Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/December 1909/Medieval Creation Myths

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By Professor B. K. EMERSON


THERE is perhaps more reserve than formerly in assuming the westward wandering of great hordes out of Asia, but, whether the peoples have or have not migrated, the myths certainly have, and all through western Asia and southern Europe the old biblical stories are strongly blended with dualistic traits that have all the ear marks of Iran. As the light conquers the darkness and ushers in the day, so the darkness conquers the light and ushers in the night. Thus Ormuzd and Ahriman are equal to the confines of eternity and God and Satanael become equal in the blended stories.

Of the many variations of these creation myths which have taken root especially among Slavic peoples in the Caucasus, across southern Russia and the Balkans, I have wilfully chosen those parts which have a geological flavor, and illustrate or parody, in quaint and naive manner, many earth forms or earth-forming processes.

I owe most of this material to Oscar Dähnhardt,[1] who has collected many medieval stories of the creation of curious interest. In north and west Russia, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the "Roll of the Divine Books" tells how, while there was still neither heaven nor earth, the Sea of Tiberias existed, solitary and alone, and it was shoreless.

The story is continued thus in Ukraine (p. 55):

As God would create the world, he spoke to the oldest of his angels, Satanael, with whom he wandered over the sea, and bade him dive to the bottom and bring him up a handful of sand. As he grasped the sand he should say, "I seize thee, Earth, in the name of the Lord!" But as Satanael came to the bottom the wicked thought came to him, and he said, "In the Lord's and in my name!" But as he arose again the sand ran out of his hand and he brought up nothing.

The Lord, who noticed what had happened, bade him dive again and forbade him to use his own name. He did this, nevertheless, and again brought up nothing. Only the third time he left out his own name and brought up sand in his open hand. God took it; went out over the sea and scattered it upon the waters and it became land.

But Satanael licked his hand and said, "I will keep back just a little and also make land." And God asked him if he had any sand and he answered, "No!"

Now God blessed the earth in all four directions and it began to grow. But the earth that Satanael had in his mouth began to grow also and became so great that his lips stretched apart.

And God said, "Spit it out, Satanael." And he began to sputter and spat it all out, and wherever it fell cliffs and mountains grew up. Therefore is our earth greatly uneven.

"Wherefore hast thou made such mountains?" asked the Lord, "That man should weary himself in climbing them?"

"O Lord it is good that it is so hard," answered the Devil, "For now will man think of you and also not forget me. When he climbs up breathless he will say, 'Help, Lord!' When he descends the mountains he will think of me also, and say, 'The Devil has tempted me up on to this mountain, here one can break his neck only too easily.'"

Among the Philippone of the flat plains of Ost Preusen the story has this curious turn:

Then the earth grew in the mouth of the angel, he screamed and called on God for help, and spat out the earth at God's command, and there grew therefrom tobacco and hops.

We may continue the story as it is told among the Moguls (p. 67):

The earth grew continuously. As it had reached a large compass God and Satanael descended from the clouds and began to dwell upon the earth. From this time on, they used the clouds only for long journeys and when they wished to rise to the heavens.

To increase the number of the living upon the earth, God took two stones and struck them together. On the first stroke the Archangel Michael came forth and on the second the Archangel Gavril. Satanael envied God and wanted also to create servants. So he took two stones and began to strike them together. With every blow there came forth a devil. As he kept on striking a great throng of devils appeared. And God was angry that his companion knew no bounds in creating his kind, and forbade him the further creation of devils. Satanael stopped only when, after long labor, he found his stones no longer produced devils.

In Transcaucasia they say:

The archangel followed him and they came on a blue stone (or gold stone) which they raised up. But Satanael was under it and he sprang up, grabbed God by the throat, and nearly throttled him. God called on the archangels -for help, but they could not free him. There was nothing left but to beg Satanael. "Ask what you will of me, only let me free." And Satanael said, "I ask nothing except that we be brothers. And God promised this, whereupon Satanael let him go and went his way.

In a Greisinian variant (p. 32):

Michael and Gabriel wander through the earth, and the crust of the earth was so thin that they sank to the knees, although they wore snowshoes. Always a round stone rolled on before these angels, and God said, "We are tired of this stone." And in spite of the angels' warning, God shattered the stone with his foot, and lo, Satanael was in the stone.

