Once a civilization has become established, the myths
that formed it may dwindle into superstition or
entertainment, but even so, they never lose their intrinsic
power. For the world's mythologies enshrine all the poetry
and passion of which the human mind is capable. From ancient
Egypt to Greece and Rome, from West Africa to Siberia, from
the Hindu concept of Brahman and the endless cycle of
creation to the eternal Dreaming of the Australian
Aboriginals, the same themes recur, as humankind engages
with the great mysteries of life and death. The best
definition of myth is Maya Deren's in her book on the Voodoo
gods: "Myth," she writes, "is the facts of the mind made
manifest in the fiction of matter."
The First People
This West African carving shows the world in the
form of a calabash, with the first man and woman
and the cosmic serpent. The Fon call this
serpent Aido-Hwedo, and he carried the creator
in his mouth when the world was made. Aido-Hwedo
is said to have accompanied the first man and
woman to earth.
What is Myth?
The word myth derives from the Greek mythos, signifying
"word" or "story". A myth has different meanings for the
believer, the anthropologist, the folklorist, the
psychologist, the literary critic. That is one of myth's
functions - to celebrate ambiguity and contradiction. There
is no more point expecting a myth to offer a single, clear,
consistent message than there is in trying to turn one of
Shakespeare's sonnets into plain prose. Like poetry,
mythology offers a way of understanding the world through
metaphor. Stories adapt and change according to the teller
and the context; myths are not fixed and dogmatic but fluid
The Eternal Wheel of Time
This Aztec calendar stone, found beneath the
central plaza of Mexico City, is a wheel of time
commemorating the five world creations, of which
the latest is the current world. The fifth sun,
Nahui Ollin, was made by the gods at Teotihuacan
(just north of modern Mexico City), which was
also the birthplace of the gods themselves. The
stone is not a fully-functioning calendar; the
complex Aztec calendar was based on a 52-year
cycle known as the calendar round, which
reconciled the concurrent 260-day and 365-day
Myth and Time
Many mythologies start before the dawn of time, with the
coming into consciousness of a creator god, such as the
Egyptian Re. Re himself is described as the awareness of an
all-encompassing divine being, Nebertcher, the lord without
Mythological time, unlike clock time, is cyclical rather
than linear. It presupposes what the writer Mircea Eliade
called "the myth of the eternal return". It is set going by
a particular event -in Egypt, the call of the Benu bird as
it alighted upon the first land. It will come to an end
eventually, and the cycle of creation will begin again.
The mythology of the Aztec and Maya, and of Native American
nations such as the Navajo, describes this world as being
the fifth one. For the Navajo, the first four worlds were
beneath this one, from which humanity climbed up in the myth
of the emergence. For the Aztec, four suns had shone on
previous creations before this, the world of the sun Nahui
Ollin, which is blown across the sky by the breath of the
The Maya believed that this current cycle of creation began
on August 13, 3114 ВС. Although they projected events
forward until at least AD 4772, they did not think it would
continue forever. Their sacred book, the Chilam Balam, tells
us: "All moons, all years, all days, all winds, reach their
completion and pass away. So does all blood reach its place
of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne. Measured
was the time in which they could praise the splendour of the
Trinity. Measured was the time in which they could know the
sun's benevolence. Measured was the time in which the grid
of the stars would look down upon them; and through it,
keeping-watch over their safety, the gods trapped within the
stars would contemplate them."
Even the dualistic philosophy of Zoroastrianism, with its
opposing gods of good and evil, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, was
set in motion when the god of eternal time, Zurvan, gave
birth to the twin gods.
Our notion of time, the limited time of creation, is merely
a trick of Ahura Mazda's to limit the power of Ahriman. At
the end of time, all will be purified, and - as in Norse
mythology - a fresh, new creation will arise.
Noah and the Flood
Noah's ark rides the flood after the
biblical deluge, in a wood-engraving from the
Nuremberg Bible of 1483. God decided to destroy
humanity because of its wickedness, but warned
the pious Noah of the coming flood, and told him
to build the ark and take on board two of every
living creature. After the ark had grounded on
Mount Ararat, God sent the rainbow as a symbol
of his covenant never again to destroy the
creatures he had made. Noah lived to be 950
" Epic of Gilgamesh"
Just as many mythologies look forward to the destruction of
this world in a catastrophe, such as the Norse cataclysm
called Ragnarok, so many record a time, within this
creation, when the gods grew angry with humankind, and
attempted to destroy them with a flood. The biblical story
of the delude is one of many such accounts, and owes much to
the Sumerian/Babylonian account in the
"Gilgamesh Epic ", in
which the Noah figure is named Utnapishtim.
