Why origin stories matter

Publisert 09.06.2016
On the first day of the Holberg week, five PhD students associated with Nordic universities met with Holberg Laureate Stephen Greenblatt for a discussion on origin stories.

A broad range of themes and angles were raised at Christie Café, at the University Museum of Bergen, on 6 June, when this year’s Masterclass discussed stories of human origin: Why have humans needed to construct accounts of our earliest beginnings; what is at stake in different versions, and what can they tell us about Man’s understanding of the world?


An attempt at sensemaking

Origin stories are found in every culture. The tales are often viewed as a form of myth, in the way that philosopher Alan Watts referred to the concept: “An image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world” – a collection of factual and fanciful stories that do not necessarily demand literal interpretation, but which nevertheless carry a universal inner meaning about life.

Stories about our origin are important to recant in order to understand the way we are, said Greenblatt. – At the same time, origin stories are a very peculiar human trait. Humans seem to be the only species that ask themselves how they came to be. It may be a sign that we are lost, uncomfortable in our own skin, the Laureate said.


PhD students with different perspectives

The five Masterclass participants that met with Greenblatt were: Mark Friis Hau of Aarhus University, Panu Heimonen of the University of Helsinki, Yoav Tirosh of the University of Iceland, Godeline Gertrude Perk of Umeå University, and Carlos Hernández Garcés of the University of Oslo.

With a background of political anthropology, music analysis and narrative theory, Old Icelandic literature, English literature and Greek philology, respectively, the participants presented examples and arguments relating to our understanding of your past and present through the analysis of origin stories. The discussion focused on four works in particular: Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche, and The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur.


A tale with many meanings

Both in Judaism, Christianity and Islam the story of Genesis portrays the world as an artefact, created by God. Not unlike a potter or a carpenter, God shapes the Universe in accordance with His plan, and He creates Adam out of the dust of the Earth and Eve from Adam’s rib. All mankind is created in God’s own image. This model of the Universe developed in cultures where there was a monarchical form of government. The creator of the Universe was also its king, and he demanded obedience and loyalty.

Greenblatt pointed to how Christianity developed an enormous apparatus around the story of Adam and Eve – a tale that has many parallels to other origin stories, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written down about 2000 B.C. The stories themselves may be several thousand years older.

In Gilgamesh, Man is created from the soil by a god and lives among the animals in a natural state. He is introduced to a woman, who leads him into temptation. Both in the Bible and in the Gilgamesh Epic the man receives food from the woman, covers his naked body and is forced to leave his place of origin. In Gilgamesh there is also a snake that steals an immortality plant from the story’s main character.


Different emphasis on the Adam and Eve story

What made the story of Adam and Eve so central to the Christian faith, much more so than to Islam or Judaism, was that the Church decided that the story was to be interpreted literally. To Jews and Muslims respectively, the story of Genesis was far less essential; for them, their identity as a people was much more important. For Christians, on the other hand, the story of Adam and Eve became central, and Paul the Apostle described Jesus as the second Adam.

Around 400 A.D. Bishop Augustine of Hippo put forth thorough theological arguments as to why the story of Adam and Eve should be interpreted not as a myth, but rather as an absolute historical truth. All of a millennium later, Renaissance artists figured out how to confer life upon stories and managed to do what Augustin had called them to do: make Adam and Eve real. This made the myths collapse.


The significance of origin stories today

During the masterclass discussion, Mark Friis Hau pointed to the importance of origin stories in political anthropology, mentioning examples of the function of such narratives in the interplay between national and European identities in Scotland and Catalonia.

One such example tells the tale of how the Catalonian flag came into existence after a pivotal battle where the first count of Catalonia, Guifré el Pélos, was mortally wounded. Some believe that the Moors were the adversary, others say it was the Normans. The Frankish King Charles the Bald wished to honour the dying Guifré by conferring upon him a coat of arms on the battlefield. The King is said to have dipped Guifré’s hand in his own blood and ran his fingers across a golden shield. Thus, the four red bands of red on a yellow background became a national symbol.

Hau explained how strife is still a central phenomenon in the collective memory of Catalonians. The most interesting aspects of origin myths, Hau said, is how they are used in the present.


What music and silence can tell us

Panu Heimonen approached origin stories from another angle entirely. His research centres on music analysis and narrative theory with applications to various musical contexts. Using examples from the compositions of Franz Liszt, Heimonen showed how music can convey stories – here in the form of a “tragic salvation.” It is not merely the notes in themselves that tell a tale and create an emotional reaction in the listener, but also the pauses – the silence.

Greenblatt commented on how silence was also significant in the Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains a myth describing a great deluge, an obvious parallel to the Genesis flood narrative. In the Gilgamesh Epic, there is a primordial god who cannot stand noise. In his desperate desire for sleep, he demands silence. This is where the flood story comes from: the attempt to get rid of the noise of Man. In later myths, the difference between silence and noise is replaced by a moral system, where the noise is interpreted as bad acts that must be punished.


A question of authority

During the plenary discussion, Professor Liz Fisher from the University of Oxford pointed to the parallels between origin stories and the field of law. Both in mythology and law, origin stories are essentially about authority. In law, an authority is a precedent, and authoritative stories have both legal and political implications. One example of this is the significance that accrues to both the U.S. Constitution and the story of the Founding Fathers when American laws and policies are formulated. The discussions on interpretations of these authoritative stories have tangible consequences for people’s lives today.