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G.R. Evans G.R. EVANS is Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Her many books include Belief: A Short History for Today (2006), The Church in the Early Middle Ages (2007), The University of Cambridge: A New History (2009) and The University of Oxford: A New History (2010), published by I.B.Tauris.

‘It may seem that the question of human origins has never been more controversial than today. But in this informative and elegantly written book, G.R. Evans shows how there have always been competing narratives of how the world began and about the significance of human existence. With wide-ranging scholarship and an engaging style, she offers an intriguing and thought-provoking exploration of a set of perennial questions.’ – Peter Harrison, Director, Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland, formerly Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion

supernatural being behind it all, or just mindless forces? The beginning of things has forever tested the limits of curiosity, and such questions have both challenged atheists and inspired believers. Ancient cultures resorted to myth and symbolism to tell vibrant stories about human origins. Later civilizations added philosophical and scientific explanations: but these are not definitive. The nature and meaning of existence – the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how’ questions – are in the end mysterious. In this lively and wide-ranging book, G.R. Evans explores the world’s myriad creation stories against the background of the biggest question there is: what are we doing here? Discussing Swahili legends that resemble the Book of Genesis, Greek tales about the Titans, Native American, Inca and Mesopotamian mythologies, and Vedic creation cycles that begin with a cosmic egg or seed, the author surveys polytheist, monotheist and dualist ideas about supernatural power. Tracing the history of humanity as it has struggled, over many millennia, to make sense of itself, First Light will attract students of religion, history and philosophy and general readers alike.

G.R. Evans

‘In First Light G.R. Evans offers a lively survey of scores of explanations of the creation of the world across periods, continents, and disciplines. She covers Eastern as well as Western religions, “primitive” myths, scientific explanations, and philosophical assessments. She continually shows unexpected similarities. But she finally gives a reluctant “no” to the question whether, as Eliot’s character Casaubon in Middlemarch asked, there is a single “key to all mythologies”. This is a delightful work.’ – Robert A. Segal, Sixth Century Professor of Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen, author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction and Theorizing About Myth

Did the universe start with a bang, or has it existed always? Was there a

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A History of Creation Myths from Gilgamesh to the God Particle 16/10/2013 18:01


G.R. EVANS is Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Her many books include Belief: A Short History for Today (2006), The Church in the Early Middle Ages (2007), The University of Cambridge: A New History (2009) and The University of Oxford: A New History (2010), published by I.B.Tauris.

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First Light A History of Creation Myths from Gilgamesh to the God Particle

G.R. E v a n s

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Published in 2014 by I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd 6 Salem Road, London W2 4BU 175 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010 www.ibtauris.com Distributed in the United States and Canada Exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan 175 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010 Copyright Š 2014 G.R. Evans The right of G.R. Evans to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in a review, this book, or any part thereof, may not be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. ISBN: 978 1 78076 155 8 A full CIP record for this book is available from the British Library A full CIP record is available from the Library of Congress Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: available Typeset by JCS Publishing Services Ltd, www.jcs-publishing.co.uk Printed and bound in Sweden by ScandBook AB

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Contents

List of illustrations

vii

Preface xi Introduction 1 PART I The universe begins

15

1 Disagreements about first principles i When did the world begin? ii Is the universe ‘real’? iii What is the layout of the cosmos? iv In God’s image? Was the world made for our benefit?

17 17 26 36 50

PART II Why it is difficult to agree

59

2 What is the evidence?

61

3 The great rival religious theories i Polytheisms ii Monotheisms iii Dualisms

72 72 85 89

4 Choosing an approach i Classical philosophy ii The early Christian theological synthesis iii Just ‘saying’ the world

95 95 112 124

5 Going to see i Out of Africa ii Redrawing the world-picture: new continents iii Filling the empty hemisphere iv Fact and fiction v Created unequal?

127 127 142 152 166 177

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Part III The main competing explanations

183

6 The beginning of the world: a one-off event? i One creation complete and perfect ii A single but imperfect creation iii A single event with errors but capable of modification?

185 185 190 198

7 Creation as a system: initiation followed by a process of planned development? i A process with built-in mechanisms for improvement? ii Creation as a system with the Creator as supervisor? iii The ‘phoenix’ theory of creation

215 215 224 236

8 The search for a key i Is there a single underlying methodology? ii Can ‘comparative religion’ provide a unifying principle? iii Looking inward for an answer?

