Published Date

September 25, 2013

This resource was developed as part of Creation Stories and Epics by William Jones.

Creation stories and epics offer a unique window on the past. If we look carefully into that window, we might also glimpse our own reflections. That is, these narratives challenge us to reconsider the relationship between past and present. They are vivid and fascinating accounts of other times and places, but they may continue to inform modern cultures as well. They are, of course, only one kind of evidence that historians might use in the investigation and analysis of cultures of the ancient past. There are also limits to this particular kind of evidence. For example, use of creation stories and epics as evidence about the past raises important questions about the age and authenticity of texts widely regarded as ancient. Recovered artifacts of texts may be far younger than the culture that produced them. Also, we may want to know how typical or influential such stories might have been over the course of centuries. In other words, do we modern readers tend to misread the importance that these written versions of stories had to ancient cultures? How can we know? How complete are the artifacts that bear the text we are using as evidence? What evidence other than the story itself might indicate its relative significance? Did these stories assume varying levels of importance in different historical periods? Were the stories told differently over time? How could we investigate this possibility? If we could find evidence of change, what might such changes mean? As we pose questions such as these, however, we do well to remind ourselves that these narratives spoke originally to people interested in answers to questions that might have been quite different from those that modern students and historians ask.

The relative importance or primacy of written and oral traditions is another issue that demands the attention of teachers and students. What is the significance of a story’s being written down as opposed to or in addition to its being recounted orally? Does our own culture steer us toward certain kinds of judgments about the importance of written texts or cultures that generated writing? And since we are generally reading translations of stories, we should study different translations of the same story whenever possible and discuss how translations are also historical documents. We should also attend to the issue of how we respond to stories that are fundamental to our own identities, religious beliefs, or cosmologies as opposed to how we respond to stories from cultures in which we do not participate as believers or members. For example, many of us might find reading and discussing the book of Genesis as a “creation myth” or as one creation narrative among others to be a puzzling, disorienting, or even objectionable experience. Or, on the other hand, if we participate exclusively in certain scientific understandings of the origins of the universe or of life, considerations of religious explanations of these phenemona might seem like an utter waste of time. Talking or writing about our relative involvement in or understanding of creation stories and epics can make us more aware of the significance and character of our connection to both past and present cultures. Further, these stories may also gain and hold our attention primarily as a consequence of their compelling literary beauty.

The following examples are but a few of the creation stories and epics that might be studied in a course on Ancient World Civilizations. There are now many books and websites that offer collections of such stories from various regions of the world. Reading and interpreting these stories can help beginning History students to develop a broader comparative perspective on cultural similarities and differences across time and between regions.

Next section: The Epic of Gilgamesh