Folklore and Fable

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Lecture VI:  The Ancient Skies and the Origins of the World


Theories about Origin Tales

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The Sky as First Drama

Here, of course, is where the "ancient skies" come in again, very strongly.  The heavenly bodies often figure prominently in the folklore of origin.  Mircea Eleade, in an essay entitled "The Moon and Its Mystique" observes, as does Krupp, the elementary importance of the moon for ancient cultures.  Eliade stresses the symbolic relationship of the moon to the waters of creation, the snake figure, fertility both in heaven and on earth, and the creative power of the female force.  The moon and the contemplation of the moon serves, in many cultures, to allow man to access the unity of the cosmos.  And, of course, the moon goddesses are often associated with weaving or were said to invent it - and the weaving, in turn, is symbolic of the creation of the world.  The moon, then, or the force of the moon, is often seen as the metaphoric center of Origin tales.   In a chart of moon-goddess names from several cultures, we can see how widespread the moon stories are:

Moon Goddesses

see also Myths of the Moon for these stories

The current moon phase is: waning to Dark

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Caption:  The Man in the Moon visible in the real craters of the Moon

Africa: Araua, Arava, Bomu Rambi, Buruku, Haine, Isamba, Jezanna, Lisa, Mahu, Mawa,
Mawu, Mweji, Namboa, Nasilele, Nyadeang, Nyame, Nyingwan Mebege, Obosom, Ol-apa, Oshu, Pe, Quabso, So, Tano

The Americas (North, South, Central, Caribbean): Aataentsic, Acna, Aialila'axa, Aquit, Changing Woman, Chia, Coatlicue, Coyolxauhqui, Cutzi, Erzulie, Geyaguga, Hanwi, Hun-Ahpu-Mtye, Hunthaca, Ilamatecuhtli, Itzcueye, Ix Ahau, Ix Chebel Yax, Ix Chel, Ix ch'up, Ixcuina, Ixcuiname, Ix U Sihnal, Ka-ata-killa, Kawas, Kikewei p'aide, Kokomikeis, Komorkis, Man-el, Masahkare, Nipa, Ochu, Onchi, Pah, Paxsi, Perimbo, Quilla, Sedna, Si, Tamparawa, Tarqeq, Tcalyel, Tetevinan, Toru-guenket, Wa-kon-da Hondon, Xaratanga, Xquic, Yai, Yaonan, Yemaya, Yerugami, Yolkai Estsan, Yopue

Eastern Europe (Serbia, Russia, Slavic, Etc.):   Breksta, Hov-ava, Lusin, Myesyats, Piegulas mate, Poludnitsy, Teleze-awa

Egypt:  Anatis, Ashtoreth, Bast, Hagar, Hathor, Isis, Kek-t, Kerhet Nephthys, Qetesh

Far East (China, Japan, Korea, etc.): Chang E, Ch' Ang-O, Chang Xi, Chiang, Chuh Kamuy, Kaguya-hime-no-mikoto, Shingo-Moo, Taiyin, Yuefu Taiyin

Greek and Roman (Classical):  Anna Perenna, Antevorta, Aphaea, Aphrodite, Aradia, Artemis, Asterodeia, Atropos, Bendis, Briseis, Britomartis, Brizo, Callisto, Canidia, Circe, Demeter, Diana, Europa, Electryone, Fana, Hecate, Helena, Hera, Io, Jana, Juno, Lalal, Losna, Lucifera, Lucna, Luna, Mene, Munychia, Pamphile, Pandia, Pasiphae, Persephone, Phoebe, Prosymna, Selene, Tanit, Zirna

India:  Anumati, Brisaya, Candi, Chandi Mata, Gomaj, Gungu, Ilura, Inda, Jyotsna, Kuhu, Mata, Mgigalekha, Nakshatras, Ning-Bonga, Paurnamasi, Raka, Sarasvati, Sasilekha, Sinavali, Sushumna, Susime

Near East (Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Persia, etc.):   Al-Lat, Anahita, Ashima, Ashimbabbar, Ashtaroth, Astarte, Baalith, Belili, Caelestis, Derketo, Hapantili, Hur-ki, Inanna, Ishtar, Jerah, Lilith, Lusin, Metra, Nanna, Nikkal, Nuah, Ri, Sadarnuna, Sirdu, Tanit Pene Baal, Telita

Teutonic (Norse, Celtic, etc.): Aine, Albina, Anu, Arianrhod, Annis, Becuma, Borghild, Branwen, Brigantis, Brigit, Carridwen, Cybele, Danu, Dubh Lacha, Etain Echraidhe, Findbhair, Freya, Frigga, Holle, Ilazki, Illargui, Morgana, Morgause, Re, Sadb, Ursula

