The myths of human culture reflect complex cosmologies. Contained within these narratives are tales of the genesis of the universe and also its destruction. The similarities of these myths in such a regard is the extent to which they attempt to describe the world around them, yet not only the immediate environment, but the origin of life and existence. Whereas there may be differences in the details that make up these cosmologies, for example, the specific events of origin or cataclysm that make up a particular mythology, they all share this speculative attempt to think the human being and the entirety of nature. Two examples of this aspect of mythology are clearly present in the Norse and Egyptian myths, where one is confronted with precisely these foundational elements.
One of the most striking similarities of the Norse and Egyptian myths, a similarity that appears to be common to all myths, is the division of the world or reality into different segments. Whereas the contemporary world of technology and science only knows one reality, the physical, empirical world, the Norse and Egyptian myths show a structure of reality, divided into what may be termed realms. In the Egyptian myths, for example, Nu represents a period that exists before time and the creation itself. (www.bigmyth.com). The Norse mythology is one that also stresses a beginning point of the cosmos, but in a manner that perhaps is less abstract than the Egyptian cosmology. As opposed to chaos, the Norse mythology begins from the interaction of elements of fire and ice, as the fire realm Muspell melts the ice realm of Niflheim, thus originating existence as we know it.
A clear similarity in this regard is not only the multi-layered structures of reality, but the key role personifications of elemental forces bring the cosmos into being and order. In Egyptian mythology, the God Atum subsequently arises from this primordial origin to create itself (Atum is without gender). From Atum springs elements, such as the God of air Shu and his sibling Tefnut, who must subsequently order the original chaos into stability of the world. Here, there are different degrees of reality that are brought into being. In much the same way, Norse mythology and creation myths detail such an interaction of elements. The fire element or realm of Muspell interacts with the ice realm of Niflheim, the latter melting the former. From this relation emerges the first being, Ymir. Unlike Atum, Ymir is explicitly male: in this regard, the Egyptian cosmology can be said to be more gender neutral than that of the Norse, as the first being in the latter is a potential symbol of patriarchy, whereas the Egyptian narrative stresses the androgynous nature of the creator, and therefore emphasizes the lack of difference that makes up the world before its creation into the material world.
Furthermore, there is a key manner in which this material world, understood as natural phenomena, follows from the direct acts of the Gods. For example, in the Norse cycle, Ymir’s dead body, having killed by his descendents, forms the Earth itself. This places the material world in a direct relation to the sacred world. Much in the same manner, Atum’s children form the material world. Here, the material world is only possible through the action of gods. Natural phenomena, including natural catastrophes are therefore always tied to a sacred element. As Eliade writes, “the man of the archaic societies tends to live as much as possible in the sacred.” (p. 12) This is because man sees, as in the Norse and Egyptian myths, that the world around is him is something that is the creation of the sacred.
From this is same viewpoint, this is why destruction is also central to mythical narratives such as those of the Norse and the Egyptian. This is because the creation is something inferior to the sacred. This is emphasized in the Norse myths, where marks are made in the life tree Yggdrasil representing a man’s finite life, so as to ensure the human is never as powerful as the gods. In much the same manner, the Egyptian destruction myth emphasizes the extent to which the human rejects Ra, the supreme Sun God, and thereby the creation revolts against the creator. Both myths therefore imply that somehow the egotism of the human forces the sacred realm to destroy the creation.
Despite clear differences, these similarities provide fascinating questions regarding comparative mythology. How do similar motifs arrive in diverse cultures such as the Norse and the Egyptian? Perhaps this speaks to our shared humanity and the sense with which we have always tried to understand the world around us. A key part of this desired understanding is to understand the origin of existence and, also, its potential end.
- Author Unknown. (2014). www.bigmyth.com Retrieved 30 January 2014 at: http://www.bigmyth.com/2_eng_myths.html
- Eliade, M. (1987). The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt.