The origin of most known creation stories arose independently to answer questions of existence whereas the elemental concepts in the stories are logical reasoning used to uncover the mysteries of the natural world. For a long period of time in anthropological history, the sole explanation for justifying parallels of ideas or beliefs between groups of people was through diffusion. This concept came under fire due to the discriminating aspect implying a superiority of one culture while disregarding the belief that other cultures could have developed similar ideas independently. A new paradigm shift, supported by the broader understanding of civilizations and farming, where the notion of concepts arising independently became a more plausible explanation. Although anthropology has sufficiently answered the question of parallel ideas between differing cultures, the issue remains of why some elements of a concept are more pervasive in a global context than others. As I will be discussing in this paper, it will be apparent that these similar themes are also more commonly associated with stories, myths, and the like, with a particular consistency among creation stories. I will outline key themes found specifically between the Judeo-Christian and Iu-Mienh creation story where I will follow up each concept with an explanation of the parallels. I will essentially argue that the persistence of some themes in a widespread usage is the result of practical reasoning all the while occurring independently from one culture to another.
The Judeo-Christian creation story is one of the more well-known origin stories to date. Most are familiar with the Christian religious knowledge of how life on earth came to be, however, in this section, I will elaborate on the passages in the bible that focuses on the creation of earth, which will lead into the rise and fall of Adam and Eve. I will end this section of the Judeo-Christian creation story with an exploration of the flood that I find significant to note.
In The Old Testament, the opening passage of Genesis state that God created what we currently call Earth. He added to it the universe and our basic needs for survival such as water, land, food, and animals. His last creation is that of man and woman, which will be discussed in the next section. This entire creation process took God seven days to complete, although it is written, “he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made” (Holy Bible 2004). It should be noted that the creation of man was implied in two separate passages; however, the main idea is that the creation of man took place roughly when God created everything.
Now that God had created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, where he told the man, Adam that he was to maintain the garden. God also made it clear that “of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Holy Bible 2004). With that in mind, God created for Adam a companion, Eve, for who can aid him in his efforts to watch over the garden. In the next passage, enters the serpent. It is believed that the serpent beguiled Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge, next giving it to Adam to eat. It is written that at the moment of consumption, their eyes opened to reveal their current state of life. Adam and Eve experienced shame because of their nudity and were sent away from the garden, thus enduring a lifetime of sorrow due to their disobedience towards God.
The last passage I would like to explore in the Judeo-Christian creation story concerns that of the flood. It is written, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Holy Bible 2004). He therefore instructed Noah to construct an ark and gave him seven days to build it. The flood eventually killed off all living things residing on Earth except the inhabitants on the ark. Again, it should be noted that the appearance of the number seven, used in various respects such as days, is commonly seen throughout the event of the flood. This is where I would like to end the accounts of the Judeo-Christian story and will move on to the creation story from the Iu-Mienh, shortened to Mien.
The Mien creation story is not book based nor is it separated into subparts compared to that of the Judeo-Christian. According to the elder generations, the Chinese government who desired a homogeneous people destroyed much of the Mien’s written history. This destruction caused many stories to be lost. The folklore that has managed to survive came to be passed from generation to generation. An oral tradition. Luckily, I came upon a book about Mien folklore where I discovered the story titled The Flood, detailing the Mien creation story. The creation story in this book will serve as the reference for this paper.
This creation story begins with three curious brothers who desired to know how the mysterious Thundermaker looked. The three brothers ended up tricking the Thundermaker on earth and trapped him. Before they left to town to find supplies to eat the prisoner with, one of the brothers warned his son and daughter to not free the Thundermaker. Beguiled by the Thundermaker, they unknowingly set him free thus saving these children from harm. They were given a gourd in which the two children were to reside for the Thundermaker was to cause a flood as a punishment for the three brothers.
The flood eventually killed off humanity except the brother and sister, although they did not know this. They happened upon a turtle that informed them, “There are no more people left under the sky, only you two children. You, brother and sister, have to take each other as husband and wife and create the people to live under the sky” (Saelee 1993). Furious over their predicament, they took a walking stick and struck the turtle, which in turn broke him into twelve pieces. After traveling around the world in search of survivors, the son and daughter ultimately conceded that they were the sole survivors. They found the turtle again and pieced him back together thus illustrating the pieced shell. Although reluctant to take one another on as husband and wife, they created impossible obstacles used to prove that their fate was to marry.
Due to their sibling relationship, they declared “but we are too ashamed to make love. We are brother and sister and we are ashamed to do this” (Saelee 1993). The sister eventually became pregnant and gave birth to a honeydew melon. The husband was to take the chopped up melon and scatter the remains in three locations. “After seven days people came out” (Saelee 1993). Thus ending the story of the Mien creation folklore.
