Judaic Greek and Roman Origin Myths and Essay

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Judaic, Greek, and Roman origin myths, and indeed, those who believe the former is representative of some divinely-inspired message would likely take offense at the notion that their god's story is suspiciously similar to the stories of other, mutually exclusive ideologies (or else argue that these latter stories are merely corrupted imitations of the "true" version). However, when considering the history of the cosmos as laid out in Genesis, Hesiod's Theogony, and Ovid's Metamorphoses, certain thematic and narrative similarities and correspondences become clear, such that one cannot take these three different stories as discrete objects, but rather companion pieces in the larger attempt to uncover the origins of human beings and the universe at a time when the scientific tools necessary to uncover those origins had not yet been dreamed up. Understanding this allows one to chart the connections between the stories in order to determine their universally shared elements, as well as understand how the ostensible differences between the stories, such as the contrast between the monotheistic belief of Genesis and the polytheism of the Greek and Roman stories, does not represent a fundamental difference so much as an extrapolation of roles; where the god of Genesis performs everything (almost) singlehandedly, in Hesiod and Ovid's work these actions are divided up amongst a pantheon. In particular, examining the state of the universe prior to creation, the different stages of creation, and the different role of gods within those stages reveals that these three creation myths are, if not descendant from some Ur-myth, at least reflect common elements of human thought and experience that seem to transcend culture and history.

Of the three myths discussed here, perhaps the most well-known is the story of Genesis, as it laid the groundwork for an ideological system that would eventually become the most powerful hegemonic and imperial force in the history of the planet Earth, from the Holy Roman Empire to the American "crusade" in the Middle East that continues to this day. The story begins by describing the state of existence prior to creation, and while the image presented is obviously logically and cosmologically problematic, as will be seen, it represents a tendency to describe a state of primordial existence common to all three myths discussed here. Before creation, "the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters," insinuating that the acts of creation that are about to unfold are representative not of universal creation, but rather creation within the framework of some preexisting, primordial state of being (Genesis 1:1-2). Recognizing this fact is important, because the way in which each creation myth characterizes this primordial existence reveals something crucial about the limits of human knowledge and thought.

While it is frequently argued by theists and non-theists alike that this section describes a state of formless non-being, this view is untenable considering the description of literal objects that exist, and furthermore, proposing a state of immaterial non-being is only necessary if one is attempting to make Genesis fit into the actual scientific knowledge humans have accumulated about the nature of the universe. Based on the acts of creation that follow, one can make some inferences about the characteristics of this primordial state. Firstly, there is no light or darkness, and because light and dark are intrinsically tied to night and day within the story, this means that there was no time prior to existence (Genesis 1:3-5). This is particularly interesting because although the notion of an eternal god is common to most forms of Judaic and Christian theology, the suggestion of an eternal universe is less so.

The description of this primordial, timeless state is obviously dependent upon a preconceived cosmological structure, because the wording of Genesis regarding the position of the earth and "the waters" suggests that the author was explaining the origin of cosmological features that his or her audiences would already assume to be in existence. Thus, when god says "let there be vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water," the author is inventing an reason for the creation of the commonly-believed description of the world at the time, which was the idea that the land actually sat atop a large body of water while another dome of water existed beyond the sky (even if contemporary religious readers have attempted to claim that this is a description of the atmosphere as it is now understood) (Genesis 1: 6). The goal of this is not to argue that literal or religious interpretations of Genesis misunderstand its cultural and historical context (even if they do), but rather to point out how Genesis serves to justify and explain its readers' already-held assumptions regarding the nature of the universe. This is necessary because it allows one to better understand the connections between Genesis and the other creation myths without having to pretend that any one of them has any actual connection to objective reality.

With this in mind, one can begin to note the similarities and connections between the three myths, and, as with creation, it is useful to start with the primordial, chaotic state of being. As mentioned above, Genesis suggests that the central elements of cosmology were already in place in this primordial state, because the earth and the waters were already there, even if they were unshaped and in darkness. Hesiod's Theogony includes a similar notion of the primordial state of the world, but as is common with polytheistic religions, personifies this notion into the actual character of Chaos, "born first" (Theogony 116). Here, Chaos is essentially the personification of the primordial state of being previously seen in Genesis, and the paradox he presents offers some insight into the problems faced by authors attempting to create internally consistent creation myths. Chaos is a kind of formless void, empty and all-encompassing, but because it is personified, one cannot get around the fact that there is something, even if that something is literally and figuratively nothing. Thus, Hesiod's Chaos reflects the human inability to imagine true nothingness; just as humans immersed in language cannot think outside of language, so too are humans immersed in a material world incapable of imagining the truly immaterial, regardless of the claims made by psychics, prophets, religious leaders, and all other manner of deluded individuals.

Ovid makes a similar claim about Chaos, but in this case attempts to provide a little more description as to the actual nature of Chaos. Ovid states that:

Before the seas and lands had been created,

before the sky that covers everything,

Nature displayed a single aspect only throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name, a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk and nothing more, with the discordant seeds of disconnected elements all heaped together in anarchic disarray. (Metamorphoses 1.6-13)

Ovid's description is interesting because he mirrors both Genesis and Hesiod with some slight differences. Most obvious, of course, is Ovid's description of Chaos as the "single aspect" in the cosmos, which mirrors Hesiod directly. However, where Hesiod simply states that Chaos is the first to exist and assumes that the reader is familiar with the term/name, Ovid goes into detail, arguing that all of the material elements of the universe were actually existent in Chaos, but were simply unformed and unbound, like a kind of super-fluid matter constantly moving through itself with no friction.

Ovid's description is actually closer to what most people might imagine Chaos to be, because although it is supposed to be nothingness incarnate, it is more helpful to imagine it as everything, albeit everything before it has been shaped into proper existence. Again, while the goal here is not to connect these myths to any actual cosmological evidence for the origin of the universe, one can perhaps understand Ovid's description of a "shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk" as akin to the singularity imagined to exist prior to the Big Bang, wherein all matter was contained before being "wrought" by the physical forces and laws that govern the interactions between particles (Metamorphoses 1.10). In Ovid's account, "shapes shifted constantly, / and all things were at odds with one another," giving Chaos an air of verdant potentiality rather than barren void (Metamorphoses 1.21-22).

Understanding Ovid's description of this primordial state of being helps one to better appreciate what makes Genesis' account of this primordial existence unique; namely, the fact that it separates its god from existence itself. That is to say, in both Ovid and Hesiod, Chaos is both god and creation, being born as the state of formless chaos while maintaining its existence as personified character, whereas in Genesis, both god and creation are presupposed to exist. This is largely a function of each story's logic, because whereas Ovid and Hesiod propose a finite origin for their gods, and thus their cosmology, Genesis suggests that its god and its primordial universe existed indefinitely prior to the creation acts described. This difference is most interesting because although it demonstrates…[continue]

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