Coming back to the central idea of the creation of the world itself, there are mainly two concepts that were adopted by people around the prehistoric world. The first idea was that of a divine being who single-handedly created the world by explicit intention, which is clearly illustrated in the following examples:
Africa: Divine Intervention
Japan: Izanagi and
The alternative form school of thought is that of the world being a natural, accidental process that needed no external help to happen.
Yet, few cultures describe creation without any intention at all. Most cultures present a mix of both ideas, describing the world with a natural beginning and intentional creation after that.
Yet, other common traits run deep in the different mythological pantheons across the ancient world. A common idea was that of the cosmic egg, where the world started with the hatching of some sort of an egg in the middle of the cosmos. Another common idea was the world having emerged from a body of water. This can be seen in one Egyptian creation myth, where the world started with the rising of land out from the sea. In Native American mythology, the first land was created when a toad placed mud upon a turtles back. Lastly, in Japanese mythology, as mentioned above, the islands of Japan were created from the stirring of the sea.
With the world well and created, now set in the task of creating the living creatures and the celestial bodies. In this aspect, various cultures vary widely, with some choosing the creation of the heavens to have been a byproduct of the creation of the world, and with others believe the creation of these bodies came some time after. Some cultures viewed the sun and moon themselves to be goddess going across the sky. The Chinese believed that before the time of Houyi, there were ten suns in the sky who took turns to be carried by their mother across the sky. The Norse interpreted the sun and moon to be two goddess, Sol and Moon, being chased by the wolves Skoll and Hati. Lastly, Indian mythology points at the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons, to be the birth of the celestial bodies.
To delve deeper into the philosophical features of creation, one would have to question the very definition of creation.
Creation can be distilled to the beginning of reproduction and sustainable procreation. If we consider the Greek, Norse and Japanese myths again, one would notice that these creational myths illustrate the concepts of sustainability. In the Greek idea story of Creation talks of Gaia who was born out of chaos. Gaia later birthed the son, Uranus, and together they birthed many creatures including the Titans. The spark of creation led on to the production of so many other creatures, clearly showing the idea of reproduction in creation.
So, to recapitulate what has been said, creation can generally be considered at the point at which procreation of beings begins. More examples: Norse creation started with the giant Ymir. While Ymir slept, various creatures grew from his limbs. These creatures led on to the further development of the world. For the Japanese, the most important idea in their creation was the fact that Izanagi was male, whilst Izanami was female. This alone led to the creation of the Japanese islands.
A less important idea that runs through some myths also talks of the creation of the world due to the death of some enigmatic creational being. The giant Pangu, and the giant Ymir, became various parts of the world when they died, in Chinese and Norse mythology respectively.
Lastly, let us look at the idea of the cyclic processes of creation, and its opposite process, destruction. The most prominent example of this mythological phenomenon is in Indian Mythology. The Indians believed in the world with an infinite number of subsidiary creations and destructions, as man cycled through its four ages, or Yugas. Aztec mythology prophesizes the creation and resultant destruction of five successive worlds, due to conflict between the gods. Also, some north American mythology of the Hopi people, tell of three previous worlds, ended by fire, freezing and flood respectively.
Though we are not going to discuss scientific theories today, the modern world today has its eyes on a certain creation theory that deserves some mention. It is the theory of the big bang, along with Darwinism and many related concepts. These could broadly be classified under the branch of creation as a natural process, and has been accepted as the most plausible creation theory by most of the scientific community.
Although most mythology today have gone extinct and have been proven untrue, many religions still offer ideas of creation which provide just as much an answer to creation and science and mythology. In any case, the creation of the world is surely an intriguing question that haunts the human mind until this age.
The cosmos is the entire universe, always beyond the naked eyed of the human being. It encompasses the underworld to the heavens, and in it, all creation is held. Yet the cosmos extend in time long before creation, and after it. In many mythologies, the world is popularly created out of a void, emptiness, or the nothingness of the cosmos. It is in this context in which we see the cosmos taking on the role of an entity whose magnitude and complexity is way beyond imagination. Yet, the men who wrote about the gods and the skies, sought to understand the world beyond himself, and wrote of these great worlds.
After the world was created, the cosmos now held the world in all its intricate detail, and with all its different realms and levels. The most prominent example of this is in Norse Mythology, with Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
Yggdrasil is the centre of the world for the Norse. It comprises of nine different realms, each housing different creatures. Humans lived in one of these realms. These nine realms resided on three different levels in the tree, with the top three in the branches of the tree, and the next three being below the three. The last three were below the ground, around the giant tree's roots. Not only the Norse had a world tree as such. The people of Kalimantan in Indonesia, and the Aztecs too had the world mapped with the central feature being a large tree.