Oceania (Australia, Polynesia, Micronesia, etc.): Hainvwel, Hana, Hina, Hina hanaia'i ka malama, Hina nui te'a'ara, Hina papa i kua, Hina uri, Hina'i a'a i te marama, Hine te iwaiwa, Hintubuet, Ina maram, Kui o hina, Marama, Rona, Sina, Taio, Tapa

Southeast Asia (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya, etc.): Bulan, Dewi Ratih, Duan Luteh, Funan, Indo nTegolili, Ja Najek, Jara Meng, Kundui, Lingan, Luyong Baybay, Mayari, Nenak Kebajan, Nini Anteh, Omonga, Rabia, Ratih

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The Drama of Tooth and Claw

Joseph Campbell, in an essay entitled "The Emergence of Mankind" takes a quite different tack with regard to ancient tales of Origin.  It's instructive to see how these different approaches carry, within, a different set of assumptions about the function of folklore altogether.  Campbell sits more on the side of Marvin Harris in that he tells us about the Functions of myth, that is, how they serve the societies that invent them.  He also puts more emphasis on the local geographical and environmental factors that might shape Origin concepts.

Campbell begins with Neanderthal man as a starting point for investigating the function of Origin tales.  Already, we have an idea of supernatural power being invoked - in the elaborate burials, grave goods, tools, sacrificed animals, flowers, and so forth.  Also, there are chapels in high mountain caves and under the sea, even, that attest to a connection with ideas of mortality.  These ideas of mortality would seem to mean that these ancient cultures possessed a self-conscious notion of identity that would imply a creation, as well.

He begins with the Bear Cults - and we find the Bear as a creator figure (especially as a representative of the Dipper, in several of the ancient Origin tales).  Campbell then links the Bear Cult to fire, as well.  He points out that the Neanderthals did not use the fire for cooking - rather, he theorizes, fire was a source of wonder, an altar, a sign of the creative force.  In each of the examples he gives, the images and symbols of bear, moon, fertility goddess, and so forth are ways that the ancient peoples defined and attempted to harness the power of nature. 

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Medieval Illustration of the cosmos with the Sun and the Seven Spheres

But the question that is more important, perhaps, to Campbell is whether or not all of these cross-motifs represent a shared history or a local response to their own environment.

Campbell's work directs us to look to the universal elements of each tale -- he says that he, himself, has been at work on "separate chapters of a single mythological epic of the human imagination." And he also wants us to identify the local metaphors by which these elementary symbols have been connected.  In each of the Origin stories we will usually find both--the universal and the hierophantic (as termed by Eliade).

It is in the interaction of these two characteristic features of Origin tales that we can begin to study forms and interpret meaning.

An Inca Example:  One more account tells of the ancestors of the Incas coming out of a cave, called Pacaritampu,
after the flood and populating the earth. There is confusion as to whether the Incas were first
created inside of Pacaritampu by Viracocha, or if this is just the place in which they took refuge
from the flood.  All the people of the earth, then, were descendants of the Incas.  This belief is part
of the reason that the Incas were able to build such a vast and powerful empire, as this would
make all of its followers an important part of the empire.

According to Navajo mythology the Milky Way was created by the mischievous behavior of the god, Coyote. When the world was created, the Holy People gathered around Black God to place the stars in the sky. Coyote grew annoyed at the slowness of this process.

In his anger, he chose to place a red star, called Ma'iio, in the
south. Ma'iio means 'the one who roams'. This star symbolizes
Coyote and appears for only a short time during the year. To the
Navajo, it is a symbol of trouble. Coyote continued to be displeased with the Holy People's progress and
threw the bag of stars over his head, forming the Milky Way.

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Caption:  Greek diagrams of the Constellations

According to the epic Mahabharata, composed in about 500 B.C., the stars of the Big Dipper were the seven sages called Rishis. These seven sages are said to be those who made the Sun rise and shine. They were happily married to seven sisters
named Krttika. They originally all lived together in the northern sky.

But one day, the god of fire, Agni, emerged from the flames of
an offering performed by the seven Rishis and fell in love with
the seven Krttika. Trying to forget his hopeless love for the
Krttika, Agni wandered in the forest where he met Svaha. To
conquer Agni's love, Svaha disguised herself as six of the seven
Krttika. Svaha could mimic only six of the Krttika because the
seventh sister Arundhati was too devoted to her husband to be imitated.

After a while, Svaha gave birth to a child that she named Skanda. With his birth, rumors began to spread
that six of the Rishis' wives were his mother. Six of the Rishis divorced their wives. Arundhati was the
only one that remained with her husband as the star Alcor. The other six Krttika went away to become the


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Caption:  Diagram of the Constellations of the Northern Sky

have you read your horoscope for the day?


Continue with Lecture VI.