Between the two creation stories, we are able to see an eerily close resemblance. With closer inspection, “we shall see that they constitute a set of variations around a common structural theme” (Leach 1966). As with any folklore, variations of a story take on the personality of the storyteller. And although there are many similarities, the inconsistency of events in the stories in relation to each other, will be ordered based on my personal preference. I will explore a few of the themes that I find uncannily significant in hopes that it will shed light on fear of the unknown resulting in practical logic as the reason we find these themes used worldwide.
The fall from grace is a common theme we see not only in both stories but also in many origin myths. In the Judeo-Christian story, Adam and Eve disobeyed the command of God by eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. They were then banned from the Garden of Eden as punishment for their disobedience and sentence humanity to forever live in suffering. In the Mien story, the three bothers replace Adam and Eve in the position of defiance. Their intent on harming the Thundermaker ensured their demise.
I would now like to point out that the fundamental component in this theme was curiosity, which became the underlying cause that began their fall from grace. As individuals who are master of our own minds, unless imposed upon, we naturally question that which surrounds us. The curiosity to know our environment drives us to rethink our position causing unease. The need for balance forces us to find a solution, even if the solution is not the best. This leads into my next point, which is of defiance both mentally and physically. Rules and regulations dictate how we are to act and live. We are naturally inclined to push the boundaries that encase us in.
It is easy to follow that curiosity leads to defiant thoughts that turn into defiant acts. A possible explanation for this is that the defiant parties involved were not informed that punishment would ensue for no one has ever disobeyed to that magnitude. They did not necessarily fear the unknown for they were merely curious. Defiance was ironically the next step in finding a solution. I believe that this fall from grace is used to explain that misdeeds do not go unpunished, regardless of intent. We learn to live by the rules imposed on us and punishment is given to those who disobey those social principles.
My next discussion is on the flood theme, common in many cultures. In the Judeo-Christian story, the flood was brought down to destroy all of humanity. God found man to be wicked and evil both in thoughts and action. The exception to this lifestyle was Noah, who God believed to be perfect. In the Mien story, the flood was punishment for the three brothers who attempted to kill the Thundermaker. He was grateful of the children who saved him thus keeping them safe while he destroyed humanity with the flood.
In the flood theme, we see opposing forces at play. Noah and the children signified goodness. They were loyal and acted in kind. They did not disobey, nor did they question. The perfect role models. Their allegiance saved them from death. Contrasting the goodness was that of humanity and the three brothers. They acted selfishly and disregarded the consequences for their actions. We easily see them as the corrupted and lost. In this light, we see the flood as a tool used to exercise the will of the supernatural being.
I found it interesting that we see the flood theme as the force used to eliminate evil. Water is both life and death. It cleanses, nourishes, and replenishes while simultaneously being destructive. In this respect, it would not be so farfetched as to say that its use was to destroy and cleanse the earth from all the evil that developed. Nourish the earth to bring it back to health. Following replenishment so that the new population may begin a fresh start on life.
In both stories, we find the theme of an anthropological creature acting as a knowledge source. In the case of the Judeo-Christian story, we find the beguiling serpent. From the biblical text, we can infer that the serpent spoke to Eve about the tree of knowledge. This conversation eventually ended with Eve and Adam eating the fruit from the tree. In the Mien story, the turtle acted as the wise anthropological creature. It informed the children of their predicament and their coming role on Earth. Although the context was different, I bring up the creatures based on their common role in the stories.
I find it necessary to note that the anthropological creatures found in both stories were reptilian although, I do not see how this species may be of importance. I can easily go into depth of possible explanations for using a reptile but I do not see the need to further elaborate on the subject except to say that the role they play does not necessitate why in particular these creatures were chosen. With that in mind, I would like to continue on to how they may be viewed. In both stories, the creatures acted as a source of knowledge. The serpent knew of the tree and its importance. As well as the turtle that knew of the children’s fate. It was the turtle that understood what needed to be done. I will speculate as to why they hold more knowledge than humanity itself.
The use of a creature having knowledge of the natural world makes sense. For example, we differ from animals not only in our ability to speak and understand but that we are more removed from the natural world than animals are. We view animals as being closer to nature, where we are separate from it. Nature is seen as below us because we want to take control of it. In this line of thinking, it is logical to presume that the animals would have knowledge of the natural world that we humans do not. This explanation is an account of why we commonly see anthropological creatures present and their source of knowledge that appears to be missing in humanity.
Our next theme is of shame, sex and nudity. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the forbidden tree, they suddenly realized their nudity. They felt ashamed of their nakedness and attempted to hide from God when he seeks them out. The fruit showed them their current state of dress and it appears that they finally realized their shocking situation. In the Mien story, when the turtle informed the siblings that they were to marry and re-populate Earth, they felt shamed in the union. Their understanding of incest was clearly demonstrated and their reluctance showed in their attempts to have proof that their future was to be together.
