hid because of their scanty clothing. Yahweh asked the man how they knew to be ashamed of nudity, and if they had eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The man explained that the woman had eaten of the fruit and given him some too. When Yahweh asked the woman, she explained that the snake had beguiled her into eating the fruit.
Yahweh said to the snake, "Because of what you have done, you are cursed more than any other animal, and you will have to crawl on your belly in the dust, and you will be beaten by the offspring of this woman". To the woman Yahweh said, "You will be cursed with great pain in giving birth to children, yet you will have the desire to reproduce, and your husband will rule you." Finally, to the man Yahweh said, "Because of what you have done, the ground is cursed and you will never eat of this fruit again. You will grow plants and fields and eat bread until you die, until you become the dust from which you were made."
Then Yahweh said, "This man has become like us, knowing good and evil - next he will seek the tree of life and try to live forever." Therefore Yahweh made the man and woman clothing and drove them out of the Garden of Eden, and he placed a winged half-human, half-lion creature at the Garden's gate to keep them out.
Sources: See the list after the next story.
This, the second of our two Hebrew creation stories, is from Genesis 1:1 to 2:3. It thus appears first in the Hebrew Bible's Book of Genesis, but it is actually the younger of the two stories presented there. A considerable body of scholarship over the last two or three centuries has concluded that this story was written in about the sixth century B.C.. That was after Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and at a time when the Hebrews were faced with exile in Babylon.
The author of this later story is known to scholars as "P", because he or she wrote from a much more "priestly" perspective than J, the author of the chronologically earlier story that appears in Genesis 2:4 to 3:24 (see "Yahweh", above). P's story is one of creation ex nihilo (from nothing), and the creation is a much more stately process than that in J's story. Because of the timing of its writing and the grandeur of its language, P's story has been interpreted by scholars "as an origin story created for the benefit of a lost nation in the need of encouragement and affirmation" (Leeming and Leeming 1994, p. 113). In fact, some scholars have suggested that P's story was actually written in Babylon.
P used the name "Elohim" for the creator, and that usage is continued in the paraphrase below. "Elohim" ( , pronounced "e lo HEEM") is actually a plural word perhaps best translated as "the powerful ones". P also used plural phrasing in the Elohim's creation of humankind "after our own likeness". Scholars have suggested that the use of the plural "Elohim" rather than the singular "Eloha" may hearken back to polytheistic roots of Middle Eastern religions and was a way to emphasize the magnitude of the deity in question. P's first people have no names at all, in keeping with the story's focus on the grandeur of the creator rather than on the created.