IN THE BEGINNING
Extract from Chapter 8 of The History of the Soul
© Ian Lawton 2003, 2010
At the end of chapter 5 we discussed the idea of the conscious metaverse that underpins a series of progressively evolving universes, and saw how this might be what the Hindu universal cycle traditions are attempting to describe. More than this, though, it seems that at some point knowledge of this was widespread, at least in terms of an understanding of how each universe emerges from its slumber at what we might call ‘the dawn of Brahma’; because this is the veiled message preserved in the sacred traditions of the ‘origins of the world’ on every continent of the globe.
Of course in properly reinterpreting these traditions we have to see through the inevitable distortions and contextual differences regressively introduced by people who had lost sight of their original message. For example we saw the confusion between the terms earth and universe in some of the Hindu traditions, and nearly all of the origin traditions talk about the creation of the earth when, if we step back and look at the big picture from a spiritual perspective, it soon becomes clear they are echoing a universal esoteric wisdom concerning the creation of the universe as a whole out of nothing. This is why it is arguably more appropriate to refer to them as cosmogony traditions. Indeed it is here more than anywhere that the orthodox failure to appreciate the wisdom underlying supposed mythology is at its most glaringly obvious.[i]
Let us first remind ourselves of the biblical narrative at the beginning of Genesis:
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. 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.
The second verse is clearly describing a time when there was a formless void that had connotations of water, depth and darkness, and which contained the spirit of God. Proof that this has as usual been condensed from more detailed sources is provided by the following wonderfully descriptive passage in the Hermetica:[ii]
In the deep there was boundless darkness and water and fine intelligent spirit, all existing by divine power in chaos. Then a holy light was sent forth, and elements solidified out of liquid essence. And all the gods divided the parts of germinal nature.
The same sense of awe pervades their multiple descriptions of the universal energy or consciousness that animates everything in the universe both seen and unseen, which we tend to refer to simply as ‘source’:[iii]
The monad, because it is the beginning and root of all things, is in them all as root and beginning… the monad contains every number, is contained by none, and generates every number without being generated by any other number.
This is the god who is greater than any name; this is the god invisible and entirely visible. This god who is evident to the eyes may be seen in the mind. He is bodiless and many-bodied; or, rather, he is all-bodied.
God, who is energy and power, surrounds everything and permeates everything, and understanding of god is nothing difficult, my child… If matter is apart from god, my son, what sort of place would you allot to it? If it is not energized, do you suppose it is anything but a heap? But who energizes it if it is energized? We have said that the energies are parts of god… Whether you say matter or body or essence, know that these also are energies of god… And this is god, the all.
Despite their shortcomings the Gnostic texts too provide some fascinating material. For example On the Origin of the World commences as follows:[iv]
How well it suits all men, on the subject of chaos, to say that it is a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from a shadow, which has been called by the name darkness. And the shadow comes from a product that has existed since the beginning. It is, moreover, clear that it existed before chaos came into being…
When the ruler saw his magnitude – and it was only himself that he saw: he saw nothing else, except for water and darkness – then he supposed that it was he alone who existed. His [missing] was completed by verbal expression: it appeared as a spirit moving to and fro upon the waters.
This passage introduces us to three key ideas consistently expressed in origin traditions: that of the use of the word chaos being misunderstood; that of the ‘power of the Word’ in the creation process; and that of the ultimate creative power recognizing it is alone. In addition this power is described in the Tripartite Tractate as ‘a spring which is not diminished by the water which abundantly flows from it’, and as something that ‘cannot be grasped: nor is it possible for anyone else to change him into a different form or to reduce him, or alter him or diminish him… who is the unalterable, immutable one’.[v] How closely these intriguing descriptions mirror the scientific fact that energy cannot be destroyed, it can only change its form.
Unfortunately the Mesopotamian texts are again somewhat deficient in this area, revealing only the faintest traces of any original wisdom. In part this may be explained by the fact that the only real origin tradition that survives is the relatively late Epic of Creation; but these are its opening lines:[vi]
When skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them.
All we can really extract from this is that at one time there existed only the primeval waters of Apsu and Tiamat, and that nothing else was manifest until the gods were born from them.[vii]
These are the earliest verses of The Story of Re introduced in chapter 2:[viii]
In the beginning, before there was any land of Egypt, all was darkness, and there was nothing but a great waste of water called Nun. The power of Nun was such that there arose out of the darkness a great shining egg, and this was Re.