The role of shame, sex and nudity in the creation stories appear to serve as an answer to regulate physiological fears. I discovered that in the contexts, shame varied in its meanings. In the biblical text, shame became a depiction of humiliation. It was a form of punishment for eating the fruit by showing to them the reality of their situation. They were naked and did not understand why. In the Mien version, the shame stemmed from the consciousness of knowing what is wrong. They understood the implications of marriage to a sibling but they were also left without a choice. The shame in being naked and having sex was the cause for their distress where they needed proof that they were meant to unite.
Shame is an effective tool for discouraging bad behavior. In the creation stories, it functions as another form of regulation. In relation to sex and nudity, shame plays a central role of controlling one’s promiscuity. I interpret these three themes as complementary and ingenious. It is the perfect method to control those around you without having the blame put on anyone but that individual.
The last theme that I would like to explore is the number seven. This is a particularly interesting discovery that has a parallel in both stories. In the Judeo-Christian bible, the number seven appears over 700 times. One of the more note-worthy usage of seven is as follows: “And god blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made” (Holy Bible 2004). As stated in the previous text, God created Earth in seven days. We also see the in the Mien folklore, that people were created in seven days. This similarity marks a parallel that makes me ask, why the number seven?
The number seven is not only a holy number but has its importance in other aspects of life as well. It signifies completeness and perfection. I believe that the meaning alone may indicate its purpose in the Bible. However, in relation to the Mien, the number seven makes its appearance in the context of the time it took to create the people. Due to the limited amount of resources about the Mien history, not much concrete information can be obtained without some interpretation on my part.
The number seven holds one key attraction that I may only presume is the reason for its use. It is logical to propose that since the number seven denotes completeness and perfection, the use of this number in a given context may appear to transform the object into reality. For example, its purpose in the Bible may have been to add another facet that would suggest that the book is complete and perfect because the terms within the text mean completeness and perfection. If we apply this same concept to the use of seven in the Mien’s history, we can undoubtedly see why it would take seven days to create the people as opposed to another number. However, the problem with applying the Western idea to the Mien’s story is that we are not certain that it really does apply. We do not have sufficient data to make the assumptions therefore, the most we can do is interpret it as such.
We are normally inclined to believe that parallels of this degree cannot be coincidental but the result of contact. In this situation, Western influence does not appear plausible in two respects. The first being that due to limited resources, we are not able to neither confirm or deny if any contact was made for diffusion to be possible. If we look back in the Mien history, they lived isolated in the mountainous region far from other civilizations. Their nearest neighbor was of other Mien villages. They relied on farming and animals for resources and practiced traditional Taoism. Their language is tonal and their history is oral. From the information I can gather, colonialism was not a factor, which made missionary settlements improbable. However, if we claim that contact was somehow feasible, the second issue is that the only similarities that can be drawn from the two cultures are through their creation story. The problem with creation stories are that they date back to time periods that even written history cannot date. They begin as word of mouth and later into book based unless decided otherwise. So the likelihood of any influence, even colonial influence, is very doubtful given that creation stories appear to stay true to its origin regardless of outside interference. The most probable explanation for these parallels is that it developed independently. So if the creation stories are independent from one another, how is it possible that the themes within the stories have so many parallels?
The themes I have outlined in detail all share the same position, which is that it shows up in both the Judeo-Christian and Mien creation stories. I have concluded that the reason for this persistence in themes is the result of practical reasoning’s on the part of the culture. In both stories, the fall from grace theme is a lesson of disobedience where the flood illustrated punishment. The anthropological creature depicts the insight that nature possesses while shame, sex, and nudity shows us our boundaries. The last theme, the number seven, was intended to show the importance that a number may have in a wider context even if the reasoning is not clear. Throughout this piece, I have followed the method of “’means’ by studying the situation, not by studying the words” (Leach 1966). I found this useful in assessing the topics in this paper.
I began this analysis by initially choosing two creation stories that showed repeated themes throughout. I outlined the themes where I briefly discussed its context of each theme in both stories to provide a reference of discussion. I then examined its purpose in the story to find if any parallels can be found. I ended each theme with a personal interpretation to show my perspective on the issue. Afterwards, I determined that the persistence of themes arose independently from one creation story to another since contact was not a plausible. I will end with my argument that the persistence of some themes in a widespread usage is the result of practical reasoning.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 2004. Print.
Leach, Edmund. “Virgin Birth.” King’s College, Cambridge: The Henry Myers Lecture, 1966.
Saelee, Chiam Chan (storyteller). “The Flood.” In Loz-Hnoi, Loz-Hnoi Wuov (In the Old, Old Days) Volume 1. Tim Beard, Betsey Warrick, and Kao Cho Saefong, eds. Berkeley: Laotian Handcraft Center, 1993. 9-18.