The Vocabulary of Myth, Part X

Vernal Rebirth and the Creation of the World…

The Circularity of Time…

Eliade’s Eternal Return…

Enuma Elish and the Creation Story in Genesis…

Pneuma, Spiritus, Anima, and Breath

Creation as the Breathing into the World of the Divine Soul…

The Adamic Clay and  Mother Earth…

Creation and the Sexual Act…

     First of all, it should be noted that the recitation of the Enuma Elish was the central liturgical rite of the Akitu, the great Babylonian festival of the New Year.  It was then that Marduk, god of the resurgent vernal sun, in his victory over wintry darkness and sterility, established the conditions for the rebirth of the crops and the vegetation.  To the accompaniment of the singing of the tablets, Marduk’s cosmogonic victory over the chaos-dragon Tiamat was at the same time ritually re-enacted; for on that day, every year, Marduk created the world anew.

In the imagination of the ancient Babylonians, the birth of the year and the birth of the world were thus mutual aspects of the same event, a universally pregnant moment in time that recurs eternally.  Time, as it was normally conceived in antiquity, was not linear but circular, and in its endless cyclical repetitions the ancients saw, as Plato put it in the Timaeus, “the mobile image of eternity”.  As the great mythographer and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, explains, every moment or phenomenon within the merely temporal or profane order achieved meaning only insofar as it could be connected back with and informed by some primordial event, some mythic “archetype” first established in illo tempore, as the beginning of things.


We next observe about the Enuma Elish that, once again, the creation of the world is construed as the distillation and ordering of the cosmic elements out of an original chaos, which (as in the Egyptian cosmogony) is a maritime one.  The sea-serpent Tiamat is the primeval sea, the maternal womb that engenders everything that will eventually come to be.

In Genesis, too, we read that the world arose from a formless watery chaos.  As scholars have understood for generations, the creation myth in Genesis, composed by the so-called Priestly author in the fifth century B.C., was profoundly influenced by the Babylonian cosmogony.

Let us look at the relevant chapters (Gen. 1-8), whereby we can kill two cosmogonic birds with one stone:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

And God called the firmament Heaven…

Now, the word used for the abysmal “deep” in Genesis is t’hom, a word that Ancient Near Eastern scholars recognize as a Hebrew corruption of Tiamat, the Babylonian sea-dragon slain by Marduk before he proceeds to create the world-order out of chaos.  Marduk’s splitting of Tiamat’s body in two and his fixing of half of it in the heavens to keep the waters above in their place corresponds to God’s division in Genesis of the waters above the firmament from the waters below.

Marduk creates the world by unleashing the wind into Tiamat’s maritime womb, which we can interpret naturaliter, if we wish, by noting that every spring—every New Year when the Enuma Elish is recited–the waters flood the Mesopotamian plain and the world reverts to its primeval watery chaos:  until, that is, the winds dry up the water, reveal the land, and restore its agricultural fertility.

But there is a more seminal meaning informing this motive, if you can forgive the pun, which will reveal itself if we return to Genesis.  In Gen. 1:2, we meet the image of God’s Spirit brooding pregnantly upon the face of the waters.  Spirit is the English translation of the Latin Spiritus, a translation of the Greek Pneuma, a translation of the Hebrew ruach, which means “wind” or “breath”.

All good translations, indeed, since Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus also carry the connotation of wind or breath, as we can see immediately from the English derivation “pneumatic”, and the  root of spiritus, the Latin verb spiro, spirare, spiravi, spiratum, from which we also get “respire” and “inspire”.  To “inspire” is, literally, to “breathe into”, and what is breathed into is that active element—the spirit or soul– that animates what is otherwise inert, passively or merely potentially living (that is, formless, or chaotic, matter).

In practically all cosmogonies, the Creator co-exists with this inert, chaotic matter, and he creates the world by breathing into it his own divine spiritus, anima, or soul. He animates or ensouls it; and thus ensouled by God, the world becomes a living God, a “divine animal”, as Plato calls it in the Timaeus.


In Genesis, God creates Adam similarly by inspiring, by breathing into him, his soul, his spiritus or anima, which invigorates the lifeless lump of “Adamic clay”.(Adam, like the world, therefore, is a divine animal, a God; but neither Judaism nor Christianity are entirely comfortable with the radical mythic implications of the biblical text.)

Genesis tells us that the chaotic raw material out of which Adam is created, the Adamic “clay”, comes from the Earth, the Earth being, along with the Sea, the other of the primordial mythic inflections of the “mother” archetype.  God’s creation of Adam by breathing his male spirit into the inert and passive materia of Mother Earth (cf. the old Latin pun, mater…materia), and his creation of the world by blowing his Spirit upon the face of the maternal waters, are thus, once again, mythologically identified.

They are both, of course, mythological transcriptions of the sexual act upon which all life and being depend.

Just as in Egyptian and Sumerian cosmogonies, Father Sky and Mother Earth must be differentiated out of their original chaotic union before they can recombine fruitfully to beget the world and the gods, so in the Enuma Elish and the biblical creation story derived from it, the world is conceived sexually.  And indeed, one way or another, every act of creation depends upon the fecundating male spiritus being disseminated into the mother’s womb.

We’ll meet this motive another thousand times: in cosmogony, solar myths, hero myths, dragon-killing myths, and so on; if the reader is as yet unconvinced of the symbolism, I ask him to be patient.