Apart from the Norse, the Japanese had a rather unique structural plan of the cosmos. They believed there are six skies above the mortal plane, and six more realms below it. The Chinese believed in a much larger world, with the Jade Emperor upon his throne in heaven, in a separate and distinct place from the mortal world. Greek mythology also talked of a different architecture, with the cosmos being in the shape of a dome, where the rounded top was the sky, whilst the flat bottom was the ground.
Apart from having physical three dimensions, the cosmos also possessed the fourth dimension: time. Apart from telling of the cyclic nature of creation and destruction in some myths, the cosmos also served to link the worlds which operated on different chronological planes. In Indian mythology, one thousand days on the mortal plane translated to a single day in the heavens.
The cosmos were not built without their blueprints and maps. To conceptualize the cosmos required tools on their own. These tools were the cardinal and spatial directions, which dictated the underlying architectural basis on which the cosmos were built upon.
Tibetan mythology illustrates the adoption of the system which comprised of four cardinal directions on any plane. China had an extra cardinal point, which was the middle of the four points, which was simply called 'middle'. This incidentally suggests why China is called 'Middle Country' in the Chinese language: they thought their country sat in the middle of the cosmos. Most ancient civilizations stopped at five spatial directions, but went on further to divide it into six directions, each at right angles with each others in space.
Back to Carl Sagan's cosmos, the world as we know today has completely debunked previous myths on the construct of the world. To start with, the world is round, and it is situated within the solar system of nine planets. Interestingly enough, the sun is a part of what we know as the cosmos today, although most civilizations thought it to having been an embodiment of the creative force of the cosmos.
The creation of mankind, to a certain extent, serves in part, to answer the age old question of the meaning of life. Yet, what is so amazing about myths of the creation of humanity, are the striking similarities between cultures across the globe. The general idea was that humans were made out of mud or clay in the image of themselves, and were given life.
This is true of Greek mythology where the Titan Prometheus made little statues of the gods for his own entertainment. The goddess Athene were enchanted by the little gods when she saw them, and thus breathed life into them, making humans as we know them today. In Chinese mythology, the goddess Nu Wa felt lonely, and thus started making little humans out of mud, who sprang to life once they were done. However, Nu Wa herself had the body of a human and the tail of a snake, but in order to enable her little creatures to be able to stand upright, she put legs in place of the tail.
With this done, the creation of humanity seems to be complete, but yet, it is not, as the myths go on to explain to formation of two genders.
The first woman in Greek mythology was Pandora, who was made by Zeus in order to bring disaster upon humanity. In the famous tale from the Christian Bible, Jesus created Eve, the first woman, out of a rib of Adam, the first man. Many other myths echo this idea, for example, a central African myth which told of the first woman being made out of the left knee of the first man.
And yet, there is heavy division within the pantheon of the gods. Many cultures possessed a supreme god, who ruled over the rest. Such is the way of the Greeks, with Zeus, and the Norse with Odin. The Chinese had the Jade Emperor, the Mesopotamians had Anu, the Egyptians had Osiris, and the list just goes on.
Some other cultures had a few principle gods instead of an isolated supreme being. Indian Mythology, for one, describe three supreme gods, who form a triad, made up of Brahma, the creator, Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver.
In those of Greek and Norse, the gods were further wedged into two groups. The Greeks had the Titans and the Olympians, two classes of gods who came in respective order. The Norse had the Aesir, the sky gods, and the Vanir, the earth gods, who granted unequal rights until a war broke out.
Of course, the gods were not the only members of the supernatural beings that evaded the mortal eyes of man. There were the spirits, who inhabited the forest and the rivers and the demons, who ravaged the world in their quest against the gods. Similar structural divides existed in the spiritual and demonic worlds, but were less pronounced.
The trait that fundamentally separated the gods from the spirits and demons was immortality. Spirits and demons were often vulnerable and transient. But, all the same, the supernatural beings were slotted into various posts in the cosmos. Some became river gods to be worshipped by the farmers, whilst some became home spirits to be appeased by the owner of the home.
These posts imbued upon the supernatural beings a sense of purpose. And in turn gave the various causes physical embodiments. One prominent example is fertility, which was widely worshipped, especially the shamanistic civilizations, such as the Aztec, the Mayan and the Africans. Egypt saw the river Nile as a source of fertility, and too worshipped the god Osiris, the controller of the Nile and its fertile alluvial soil which was so essential to them in the barren desert.