245 245 249 251

Conclusion 255 Notes 257 Texts and abbreviations 281 Select Bibliography 287 Index 295

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2 What is the evidence?

Sources: sacred books and the ‘book of nature’ It was long believed that Moses wrote Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, the ‘sacred text’ which provided Judaism and Christianity with their creation stories, and on which the Qur’an later also drew. But Moses does not claim that he saw creation happen. Creation had no other human observer except Adam and Eve, and even they were not there until near the end of the ‘six days’ of creative work as it is described in Genesis. Moses did not need to be present if the Holy Spirit told him about it afterwards, suggested John Donne, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London: ‘The holy Ghost hovered upon the waters, and so God wrought; the holy Ghost hovered upon Moses too, and so he wrote.’1 Donne’s younger contemporary John Milton, puritan and revolutionary, began his epic poem Paradise Lost by calling on the inspiration of the ‘heavenly muse’, the same Holy Spirit, to help him tell this same story of events which had no eyewitness historian to record them: Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd,2 who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos.3

Alongside the traditional explanation that the Creator himself imparted the creation story to Moses ran another strong tradition. This was the argument that creation, or the natural world, will ‘reveal’ all the inquirer needs to know. It tells its own story. When Paul of Tarsus wrote in his letter to the Romans that, ‘since the

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creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,’4 he was providing the Christian world with an ‘authority’ for this view. Even so, it was clearly recognised that ‘you only have to look’ did not work for the whole of the Christian faith. Hugh of St Victor (1096–1141) distinguished the ‘work of creation’ from the ‘work of restoration’ on this principle. He says that creation was a form of revelation, showing forth what the Creator is like; but for the story of the incarnation and crucifixion and redemption the inquirer must rely on the narrative of events to be found in Scripture. Robert Kilwardby (c.1215–79) among other medieval theologians accepted the same traditional set of assumptions.5 Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) argued in his Summa Theologiae that for this reason theology has something to add to philosophy.6 Philosophy is simply the product of human reason. Theology includes what God has revealed, which human reason would not otherwise know about. The proofs of the existence of God put forward by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae rest upon observation of the created world and on reasoning about it. It is but a step, he suggests, from treating observed phenomena as evidence of the Creator’s deliberate revelation of his creative activity, to the view that they also say something about the Creator himself. The arguments brought together by Aquinas mostly turned on the assumption that anything so big and complicated and beautiful as the world and its contents must have had an initiator, and an initiator about whom certain things could be guessed. He or it must have been very powerful, perhaps all-powerful, also very clever; and he or it must have taken seriously the importance of making something beautiful (though he or it would have had to create the idea of the beautiful too). Roger Bacon (c.1214–94), one of the more radical thinkers of the Middle Ages in the West, also struggled to work out the relation of philosophy and ‘revealed’ theology.7 The Bible, he says, reveals the ‘final’ (ultimate) cause of creation, the Creator himself, but the rest has to be worked out by philosophy, and philosophy has not succeeded yet. Philosophy, he notes, has had help from the theology developed in the Christian tradition. It would be wrong to think of philosophy as confined to the secular thinkers of the ancient world or merely thought up by the ‘heathens’ who lived before the Christian era. There are indications that the patriarchs benefited from philosophical instruction. Josephus (ad 37–c.100)

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says Noah and his sons taught the Chaldeans; Abraham taught the Egyptians; Isis and Pallas were contemporary with Jacob and Esau; Prometheus and Atlas were contemporary with Moses; Hermes was a grandson of Atlas; Asclepius was taught by Atlas or Apollo.8 The thrust of all this was to try to bring together the strands of rational and ‘revealed’ routes to discovering about creation with an acknowledgement that from an early period thinkers were actively comparing notes. Interest in these questions did not die away with the Middle Ages. It was still a matter of active controversy in the early modern period. Matthew Tindal (1657–1733) wrote Christianity as Old as the Creation partly to discuss this contemporary moment in a long-running controversy down the centuries. He accepts in the traditional way that Christianity has its ‘revelation’ in the Bible and that the creation itself can be counted as an act of revelation. He insists that God gave his creatures from the first all they needed to know.9 Richard Bentley (1662–1742)10 suggests that the alternative to the Christian view of creation as an act of revelation by the Creator is an atheism which says that ‘all about us is dark senseless Matter, driven on by the wild impulses of Fatality; that Men rose out of the Slime of the Earth, and that what is called the Soul, perishes by Death.’11 His argument is partly that religion is more comfortable and keeps society in better shape, but he grapples with the atheists’ philosophical contention that mind can be explained in terms of matter. The controversial central assumption here is that nothing is needed – or even possible – beyond experimental verification of observations by way of explanation of how the world began. If ‘the Brain is but Body’ is Mind anything more? If ‘no Motion in general superadded to Matter, can produce any Sense or Perception . . . or any Degree of it .  .  . beget Cogitation,’ what is thought and what is feeling? No hypothesis about ‘fine particles’ can explain Mind, Bentley claims. ‘Concussions of Atoms can never be capable of begetting those intrinsical and vital Affections, that SelfConsciousness, and other Powers that we feel in our selves.’ ‘Sense and Perception can never be the product of Matter and Motion.’ The atheists ask why there are only five senses. If there is a God why did he not give us more? Bentley responds by inquiring what more could there be? Do his questioners have any ideas?12

