We all know the world is round, is populated with people and is surrounded by the sun, moon and stars. Exactly how everything got that way, however, remains up for debate. Some creation myths are well known: much of the world knows the Genesis tale of Adam and Eve, as well as Greek mythology, while Eastern cultures are familiar with the Hindu and Chinese creation stories. But there are a number of lesser known but no less delightful creation myths around the world. As diverse as the myths may get, common themes tend to pop up in many of them. These include an all-powerful deity who brings on the light, floods that kill off the unwanted and the fact that the world was once covered in water until something — or someone — came along to change it. Some of these myths are incredibly detailed, with multiple versions. Here’s a brief look at five of the more unusual creation myths.
5. Inca Creation Myth
Not everyone gets everything right the first time, and that’s apparently true even if you happen to be a god. That was certainly the case for Viracocha, the creator god in the Inca creation myth. Legend has it that Viracocha emerged from Lake Titicaca to bring light into a world of darkness. He did this by creating the sun, stars and moon. When it came to making man, however, his first effort failed. He created a race of giants by simply breathing into rocks, but the creatures were disobedient, so he killed them off with a flood. He then used clay the second time around, creating a new version of mankind that made him happy. Viracocha then dressed up as a beggar and wandered the earth, teaching his new creations the basics on how to live in a civilization while throwing a few miracles in for good measure.
4. Maori Creation Myth
Lying next to someone in the dark can be fine and dandy, and so it was for the two Maori deities of Rangi and Papa in New Zealand. The former, Rangi, is still regarded as father sky while the latter, Papa, is considered mother earth. Don’t get confused just because the deity called Papa is really the mama. Anyway, the two used to hang out in a tight embrace, enjoying each other’s company in the darkness. Then their sons came along. Their many sons — accounts vary on just how many sons they had — ended up crowded between Rangi and Papa. A couple of the sons tried to pry their parents apart so they could get some elbow room and a little light, but their efforts were to no avail. Finally one son who truly had enough used his legs to push his parents apart. It worked! Father sky flew upward while mother earth remained stable, housing and nurturing the offspring. The Maori believe that father sky still cries for the loss of his embrace with Papa and his tears are … you guessed it, the rain.
3. Iroquois Creation Myth
Before there were continents, the earth was covered with water. Not only can this fact be scientifically proven — witness the many ancient marine fossils found on mountaintops — but it is also explained by many cultures in a type of creation tale known as an earth-diver myth. The Iroquois, a Native American people living mostly in New York and Canada today, have arguably the ultimate earth-diver myth. In the Iroquois tale, the primordial earth’s vast sea is full of sea creatures. Up above is a Sky Island, inhabited by happy people who never died. But when one of the Sky Women became pregnant, she was pushed into the sea. The sea creatures immediately helped this Sky Woman, spreading mud on the back of a turtle so that she could live there. More mud was added and an island began to grow. The Sky Woman’s new home eventually became known as North America, and to this day, many Native Americans refer to North America as Turtle Island. Other cultures also prominently feature a turtle in a similar role in creation.
2. Aztec Creation Myth
Creator gods aren’t always nurturers, and sometimes it takes a bit of violence to get the world created properly. Both apply in the case of the Aztec creation myth. The Aztecs’ creator god is known as Coatlicue, which translates to “skirt of snakes.” In addition to a skirt made up of writhing serpents, Coatlicue is typically depicted with claw hands and a necklace of human skulls, hearts and hands. In any event, Coatlicue seemed to be doing just fine, creating a daughter, Coyolxanuhqui, and 400 offspring that became stars. But those offspring turned against her when she became pregnant from a ball of feathers that fell from the sky. The siblings revolted and beheaded mom, but not before she was able to give birth to the god of war, Huizilopochtli. Somehow, Huizilopochtli sprang from the womb fully grown and fully armored. Seeking to avenge his mother’s death, he beheaded the scheming daughter, Coyolxanuhqui, and threw her head into the sky, where it became the moon. Two serpent heads grew from the decapitated mother’s neck. And a good time was had by all.
1. Zuni Creation Myth
The Zuni, a Native American tribe that lives in western New Mexico, have one of the most unusual creation myths in the world. According to Zuni belief, in the beginning humankind existed in total darkness as slimy, ugly beings that had webbed feet and hands, horns and tails, but didn’t have mouths or anuses. None of that mattered until the beings were summoned into the light by the sun and creator Awonawilona, who took pity on the slimy beings. Once the beings entered the light, it was time for a celebration. So Awonawilona’s sons grew corn for the beings to eat. They quickly realized the beings could not eat the corn, due to their lack of mouths. Thus in the middle of the night, Awonawilona’s sons sharpened their knives and made slits on their faces for mouths. The beings awoke and were able to prepare and eat the corn to their heart’s content. All was deliciously glorious — until the stomachaches set in. Things don’t usually go well if you eat mounds of corn but have no means of expelling the waste from your system. Once night returned, the sons again sharpened their knives … and you can fill in the rest to figure how the beings were able to find relief. With other “surgeries,” the sons removed the webbing on the peoples’ hands and feet, and their horns and tails; those who lamented the loss of their tails became monkeys.
One More: Finnish Creation Myth
Finnish mythology includes elements of several different types of creation myth, including the cosmic egg myth and the earth-diver. In this myth, the Sky Daughter Ilmatar floated on the Earth’s waters for some 700 years when she noticed a bird that wanted to perch. So she held up her knees for the bird, which laid eggs on her knees. Ilmatar’s knees got so hot during the eggs’ incubation that she jerked them in a reaction that splattered the eggs on the waters. One of the eggs broke in half, with the bottom half of the shell becoming the earth, the top becoming the sky, the egg white becoming the moon and stars, and the yolk becoming the sun. Ilmatar was so curious about this new egg-world that she went traipsing around in it, eventually giving birth to the first man, known as Väinämöinen. The boy eventually became an old, wizened wizard-type, providing the archetypal image of wizards that we know today.
Editor’s note: Here’s a link to an excellent reference encyclopedia on this topic, Creation Myths of the World.