In the beginning there was darkness. Then there was light. Then there
was consciousness. Then there were questions and then there was religion.
Religions sprouted up all over the world as a response to some of humanity’s
most troubling questions and fears. Why are we here? Where do we come from?
Why does the world and nature act as it does? What happens when you die?
Religions tended to answer all these questions with stories of gods and
goddesses and other supernatural forces that were beyond the understanding of
humans. Magic, in it’s essence, were the powers wielded by these superior
beings that caused the unexplainable to happen.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the present. In our age and time
there is little left unexplained. Science seems able to explain everything with
mathematical logic and concrete evidence right before our very eyes. The
subject of science is taught in almost every school on Earth. Gone are the days
of magic and wonder. The magic of so-called magicians like David Copperfield
are a jest. When people attend a magic show everyone looks for the invisible
wires and hidden projectors. No one really believes the magician has
supernatural powers, except for maybe a handful of children in the audience who
still have faith in Santa Clause.
Science does seem to explain all. It has enabled humans to fly, cure
incurable diseases, explore the depths of the oceans, stave off death, walk on
the moon and wipe out entire civilizations with the push of a button. It is
becoming more and more widespread in that people are putting their faith in
science above that in the gods. What parent wouldn’t rather bring their sick
child to a doctor than have faith in the healing power of some mystical entity
that may or may not exist.
However strong and almost perfect the view of science is in today’s
society it cannot and does not cover the entire spectrum of the human experience.
Nor does it explain some of the striking similarities present in the various
religions of Earth. These similarities occur in civilizations not only far from
each other but also in cultures separated by seemingly impossible to traverse
oceans of water. Many of these similarities occur in the cosmological or
creation myths of the various religions.
In the Bible and other in other comparable ancient literatures, creation
is a theme expressed in parables or stories to account for the world. In almost
every ancient culture the universe was thought of as darkness, nothing and chaos
until order is induced by the divine creative hand. The type of order
envisioned varied from culture to culture. In the Biblical perspective, it was
envisioned that light should be separated from dark, day from night; and that
the various forms of plant and animal life be properly categorized. Although
the figure differ from myth to myth, all the ancient stories intend to give a
poetic accounting for cosmic origins. When viewed in terms of creational motifs,
the stories tend to be similar.
Some myths of creation include myths of emergence, as from a
childbearing woman, or creation by the marriage of two beings representing the
heavens and earth. A common feature of some Hindu, African and Chinese myths is
that of a cosmic egg from which the first humans are “hatched” from. In other
cultures, it must be brought up from primordial waters by a diver, or is formed
from the dismembered body of a preexisting being. Whether the deity uses
preexisting materials, whether he leaves his creation once it is finished, how
perfect the creation is, and how the creator and the created interact vary among
the myths. The creation story also attempts to explain the origins of evil and
the nature of god and humanity.
An example of two different religions containing various aspects of each
other could be that of the creation myth of Christianity and aspects of
creationism found in African religion. The creator god in the African religion
is Nyambi. Nyambi creates a man, Kamonu, and the man does exactly as his god
does in every way; Similar to the way the god of Christianity creates man in his
own image. Also Nyambi creates for Kamonu a garden to live in, the same way the
Garden of Eden was created. Another motif repeated between these two religions
is that of the Bible’s Tower of Babel. Kamonu, after his god left him behind,
tried to build a tower to reach his god but like The Tower of Babel it collapsed
and the humans failed to reach heaven.
In Mesopotamian culture the epic tale Gilgamesh is almost totally
identical to the Biblical story of Noah and the ark. In the tale of Gilgamesh,
Gilgamesh is warned by Enki that a divine judgment has been passed and the world
is to be destroyed by a giant flood. Gilgamesh is instructed build a boat to
bring his family and animals so to escape the flood.
Another powerful example of the commonality of myth transcending
cultures is in the Trimurti of Brahman in post classical Hinduism when compared
to the holy trinity of Christianity. Brahman, the Hindu essence of ultimate
reality is at the very core of Hinduism, post classical Hinduism sees him in
three aspects. Each of these three aspects of Brahman is expressed by a god
from classical Indian literature: Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer;
and Vishnu, the preserver. Very similar to the Holy Christian Trinity of: God,
the father; Christ, the son; and the Holy Spirit. In both Hinduism and
Christianity the trinities are three and at the same time one entity.
In the mythology of many of the Central Asian Pastoral Tribes the
supreme deity of their religion is confronted by an adversary representing the
powers of darkness and evil. Very much like the relationship in the Christian
mythos between God and Lucifer, this figure of evil attempts to counter the
plans of the celestial good being and aims at gaining dominance over the world
and at establishing a realm of his own in which he would rule over humanity.
The forces of good and evil are not equally balanced, however, and there is
never any real doubt about the final supremacy of the sky-god. Yet according to
some myths the representative of evil and darkness succeeded in leading people
astray and bringing about a fall similar to that of Adam and Eve.
Other mythological motifs not involving Christianity or the Bible is
that of a god or a hero making the dangerous journey to the underworld , or
Hades, to retrieve a lost love. The Greek mythological tale of Orpheus and the
Japanese Shinto myths both contain very similar aspects. In both of these
stories, Orpheus and Izanagi, lose their spouses to death and venture into the
terrible underworld of Hades to try to wrest them back. In both stories they
are on the way to getting back each his wife as long as they don’t look back
towards her. In both tales both Izanagi and Orpheus look back, losing the
chance they had at having their loves returned to them.
These are just some of the universal myths contained within various
religions of the world. How do all these myths seem to transcend the
geographical and cultural boundaries of Earth? Carl Gustav Jung, a leading
psychologist and contemporary of Freud, came up with a theory involving the
collective unconscious of a person’s psyche. The collective unconscious,
according to Jung, is made up of what he called “archetypes”, or primordial
images. These correspond to such experiences such as confronting death or
choosing a mate and manifest themselves symbolically in religion, myths, fairy
tales and fantasies.
Joseph Campbell, considered by most to have been the foremost expert on
world religions and mythology, believed to be a fact that; “…mythologies and
their deities are productions and projections of the psyche”. It was his belief
that religions and myths come from one’s own creative imagination and
unconsciousness. He further believed that humankind is intrinsically linked in
that some part of human nature creates these myths and religions out of a need
for them. We all have the same basic psychological makeup just as we all have
the same basic physical makeup.
Recent scientific studies suggest that the average human uses only ten
to fifteen percent of his or her brain. What happens to the other eighty-five
to ninety percent of it? Does it just sit there and have absolutely no use? Or
does it perhaps contain the universal commonalties of what links us all as a
great big tribe of human beings; containing our greatest hopes, our worst fears,
our dreams and creativity. Perhaps it does contain a link to the realm of
mysticism and surrealism which artists such as Salvador Dali tried so hard to
render on canvas. Science doesn’t know what it contains. It’s in our skulls
and we’re not even sure what it contains, maybe the answers to our own
World Religions From Ancient History to the Present editor: Geoffrey Parrinder,
copyright 1971, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd.
Essays On a Science of Mythology Carl Jung, copyright 1949, Pantheon Books Inc.
Myths To Live By Joseph Campbell, copyright 1972, Viking Press
Religions of the World Lewis M. Hopfe, Copyright 1976, Prentice-Hall Inc.
Mythology Edith Hamilton, copyright 1942, Little Brown Inc.
Encarta ’95 copyright 1995, Microsoft corp.