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The Age of Reason and natural theology During its ‘Age of Reason’, the eighteenth-century West returned for a time to the question of what can be learned by reason and from ‘revelatory’ nature. This was a period of intense scrutiny of what could be inferred from ‘scientific’ observation. It was also a time when some leading thinkers wanted to strip the Christian religion of its complexities and postulate a plain, impersonal, machinemaking deity whose operations could be assessed rationally and by observation of the evidence. The ‘deism’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a European phenomenon in which a new simplified monotheism was proposed by the forwardthinking, in what remained a predominantly Christian culture.13 (Although Zoroastrianism won the approval of some writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, because they said it was – being apparently a form of Deism – more rational than Christianity.) David Hume (1711–76) sneers at: superstitious atheists [who] acknowledge no being, that corresponds to our idea of a deity. No first principle of mind or thought: No supreme government and administration: No divine contrivance or intention in the fabric of the world.

Deism not only questioned the need for detailed structure of the by now quite complex theology of the Christian faith; it also despised comfortingly particular and manageably small gods of polytheistic paganism: Our ancestors in Europe . .  . believed, that all nature was full of .  .  . invisible powers; fairies, goblins, elves, sprights; beings, stronger and mightier than men, but much inferior to the celestial natures, who surround the throne of God.

Experimenting a little with the study of ‘comparative religion’, Hume describes the highly interactive relationship some peoples have with their small gods and idols: ‘The CHINESE, when their prayers are not answered, beat their idols. The deities of the LAPLANDERS are any large stone which they meet with of an extraordinary shape. The EGYPTIAN mythologists, in order to account for animal worship, said, that

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the gods, pursued by the violence of earth-born men, who were their enemies, had formerly been obliged to disguise themselves under the semblance of beasts. The CAUNII, . .  . resolving to admit no strange gods among them . . . beat the air with their lances . . . to expel the foreign deities.14

It seems to him obvious that these ‘imperfect beings’ are simply not worthy of respect as potential Creators. ‘To ascribe the origin and fabric of the universe to these imperfect beings never enters the imagination of any polytheist or idolator.’15 Hume pointed to what he claims to be a general conviction of ‘mankind’ that there must be ‘intelligence’ in the being or beings who created and rule the world. The only point of theology, in which we shall find a consent of mankind almost universal, is, that there is an invisible, intelligent power in the world: but whether this power be supreme or subordinate, whether confined to one being, or distributed among several, what attributes, qualities, connexions, or principles of action ought to be ascribed to those beings; concerning all these points, there is the widest difference in the popular system of theology.16

The thrust for simplification takes him back to the discussions of Greek philosophers. ‘The common people were never likely to push their researches so far, or derive from reasoning their systems of religion’:17 Even at this day, and in EUROPE, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, . . . with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined . . . he will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one . . . [which] he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence.

Hume, with a mind formed in the classical tradition, remained convinced that the origin of the world should still be treated as a philosophical rather than a theological question:

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It was merely by accident, that the question concerning the origin of the world did ever in ancient times enter into religious systems . .  . The philosophers alone made profession of delivering systems of this kind; and it was pretty late too before these bethought themselves of having recourse to a mind or supreme intelligence, as the first cause of all.

