Creation Myths: Not Just Stories

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about creation myths. By calling them “myths” it allows us to overlook, dismiss, or ignore them. This is a mistake. We should think hard about what these myths do and how they work. They are not just quaint relics of a pre-scientific past. They are not just stories to be studied as folklore. The universality of such myths is telling us something important about what it means to be human. People apparently need creation myths. Why?

Artist: Tim Mietty

Though there are undoubtedly other reasons, one of the most important surely is orientation. People need to situate themselves in both time and space. Creation myths serve this need: they provide a temporal and spatial anchor. This anchoring effect serves as a powerful reminder that views are never from nowhere. All views are situated. Though philosophers may aspire to the view from nowhere (which is the equivalent of the view from everywhere) this is beyond the capacity and interest of most. This aside, the idealistic and detached view from nowhere surely is an impossibility. All views are from somewhere and in many cases that somewhere is found in creation myths.

Because having a view requires a viewer or agent, the next reason which comes to mind is identity. As individuals, our identities are constructed through memory. This is the autobiographical self. As groups, our identities are likewise constructed through memories. This is the autobiographical culture. Whether dealing with individual memories or group histories, the things that are recalled need not traffic in truth. Indeed, much of what we recall is false. The stories we tell are part fact and part fiction, with varying amounts of each. The important thing is to construct a relatively stable identity. Creation myths serve this need.

While reading about creation myths and origins stories I recently came across this passage written by Roger Lewin:

Every society for which there are records has its version of the “origin myth,” where myth is used to mean allegory, not just fantasy. The product of the unique curiosity of the human mind, origin myths nevertheless tell more than how a particular people might have got here. They encompass a view of the world that tells people how they should behave now they are here. Origin myths are prescriptive, not just descriptive. They present a microcosm of society, of the way men relate with women, of the way “real people” relate with “foreigners,” and of the place of humans in the world of nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that ever since there evolved in the human mind that unique quality of conscious, of reflective self-awareness, origin myths have been central to the intellectual lives of Homo sapiens everywhere.

This is surely correct. It partially explains the incredible staying power of the Edenic myth and why it is defended with such vehemence. For believers, it’s not simply a matter of literalism and the interpretive license which flows from metaphorical readings.

The Edenic myth provides an orientation and identity which evolution apparently doesn’t. This is not to say that human evolution can’t provide orientation or identity, only that some find it profoundly unsettling and distasteful. It is one thing to be made in the image of God, quite another to be an evolving primate. The ontology and metaphysics which attach to Eden are perhaps more comfortable than those which come out of evolutionary Africa.


Lewin, Roger (1988). Man’s Place in Nature The Missouri Review, 11 (3), 16-32

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7 thoughts on “Creation Myths: Not Just Stories

  1. Andrew

    Starting from the fact that a bunch of science ignorant people invented stories to satisfy their curiosity, it simply doesn’t follow that evolution is somehow less satisfying. To make this leap, we’re required to maintain several other assumptions.

    Not least of these is the other baggage and promises which are impossible to disentangle from the Edenic myth. The fact that almost all non-religious creation myths are no longer believed (and tend to be viewed as silly) actually argues against your point. Given the choice between evolution and ad hoc traditional creation myths, people tend to choose evolution. Given the choice between evolution and afterlife & wish fulfilling religious creation myths, the decision tends to be mediated by one’s culture. See U.S. vs. European statistics on evolution vs. creation for insight on this point.

    There are enough heuristics and cognitive biases tied up in this question to render the explanation provided above vastly oversimplified.

  2. Cris Post author

    I think these stories are invented to satisfy more than simple curiosity. You don’t think these stories are satisfying or do more psychological work than we typically suppose? Though good statistics on the issue surely are lacking, more people in the world believe creation myths than do evolution. I don’t even think the numbers are close. Aside from people living in small-scale societies, Christians, and Muslims (the usual suspects), large numbers of other people don’t accept evolution. Many Native Americans reject evolution for a host of reasons. Many Japanese reject evolution in favor of traditional creation myths. Many Indians reject evolution. Creation mythology is far more widespread than you think, and looking only at Western societies doesn’t do the issue justice. These kinds of stories are satisfying all kinds of needs, and I think we should ask why. Our own evolutionary origins stories may become better as a result.

  3. Andrew

    It’s not more widespread than I think. I fully recognize that creation myths span just about every culture anthropologists have looked at (though we could have a different conversation about the difference between hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and agricultural peoples). And… I’m certainly not limiting the analysis to Western civilization out of myopia. It just so happens that the European vs. U.S. evolution numbers alone refute your interpretation.

    Look at Stefansson’s account of Christian colonization of the Inuit. They basically abandon all of their myths simply because none of them promise eternal salvation.

    Isolating the creation myths among belief systems that are part of bundled world-views and are subject to myriad of other motivations (social in particular) is a flawed oversimplification.

  4. Cris Post author

    It is quite proper for me to isolate creation myths, most are not tied to salvation or any larger Weltanschauung. We have entire encyclopedias of creation myths (again, most of which aren’t tied to salvation). Here are my research questions: Why so many myths? Why are they so important to people? How do they function? What structure do they have?

    I am focusing on creation myths because they do psychological and cultural work. Have you read Misia Landau’s studies on storytelling in human evolution? Or Wiktor Stoczkowski’s work on the same subject?

    Just because educated or scientific people don’t take creation myths seriously these days, it doesn’t mean that origins storytelling has disappeared. In no field is such storytelling more prevalent than evolutionary psychology.

    I am interested, for the time being, in isolating creation myths so I can analyze the work they do, and then search for this kind of work (or structure) in the stories that paleoanthropologists tell about human evolution. I suspect that some forms of evolutionary storytelling occur because they speak to the same kinds of needs and do similar kinds of work.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    I suggest that Stefansson’s has it wrong. Mammals have a widespread instinct to defer to power, submit to the alpha. Psychologists identify in humans an ‘Authority Bias’ where we have a significant tendency to believe the statements of parents, professors and etc. To the Inuit, the Europeans had vastly superior access to food, tools, weapons, materials of all variety and in sheer numbers of people. European culture clearly held more authority, and was therefore more believable than their own elders or shaman.
    It was the authority of the messenger, not the appeal of the message that held sway.

  6. Sabio Lantz

    Indeed, this explains fierce defenses of the myths — it is as if both the attacker and the defender don’t know what is really at stake and thus they talk past each other.

    When is the new site coming? what happened to your buddy doing it? I want to follow these threads, but I can’t. Great blog! Well , it would be great with the ability to follow post’s threads. Can I ask Santa for that gift? :-)

  7. Michelle

    This is very interesting. I just recently came up in a situation about the beringia theory being bogus. I saw many native americans stating that why should they believe such a thing because they knew the true story of their origins which is their creation stories. Ok, I am Mexican and I am Native American as well but extremely educated and I find these creation myths to be a tad over done. While I love the idea of Native American myths I am kind of sad because I feel that this type of thinking may actually hold them back from accepting positive changes in their lives. My own people have many creation myths but I don’t find them to be realistic with all the advancements and technology and science perhaps it has gotten to me that I agree with it. Also the fact that I know the stories give these people a sense of identity particularly with all the negative history that has happened to them. It reassures them that they were here first.

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