In the Swanetic narrative:

God and his angels wandered through the world on their wonderful horses, and came on a great white stone. But the angels led God another way. Again they came on the stone and again the angels led God another way. "Some cheating is the cause," said God to the angels, "that we do not come upon this stone; otherwise we should have reached it already." The angels answered, "All right, we will bring you to the white stone, but we believe it will do you harm." They went to it and God broke the stone with his whip. Then the devil sprang out of it and grabbed God's horse. The devil said to God, "I and you were both in the same stone. I and you are of the same origin. I am the heart of the stone like you, so give me part of the world." While God chose for himself men and animals, the devil chose the souls. But the angels said to him: "Rejoice not overmuch. Know that the souls will remain in your hand only until a Son of God is born, who will free the dead from thy kingdom." The devil answered: "That will be a long time hence."

God placed himself and his archangels upon the cloud, raised himself high over the earth and created the heavens. Satanael made, with his devils, a second heaven that was higher than God's. God would not live below Satanael and raised himself higher and made a third heaven. In this way, vying with each other, they created nine heavens, one above the other, and Satanael began to build a tenth heaven still higher. Then God lost his patience and commanded his angels that they throw Satanael and his devils down from heaven.

Satanael and his angels fell down upon the earth. Each took his name from the place where he fell. He who fell in the wood became a wood devil, he that fell upon the water became a water devil.

In the Balkans they describe this fall of the angels thus:

As the angels under the earth mourn and complain we feel it as an earthquake, when they weep on the earth their tears are so hot that long drought follows, when floating among the stars they shed tears and we see them fall upon the earth as shooting stars.

We may continue the story as it is told by the Bulgarians:

As now Satan saw the great broad earth, he hit upon the deceitful plan of putting God to sleep and then throwing him in the water; taking possession of the earth himself and claiming honor as creator of the earth. God of course knew Satan's plan, but laid him down as if to sleep. Satan then seized God and carried him to the great water to throw him in. As he came to the shore the land began to grow rapidly so that he could in no wise reach the water. He turned back to the opposite shore, but for the same reason could not reach that. And as he could not reach the water from the third side because of the growth of the land before him, he let God slide down on the ground, and sank down beside him. After he had slept awhile he took God up again and carried him in the fourth direction to the water. As the land began immediately to grow in this direction also, so in this direction also he failed to reach the water.

He then waked God up, saying, "Arise, God, let us bless the earth 1 Lo, how it is grown while we slept." God answered him, "As you have carried me in four directions, to throw me in the water, and thus with my body described a cross, I have blessed the earth already, that it grow and flourish." This made Satan wroth and he left God. God remained alone, and the earth grew continuously, so that it could no longer be covered by the sun's light. Then God created out of his spirit angels and sent the war angel to ask Satanael what he should do to stop the earth's growing.

In the meantime the devil had made him a goat, and he came to God riding on the back of the goat, for which he had made a beard of earth. Since that time goats have beards to the present day. As the angels saw the devil riding toward them they laughed at him; he was wroth and rode back. On the instant God created a bee and said: "Fly quickly to Satan and listen to his speech. Return and inform me." The bee then flew to Satan and perched on his shoulder as he spoke to himself, "Oh, this foolish God (O dieser dummer Gott), he knows not that he needs only to take a stick and mark the earth with a cross and say: 'This much earth is enough.' He just doesn't know what to do! "Then God blessed the bee and commanded that its wax should serve to illumine weddings and funerals and its honey should heal the sick.

In the Rumanian Sage the bee goes to the wise hedgehog for advice and the hedgehog says:

" Plainly God does not know that he must create mountains and valleys to make room for the waters."

The Setts say (p. 128):

As the earth was created it did not fit under the arch of heaven. Where shall one put such a great disk? Just then the hedgehog came along and asked what the trouble was. "Verily the earth is done, but we can not get it under the arch of heaven and it would not do to break a piece off." "That's nothing," said the hedgehog, "You must squeeze the disk together a little and then it will go." Good: God quickly pressed the disk together and it was easy to stick it under the heaven.

Now there appeared here and there, by the pressure, wrinkles which are the present mountains and valleys. God gave the hedgehog, for his shrewd head, an excellent coat, all of needles, so that no enemy can get near him.

  1. "Sagen zum Alten Testament."