Now Re was all-powerful, and he could take many forms. His power and the secret of it lay in his hidden name; but if he spoke other names, that which he named came into being.To flesh this out let us turn to John Baines and Geraldine Pinch, who provide an interesting summary of ancient Egyptian cosmogony in their essay in World Mythology – even though it is a fine example of the way modern commentators tend to concentrate on prosaic descriptions of the various guises the gods take,:[ix]
Before the gods came into existence there was only a dark, watery abyss called the Nun, whose chaotic energies contained the potential forms of all living things. The spirit of the creator was present in these primeval waters but had no place in which to take shape...
The event that marked the beginning of time was the rising of the first land out of the waters of the Nun. This primeval mound provided a place in which the first deity could come into existence. He sometimes took the form of a bird, a falcon, a heron, or a yellow wagtail, which perched on the mound. An alternative image of creation was the primeval lotus, which rose out of the waters and opened to reveal an infant god. The first deity was equipped with several divine powers, such as Hu (‘Authoritative Utterance’), Sia (‘Perception’) and Heka (‘Magic’). Using these powers, he created order out of chaos. This divine order was personified by a goddess, Ma’at, the daughter of the sun god. The word Ma’at also meant justice, truth and harmony. The divine order was constantly in danger of dissolving back into the chaos from which it had been formed.
The first deity became conscious of being alone and created gods and men in his own image and a world for them to inhabit. Deities were said to come from the sweat of the sun god and human beings from his tears. The power of creation was usually linked with the sun, but various deities are also named as the creator [Ptah in the Memphite tradition, Ra-Atum in the Heliopolitan, and Amon-Ra in the Theban]. At the temple of the sun god in Heliopolis, the Benu bird... was said to be the first deity. Depicted as a heron, the shining bird was a manifestation of the creator sun god, and brought the first light into the darkness of chaos. When it landed on the primeval mound, it gave a cry that was the first sound.
As with the Near Eastern traditions we see from these two passages that the concept of darkness and waters is to the fore, with the added insight in the latter that these contain the potential for all forms of life. What is more we find the first deity being able to create by ‘speaking names’ or using the gift of ‘authoritative utterance’, suggesting again that their Word is sufficient to trigger the emergence and creation process. Meanwhile the symbolism of the primeval lotus clearly mirrors its use in the Indian cyclical worldview that we discussed in chapter 5.
This is also the first time we have encountered the all-pervasive theme of ‘order being created out of chaos’, and this allows us to better understand the confusion referred to earlier that seems likely to have pertained at least since the classical Greek era. The key is that under the Orphic system the god Chaos originally represented the ‘yawning void’.[x] So, rather than representing some purely psycho-materialist concept of universal order that is mirrored in the ordered nature of these new civilizations, this theme surely conveys the idea of creation of an ‘order’ of energy and life forms out of a ‘chasm’ of nothingness. This interpretation is arguably born out by the following extract from the rarely mentioned Book of Knowing the Genesis of the Sungod:[xi]
The Master of Everything saith after his forming:
‘I am he who was formed as Khepri.
When I had formed, then only the forms were formed.
All the forms were formed after my forming.
Numerous are the forms from that which proceeded from my mouth.
The heaven had not been formed,
The earth had not been formed,
The ground had not been created
For the reptiles in that place.
I raised myself among them in the abyss, out of its inertness.
When I did not find a place where I could stand,
I thought wisely in my heart,
I founded in my soul.
I made all forms, I alone.
I had not yet ejected as Shu,
I had not spat out as Tefenet,
None else had arisen who had worked with me.
Then I founded in my own heart;
There were formed many forms,
The forms of the forms in the forms of the children,
And in the forms of their children.’
Moving farther east, the suggestion that the Indian Vedas are some of the finest philosophical texts known to humankind is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in their conception of cosmogony. This is described with great eloquence in the Rig Veda:[xii]
1. There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
2. There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.
3. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.
4. Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.
5. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.
6. Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
7. Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.
Could we ask for a finer description of the ineffable, unnamable, unknowable, infinite, immanent and transcendent life force of the universe, which slumbers in the dark, watery void that contains nothing and yet – at the same time – the potential or seed of everything?
This theme is repeated in a somewhat cryptic extract from one of the Taoist Essays from Huai Nan Tzu:[xiii]
(1) There was the ‘beginning’: (2) There was a beginning of an anteriority to this beginning. (3) There was a beginning of an anteriority even before the beginning of this anteriority. (4) There was ‘the existence’. (5) There was ‘the non-existence’. (6) There was ‘not yet a beginning of non-existence’. (7) There was ‘not yet a beginning of the not yet beginning of non-existence’.