In the eastern mythologies, the Japanese believed that every region, village and house was inhabited by individual spirits, and even trees and rocks had their own supernatural residents. The Chinese echoed this idea of residing spirits, and further developed this idea to incorporate into their mythology, the existence of spirits and demons who were derived from animals such as the snakes and foxes. These lower beings often were in search to climb the ladder of immortality.
Gods of war are another important divinity, in the ancient world where wars over territory were frequent and pivotal to a civilization's success. The Valkyries in Norse mythology are an excellent illustration of this aspect, who scoured the battlefields, and brought back the better half of warriors into Odin's hall named Vallahala. The Irish believed in the goddess Moriggan, who had the ability of shape shifting. The Greeks worshipped the gods Ares and Athene, whilst the Mesopotamians worshipped Ishatr, who ironically was both the goddess of love and war.
A Babylonian myth tells of the King Nimrod who tried to build a tower to reach heaven and to make war on the supreme god. The god in retaliation sent angels to confuse the workers, who eventually led to abandonment of the building. It is generally accepted in most cultures that gods exist on a higher altitude than humans. It is interesting though how different cultures grappled with the actual abode of the gods.
The Norse believed in a world tree, whence humans lived below the tree's canopy whilst the gods lived in the branches. The majestic mount Olympus was thought to have been the home of the gods, to the Greeks, whilst in many cultures, such as the Chinese, heaven has no exact location, but rather exists in a dimension quite beyond human accessibility.
Another class of beings that are worth some mention is the primeval gods and creatures. This largely comprises of gods who came before and after creation itself, when the world had yet to take on fixed form or genders. As such, these beings are generally sexless. This can be seen in the example of the giant Pangu in Chinese creation. The giant was born out of a cosmic egg, and he grew for many millennia before dieing, whence his body parts becoming the world. This idea is repeated in Norse mythology, and in one version of Egyptian creation.
As rivaled to the supernatural, one may expect that the only natural things about the world were the humans, animals, plants and non-living things. And yet to the primitive people, supernatural forces seemed reasonable enough to be considered natural. After all, the gods, the spirits and the demons all were all part of their mythological pantheon which they used to explain the natural world.
There are mainly two kinds of mythical creatures. The first kind are those who manifested the mortal characteristics of animals that really existed, but also possessed abilities or aspects that endowed upon the creature exceptional features, such as that of Pegasus, the horse who was able to fly with wings that grew out from the sides of his body.
Another famous example of the horse is the Unicorn, who was widely believed in, in Europe. The unicorn had a spiral horn, which grew out from its forehead. It had the unique ability to be able to purify water with its horn, and thus unicorn horns, which were usually animal tusks, were greatly prized in medieval times.
And there were giants: gigantic human beings who stood many feet tall. Giants are largely associated with the primeval world, around the time of creation. In fact in many mythologies, giants have a direct part to play in the creation of the world. To take the tale of creation from Chinese mythology, it talked of the giant Pangu, who broke out from a cosmic egg, and who later died to form the earth.
The hallmark of the creatures of the mythical world was perhaps the dragons. Dragons appeared often both in Eastern and Western mythologies, being in the family of reptiles, like those of snakes and lizards. These hulking creatures were able to blow fire from its mouth, and were covered in a thick protective skin that acted as armor. However, there lies a large difference between the views of dragons across the different cultures.
In Western mythologies, dragons were usually seen as evil creatures that sought to pillage villages and to amass large amounts of treasures for itself. However, quite a different view was taken in Eastern mythologies, where especially in Chinese mythology, the Dragon was seen in fact as a sign of good luck and of favorable things to come. The Emperor, who was seen as the Son of God himself, wore a robe, which featured the embroidery of a dragon.
The second type of creatures was perhaps more common than the first. They were the creatures that not necessarily possessed exceptional ability, but were made out of two or more animals in their body. The Greek world is filled with such creatures, such as Centaurs, with the upper body of a human, and with the lower body of a horse. There were also the fauns, who had a human body and two trotters of a goat in the place of legs.
The more important examples of this sort of creatures were those who had unique abilities. Such was the Gorgon, Medusa, who was a woman with the lower body of the snake, and with snakes in place of hair. She was able to turn people into stone when she gazed at them. Another creature was the Chimera, also out of Greek mythology, which was made up of a lion, a serpent, and a goat.
In fact, many of the Egyptian gods such as Seth, Horus and Thoth were hybrids of humans and bird-like creatures. In Indian mythology, the god Ganesh had an elephant's head on a human body, which was caused when Shiva, the destroyer, cut off his original head while mistaking him for a stranger denying him entrance into his own house.
