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Inside the Blue Book
Moving Heaven and Earth

RLST S-108
“Cosmogonic Myths”
Faculty: Hugh Flick
Lecturer in Religious Studies

When teaching “Cosmogonic Myths,” Hugh Flick likes to shake up his syllabus with a mix of creation stories both familiar and new. Most students have some knowledge of Genesis and of Hesiod’s Theogony, in which the Greek gods Gaia and Chaos are born, and then give birth themselves to a variety of beings. But Flick also introduces the Babylonian tale Enumma Elish, in which a battle between two characters, Marduk and Tiamat, results in Tiamat’s body being split to form the earth and the heavens. In the Maya Popol Vuh,  several gods attempt to create humans, and finally get it right—on the fourth try—using maize as the building material.


Creation stories stem from the question “Where did we come from?”

All stories stem from the same question: “Where did we come from?” Every culture comes up with its own answer. Beyond exploring the stories themselves, the class learns different ways to interpret them. Flick says, “The class is not about any particular religious tradition as much as it is about the way we as humans make meaning.”

He tries to show not only that major traditions vary, but also that even a single myth can be laden with many meanings. On the first day of class, he shows videos of two Brazilian Yanomamo shamans telling the same creation myth. The Myth of Naro, as Flick explains, regards the origin of harmful magic and killing, and is about a Yanomamo ancestor (Naro) who kills his brother out of envy over his brother’s wives. Although the plot is essentially the same in each shaman’s story, many details differ. “It’s clearly the same story, but the telling is quite different,” Flick says.

The topic of creation myths is mostly new for everyone in class. But by the end of the term, each student is an expert on a particular myth: one course requirement is to choose a story or body of stories not covered in the class, present it to the class, and apply some interpretative tools to it. Flick has heard Japanese, Scandinavian, Chinese, Yoruba, and Native American narratives, among others. The assignment is not just for the students' benefit. Flick says he learns something new every time.  the end


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