by Robert L. Carneiro
American Museum of Natural History
All known cultures have had some form of
mythology. Each and every one of them developed distinct
mythological styles and their own system of gods and
goddesses. However, upon examining the mythologies closely
we find several commonalities and realize that we can
divide the myths of all cultures into certain categories.
The Following three are some of the ones that are commonly
found in mythologies across the world.
In the beginning there was a period of Chaos, when air,
water, and matter were combined in a formless mixture. On this
floated a Cosmic Egg, from which arose Gaea (Earth) and Uranus
(Sky). These deities created the earth and its creatures and
the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Thus the Greeks accounted for
In the beginning there were Holy People, supernatural and
sacred, who lived below ground in 12 lower worlds. A great
flood underground forced the Holy People to crawl to the
surface of the earth through a hollow reed, where they created
the world. Changing Woman gave birth to the Hero Twins, called
"Monster Slayer" and "Child of the Waters" who had many
adventures. Earth Surface People, mortals, were created, and
First Man and First Woman were formed from ears of white and
yellow corn. Thus the Navajo accounted for creation.
Among the most basic questions raised by human beings are
those of origins. How did the human species arise? How was the
earth created? What about the sun? the moon? the stars? Why do
we have night and day? Why do people die? No human society
lacks answers to such questions. While these answers vary
greatly in detail, they are, for primitive peoples as a whole,
similar in their basic form: people and the world exist because
they were brought into being by a series of creative acts.
Moreover, this creation is usually regarded as the work of
supernatural beings or forces. The accounts of the ways in
which these supernatural agents formed the earth and peopled it
are known as origin myths.
Until the rise of modern science, origin myths provided the
only kinds of answers possible to such questions. Thus, myths
embody the state and limitation of human thought about origins
for more than 99% of human history.
Although origin myths are usually assigned to the province
of religion, they contain one element of science: explanation.
While moral lessons may be scattered here and there throughout
them, origin myths are basically ways of accounting for things
as they are. Explanation, then, is not unique to nor did it
begin with science. Science shares explanation with mythology.
What distinguishes science from mythology is verification. Not
only does science propose answers, it proceeds to test these
answers, and if the answers prove incorrect, they must be
rejected or modified. Mythology differs from this. An origin
myth offers an explanation that is to be believed. Acceptance,
not verification, is what is called for. Ancient Norsemen
believed the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) were reflections
of light off the shields of the warrior maidens the Valkyrie;
modern astronomers tell us they are caused by solar winds
interacting with the earth's magnetic field and atmospheric
gases. Both are explanations, but only one of these
explanations can be verified.
What is explanation? At bottom, it amounts to translating
the unknown into the known, the unfamiliar into the familiar.
And what do human beings know best? Themselves. They know how
people think and feel and act. And from a very early stage of
culture, people have projected human thoughts and emotions into
the external world, endowing objects and forces of nature with
human personality and greater-than-human power. The
personalized supernatural beings thus created were assigned the
role of providing plausible and satisfying explanations for the
unknown. In this way, origin myths were born.
One more word about explanation. At the heart of explanation
lies causation. The idea of causation, again, was not born with
modern science, nor from the early Greek philosophers. It is
much older than that. Indeed, causation is very deeply rooted
in human thought. Among the Kuikuru Indians of central Brazil,
for instance, a tribe I have studied in the field, a cause is
quickly found when something untoward or unusual happens. Thus,
one man attributed a toothache to someone's having worked
witchcraft on a piece of sugar cane he had chewed. Another man,
whose manioc garden was being ravaged by peccaries, decided
than an enemy had put a picture of a peccary in his garden to
draw these animals to it. The pattern of causal thinking I
found among the Kuikuru occurs among primitive peoples
everywhere. I think it is safe to say, then, that the quest for
causes, which is so central to modern science, is actually a
legacy bequeathed to science by our pre-scientific Old Stone