Cosmogony is a story of how the world came to be. Not all religions talk about the origin of the world and of human life. For example, the BUDDHA adamantly refused to address questions about origins. He said these questions were unimportant. Instead, one should analyze the world as it stands and seek to gain release from SAMSARA, or rebirth.
Few religions, however, have been able to take such an agnostic attitude. When they talk about the origin of the world and human life, they usually tell stories or myths. These myths are known as cosmogonies. The American scholar, Charles H. Long, has identiﬁ ed ﬁve different kinds of cosmogony. For beginners his classiﬁ cation is ideal.
One kind of cosmogony, or story, attributes the origins of the world to the sexual activity of two parents. These parents may be the earth and the sky, as in the mythology of Rangi and Papa in certain Paciﬁ c Ocean societies. The Enuma Elish, a Mesopotamian myth, calls the ﬁ rst parents Tiamat and Apsu. They are the fresh and salt waters whose mixing produces silt. (Think of a river delta.) One Egyptian cosmogony says that the creator ﬁ rst produced the pair Air and Moisture.
Another kind of cosmogony begins with a cosmic egg. One of the UPANISHADS in India describes the creation of the world from a primal egg. As the egg splits, the bottom part of the shell becomes the earth, the top part becomes the sky. The contents of the egg divide to become the various features of the universe.
A third kind of cosmogony is “creation from nothing.” Religions that worship a high god or a single god favor this kind of cosmogony. The best known examples are JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, and ISLAM. Genesis 1 gives a “soft” version of creation from nothing. God does not actually create from nothing. He gives order to “the waters.” A wellknown Hindu hymn assumes creation from nothing, but it asks who can know how creation came about. “The one who looks down from the highest heaven, that one knows—or perhaps even he does not know” (Rig-veda 10.129).
Other religions say that the world as we know it emerged from the bowels of the earth. Indigenous Americans of the southwest often tell of the emergence of the ancestors from within the earth and their transformation into people. Yet another kind of cosmogony is the “earth-diver myth.” The earth comes into existence when primal beings recover raw material from beneath the waters. The Yokuts, an Indian people in California, told how the primal animals sent a duck down to bring up earth from the bottom of the ocean.
Sometimes these types combine. For example, an Egyptian cosmogony begins with creation from nothing, but the ﬁ rst item created is the world-parent pair. There may also be other types of cosmogony. For example, a famous hymn in the sacred Hindu books known as the VEDA attributes the world as we know it to the sacriﬁ ce of the primal person (Rig-veda 10.90).
The rise of scientiﬁ c theories of the origin of the universe and of life has raised problems for traditional religious cosmogonies. Some have responded by rejecting science. For example, some Christian fundamentalists advocate what they call “creation science”. Others have rejected religious cosmogonies out of hand. Still others have taken a path in the middle. They accept the scientiﬁ c accounts so far as they go, but they claim to see in the religious accounts deeper meanings that science lacks.