In some sense, the creation of mythical creatures by mythology has been an essential aspect in the foundation of many mythologies. Not only as cornerstones in the telling of tales, but also as the elements that thicken the mythological world, giving the mortal world more depth and vibrancy.
Heroism is a common theme that is found in much of mythology. These heroes usually manage to perform extraordinary and revolutionary tasks that leave a great impact on human society. Although many of these tasks bring about change with lasting effect on the environment and the world as a whole, these tasks require the quality of courage, the quality that so epitomizes heroism.
Heroes are generally depicted as human beings possessing superhuman abilities, as the Greek heroes were so famous for. However, there is one class of heroes, which one might consider to be called the unsung heroes. These include the people who had in one way or another brought huge change in the world, without garnering much glory along the way.
Firstly, who were these heroes? Although much of the heroes were human, many gods also do perform such heroic tasks. In Norse mythology, there is much talk of Thor who wielded his hammer, the Mjollnir, and defended the gods from the giants. The Greek heroes, however, were mostly children of the gods, those such as Perseus and Herakles, which we will talk about later. It is an interesting side note that most of the heroes were male.
Let us start on the supernaturally able heroes. One of the famous Greek heroes was the son of Zeus, Perseus. Perseus had many encounters, and of all, the most famous of his tasks was the slaying of the gorgon, Medusa. On another count, the hero Theseus killed the Minotaur, eventually saving the many people who had to be sent to the half-human/half-bull regularly as sacrifice. The Chinese hero, Houyi, shot down nine suns, when ten suns had appeared in the sky at the same time, scorching the earth and drying up the rivers.
Indian mythology tells of many heroes, within the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where the heroes were largely seen upholding morals, and in the process overcoming great odds. An interesting hero is the Scandinavian hero, Sigurd, who gained the title of hero, when he killed a dragon for its treasures.
To extrapolate the trend in heroism, these notions of heroism revolve about the saving of lives and performing impossible tasks such as slaying dragons or killing man-eating creatures that have been terrorizing nearby villages. We are all familiar with this class of hero, so let us now move on to the next class of hero.
There is a minor theme in many mythologies around the world, which is the theft of fire. It is through the theft of fire, that fire finally managed to reach the human world. Initially it was restricted only to the gods, and at times withheld by the sun. In order for fire to reach human society, there is the need for a character to steal the fire from its source and bring it to human society. This character is invariably a hero, though not celebrated in the same fashion as the first class of heroes.
The fire stealers include Prometheus, in Greek Mythology, who stole fire for human beings when he pitied human beings who were freezing in the cold winter without any heat. He did this against the will of Zeus' and was finally punished by having his liver eaten by an eagle every day.
South American mythology tells of a boy who was marooned on a tree, and was saved by a jaguar who brought the boy back to his lair. There, the boy discovered fire within the lair, and stole some for humanity. In Oceanic culture, fire came when the hero Maui stole fire from the keeper of fire, who dwelt in the underworld. However, Maui could also have been considered as a trickster, on the many occasions in which he hooked up islands from the sea and ensnared the sun using the hair from his sister, so that during summer the days are longer.
What marks the stealing of fire as such an important example of heroism in mythology is that it marked the revolution of human society through the act of one person, which is the very essence of heroism in itself. This class of hero performs courageous tasks, such as Dekanah-wida, who forged peace between five warring tribes, in North American mythology.
Yet another hero inhabits the mythology of the Greeks, that of Antigone. There were two brothers who had killed each other in pursuit of the throne. The brothers' uncle thus buried one of the brothers, while he deemed the other a traitor. Antigone went against her uncle's will and gave the other brother a proper burial, which angered her uncle. Her uncle later deprived her of food and drink, and she hung herself, demonstrating the courage and bravery of heroism, and on the few occasions, in a woman.
To start with the isolated cases of trickery, many such tales are connected to the theft of fire, also talked about in the theme of heroism. The Cherokee people in America believe in the tale where a water spider managed to get a burning ember for humanity through outwitting its owner. Another tale in the region tells of a raven that got fire for humanity too, in the similar fashion.
Besides outwitting their enemies by theft, another interesting idea that can be seen in quite a few myths is the idea of fighting by brains, rather than brawl. In one tale from Oceania, the sister of a girl whom had been swallowed by an ogre, taunted the ogre into swallowing her as well. Inside the stomach the two sisters used a pair of shells, which the sister had prepared before taunting the ogre to cut a hole in his stomach, finally freeing them both.
Herakles of Greek mythology was also one who performed many tasks which involved outwitting his enemies, even though he possessed great strength. Chinese mythology tells the tale of a monkey who journeys to the west to obtain Buddhist scriptures. Along the way, the monkey had to resort to intellectual combat in many occasions to overcome the obstacles that had been put in his way.