The ancient Greeks told how Zeus tried to destroy mankind
with a flood, but Prometheus warned Deucalion and Pyrrha.
Manu was saved from the Hindu deluge Vishnu in the form his
fish avatar, Matsya. Flood myths can be found in Peru
and in China, among the Australian Aboriginals and in many
Native American cultures, including the Mandan myth of Lone
Man. Even in the 19th century, folklorists could still
collect in Serbia a cycle of Slavonic-myths about the great
flood from which the sole survivor Kranyatz was preserved by
the trickster god of wine, Kurent.
Vishnu the Preserver
Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi (or Shri) are
shown riding on their mount, the celestial bird
Garuda. Vishnu, the wide-strider", measured out
the cosmos in three strides. He is regarded as
the protector of the world, and because of his
compassion for humankind, descends to earth in
various avatar forms, such as Prince Rama, to
fight evil. Whenever Vishnu is incarnated, so is
Lakshmi, to be his bride. Here, Garuda is taking
the loving couple to their own heaven, Vaikuntha.
South Asian Literature:
"Hymns of the Samaveda"
illustrated version of
One thing that all mythologies agree on is that the world
was created by the deliberate act of a divine being, and
that men and women were created especially to live in it.
In the Mandan creation myth, First Creator and Lone Man send
a mud hen down to fetch sand from the bottom of the primeval
flood, in order to make the land. The Ainu of Japan tell how
the creator Kamui sent a water wagtail down from heaven to
accomplish the same task. According to the Yoruba people in
West Africa, the world was made when Obatala, the son of the
great sky god Olorun, threw earth from a snail shell, and
got a pigeon and a hen to scatter it. The supreme gods of
Africa tend, like Olorun, to withdraw from their creation
leaving the main work to their successors. In the original
myth preserved by the priests of the Fon skycult, it is the
androgynous deity Nana-Buluku who creates the world, and
then gives it into the keeping of his children Mawu and
Lisa; but Nana-Buluku is now almost forgotten, and the work
of creation credited to Mawu.
The Ashanti tell how the supreme god Onyankopon (or 'Nyame)
used to live near men, but moved to the top of the sky
because he was constantly annoyed by an old woman who used
to knock him with her pestle as she pounded yams in her
mortar. When the old woman realized what had happened, she
told all her children to gather mortars and pile them on top
of the other. At last they had a pile that nearly reached to
Onyankopon. They only needed one more mortar. So the old
woman told them to take the mortar from the bottom, and put
it on the top. When they did so, the whole pile collapsed,
killing them all. So the lesser gods, the abosom, act as
intermediaries between the sky god and humanity.
Often, as with the Yoruba god of fate, Eshu, such
intermediaries may be tricksters who introduce an element of
chance, play, and humour into humanity's relationship with
the gods. Obatala, the creator, is hymned by the Yoruba as
the father of laughter, who rests in the sky "like a swarm
of bees". The Mandans believe that First Creator actually
turned into the trickster god Coyote. Such tricksters, whose
mischief may lead them into wickedness, are found throughout
mythology, from the Greek Dionysus to the Norse Loki to the
But another theme is the Creator's care for the beings he
has made. It is this care that leads Vishnu, the Hindu
preserver of the world, to take on his many avatar
forms in order to help humanity in times of crisis. His
final avatar, Kalkin, the white horse, will appear at
the end of this era, to usher in a new age.
Neolithic Mother Goddess
The Venus of Willendorf, a stone figurine of a
fertility goddess found at Willendorf in
Austria, dates from the neolithic period. The
breasts and belly are deliberately exaggerated
in this representation of the great mother
The Great Mother
Creator gods tend to be male, but much of the work of
creation may be delegated to a goddess. Fоr example, among
the Keres of the American Southwest, Utsiti, the creator
god, who made the world from a clot of his own blood, sent
his daughter Iatiku with her sister to make the earth
fruitful. latiku sends her son to lead the people up into
this world, and then Iatiku and her sister sing a creation
song, all the while casting seeds and images of their song
out of a basket given them by Spider Woman. We still talk of
"mother earth". Native Americans consider this as a fact.
Smohalla, the Wanapam founder of the Dreamer religion in the
mid-19th century, said:
"You ask me to plow the ground!
Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I
die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to
dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones?
Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.