He means by this that while a philosophical approach will take the inquirer into essentially theoretical questions of causation, a polytheist can be seduced into worshipping everything he does not understand: Whoever learns by argument, the existence of invisible intelligent power, must reason from the admirable contrivance of natural objects, and must suppose the world to be the workmanship of that divine being, the original cause of all things. But the vulgar polytheist, so far from admitting that idea, deifies every part of the universe, and conceives all the conspicuous productions of nature, to be themselves so many real divinities.18

7. Detail of the creation of the world, from a funerary papyrus of Serimen, priest of Amon

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Intelligent design In the chaotic myths of polytheism a guiding intelligence is not a necessary postulate. To Western minds, which were mostly monotheistically inclined after the end of the ancient world, the best clue that a single powerful intelligence made the world became the argument from its ‘design’. This argument was framed definitively for the early modern world by William Paley (1743– 1805) in a vivid image in his Natural Theology (1802): Crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there: I might possibly answer, that for any thing I know to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissable in the second case as in the first?19

His answer is that while a stone has a look of chance about its shape, a watch does not. Its form bespeaks its purpose and explains the way is has been made to serve that purpose: For this reason, and for no other, viz., that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose . .  . This mechanism being observed .  .  . the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place of other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose.20

No rational mind could believe that the watch itself was a mere accident. Does it follow that there was a Creator or that he was divine? John Stuart Mill (1806–73) seems to take a cautiously positive position in his Theism: The signs of contrivance are most conspicuous in the structure and processes of vegetable and animal life. But for these, it

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is probable that the appearances in nature would never have seemed to the thinking part of mankind to afford any proofs of a God.21

The argument from analogy Another seminal idea of the eighteenth-century West was that of Joseph Butler (1692–1752). Butler had an unusual education for an Englishman of his time because he was sent to a ‘dissenting academy’. These were schools for the children of families which were not practising members of the ‘established’ Church of England, lack of conformity with which meant loss of certain civil and legal rights. These schools combined a high academic standard with practical education for boys who would have to earn their living in trade. The master in charge of this particular academy was Samuel Jones, himself a former student at the University of Leiden. He introduced Butler to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Butler fell into correspondence with Samuel Clarke, whose Boyle lectures given in 1704 had prompted much fresh speculation on the existence of God and how (if at all) God can be in ‘space’, or have had a hand in the creation of the universe. Butler became an Anglican in 1714 and was then permitted to go to Oxford University (1715–18). His Analogy of Religion was published in 1736. It is a moral as much as a cosmological work and it had an enormous influence for more than a century, becoming a set book in the two English universities, alongside Paley and the long-established classical textbooks. Butler saw a convincing link between what could be observed by way of evidence that the world is governed, and the nature of the God who runs it, so that one may argue from such facts as are known, to others that are like them; from that part of the divine government over intelligent creatures which comes under our view, to that larger and more general government over them which is beyond it.22

This observer, ‘postulating a natural Governor of the world, . . . will argue thence for religion’.23 In Butler’s view, other people’s explanations are unsatisfactory. Some ‘form their notions of God’s government upon hypothesis’, some ‘indulge themselves in vain and idle speculations, how the

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world might possibly have been framed otherwise than it is’, some, the Deists, particularly offend him. Much better, much stronger, he feels, is the argument from analogy.24 Resemblances and parallels may be taken as proofs as strong as anything to be derived from experiment, and themselves analogous with such proofs: Let us then, instead of that idle and not very innocent employment of forming imaginary models of a world, and schemes of governing it, turn our thoughts to what we experience to be the conduct of Nature with respect to intelligent creatures; which may be resolved into general laws or rules of administration, in the same way as many of the laws of Nature respecting inanimate matter may be collected from experiments.

In fact, the possibilities do not stop there: And let us compare the known constitution and course of things with what is said to be the moral system of Nature; the acknowledged dispensations of Providence, or that government which we find ourselves under, with what religion teaches us to believe and expect; and see whether they are not analogous and of a piece. And upon such comparison it will, I think, be found that they are very much so: that both may be traced up to the same general laws, and resolved into the same principles of divine conduct.

The plans of Providence must be proportioned to the vastness of the universe. ‘As the material world appears to be, in a manner, boundless and immense; there must be some scheme of Providence vast in proportion to it.’25 Paley’s and Butler’s arguments were taken up in succeeding generations but not uncritically. John Stuart Mill was less keen on ‘analogy’ than on ‘design’. He thought that it would be naive to infer that any resemblance or analogy between nature and its Creator is a reliable guide to what he is like and what he has done. What counts is ‘the special character of those resemblances’.26 Baden Powell (1796–1860), father of the founder of the Boy Scout movement, was a theologian with scientific interests, writing during the period when the British Association for the Advancement of Science was being formed, and when a classical education was still just sufficient as a qualification, especially for writing on those aspects of science which overlap with philosophy