This is followed by a commentary that forms part of the original text:
(1) The meaning of ‘There was the beginning’ is that there was a complex energy which had not yet pullulated into germinal form, nor into any visible shape of root and seed and rudiment. Even then in this vast and impalpable void there was apparent the desire to spring into life; but, as yet, the genera of matter were not formed.
(2) At the ‘beginning of anteriority before the beginning’ the fluid of heaven first descended and the fluid of earth first ascended. The male and female principles interosculated, prompting and striving among the elements of the cosmos. The forces wandered hither and thither, pursuing, competing, interpenetrating. Clothed with energy, they moved, sifted, separated, impregnated the various elements as they moved in the fluid ocean, each aura desiring to ally itself with another, even when, as yet, there was no appearance of any created form.
(3) At the stage ‘There must be a beginning of an anteriority even before the beginning of anteriority’, Heaven contained the spirit of harmony, but had not, as yet, descended: earth cherished the vivifying fluid, but had not ascended, as yet. It was space, still, desolate, vapory – a drizzling humid state with a similitude of vacancy and form. The vitalizing fluid floated about, layer on layer.
(4) ‘There was the existence’ speaks of the coming of creation and the immaterial fluids assuming definite forms, implying that the different elements had become stabilized. The immaterial nuclei and embryos, generic forms as roots, stems, tissues, twigs and leaves of variegated hues appeared. Beautiful were the variegated colors. Butterflies and insects flew hither and thither: insects crawled about. We now reach the stage of movement and the breath of life on every hand. At this stage it was possible to feel, to grasp, to see and follow outward phenomena. They could be counted and distinguished both quantitatively and qualitatively.
(5) ‘The non-existence’ period. It was so called because when it was gazed on no form was seen: when the ear listened, there was no sound: when the hand grasped, there was nothing tangible: when gazed at, it was illimitable. It was limitless space, profound and a vast void – a quiescent, subtile [sic] mass of immeasurable translucency.
(6) In ‘There was not yet a beginning of non-existence’, implies that this period wrapped up heaven and earth, shaping and forging the myriad things of creation: there was an all-penetrating impalpable complexity, profoundly vast and all-extending; nothing was outside its operations. The minutest hair and sharpest point were differentiated: nothing within was left undone. There was no wall around, and the foundation of non-existence was being laid.
(7) In the period of ‘There was not yet a beginning of the not yet beginning of non-existence’, Heaven and Earth were not divided: the four seasons were not yet separated: the myriad things were not yet come to birth. Vast-like even and quiet, still-like, clear and limpid, forms were not visible.
Although the apparent order of these commentaries is somewhat confused, and there is perhaps a subtle suggestion that they ignore physical evolution, they do attempt to say something about the incredible complexities of the universe emerging into its various realms and forms, both physical and nonphysical. Another essay continues the theme:[xiv]
The divinities Yin and Yang were separated... the hard and soft being mutually united... creation assumed form. The murky elements went to form reptiles: the finer essence went to form man. Hence, spirit belongs to Heaven and the physical belongs to Earth. When the spirit returns to the gate of Heaven and the body seeks its origin, how can I exist? The ‘I’ is dissolved.
The implication seems to be that during the night of Brahma the void remains completely undifferentiated and unitary, whereas at the commencement of the day of Brahma – or year, or life, the terminology really does not matter – the first thing the creative power does is split into two, in this case represented by the Yin and the Yang. These apparent dualities representing male and female, positive and negative, light and dark and so on are often misunderstood as opposites, but in fact they are better seen as complementary, unified principles that exist as contrasts on a single scale and have to be balanced. Indeed in this context it is useful to think of the night of Brahma as a state of stasis or equilibrium that has to be knocked out of equilibrium if any sort of dynamic of creation and evolution is going to occur. In many traditions this is represented somewhat prosaically as the supreme creator recognizing he is alone, and becoming so frustrated that he creates one or more companions for himself – as we saw, for example, with the Egyptian first deity in the commentary previously discussed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Japanese cosmogony follows the same line. Their two most sacred ancient texts, the Kojiki or ‘Record of Ancient Matters’ and the Nihongi or ‘Chronicles of Japan’, were compiled in the early part of the eighth century, each having similar content; the opening lines of the latter are as follows:[xv]
Of old, Heaven and Earth were not yet separated, and the In (Yin) and Yo (Yang) not yet divided. They formed a chaotic mass like an egg which was of obscurely defined limits and contained germs.
The purer and clearer part was thinly drawn out, and formed Heaven, while the heavier and grosser element settled down and became Earth.
The finer element easily became a united body, but the consolidation of the heavy and gross element was accomplished with difficulty.
