BLS 300 – Visions of the Creation
July 9, 2010
Visions of Africa and the Near East
The study of mythology is not like the study of traditional literature, in that mythology speaks about the life and culture of an entire people, the reasons for their behavior and customs; it addresses those age-old questions such as “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is our purpose in life?” These questions regard themes greater than ourselves, what can be called a sacred reality, whereas literature typically only addresses a small window of the greater whole that is human comprehension. In order to better understand a particular culture we look to their myths. In order to better understand how a particular culture views their sacred reality or how they address those fundamental questions, we look to their myths regarding the creation of the world and all things in it.
Some of the oldest cultures from which we have examples of creation myths are those of Africa. The tribes in Africa lived (and to some extent still live) very simple lives. Their societies were small, not much more than large family units; they were predominantly agrarian villages who focused on farming and raising animals for food. From these cultures we have some of the simplest creation myths, such as the Hottentot’s “The Supreme Being” which describes “the first Khoikhoib, from whom all the Khoikhoi tribes took their origin” (Sproul 34). In this brief tale we are told of the great things that this first man did, of the gifts he provides mankind with, that he lives in “beautiful heaven”. In this tale, Tsui||goab is the Divine Being, he is God, and his gifts to the people show that they are special, raised above the rest of the natural world because he was once one of them.
In the Hottentot story, we are shown that mankind and God are connected, that mankind is raised above the rest of the natural world, and that God does not live among mankind even though they are his people. Other creation myths of the African tribal religions contain these same details, such as the Barotse tale “God Retreats to the Sky”. In this tale the Supreme Being is Nyambi, who “made all things” (Sproul 35), and mankind is begun from the one creations that was different from the others, Kamonu. Nyambi grows angry with Komonu when he forgets his place among the natural world, begins hunting God’s other creations instead of working the land, and this eventually drives God away. Again we see mankind, in the figure of Kamonu, who is a special creation of God, Nyambi, and that God is once again separated from mankind, this time by the actions of man.
Both the Hottentot and Barotse stories show a sacred reality in which mankind is considered something higher than the natural world, and where God is not present and not part of everyday life. A third tale that describes this vision is the story “The Separation of God from Man” from the Krachi peoples of Togo. In this story, all of creation existed in harmony once. Wulbari, the Divine Being in this case, and mankind lived together, but in time mankind “annoyed” Wulbari and he left to a place “Where one can admire him but not reach him” (Sproul 75). Once more we see a people who were favored by the divine, where God and man were once very close but mankind’s behavior caused a separation between them, and now mankind must live alone.
In each of these stories, as well as others, we see evidence of similarities in the African tribal religions’ answers to the questions of “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” and “What is our purpose?” Their myths speak of a vision which tells them they as a people are a special creation of God, one that is part of the natural world yet held above it, who works within the natural world, tending it as a shepherd tends his flock; it also describes a vision where God exists but is unreachable.
Where the African vision keeps mankind very grounded in the natural world despite being considered a special creation, the visions of the Near East seem to assert mankind’s own divine nature, and separates man from the rest of the natural world. Even the Egyptian nations’ sacred reality indicates the divinity of mankind, though their vision is different from the rest of the Near East visions in that there remains a relationship with the natural world that is not apparent in most other Near East cultures.
One the most well known visions of the creation in the Near East is the Christian mythology of Genesis 1:2-4 (Sproul 122). In this vision God creates the natural world, beginning with a watery earth, and the heavens above. Then he creates landmasses, and creatures to inhabit it. Finally, God creates man “in his own image” (Sproul 124), which not only symbolize the idea that mankind is something higher than the rest of the world as in the African visions, but is in fact divine. God gave man “dominion” over the natural world, and tells him to “subdue it” (Sproul 124). This part of the Christian mythology certainly answers the questions “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” The answers to those questions in the Christian vision are “We are God’s Children.” and “We are here to do God’s will.”
Another common vision in the Near Eastern is the duality of good and evil which injects morality in the mythologies of the Near Eastern visions. This is seen in the Christian mythology in the personage of Satan, but is more explicitly expressed in the Gnostic Tale “The Creation According to Mani.” This myth of creation describes existence as a constant battle between the forces of good and evil. In this story, mankind is created by Darkness, but in the image of the diving Light, while the flora and fauna of the natural world are created by the emissions of Darkness and its Daughters. This vision too asserts mankind’s divinity, because mankind in the Gnostic view is created of the Light, even though it is created by the Darkness. The battle between good and evil tells us that mankind’s place is to do the work of the Light, to ascend, not to fall into Darkness’ grasp.
We see evidence of the divinity of man also in the readings from the Islamic faith, especially in the reading “The Koran, Sura XVI – The Bee”. In this myth depicting the creation of the world, once again we are told that God created mankind, and that in God’s eyes mankind is held above the rest of the world of his creation. All things, including the animals of the lands, the rain, the winds, and the plants, God created “by his behest” for mankind to use; all things are gifts given to mankind, yet even with those gifts mankind is expected to “give thanks” (Sproul 153). The Islamic culture still sees mankind as created as a special creature, with a divine element and purpose to oversee the rest of the natural world.
So in the Near Eastern sacred realities we see evidence that mankind is not only considered above the natural world but is considered divine, carrying within them a tiny piece of God. In being a special creation of God, mankind is expected to obey God’s will, as both the Koran and the Bible mythologies show. In the Near Eastern mythologies there is also a commonality in the existence of a duality, of good and evil, and that mankind must struggle to please god by resisting the temptations of evil. These things are common to most of the mythologies of this region.
There are some common visions between the Near East and African views. The idea that God is separate from mankind at all exists in both regions’ mythologies, as is the idea of mankind being a special creation of God, created with a purpose rather than as a part of the whole of the world. The differences – things such as the divinity of man, the imagery of good and evil warring against one another, and man’s dominion over the natural world as are seen in Near Eastern mythologies, and the importance of the natural world as is seen in African mythologies – do not preclude there being common threads that link both of these visions. Their stories may have changed, but the core details remained the same. Those changes came about because of the changes in the world the cultures existed in, reflecting the lives of the people that developed their mythologies. It is therefore clear to me that while regional differences do exist, the core belief of the importance of man has not changed, which serves as a link between the two region’s sacred realities.