What has been seen so far are only tales of trickery in isolated events. Many cultures feature consistent tricksters who usually hold a close relationship with the gods, enabling them to have a great effect on the future of the entire universe. The most famous of these tricksters is Loki from Norse mythology. Apart from that, Greek mythology features the trickster Hermes, whilst African mythology houses yet another famous trickster, known as Eshu.
Eshu was a god of the African culture known as Yoruba. He took on the role of a messenger to the gods, and as the protector of human beings. However, he was depicted in many tales to have confused both the gods and the humans instead of carrying out his tasks dutifully.
Loki of Norse mythology presents many features of tricksters of many cultures, except amplified many times. The interesting thing about Loki was that he had helped the gods on many occasions, and in very important ways. However, he later also led to the downfall of the gods themselves, leading the frost giants against the gods at the day of Ragnarok.
In North America, the native Indians made much reference to the trickster, Coyote, who often tricked other people, and yet was often tricked himself. It is note worthy that Coyote in fact embodied many human aspects and human flaws such as greed and selfishness.
An important aspect about tricksters in many times is their ability to shape shift, or to change their form. Loki had this special ability, and so did the Japanese trickster, Kitsune. In other occasions, they are able to perform the task due to their position, such as that of a messenger to the gods, like in the case of Hermes and Eshu.
In the cases of such important tricksters, they serve a very important role in the progression of events in different cultures. It is through their cunning and their wit that they manage to cheat and deceive the very gods themselves and by virtue of deception, usually towards a negative outcome.
The most famous story of such a disaster is that of Noah's Ark, where Noah gathers two of every creature on earth, one male and one female, who boards his ark to survive the great flood that God sent to punish mankind for their sins.
The idea from Noah's Ark is hardly unique. The Babylonian tale of its cosmic disaster contains an equivalent of Noah's tale, where Noah later attains immortality when the chaos passed. A more comparable tale to that of Noah's comes from Greek Mythology. Zeus sent a flood to earth when he found that humanity had grown arrogant and complacent. The children of Prometheus had been warned of this, and therefore managed to escape the flood by building a boat. This idea is also repeated in the case of the Indian myth, where the supreme god Vishnu appears to King Manu, and advises him on the flood and what he may do about it.
However, it has not always been man's fault that the flood was sent upon them. The Inca creator, Viracocha, first made man out of stone. He was unhappy with the stone people, and decided to recreate human beings. To do so, he sent a flood to drown the world, and to start afresh with people made from clay.
Since most ancient civilizations started on the fertile flood plains of large rivers, which flooded regularly during monsoon seasons, the people envisioned the global disaster to be in the form of flooding that was so severe it covered the world to such a depth that even trees and houses were completely submerged.
The effect of the disaster is varied. In some myths, such as that of Andean mythology, the world after the flood is much improved from that before the flood. Greek mythology tells of a positive change in Zeus' attitude towards humans after the flood. However, in most mythologies, the world before and after the flood remains generally unchanged.
An interesting tale of such disasters comes from a Malaysian myth, which tells of the world being inverted from time to time, causing floods to occur. The people believed that after the flood, the world was remolded by the gods who would then recreate humans. In this particular tale, the movement of the snake below the human realm may also have caused such floods.
In order to repopulate the world again, an important theme is evoked: that of rebirth, and recreation. After the flood, the children of Prometheus proceeded to throw stones over their shoulders, which turned into men and women, thus repopulating the earth. In southern Chinese mythology, a girl and boy are saved from the flood, safe inside a gourd. After the flood, the children emerge, and they later give birth to a ball of flesh, which they sliced into pieces. These pieces were blown all over the world, effectively repopulating it.
This notion of recreation of life on earth brings to mind the theme of creation, where the survivor of the flood can be seen as the parent of all mankind after the flood. The person may not have the same status as that of a God who created man out of clay, but the general ideas that run throughout both cases are strikingly similar.
So far, the only form of disasters that has been talked about has been about floods, triggered off by unique events. However, there are two more types of disasters that also occur in many mythologies: the idea of cyclic creation and destruction, and the idea of the world's end.
As mentioned before, the supreme god Vishnu appeared before King Manu in the form of a fish whom the king had saved. The fish thus advised the King about the upcoming flood, and told him what to do. To put the tale in perspective, it happened at the end of the first age of man, or Yuga, as the Indians called it. The Indians believed in an infinite number of continuous creations and destructions as the creator god, Brahma, awoke and slept in a never-ending cycle.