You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be
rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's
An Anglo-Saxon charm beseeches the favour of "Erce, Erce,
Erce, Mother of Earth" with similar fervour. Yet, despite
the obvious connection between agricultural and human
fertility, the earth is not
always female. The Egyptians, for example, worshipped Geb as
god of the earth, and his sister-bride Nut as the goddess of
Nowhere has worship of the eternal female been so strong as
in India, where various goddesses are worshipped under the
enveloping spell of Mahadevi, the great goddess. Devi is the
consort of the god Shiva, and is worshipped as benign
Parvati or Uma or as ferocious and vengeful Durga or Kali.
Sankara wrote of her in the 9th century, "Your hands hold
delight and pain. The shadow of death and the elixir of
immortal life are yours."
The combination of "delight and pain" is not confined to
India. The great goddess of ancient Mesopotamia, variously
called Ishtar and Inanna, also combined the roles of goddess
of love and goddess of war. These dual aspects are explored
in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which she first desires
Gilgamesh and then, when he rejects her, exacts a terrible
The Egyptian Isis became absorbed into Roman myth, and it is
she who speaks, with the unmistakable voice of the great
goddess, to Lucius, the hero of Apuleius' novel The Golden
Ass, when he is initiated into her cult: "I am Nature, the
universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial
child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of
the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single
manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are."
Nut, the Egyptian All-Mother
The Egyptian sky goddess Nut arches over the
earth in this ancient tomb painting. She is
about to swallow the evening sun, which is shown
again on her upper arm as it starts its
night journey. Nut became regarded as the mother
of all, for even the sun god Re entered her
mouth each night to travel through her body and
be reborn next morning. A
figure of Nut inside Egyptian coffin lids
promised the same nurture and rebirth for the
souls of the dead.
"Book of the Dead"
Holding the World Together
In the Mysteries of Eleusis in ancient Greece, the great
goddess formed the central focus of Greek religion. These
rituals, open only to the initiated, related to the myth of
the corn goddess Demeter, and her daughter Persephone, the
ineffable maiden. Those who witnessed the rites were assured
of a new birth in death. The Mysteries were thought by the
Greeks to "hold the entire human race together".
Such a belief illustrates the crucial importance of myth in
holding the world together, just as the cosmic serpent coils
securely around the earth in the Fon creation story.
Australian Aborginal stories about the Dreamtime, such as
the Gunwinggu story of Lumaluma, are not just entertainments
or nursery tales -they are sacred charters for existence. To
understand them fully one must enter eternal time. Similarly
the myths underlying Navajo rituals such as Mountainway, and
its sandpaintings of the Holy People, define and express
what it means to be Navajo. At the end of such a ritual,
"The world before me is restored in beauty." When Jasper
Blowsnake revealed the sacred Winnebago Medicine Rite to
anthropologist Paul Radin (published under the title The
Road of Life and Death), he was unveiling a mystery as
great and as secret as that of Eleusis. "Never tell anyone
about this Rite," ran the ritual. "Keep it absolutely
secret. If you disclose it the world will come to an end. We
will all die." The absolute secrecy required of initiates
into the Mysteries of Eleusis was so strictly kept that we
are left to guess from fragments of evidence both what the
rituals were and what they meant.
Triptolemus, Culture Hero
Triptolemus, who taught mankind how to use the
plough, stands between the two goddesses of the
Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter, and Persephone.
Demeter is handing him a golden ear of grain
(now lost). This marble relief of the second
half of the fifth century ВС was found at
Eleusis, probably in the temple of Triptolemus.
The Hero Heracles
This Greek vase shows Heracles killing the
Stymphalian Birds, the sixth of his 12 labours
in which he killed or captured several ogres and
monsters. Before performing the last of his
labours Heracles had to be initiated into the
Eleusinian Mysteries. On his death, he ascended
to Olympus to live with the gods.
Greek and Roman Myths
"THE AGE OF FABLE OR
STORIES OF GODS AND HEROES"
Berens E.M. "Myths and Legends of
Ancient Greece and Rome"
"Timeless Tales of
Gods and Heroes"
One of those fragments is the moment in the Demeter myth
when, having taken a position in a royal household while
searching for her daughter, the goddess places the royal
prince, her charge, into a divine fire to burn away his
mortal parts and give him eternal life, but is interrupted
before she can complete the ritual. The same incident occurs
in Egyptian mythology, when the goddess Isis becomes
nursemaid to a prince while searching for her husband,
Osiris. In the Egyptian story the prince dies, but in the
Greek, the boy, Triptolemus, became a benefactor of
humankind -a culture hero - when Demeter gave him corn, a
plough, and the knowledge of agriculture to teach to
humankind. Triptolemus had his own cult and temple at
The role of the gods in giving the gift of knowledge to
humankind is found in every mythology. Greek Prometheus,
Aboriginal Ancestors, Mandan Lone Man, Aztec Quetzalcoatl,
Polynesian Maui - all are revered for teaching us how to
live in the world.
