Types of Origin Myths

Although origin myths are quite varied, they can be grouped into types. The origin myth of the Cubeo people of Colombia presents the world as always having existed, without a specific origin event, but most myths include a beginning time or event. Several cultures believe that in the beginning was a "cosmic egg," which either breaks like a familiar bird's egg to let forth a creator god (the Chinese Pan Gu, the Polynesian Ta'aroa, or the Hindu Prajapati) or is itself laid by a deity and hatches into elements of the universe. The myth of the Pelasgians of ancient Greece, for example, featured a cosmic egg laid by the goddess Eurynome, which hatched into the sun, moon, and stars as well as plants and animals (Leeming and Leeming 1994).

The beginning period might be a time of chaos, usually watery and dark, with supernatural beings emerging from a void. Perhaps reflecting a normal human preference for order and predictability over disorder and chaos, many origin myths attempt to explain how an orderly, understandable world emerged from frightening, formless disorder. Many traditions, such as that of the Native American Hopi people, speak of a time when human beings lived underground and emerged to the upper world when led there by a spirit figure or god. Many origin myths describe the creation of Earth as resulting from the dismembering of a god or previous spirit: the Norse god Odin creates the mountains, seas, and other geographical features from the body of the slain giant Ymir; the Babylonian god Marduk creates the world from the body of the slain mother figure Tiamat.

The origin myths of North American Indian groups frequently include the earth-diver motif, in which a god or messenger is commanded to dive into the formless waters and bring up mud or silt, which is made into dry land. Earth-diver myths are common, ranging from Eastern Europe throughout Asia and into North America. The motif is even found in some Melanesian tribes of the Pacific.

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