The Aztecs of Mesoamerica also had a similar tale. Due to strife between the gods, Jaguars had destroyed the world in its first age. In the second age, the world was destroyed by a hurricane, in the third age it was destroyed by fire, and in the fourth age by a flood. We live in the fifth age where the world will be destroyed by an earthquake. Each time, the world is recreated and repopulated once again after a disaster.
Not many cultures accounted for the end of the world as conclusively as Norse Mythology, and however isolated, the tale of Ragnarok has held the imagination of people all over the world, so much that it has to be mentioned here.
Ragnarok is Armageddon, the end of the world for the Norse, who believed that the giants would wage war against the gods. The gods will eventually lose, and the world will finally be engulfed in flames. What makes this so interesting is that the disaster itself was not a product of any gods. The end of the world is covered more comprehensively as a theme on its own.
Conclusively, disasters seldom actually signified the end of the world or of humanity, but rather it represented some form of rebirth and rejuvenation of the world. After each disaster, the world was cleansed for the next age to come, or perhaps, in some cases, it just was just another part of the endless cycle of creation and destruction.
It is through this basis that many other tales were built upon. The sky is often seen as the good, while the underground regions are regarded as evil, another clear indication of the eternal struggle, where the battlefield is the Earth. This sort of conflict is especially evident in Indian mythology, in the epics called the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana concerns the evil demon god, Ravana, who eventually captures the wife of the hero, Rama. The battle that ensues happens entirely on earth, but Rama is in fact an incarnation of the supreme god, Vishnu, and thus provides a very good example in which the battle between the gods is carried out in the human world.
There is no coherent distinction between good and evil across all cultures, no clear definition that classifies the evil as being evil. If we were to recall the abstract idea of chaos, which preceded the creation of the universe, we would notice that evil in cultures that believed in this sort of cosmology, was very often seen as the force that tried to return the world to its state of chaos. This can be seen in Norse mythology, where the forces of darkness continuously assail the world tree, trying to bring its downfall. Norse mythology is discussed again later.
In many cultures, especially oriental cultures, evil can also be seen as the spirits of the mortal world who attempt to attain immortality, by means that are in no way good. Chinese folklore tells of many of these tales, where various spirits such as that of snakes and foxes garner spirits of human beings, eventually hoping to use the power of the spirits to attain immortality. It also tells of spirits who tried to steal the peaches of immortality in heaven.
In other occasions, good and evil can often be considered as the gods, and those against them. At other times, the war itself might be within the classes of good and evil itself, between the two internal parties, each having a slightly different alignment. Greek mythology itself illustrates very good examples of this.
There were two classes of gods in the world, the Titans, and later on the Olympians. Preceding these two classes of gods was the creator, Gaia. Gaia was the constant agent of change, as she aided the shift in power from the Titans and Olympians. This shift in power was carried out by a single war that happened near the start of time. Since there were no coherent evil forces present in the Greek Pantheon, unlike many other cultures, the wars between good and evil were entirely carried out within the classes of gods.
The Olympians finally beat the Titans, and later, Gaia was not happy with the Olympians and tried to wage war against them. In this situation, the Olympians might have been seen as being on the good side and they were the rulers of the earth. Gaia, who was trying to overturn them, might have been considered as an evil party.
The balance between good and evil is yet another interesting idea. The Chinese have the famous symbol of Yin and Yang. The black and white sections within the circle represent the equilibrium between good and evil, and the existence of good within evil, and evil within good. This idea is also repeated in many cultures in the daily cycles of light and darkness. In this cycle, night never really overcame day, whilst day never really overcame night. Yet day-by-day, good fell to evil and evil fell to good. This idea is reiterated in Norse mythology.
However, times and cultures often tell of the time when such a balance is tipped. In Indian mythology, the demons have often overpowered the gods, and had taken portions of the world. This imbalance required the intervention of the supreme god Vishnu to come and restore the previous order.
Norse mythology is a unique example, which speaks of Ragnarok, the day when evil would ultimately overtake good. In this case, the tip of the balance does not last long, as the entire world is eventually destroyed, after which there is a rebirth. In this case, the overtaking of the evil might be seen as an instrument of rebirth and recreation.
It is however more common in mythologies to tip the balance in favour of the good. Back to the case of Indian mythology, the supreme god Vishnu is often able to push back the situation in favour of the gods. In the stirring of the ocean to produce a potion of immortality, Vishnu takes the potion and gives it only to the gods, leaving the demons without any.