Heaven was therefore formed first, and Earth was established subsequently.
In Greek cosmogony we find that, while many accounts contain the somewhat prosaic distortions we have come to expect, traces of the original wisdom still shine through in places. For example here are the opening lines of Ovid’s Metamorphosis:[xvi]
Ere land and sea and the all-covering sky
Were made, in the whole world the countenance
Of nature was the same, all one, well named
Chaos, a raw and undivided mass,
Naught but a lifeless bulk, with warring seeds
Of ill-joined elements compressed together.
No sun as yet poured light upon the world,
No waxing moon her crescent filled anew,
Nor in the ambient air yet hung the earth,
Self-balanced, equipoised, nor Ocean’s arms
Embraced the long far margin of the land
Though there were land and sea and air, the land
No foot could tread, no creature swim the sea,
The air was lightless; nothing kept its form,
All objects were at odds, since in one mass
Cold essence fought with hot, and moist with dry,
And hard with soft and light with things of weight.
This strife a god, with nature’s blessing, solved;
Who severed land from sky and sea from land,
And from the denser vapors set apart
The ethereal sky; and, each from the blind heap
Resolved and freed, he fastened in its place
Appropriate in peace and harmony.
The fiery weightless force of heaven’s vault
Flashed up and claimed the topmost citadel;
Next came the air in lightness and in place;
The thicker earth with grosser elements
Sank burdened by its weight; lowest and last
The girdling waters pent the solid globe.
This passage at least contains the idea of the undifferentiated nature of the void. Of course we might have expected to be able to turn to Plato for some rather better fare, as usual, but in fact cosmogony is not one of his strong points.
If we now turn to indigenous traditions from around the world, Roland Burrage Dixon provides the following entirely consistent overview of Polynesian cosmogony in The Mythology of All Races:[xvii]
The essential elements of this form of the myth may be stated as follows. In the beginning there was nothing but Po, a void or chaos, without light, heat, or sound, without form or motion. Gradually vague stirrings began within the darkness, moanings and whisperings arose, and then at first, faint as early dawn, the light appeared and grew until full day had come. Heat and moisture next developed, and from the interaction of these elements came substance and form, ever becoming more and more concrete, until the solid earth and overarching sky took shape and were personified as Heaven Father [Rangi] and Earth Mother [Papa].
So, for example, one Maori tradition reported by Dixon begins as follows:[xviii]
Io dwelt within the breathing-space of immensity.
The Universe was in darkness, with water everywhere,
There was no glimmer of dawn, no clearness, no light.
Another is even more esoteric:[xix]
From the conception the increase
From the increase the swelling
From the swelling the thought
From the thought the remembrance
From the remembrance the consciousness, the desire.
The word became fruitful:
It dwelt with the feeble glimmering
It brought forth night;
The great night, the long night,
The lowest night, the loftiest night,
The thick night, the night to be felt,
The night touched, the night unseen.
The night following on,
The night ending in death.
From the nothing, the begetting,
From the nothing the increase
From the nothing the abundance,
The power of increasing, the living breath;
It dwelt with the empty space.
Meanwhile the cosmogony of the Society Islands, for example, follows similar lines:[xx]
He existed. Taaroa was his name.
In the immensity
There was no earth, there was no sky,
There was no sea, there was no man.
Taaroa calls, but nothing answers.
Existing alone, he became the universe.
Taaroa is the root, the rock’s foundation.
Taaroa is the sands.
It is thus that he is named.
Taaroa is the light.
Taaroa is within.
Taaroa is the germ.
Taaroa is the support.
Taaroa is enduring.
Again we find the idea that the creative power in the void contains the potential germ or seed of all things that will eventually emerge.
How do the indigenous traditions of the Americas compare? First let us hear once again from the Hopi Indians of the north:[xxi]
The first world was Tokpela (Endless Space).
But first, they say, there was only the Creator, Taiowa. All else was endless space. There was no beginning and no end, no time, no shape, no life. Just an immeasurable void that had its beginning and end, time, shape, and life in the mind of Taiowa the Creator.
Then he, the infinite, conceived the finite. First he created Sotuknang to make it manifest, saying to him, ‘I have created you, the first power and instrument as a person, to carry out my plan for life in endless space. I am your Uncle. You are my Nephew. Go now and lay out these universes in proper order so they may work harmoniously with one another according to my plan.’
Sotuknang did as he was commanded. From endless space he gathered that which was to be manifest as solid substance, moulded it into forms, and arranged them into nine universal kingdoms: one for Taiowa the Creator, one for himself, and seven universes for the life to come.
