The Mythic Picture of the World…
The World Disk…
So, we begin at the beginning, with the creation of the world.
The earliest myths of cosmogony (literally, the generation of the universe), cosmology (the rational order and arrangement of the universe), and theogony (the generation of the gods) come, as one would expect, from Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Though it might seem illogical, I want to deal first with cosmology, since it will be easier for us to understand the myths of creation if we can first form a picture of the universe in mind.
When I say “picture”, I mean this almost literally, because from ancient Egypt through Greece and Rome, and all the way down to the late eighteenth century, poets, philosophers, and theologians clearly held the ordered and hierarchical arrangement of the cosmos to be beautiful, meaningful, and ultimately expressive of the Rational Intelligence of the Godhead. It is to this once revered “picture” of the universe—so revered, in fact, that poets, artists, and moralists cleaved to it long after it had been scientifically discredited by Copernicus and Galileo—that the great English writer and critic C.S. Lewis referred wistfully in the title of his book, The Discarded Image.
The Egyptians called the earth goddess Geb, and conceived of it as a kind of disk or platter with an upturned rim, the flat bottom of which represented the alluvial plain of Egypt, and the narrow rim, the mountainous regions of the rest of the world beyond Egypt’s frontier. The image reveals Egyptians as hopelessly Egypto-centric, I suppose (just as the famous New Yorker cover revealed the Manhattano-centricity of New Yorkers, showing as it did the streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan in the foreground, New Jersey as a narrow out-of-focus strip of wasteland across the Hudson, and an even narrower band beyond depicting the rest of the world).
The world-disk floated upon the primeval ocean, called by the Egyptians Nun. Nun was the chaotic waters out of which all of creation and life had first emerged, and at the same time the underworld waters into which the setting sun descended every evening from the western sky, and out of whose eastern waters the sun re-emerged every morning.
I need hardly mention that the daily setting and rising of the sun from Nun’s watery underworld womb was conceived by the Egyptians as the sun-god’s death, descent into the underworld, and rebirth; but this is a theme we’ll have to return to when we discuss Egyptian and other solar and redeemer myths. At this point, I only wish to draw your attention to the way in which the creation of the world, the rising of the sun, and the birth of the human person, are conceived as concentric acts of generation and renewal by the Egyptians, each a phase of the same creative process. Indeed, in some ancient cultures, these occur at the same pregnant moment, so that the birth of the world, the birth of the sun on the winter solstice (when the days begin to lengthen, and the sun’s light begins to overcome winter’s darkness), and the birth of the individual soul are conflated as contemporaneous events.
Since the Nile was the preeminent source of agricultural bounty in Egyptian consciousness, it too was represented as having issued from deep sluices in the earth reaching down into the primeval ocean. Finally, in addition to being the waters below, Nun was also the waters encircling the planetary disk, the Okeanos, as Homer would later call it, in Greek cosmology.
Above the earth was the inverted platter of the sky, paradoxically conceived as a goddess, Nut, the weight of her heavenly vault being carried by four posts rising from the outermost corners of the earth at the four points of the compass. But not entirely trusting this arrangement, the Egyptians provided other means of support in the person of the air-god Shu, who stood on the earth upholding the weight of Nut with his extended arms. And in an early example of engineering triple redundancy, or else a Yoga pose, the sky goddess Nut is herself typically depicted as bending over the earth, with her fingers and toes in contact with the ground, and her belly adorned with the sun, moon, and stars, and the whole circuit of heaven.
But since consistency is never a concern of the mythic imagination, in other depictions, the vault of heaven might be represented as the under-belly of a great celestial cow, studded with the stars of the Milky Way along which the celestial barque of the sun made its course through the sky from east to west.