To tip the balance in this way, various cultures have employed different methods to quell the evil. Even though Greek mythology did not have a coherent force of darkness, it had its many heroes who had slain many isolated agents of evil, such as the Hydra and the Gorgons. The Tibetans have the destroyer of evil, Vajrapani, who is adept at slaying the evil forces, and to maintain the tip of the balance in favour of the gods.
However, many cultures still acknowledge the impossibility of such a task as to eradicate evil. The Tibetans had a god who was reincarnated as a human being to battle evil. After slaying the evil in the world, he returned to heaven. However, it is said that from time to time he would return, for evil would once again arise.
For sure, it would be impossible to at any point deem good or evil to have completely taken over anything, for even the Bible tells of evil arising from within the ranks of angels. In Greek mythology, Pandora is set upon human beings, as she accidentally releases all the diseases and sins upon humanity, who were then still pure. However, all was not lost, as she also released hope: the good within all the evil that would afflict man.
The most common animals in mythology are perhaps the bird, and the serpent. These two creatures represent the opposite forces of good and evil, with the birds being in assistance or in service of the gods in the sky. The serpents, on the other hand, lurk in the deep dark underworlds, coiling up in its slimy body, as though to strangle the world.
The North Americans had an example of this, in the thunderbird, which was engaged in an eternal battle against the serpents which lived in the waters of the world. Central African mythology also tells of this same idea, where the Lightning bird had the sky to itself, while the serpent dwelled in the watery underworlds. In Egypt, the sun fights the serpent Apep during the night. Yet another example of this concept of struggle between animals, depicting the battle between good and evil, is from Scandinavia, where the Norse believed that both a serpent and an eagle on the bough of Yggdrasil, with the squirrel Ratatoskr causing strife between them. This idea also reiterates the theme of tricksters.
Another important animal in mythology is the tortoise, whose shell is very often associated with land. The tortoise is also the sea creature with perhaps the closest link to land, but before we go into that, it is worth mention that many Northern American mythologies believed in the world to be in the form of a giant tortoise, with the upper surface of its shell being heaven, the lower surface of his shell representing the underworld, and his body representing the mortal plane.
Indian mythology features the supreme god Vishnu, who had ten avatars or incarnations. One of these ten avatars was in the form of the tortoise, who held a mountain up while the gods and demons stirred the sea using the mountain. Other southern Asian mythologies also attribute the formation of certain islands to being the shells of tortoises.
The link between gods and animals is usually very close, especially in the case of gods who have the ability to change his form, or shape shift. Anyone who is familiar with Zeus' many love affairs would know how he often took the form of some other creature to enter the quarters of the object of his desire. Other famous shape shifting examples would come from Norse Mythology, where the god Loki was famous for his ability to change into any form he wanted, and to thus to get out of sticky situations and to escape quickly.
Besides the god's ability to assume the form of animals, many gods possessed animals as their attendants. Odin himself had two wolves and two ravens as his attendants. The Greek goddess Athene had an owl, and Hades had Cerberus to guard the underworld, as Hel from Norse mythology had the hellhound, Garm. Egyptian mythology is one prime example of the times when the gods themselves are not human, but rather take on animal forms.
Humans and animals share yet another relationship with animals. Native American mythology especially subscribes to the idea of the close bond between animals and humans, such that the two sometimes are one. One culture explains that humans and animals are in fact animals who have transformed into human beings on landing on the shores of America.
Plants do not play a large role in mythology, unlike animals. The most important instances of plants in mythology are world trees, which quite a few cultures believe in. These trees hold up the whole world in its trees and branches. In some Malaysian mythology, the creator turned half the world's population into trees to curb overpopulation.
Although the role of nature amounts up to a lot more in mythology, much of their roles do not carry much significance and would not come to very much consequence in the discussion of themes in mythology, but yet it is impossible to ignore their prescence.
After death, these souls would travel to the realm of the dead, which most cultures referred to as the underworld. The underworld traditionally was located far away from the mortal world. In the case of the Greeks, the underworld was situated at the end of the earth, where one had to pay his way across the river, on the boat of Charon. The Norse believed that the realm of the dead was at one of the roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil, while the Chinese believed in an underworld with no exact real world location, just that it was far below the surface of the earth.
From there on, myths generally split in two directions, the first towards reincarnation, whilst the second towards an eternal life after death. Either way, there traditionally had always been a screening process, where the deceased was judged, to decided his outcome.
Judgement in a culture
that subscribed to reincarnation often involved the idea of karma, the
amount of good or evil a person has done in his life. This karma would
decide the deceased's punishment, and even the outcome of his reincarnation.
A classical example of this system was the one found in Chinese mythology.
