Many eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars believed that all world mythologies showed signs of having evolved from a single mythical theme.
There are over a hundred different world mythologies that we know of today. Among these are the Greek, Roman, Norse, Etruscan, Celtic, Slavic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Arabian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and many more myths.
Anyone with the knowledge of more than one of these world mythologies would realize that there are some glaring similarities between them.
I don’t mean to minimize the significance of individual cultures by glossing over their differences – each culture deserves its unique glory for its contribution to humanity. However, at a time when we are ripping ourselves apart in racial, religious, and political sectarianism, perhaps we should take a moment to study the roots that we all share.
Have a look at the five major themes forming the common ground for world mythologies.
- Creation: from Chaos or Nothingness
It is natural that the most common question early humans tried to answer was of how we came into being. How was the world created? According to Hindu mythology, in the beginning only Vishnu was there. When Vishnu thought about creation, Brahma was created from a lotus that came from his navel. It was Brahma who finally created the world.
Similar creation myths involving the world being created out of chaos or a vast, empty, nothingness can be found in the myths of ancient Babylon (the Enûma Eliš myth), ancient Greece (the golden egg laid by Nyx or Night), the Book of Genesis (Elohim creating the heavens and earth in six days), and in Norse mythology (the yawning void named Ginnungagap), among numerous others.
- Sacrifice for Creation
Many cultures have stories about divine figures whose death creates an essential part of reality. In Indian Vedic mythology, the Purusha Sukta narrates that all things were made out of the mangled limbs of Purusha, a magnified non-natural man, who was sacrificed by the gods.
Similarly, the Chinese myth of Pangu and the Norse myth of Ymir both tell of a cosmic giant who was killed to create the world. A myth from the Wemale people of Seram Island, Indonesia, tells of a miraculously-conceived girl named Hainuwele, whose murdered corpse sprouts into the people’s staple food crops.
- The Great Flood
A flood myth is a narrative in which a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization, often in an act of divine retribution. In the Genesis mythology of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh (God) decides to flood the earth because of the depth of the sinful state of mankind. That’s where we get Noah’s ark.
The Hindu myth of Manu (found in the Satapatha Brahmana and the Puranas) is similar to that of Noah’s story, albeit less popularly known today.
- Centre of the World
Many world mythologies mention a place that sits at the center of the world and acts as a point of contact between different levels of the universe. Vedic India, ancient China, and the ancient Germans all had myths featuring a “Cosmic Tree” whose branches reach heaven and whose roots reach hell.
Mount Meru is a sacred mountain with five peaks in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. Yggdrasil is the tree connecting the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. In Greek mythology, Omphalos stones are considered to be the “navel” of the world.
- Younger Gods Defeating Older Gods
Many cultures have a creation myth in which a group of younger, more civilized gods conquers and/or struggles against a group of older gods who represent the forces of chaos. I suppose it shows that even all those years ago people believed that the young always replace the old, no matter how strong or wise the old are.
In Hindu mythology, the younger devas (gods) battle the older asuras (demons). In the Greek myth of the Titanomachy, the Olympian gods defeat the Titans, an older and more primitive divine race, and establish cosmic order. Similarly, the Celtic gods of life and light struggle against the Fomorians, ancient gods of death and darkness.
These are but a few of the various similarities that exist in the myths of different cultures.
In an era of identity politics – and identity mythology – we are too busy trying to grab a unique glory for our own individual cultures. Maybe it’s time to look for common ground and understand what it might convey to us about our commonality as human beings.
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