Creation Stories from Around the World
How the World Came to Be (for Kids)
by Vicki Garlock
The oldest, most common myth in human history is the creation story. These tales – hundreds of them from around the world, help transmit cosmological truths from generation to generation, regardless of whether they are taken literally or symbolically. They shed light on both cultural priorities and prejudices. In many cases, these narratives also become part of the culture’s religious tradition.
Creation stories describe the origins of the world as we know it. They offer explanations about how the universe as a whole came into being. They provide background narratives adding details: why we have seasons, how animals came to have their characteristic features, or how humans were created. Some even offer ancient examples of creation care. This is a huge arena, so for starters I want to focus on stories that describe the origins of the universe.
Set in the distant past, occurring in far-away places and transmitted orally for generations, these narratives now exist in multiple versions. Even the relatively uniform creation story from Genesis comes to us in two different renderings. Compare the narrative in Genesis 1 with a second version in Genesis 2. Both are known as ex nihilo stories, where creation emerges ‘out of nothing’ via words, thoughts, or dreams. In Genesis, God speaks the world into existence: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Other examples of ex nihilo creation myths include the ancient Egyptian tale of Ra, who also created with words, and the Australian Aboriginal story of the Dreamtime, when the gods “sang” life into existence.
Mythologists such as Joseph Campbell often sort these creation narratives into categories. Part of this scheme is outlined below, along with some prototypical fables and suggestions for sharing them with kids. Here is a starter kit, if you will, a door into a huge library of our ancestors’ most precious stories.
In “world parent” myths, male and female entities are tightly bound in a primitive and eternal state of union. Creation occurs when they are torn asunder, allowing life to emerge. A great example can be found in the Maori myth of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, routinely shortened to Rangi and Papa.
The many children of Rangi and Papa live in the tiny, dark space between them. The children eventually realize they will die if they don’t find light/life and attempt to separate their parents. Each sibling, in turn, tries to force Rangi and Papa apart, to no avail. Finally, Tāne, the son who is god of the forests, manages to separate them. Rangi becomes Sky Father; Papa becomes Earth Mother. One of the siblings, Tāwhirimātea (shortened to Tāwhiri), is furious at the siblings’ decision to separate their parents. As god of the winds and rains, he joins his father in the sky and punishes the Earth for all time.
A kid-friendly version of this story can be found in Four Corners of the Sky: Creation Stories and Cosmologies from Around the World by Steve Zeitlin (author) and Chris Raschka (illus.). Ranginui and Papatuanuku is beautifully captured in two short videos, starting here. Another video, Maori Creation Story in Sand Art, embedded below, tells the story of Rangi and Papa with sand images drawn in real time. Indigenous artist Marcus Winter has to be seen to be believed. Without a word, the story’s images emerge from the sand in real time.
Another widely used narrative style centers on dismemberment. In these stories, the world is created when a primordial being dies and body parts morph into various features of the universe.
One of the most ancient examples comes to us from the Rig Veda, a collection of ancient Indian hymns written in Sanskrit that is part of the sacred canon in the Hindu/Vedic tradition. According to legend, the Paramatman or Supreme Being was sacrificed in a huge bonfire set by the gods, and thus was the world created.
The moon was created from the mind of the paramatman. His eyes became the sun. Indra and Agni were born from the mouth and Vayu was created from the breath of life.
The atmosphere was made from Paramatman’s navel. His head became heaven and his feet the earth. The directions were created from his ears. In this fashion, other worlds can be thought to have been created from other parts of the Paramatman’s anatomy.
Another dismemberment myth comes from the Prose Edda, written in Old Norse and compiled in Iceland in the 13th century. Ymir (EE-meer), the primeval being in that tradition, birthed a male and female from his armpits. Later, his skull becomes the sky, his brain becomes the clouds, his flesh becomes the earth, his blood becomes the seas, his bones become the mountains, and his teeth becomes the stones. One video version of this story can be found here, and the backstory and Norse genealogy here.
In the so-called “cosmic egg stories,” the universe arises from the cracking open of a primordial egg. One of the best examples that really appeals to kids is the Chinese mythological tale of Phan-Ku (also spelled Pan-Ku, Pangu, and other variations).
In this story, chaos coalesced over 18,000 years into an egg. During that time, the perfectly intertwined and opposing forces of Yin and Yang came into balance. Phan-Ku, a primitive, often-horned giant, then emerges from the egg. The bottom portion of the shell becomes Earth; the top portion became Sky. Phan-Ku stands between them as he grows and grows, separating them from one another for another 18,000 years. Eventually, Phan-Ku decides that Earth and Sky are firmly situated, so he drops his arms. His massive hands are then free to form the mountains, the valleys, and the rivers.
Interestingly, Phan-Ku’s story then becomes a dismemberment myth as various features arise from his body when he dies. His breath becomes the wind and clouds. His left eye becomes the sun, and his right eye becomes the moon. His head becomes the mountains, his blood becomes the rivers, his sweat becomes the rain, and so on.
Our middle-school groups do a great craft when they read this story. First, blow out the yolk/whites of an egg. Then, they break it in half and make a small clay Phan-Ku that is placed inside.
In “earth-diver” stories, the world emerges from the depths of primordial waters. In most versions, animals swim about in the vast expanse of ocean; Earth, as we know it, lies far below. Various animals attempt to retrieve a bit of mud to create habitable land, but most can’t quite dive down far enough. Eventually, one animal is successful (often a muskrat), and the world is created from the tiny fistful of silt.
This type of creation story is fairly common in Native American traditions. In some versions, the habitable world is created on the back of a turtle. An excellent version of that tale can be found in Keepers of the Earth by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. You can find other versions here and here.
We haven’t even covered the tip of the iceberg. People spend a lifetime cataloguing and exploring the multitude of different (and often so similar) stories our foreparents shared with each other over hundreds of generations. To this day these stories can resonate in us powerfully. You don’t need many of the different narratives to start asking yourself the big questions all over again.
Kids love creation stories. They do wonder how the earth came to be – from a very young age – and if you ask them to share those ideas, you might be surprised by their imaginative scenarios. Offering these stories from around the world, however, provides them with a glimpse into this age-old human question and how people from different places and times have attempted to provide an answer.