Cosmic Oceans: The Primordial Waters of Ancient Creation Myths
Almost without exception, mythological and folkloric traditions around the ancient world were concerned with the matter of deep time and the earth’s creation. While creation myths exhibit great variation and often echo the prevailing psychology of their respective peoples, there is one critical motif that remains relatively common to a range of broadly dispersed ancient cultures from Mexico and Peru to Egypt and Sumeria: the primeval waters.
These churning, chaotic primordial deeps feature consistently among ancient traditions and are often referred to by modern folklorists as the ‘cosmic ocean’. Rather than purely tabulating the widespread instances of this motif with the goal of highlighting their fundamental similarities, searching for shared meanings behind them may yield a more authentic understanding of the regular inclusion of the primeval waters within creation stories. In other words, as anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz advised students of mythology in 1911:
“To adduce parallels when studying a religion or a mythology is worth doing, in order to show the fundamental bond which unites all systems of belief in things called spiritual; but it is more important to try to understand why there should be such parallels and such a unifying principle behind them.”
The Primordial Waters Across Cultures
Where they appear in ancient creation myths, the primeval waters are often associated with chaos and disorder. In many of these myths, the act of creation becomes tantamount to setting order to chaos, or, in other words, to dividing the disordered, watery substance of pre-creation into its subsequent created forms.
For the Babylonians, as is inscribed on the seven tablets recounting the Babylonian creation myth or the Enûma Elish, nothing existed in the beginning but Apsu and Tiamat, the masculine and feminine personifications of the chaotic and formless primordial waters. The Egyptians referred to this watery chaos of pre-creation as ‘nu’ or ‘nun,’ a state of unlimited potential out of which the first primeval mound of solid earth would eventually arise.
Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of Ra into the sky at the beginning of time. (A. Parrot / Public Domain)
Hindu creation narratives also describe a primordial sea. The Vedic deity Prajapati is said to have first emerged from the primeval waters before asking, “For what purpose have I been born if from this which forms no support?” alluding to the shapeless disorder of the ancient oceans.
In another story, Prajapati is born of a lotus flower that bloomed while floating across the primeval waters. In the Vaishnava tradition, the supreme deity Narayana, whose name can be translated as ‘the one who rests on water’, initiated a cycle of creation while dreaming upon the primordial Ocean of Milk.
Half a world away, the indigenous Mixtec people of Mexico describe the same state of formless and shapeless watery darkness of the first time, as translated by Garcia in his Origin de los Indias: “before ever were years or days, the world lay in darkness. All things were odorless, and a water covered the slime and ooze that the earth then was”.
Similar Polynesian creation stories also refer to the primeval waters as the original, sole substance of pre-creation. One origin story, for instance, speaks of the prime creator deity Ta’aroa bursting forth from a cosmic egg laid upon the face of the primeval waters, initiating creation.
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Ta’aroa, the supreme deity of Polynesia, creator of the world. (Hic et nunc / Public Domain)
With the arrival of the prime god or gods often came order, suggesting that the natural patterns and cycles of creation were believed to have been apportioned or maintained by a divine, creative hand. The Pyramid Texts, the Egyptian religious texts inscribed within the 5th-8th-dynasty pyramids at Saqqara, relate that Ra, by descending upon and calming the waters, “put order in the place of chaos”.
For the Egyptians, order was synonymous with Maat, the highly regarded concept of truth and justice, and by subduing the waters, Ra established the supremacy of Maat. The primeval waters of chaos, although defeated, stood in opposition to Maat, and myths of their chaotic churnings served as a reminder of the constant threat of disorder against the established order guarded by the Pharaoh.
The primeval waters across creation myths often appear to have a twofold nature. On one hand, they signify a muddled state without the predictable patterns and cycles of the universe, the antithesis of creation and order. On the other, they represent limitless potential, the creator’s blank slate for his impending creation. Researcher Michael Rappenglück in his 2014 article in the Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry journal describes the “undifferentiated materia prima” of the waters as “having the potentiality of creation and regeneration, but also of absorption and destruction of entities,” suggesting a double nature to the watery, primeval state of the universe.
Tiamat and Marduk from an Assyrian bas-relief at Nimrud. (Georgelazenby / Public Domain)
The Spoken Word Used to Subdue the Primordial Waters
In myths involving the primordial ocean, it is often the spoken word that is the key divine tool used to calm the waters and initiate creation. Perhaps the most familiar examples of this motif come to us from biblical and Islamic theology.
In Genesis, God “moved upon the face of the waters,” the biblical version of the formless and void primeval waters (1:2 KJV). To begin creation, God speaks his first command—“Let there be Light” (1:3)—and at this point begins the process of bringing order to the earth and its waters through the power of the spoken word. The Qur’an relates that Allah “made from water every living thing,” (21:30) and that to begin creation, Allah spoke to the earth and sky, commanding them to “come together, willingly or unwillingly” (41:11).