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and theology. He died just before he could take part in the debate in the Oxford Museum where he would undoubtedly have defended Darwin’s ideas. The confident assumption that a thinker was free to move amongst discoveries in wholly different areas of research and intellectual endeavour without having to declare them ‘not his subject’ lasted little beyond his generation, but he could remark on the ‘tendency and progress of discovery towards a coalition and combination of different trains of research’.27 He cites work on ‘the action of magnetism on light’ and ‘the relations of chemical to electrical action’.28 Baden Powell saw force in arguments from analogy: the source of inductive certainty, that certainty beyond the mere limits of sense, that superstructure larger than any foundation of facts, is accounted for by natural and acknowledged processes. It arises in the first instance out of the power of abstraction, . . . by whose aid the mind creates what are indeed new conceptions, yet formed only out of materials already furnished . . . the process derives its whole force from the discovery and acceptance of sound and well-framed analogies.29

But he was writing at a date in the mid-nineteenth century when consciousness of the need to define scientific methodologies was at a height. Baden Powell was himself involved in the early development of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Science, he thinks, involves ‘the application of a higher reasoning to the mere facts of observation which essentially constitutes science . .  . mainly effected by the application of .  .  . systems of abstract and necessary mathematical truth’. Scientific ‘principles are themselves .  .  . derived from experience.’30 In short, the traditional distinction between abstract philosophical reasoning by which explanations of the origin of the world might be deduced and the method of induction from observation and experiment is not as sharp as had been thought: The very notions of a body in uniform rectilinear motion, or of forces acting on it, are essentially ideas of experience, and certainly could have no application without reference to the real existence of matter and force.31

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The evidence? Within the parameters of the grand options identified down the centuries, whether to believe the text of a sacred book, think the matter through by pure reasoning or make inferences from observation of the universe, there has proved, then, to be a good deal of room for manoeuvre and changes of fashion. Has there been progress?

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G.R. Evans G.R. EVANS is Professor Emeritus of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Her many books include Belief: A Short History for Today (2006), The Church in the Early Middle Ages (2007), The University of Cambridge: A New History (2009) and The University of Oxford: A New History (2010), published by I.B.Tauris.

‘It may seem that the question of human origins has never been more controversial than today. But in this informative and elegantly written book, G.R. Evans shows how there have always been competing narratives of how the world began and about the significance of human existence. With wide-ranging scholarship and an engaging style, she offers an intriguing and thought-provoking exploration of a set of perennial questions.’ – Peter Harrison, Director, Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland, formerly Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion

supernatural being behind it all, or just mindless forces? The beginning of things has forever tested the limits of curiosity, and such questions have both challenged atheists and inspired believers. Ancient cultures resorted to myth and symbolism to tell vibrant stories about human origins. Later civilizations added philosophical and scientific explanations: but these are not definitive. The nature and meaning of existence – the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how’ questions – are in the end mysterious. In this lively and wide-ranging book, G.R. Evans explores the world’s myriad creation stories against the background of the biggest question there is: what are we doing here? Discussing Swahili legends that resemble the Book of Genesis, Greek tales about the Titans, Native American, Inca and Mesopotamian mythologies, and Vedic creation cycles that begin with a cosmic egg or seed, the author surveys polytheist, monotheist and dualist ideas about supernatural power. Tracing the history of humanity as it has struggled, over many millennia, to make sense of itself, First Light will attract students of religion, history and philosophy and general readers alike.

G.R. Evans

‘In First Light G.R. Evans offers a lively survey of scores of explanations of the creation of the world across periods, continents, and disciplines. She covers Eastern as well as Western religions, “primitive” myths, scientific explanations, and philosophical assessments. She continually shows unexpected similarities. But she finally gives a reluctant “no” to the question whether, as Eliot’s character Casaubon in Middlemarch asked, there is a single “key to all mythologies”. This is a delightful work.’ – Robert A. Segal, Sixth Century Professor of Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen, author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction and Theorizing About Myth

Did the universe start with a bang, or has it existed always? Was there a

www.ibtauris.com

Cover image: Uluru, Ayers Rock at dusk © Michael Dunning Cover design: www.ianrossdesigner.com

FirstLight_UKHB_AW.indd 1

A History of Creation Myths from Gilgamesh to the God Particle 16/10/2013 18:01

First Light  

Did the universe start with a bang, or has it existed always? Was there a supernatural being behind it all, or just mindless forces? The beg...