Alongside such figures stand the heroes who teach us by
their example - their bravery, virtues, persistence and,
sometimes, their flaws. The exploits of the Greek heroes
such as Heracles
and Theseus, who are half-human, half-divine offer a pattern
after which the wholly human can model themselves. The
Indian story of Rama, still inspires the devotion of all
Hindus, and his story
has even been adopted as the national epic of Buddhist
The Celtic hero King Arthur is the centre of similar
legends, in which Celtic myth and the aspirations of
medieval Christendom meet.
Taoist myths of the Eight Immortals show how human beings
can aspire to the divine. In their search for perfection,
the Immortals earn not long life on earth, in linear time,
but everlasting life in heaven, in eternal time.
Sir Thomas Malory
"King Arthur and
of his Noble Knights"
"The Legends of King Arthur"
Hermod Descends to the Underworld
This 18th-century manuscript illustration shows
Hermod, the son of Odin, descending to the
underworld on Odin's eight-legged steed Sleipnir
to try to rescue his brother Balder, who had
been slain through the treachery of the god
Loki. Hel agreed to let Balder go if all the
world wept for him; but Loki refused. As a
result, the gods hunted Loki down and tied him
up in torment - but at Ragnarok, Loki will break
loose, and lead the hordes of the dead to war in
a ship made from dead men's nails.
Death and the Underworld
For most of humanity, the moment when linear time stops is
at death. All mythologies hold out the hope that was so dear
to the initiates of Eleusis, that there may be a new life
beyond this one. The Egyptians hoped to be reborn to live a
new life in the Field of Reeds, which was a perfected
version of the Egypt they knew. They were sustained in this
belief hy the daily rebirth of Re, the sun. The Vikings
believed that warriors who died in battle would feast in the
golden-roofed hall of Valhalla among the gods, before
fighting for Odin, the lord of hosts, in the final battle of
The Roman poet Virgil tells us how the hero Aeneas found his
father Anchises in the fields of Elysium in the underworld.
But when he tried to embrace him, he was as insubstantial as
air. When he then saw souls flocking to drink the water of
oblivion to forget their former lives, and be born again, he
asked Anchises what was happening. Anchises explained that
in the beginning the world was pure spirit, but we become
bound to life by love and fear. Only a few are able to rest
quiet in the afterlife, waiting for the circle of time to be
completed, when they will become pure spirit once more. Most
people hunger for the world again.
The Guarayu Indians of Bolivia tell of the soul's quest
after death, when it is faced with the choice of two paths
to reach Tamoi, the Grandfather, who lives in the west. One
is wide and easy, the other narrow and dangerous. The soul
must choose the hard path and overcome many trials before
reaching its destination and being welcomed and refreshed.
Once washed in Grandfather's restoring bath, the soul will
be young once more, and able to laugh, hunt, live, and love
once again in the land of the west.
Myths tell not only of what happens after death, but of how
death arrived in the world - according to the Zulus, it was
all a mistake. The Great One sent the Chameleon, Unwabu, to
tell people they would live forever, but he lingered, and
was passed by Intulo the Lizard, with the message that all
people must die. There are also stories of heroes who tried
to conquer death - Maui, Gilgamesh, the Mayan hero twins.
In his search for the secret of everlasting life, the
Sumerian hero Gilgamesh crosses the ocean of death in search
of Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of the great flood. But
Utnapishtim tells him: "There is no permanence. Do we build
a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for
all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep for
ever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? It is only the
nymph of the dragon-fly who sheds her larva and sees the sun
in his glory. From the days of old there is no permanence."
Utnapishtim's lesson is repeated in a haunting little Aztec
poem, addressed perhaps to the lord of life Quetzalcoatl,
who descended to the underworld to restore humanity to life:
"Can it be true that one lives on earth?
Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
Be it jade, it shatters.
Be it gold, it breaks.
Be it a quetzal feather, it tears apart."
In a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, the
great myths offer us wisdom and comfort to prepare us for
our own journey to the Grandfather, into the hands of the