In the Bible the Christian God brought water and light to the earth through the power of the spoken word. (Artbaggage / Adobe Stock)
In the Babylonian creation story, it is said that Ea uttered a powerful spell, a "pure (or white, or holy) incantation” to put an end to violent primeval waters of Apsu. One Egyptian tradition, preserved in a papyrus from late antiquity in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (quoted by Meeks and Favard-Meeks in Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods) indicates that the ibis-headed god Thoth used the power of the spoken word to bring about creative processes:
“I am Thoth, master of the divine words ...I know what is concealed in the sky, inaccessible on earth, and hidden in the Primeval Ocean. I am the creator of the sky, he who is at the origin of the mountains … I make the gods and men live.”
The element of the spoken word is preserved in Lakota legend. One story attests that the supreme creative power uniquely used the power of song to mold and shape the mud that would later be applied to the waters to form dry land.
Peruvian prayers, furthermore, profess that the creator used his divine word, or ‘ñisca,’ to command creation into being: “Let earth and heaven be,” “let there be day,” “let there be night,” and so forth. In his 1916 study Oceanic Mythology, American anthropologist Roland Dixon compared this Peruvian narrative, interestingly, to a Māori creation myth:
"Io dwelt within the breathing-space of immensity.
The universe was in darkness, with water everywhere,
There was no glimmer of dawn, no clearness, no light.
And he began by saying these words,—
That he might cease remaining inactive:
'Darkness! become a light-possessing darkness.'
And at once light appeared.”
Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay on Lake Taupō. (QFSE Media / CC BY-SA 3.0 NZ)
Here, it must be noted that there is an unsettled debate regarding the origin of the Io myth and, indeed, other myths which share a striking resemblance to the biblical creation story. Some scholars assert that Io entered Māori tradition only at the point of European contact, which would suggest the presence of Christian influence in the story.
Others believe that Io existed prior to European contact within the highest priestly circles, and that the notion of a supreme creative deity survived from the earliest traditions. Whatever the case may be, the problem of Io serves as a reminder that mythological similarities are not always what they seem and may point to traces of both ancient and modern contact between cultures.
The theme of the spoken word as the key mechanism of creation is so pervasive across the ancient world that to speak of all of its appearances would be nearly impossible. For our purposes, it is enough to recognize that the spoken word was often considered the primary power by which the creator or creators set order to the roiling waters of the first time.
Further study would reveal that the creative power of the spoken word found its way into traditional religious and social practices of these cultures, from the vocalized spells or ‘utterances’ found in the Pyramid Texts to the spoken curses and blessings of Celtic poetry, revealing a wide-ranging belief that the spoken word could continue to change the physical world as it had done during the process of creation.
Pyramid Text inscribed on the wall of a subterranean room in Teti's pyramid, at Saqqara. (Conscious / Public Domain)
As we have seen by these accounts, the primeval waters appear to represent relatively consistent concepts across ancient cultures and played a critical, foundational role in their respective creation mythologies, but why should water have come to represent the primordial ‘stuff’ of creation, the elemental basis of the universe?
As a unique, nebulous element able to take on three forms, water was considered by some ancient cultures and philosophers to be the foundational substance of the universe, the element of undifferentiated potential. The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus believed water to be the ‘primary principle’ of the universe, the substance out of which all things emerged.
According to Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics,’ Thales believed that “the [primary] principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it”.
In the same text, Aristotle makes another interesting observation relating water to the gods and to the creative process: “Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature [as Thales]; for they made Oceanus and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, to which they give the name of Styx…”
Its distinctive, almost mystical nature also gave rise to water’s ritualistic significance, from its use in purification rituals such as baptism to its integration into sacred architecture. Many temples across the Near East were said to have been founded upon natural springs, some of which still flowed out of the temples during their times of use.
These springs are believed to have represented the primeval waters while the temples above them signified the order of the universe and the dwelling place of the gods. The Temple of Jerusalem, for instance, was described by the Roman historian Tacitus as being built upon “an inexhaustible spring,” and Eusebius, citing Aristeas, wrote that the temple contained “an abundant spring gushing up naturally from within”.
The temples of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar were also erected at the mouths of natural springs, pointing to the goddess’s association with the waters of life. The Temple of Apollo at Didyma, too, was built to surround the mouth of a spring, which was thought to carry oracular power to the temple. Another example comes from the temple architecture of ancient India, where special reservoirs of water called ‘kalyani’ were maintained within temple complexes to provide ritualistic cleansing before prayer.
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The Temple of Apollo at Didyma. (Hekataios von Milet / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Understanding the primeval waters as a motif in creation myths offers a greater insight into ancient cultures’ individual and shared perceptions of the nature of the world as it was ‘in the beginning’. It also provides a measure of understanding to the architecture and customs stemming from the resulting veneration of the primal waters, and raises questions relating to contact between cultures and cultural diffusion.
Water was rightly viewed as the source of life, and it should come as no surprise that it became in creation myths the original source, the fundamental material approached by the creator at the moment of creation. There are common meanings to be found among these myths, even among those that arose on opposite sides of the globe, but the reasons for these similarities have remained consistently and fiercely debated since the emergence of comparative mythology as a discipline.
Top Image: Primordial ocean. Credit: elen_studio / Adobe Stock
By Morgan Smith
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