Ancient Cultural Visions of Genesis

Ancient Cultural Visions of Genesis

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Every culture has its own cosmogony. The stories  of genesis are perhaps the first great scientific theories. For they attempt to answer the basic question: How did the universe come about? We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of the major world religions, we tend to forget that other cultures have had their views also. Thus, according to  Tlingit Amerindian views, the Yehl (raven) was involved in cosmic-creation. He is the one who gave humanity knowledge of fire. He dissipated the pristine fog by merely flapping his wings,  as a result of which lands first appeared. After this, he created the sun and the moon. The Algonkin Indians  thought that it was Michabo, the Great Hare, who created the earth and the sun and the moon, and taught the first humans many arts. The Incas called the creator simply Pachacamac: animator of the world, a God who was in Peru even before the rise of the Incas. Archeologists have unearthed pyramidic places of worship dedicated to him. For some Polynesians, the peerless Tangaloa who fathered fishes and reptiles, was the author of the world. One may go on and on, reviewing the staggering array of visions by which thinking and creative minds  have spoken of the primordial Genesis from the most ancient times. Egyptians and Babylonians, Greeks, Israelites, Hindus, Hittites and Arabs, all reflected on the question.

Chinese thinkers did not imagine an animal or an almighty God, but a superhuman architect to have done the job. This grand engineer is said to have been born of a Cosmic Egg a quarter of a million years ago. His name was P’an Ku, and he worked hard for 18,000 years to accomplish the task. The ancient Chinese author of the P’an Ku story tells us that the ripples of that cosmic-birth-event would never die out completely. Indeed, P’an Ku’s breath and sighs are seen to this day in the winds and in rising clouds. It is the roaring majesty of his ancient voice that  still resounds as  thunder.  P’an Ku’s flesh eventually congealed into our own abode, the earth whose  green grass and tall trees are no other than vestiges of Ku’s lush hair. The minerals in our planet’s bowels are remnants of his bones, while the abundant sweat of his lasting labor drip down as rain. Moreover, the lice and insects that clung to his body are now seen as swarms of humans populating the planet.

Radio astronomers tell us that a 7.35 cm isotropic radiation they have detected is actually the remnant, a faint echo one might say, of the world-generating big bang of current cosmology. The story of P’an Ku has a parallel observational poetry.

The Chinese legend may be regarded as an example of fascinating mythology, pure and simple, with similar ones in other cultures, where the agent of creation is not God, but still very anthropomorphic. Most people of our age would say that it has all the charm of the Santa Claus story, and deserves to be treasured among the imaginative creations of the human family. 

Indeed, regarded as yet another item in the history of the human urge to account for the emergence of the world, this imaginative account is worthy of recall. But if some well meaning Chinese parent today were to insist that this should command the same respect as the Big Bang theory in school courses in science, then one may be inclined to pass unkind judgments on their mental capacities. Fortunately, this particular tale of Chinese cosmogony is not part of any holy book, and therefore such attempts are not made in school systems in China.  By the same token, it would be chrono-centric narrowness, if not intellectual arrogance on our part, to look down upon ancient visions which were based on the data, mind-set and worldviews available to the poets and thinkers of a different age.