This account typifies the Amerindian approach which, unlike those of the East, tends to anthropomorphize the power in the void, personifying it as a ‘supreme creator’. But we can also see quite clearly that this does not prevent it from describing the fundamental nothingness of the void, and how it then differentiated into various universes – or in our terms realms or planes. Meanwhile the similarities of Mayan cosmogony can be seen from the following extract from the Popol Vuh:[xxii]
Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky.
Here follow the first words, the first eloquence:
There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky; there is nothing whatever gathered together. It is at rest; not a single thing stirs. It is held back, kept at rest under the sky.
Whatever there is that might be is simply not there: only the pooled water, only the calm sea, only it alone is pooled.
Whatever might be is simply not there: only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night. Only the Maker, Modeler alone, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green.
Thus the name, ‘Plumed Serpent’. They are great knowers, great thinkers in their very being.
This account continues by describing specifically how ‘the earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth’.
In his essay on Africa in World Mythology, Roy Willis points out that many of its indigenous traditions tend to contain the idea of a ‘cosmic egg’ as also found in, for example, Egyptian and Japanese cosmogony. But what does this egg contain? The Dogon describe it as being ‘the seed of the cosmos’ that ‘vibrated seven times, then burst open’, so this is just another way of depicting the potential or seed within the void.[xxiii] He also suggests that their neighbors the Bambara have one of the most philosophical cosmogonies in Africa:[xxiv]
In the beginning emptiness, fu, brought forth knowing, gla gla zo. This knowing, full of its emptiness and its emptiness full of itself, was the prime creative force of the universe, setting in train a mystical process of releasing and retracting energy.
[i] This collation of origin traditions took a great deal of time and effort in the British Library in the days before the internet made research far simpler. It is sincerely to be hoped that this spiritual reinterpretation thereof may yet receive some recognition in more academic circles, because arguably it is one of the most important contributions made by this work.
[ii] Corpus Hermeticum 3:1; see Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. 13.
[iii] Corpus Hermeticum 4:10, 5:10 and 12:20–2; see ibid., pp. 17, 20 and 47–8.
[iv] Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 171–3.
[v] Ibid, pp. 61 and 64. Further descriptions of the ultimate deity can be found, for example, in the Apocryphon of John; see ibid, pp. 106–7.
[vi] Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, p. 233. Note that the opening to the earlier Sumerian text the Eridu Genesis would probably have contained something relevant, but unfortunately it is missing.
[vii] Orthodox scholars suggest that they regarded the earth (Ki) as a flat disc that was separated from heaven (An) by the atmosphere (Lil), with the whole ensemble immersed like a gigantic bubble in the primeval waters of Tiamat; see, for example, Kramer, The Sumerians, chapter 4, pp. 112–13 and Roux, Ancient Iraq, chapter 6, p. 93. Not only does this tend to ignore the esoteric significance of the primeval waters, which may or may not be a fair reflection of the Mesopotamians’ own understanding, but it may also be somewhat at odds with the astronomical knowledge they possessed.
[viii] Taken from www.egyptianmyths.net/mythre.htm.
[ix] Baines and Pinch in Willis, World Mythology, p. 38.
[x] Ibid., p. 128. See also West, Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days, explanatory note to Theogony 116, p. 64.
[xi] Müller, ‘Egyptian Mythology’, chapter 4, pp. 68–9 in Gray, The Mythology of All Races, volume 12. This text is described as a ‘papyrus copy written in the reign of Alexander II (310 BCE), but which seems to go back to originals that are considerably earlier’.
[xii] Rig Veda 10.129; see O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda, pp. 25–6.
[xiii] Morgan, Essays from Huai Nan Tzu, ‘Beginning and Reality’, pp. 31–3.
[xiv] Ibid., ‘Life and Soul’, p. 58.
[xv] Nihongi 1; see Aston, Nihongi, pp. 1–3.
[xvi] Metamorphosis 1:6–31; see Melville, Ovid: Metamorphosis, pp. 1–2.
[xvii] Dixon, ‘Oceanic Mythology’, part 1, chapter 1, p. 5 in Gray, The Mythology of All Races, volume 9.
[xviii] Ibid., part 1, chapter 1, p. 13.
[xix] Ibid., part 1, chapter 1, pp. 7–8. The source is Taylor, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants (London, 1870), p. 109.
[xx] Ibid., part 1, chapter 1, p. 11.
[xxi] Waters, Book of the Hopi, part 1, p. 3.
[xxii] Popol Vuh 1; see Tedlock, Popol Vuh, pp. 64–5.
[xxiii] Willis, World Mythology, p.266.
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 267.