Chinese mythology, was similar to Japanese mythology, where there were
eighteen varying levels of hell in the Chinese system, whilst there were
sixteen in the Japanese.
Cultures that do not
believe in reincarnation usually believe in some form of eternal life.
In Egyptian mythology, for example, the deceased's heart was weighed against a feather, and if the heart tilted the balance, then the person would be sent to be devoured by a monster, thus ending his afterlife. However, if he passed the screening, he would join the ranks of the gods to fight the evil serpent Apep.
This idea is very similar to the idea of Norse mythology, where the Norse believed that the only way of afterlife came in the form of being chosen by the Valkyries, to be a part of Odin's army for Ragnarok, the end of the world. In Slavic mythology, heaven itself is situated in the east, beyond the sunrise, where the people who pass the judgement depart for.
Besides death, many ancient cultures also believed in other ways the spirit left the body, such as in dreams. Although it does not have an effect as great as that of death, the leaving of the soul from the body temporarily allowed for exploitation as those skilled in the black arts were able to exploit this time to steal the body, which requires much skill from a shaman to remedy.
End of the World
As such, most cultures accounted for the end of the world, which lay at the end of an indefinite period of time, waiting for the trigger to be pulled to finally result in the end of the world. However varied enough as the possibilities may be, the myths of destruction around the world are strikingly similar.
One major idea with regards to the destruction of the world lay with the cosmic architecture that was not able to sustain itself forever, and that would sooner or later collapse when an important section of the world gave way. The Australian Aborigines believed that the sky was held up by four pillars, and that sooner or later one of the pillars would become too weak to hold the weight of the sky anymore, and would give way, causing the sky to fall upon the world, ending it instantly.
Conversely, the Cherokee people of America believed that the earth was held above the sea by four suspensions from the sky. When one of these four suspensions finally rotted, the earth would fall into the sea, wiping out the whole world. Also from North America, the Cheyenne people believed that a beaver gnawed at the single beam that supported the world. When the beaver finally succeeded in severing the link, the earth would fall and be destroyed.
Besides just ideas of fractures within the cosmic architecture, many mythologies also talked of times when certain elements would run out, causing an adverse effect upon the world, causing it to eventually end. This is the case in West African mythology that believed in the presence of a huge serpent known as the rainbow serpent. This serpent held together the world, and was fed iron bars to keep it from biting its own tail. However, sooner or later the bars would run out. When that happens, the serpent would bite its own tail and devour itself, causing the world to fold upon itself.
Lastly, another example comes from American mythology and the Tsimshian people. These people believed that one day, the person who holds up the pole holding up the Earth, would run out of energy and cause the world to fall as he dies from the strain.
The other sort of apocalypse comes about when the balance in the forces in the world is upset. This is so in Norse mythology. Although the destruction of the world still involved the decay of some element holding together the world, this apocalypse included the idea of giants overcoming the gods. This seemed to play a more important role in the destruction of the world. To understand the end of the world, or Ragnarok as the Norse called it, it would be good to read the story of Ragnarok itself. To summarize, Ragnarok basically referred to the time when the giants would finally rise against the gods, and where all the main gods were killed. The world would finally be consumed in fire.
This idea is similar to Egyptian destruction, although the Egyptians made it a lot simpler. The sun god Ra was believed to walk through the underworld each day where he would be attacked by the serpent Apep, but would successfully slay the serpent every night. However, the Egyptians believed in a time when the god would be too old to fight the serpent, and would finally fall to it. Without the sun god, all creation would come to a bitter end.
Of course many mythologies do not provide an absolute end of the world. This is especially so in cultures that believed in cyclic processes of creation and destruction. This idea is largely talked about in creation itself, but to mention it again, this can be seen in mythologies such as Indian mythology and Aztec mythology.
Indian mythology believed that the many ages of the world was accompanied by the waking and sleeping of the creator. The creator destroyed the world before he slept, only to recreate it the next morning. However, each day in the life of the creator lasted several million years. Within each day in the life of the creator also came many other destructions and rebirths of the world, which is further elaborated in Indian Cosmology. The Aztecs believed that there had been four previous worlds before this one, each with its own creation and destruction. They believed that it was a matter of time before the end to this world came too.
Once again as in the discussion of Creation, it would be interested to bring in the idea of the big crunch, which essentially is the opposite of the big bang, which created the entire universe and the cosmos. The big crush referred to the time when the various masses in space eventually pulled themselves by way of gravitational forces, back into a single point mass. This idea is very similar to that of the collapse of the cosmic architecture. However, as scientists predicted, and as the ancient people prophesized, such destruction is a far throw off from reality and could occur at the end of an indefinite period of time.