Origin myth

Origin myth

An origin myth is a myth that purports to describe the origin of some feature of the natural or social world. One type of origin myth is the cosmogonic myth, which describes the creation of the world. However, many cultures have stories set after the cosmogonic myth, which describe the origin of natural phenomena and human institutions within a preexisting universe.

Nature of origin myths

Every origin myth is a story of creation: origin myths describe how some new reality came into existence.Eliade, p. 21] In many cases, origin myths also justify the established order by explaining that it was established by sacred forcesEliade, p. 21] (see section on "Social function" below). The distinction between cosmogonic myths and origin myths is not clear-cut. A myth about the origin of some part of the world necessarily presupposes the existence of the world — which, for many cultures, presupposes a cosmogonic myth. In this sense, one can think of origin myths as building upon and extending their cultures' cosmogonic myths.Eliade, p. 21] In fact, in traditional cultures, the recitation of an origin myth is often prefaced with the recitation of the cosmogonic myth. [Eliade, pp. 21-24]

In some academic circles, the term "myth" properly refers only to origin and cosmogonic myths. For example, many folklorists reserve the label "myth" for stories about creation. Traditional stories that do not focus on origins fall into the categories of "legend" and "folk tale", which folklorists distinguish from myth. [Segal, p. 5]

According to historian Mircea Eliade, for many traditional cultures nearly every sacred story qualifies as an origin myth. Traditional man tends to model his behavior after sacred events, seeing his life as an "eternal return" to the mythical age. Because of this, nearly every sacred story describes events that established a new paradigm for human behavior, and thus nearly every sacred story is a story about a creation. [See, for example, Eliade, pp. 17-19]

Social function of origin myths

An origin myth often functions to justify the current state of affairs. In traditional cultures, the entities and forces described in origin myths are often considered sacred. Thus, by attributing the state of the universe to the actions of these entities and forces, origin myths give the current order an aura of sacredness: "Myths reveal that the World, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history, and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary." [Eliade, p. 19] In many cultures, people are expected to take mythical gods and heroes as their role models, imitating their deeds and upholding the customs they established:

When the missionary and ethnologist C. Strehlow asked the Australian Arunta why they performed certain ceremonies, the answer was always: "Because the ancestors so commanded it." The Kai of New Guinea refused to change their way of living and working, and they explained: "It was thus that the Nemu (the Mythical Ancestors) did, and we do likewise." Asked the reason for a particular detail in a ceremony, a Navaho chanter answered: "Because the Holy People did it that way in the first place." We find exactly the same justification in the prayer that accompanies a primitive Tibetan ritual: "As it has been handed down from the beginning of the earth’s creation, so must we sacrifice. … As our ancestors in ancient times did—so do we now." [Eliade, pp. 6-7]



* Eliade, Mircea. "Myth and Reality". Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
* Segal, Robert A. "Myth: A Very Short Introduction". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

See also

* Etiology

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