LESSON Fantasy Worldbuilding - Creation Narratives

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Malkuthe Highwind, May 17, 2015.

  1. Fantasy Worldbuilding - Creation Narratives


    Do not be alarmed by the massive red triangle with an exclamation point within. This guide should not, if you are an upstanding citizen of Iwaku, hurt you.

    In any case, I would like to preface this guide with a simple disclaimer. While the concepts outlined here may very well apply in other genres, the information is provided predominantly with the assumptions that one: you are developing a creation narrative that involves the supernatural(deities, magic, or otherwise); and that two: you are developing for a Fantasy setting.

    If, however, you are developing for any other genre, do not fret. This information still applies, however, it is incomplete. In the case of Science Fiction, for example, one must consider the scientific 'creation narratives' such as the big bang, or in the creation of sentient species, evolution by natural selection.

    With that in mind, please, do not hesitate to proceed with the workshop.

    What are Creation Narratives?Simply speaking, a creation narrative is any story created by any culture in order to explain either one or both of two things: the origins of the universe and the world that they live in, or the origins of their people alone. This alone, however, will not be enough for the purposes of this workshop. Let us discuss two classifications that the creation narratives in a worldbuilder's arsenal will have.

    Objective Creation Narrative
    — Objective Creation Narratives refer to the story of how creation actually transpired in the world you created. This type of creation narrative should be free of cultural influence should, as much as possible, be told through an unbiased perspective. This kind of creation narrative is important only to the worldbuilder, because it is highly unlikely that the objective creation narrative will ever make it into the worldbuilder's stories, which leads us handily into the next classification of creation narrative.

    Cultural Creation Narrative
    — This is where the real worldbuilding fun begins. Many different cultures that developed distinct from each other are bound to have differing creation narratives. This is where creativity shines. Cultural Creation Narratives are influenced not only by cultural values, but also by history, geography, and in many ways, socio-economic status, as well. Cultural Creation Narratives are not meant to be accurate reflections of the Objective Creation Narratives, they are instead meant to be a reflection of the peoples of your world, what they believe in, what they value, where they are, what they have experienced, and what their status in the scheme of things is.
    The Importance of Creation Narratives in Cultures/ReligionsThe vast majority of cultures and religions in the modern world have some stories, taken figuratively or otherwise, about the origins of everything. In fact, so many of them have these stories that it is almost safe to say that all of them do, save for some fringe cases as will be discussed later on.

    Because of the sheer numbers of these creation narratives that exist, there have been a great many variations over the years. There is the typical creatio ex nihilo as exemplified in the Judeo-Christian mythological account of Genesis, which purports the existence of a single all-powerful deity that created the world from nothing. There are the myths where the world rises from chaos, such as in Graeco-Roman mythology from whom we get the word chaos to begin with. There are the myths which presume a cause-less existence in the beginning, like that of the Chinese Cosmic Egg from which eventually comes the world.

    There is, however, in all of this, one particular people that is strange by many accounts. Though the legitimacy of the claim is questionable, it is nonetheless important that we speak of the Amazonian Pirahã, who are said to have no creation myth.

    The reason that creation narratives are so very important in the understanding of a culture is because they indicate how a certain people view their place in the grand scheme of things. In the Abrahamic religions, for example, the account of Genesis creates a sort of Abrahamic exceptionalism in the followers and believers of such myths. Because they believe that they were created as elevated above all other creatures by an all-powerful deity who made the world specifically for them, they also believe that it is their divine right, as these elevated creations, to use the world made for them as they will. In addition to this, their beliefs might also lead them to believe that the small things in the world which seem to be so conveniently 'designed' for them is evidence for the existence of their deity.

    On the other hand, a culture, for example, that possesses a creation narrative that places them in an elevated position above all creatures on the condition that they are to be the stewards of creation might instead be more likely to be environmentally conscious, doing and talking only what the world around them could support.

    Interestingly enough, it is not too difficult to speculate that a culture with no creation narrative at all may think the same, though for different reasons. A culture that possesses no creation myth might very well believe that the world has always been, changing only marginally. As a result of this belief, they may believe that they should not change the world in the fear that it might bring disaster.
    Why Make a Creation Myth for Your World?For many folks, especially those worldbuilding for roleplays, a creation myth may very well seem like an entirely auxiliary detail, a luxury that one must develop if and only if time allows. This is not the case. A creation narrative, as mentioned above, has a lot of importance, especially for the worldbuilder as it can be used as the foundation upon which the worldbuilder creates entire cultures.

    To begin with, an Objective Creation Narrative(see definition above) can outline which races are present on the planet. This can be used, then, to create a hierarchy of sorts when it comes to the favour of the Maker deity. Subjective Creation Narratives, on the other hand, can be used to define the locations of sacred lands, the identities of sacred animals, religious holidays, sacred artifacts, and many such things linked nigh-inextricably from religion.

    Creation myths aren't only important in terms of worldbuilding, but they can be a fantastic part of the narrative as well. Take into consideration a fantasy setting where an individual born to the lowliest of races in the world rises up to be a great hero. The introduction of the story with a brief telling of the creation myth of the races above them may very well set the tone of an individual born into nothing fighting tooth and nail against the world to gain the recognition he/she deserves.
    The Kinds of Creation MythIn order to have the requisite knowledge to craft a compelling creation myth for a constructed world, one must first familiarize oneself with the many different kinds of creation myths that are scattered through the cultures of the different peoples of the real world.

    Creatio ex Nihilo — This type of creation myth is exemplified in the Biblical Genesis account, which is, for all intents and purposes of this discussion, completely mythological. Creatio ex Nihilo literally means "creation from nothing." These kinds of creation myth have an initial state where there is absolutely nothing which I shall refer henceforth as the 'true vacuum' initial state.

    In this true vacuum there exists nothing but the eternal and unchanging spirit of the Maker Deity/ies. It is either though the words or thoughts of this normally-omnipotent being imposing his/her will on the true vacuum that he/she literally gives rise to something from nothing. In fiction, this type of creation narrative is perhaps the most common. The most well known, and perhaps the one with the greatest following is the creation of the world of Arda, as told in the Ainulindalë, where the creator deity is Eru Iluvatar who is later assisted by his creations, the Ainur.

    Creation from Primordial Substance — This type of creation myth is similar to the first, but is very distinct. It is the other side of the coin, I suppose. Where 'creatio ex nihilo' necessitates a true vacuum initial state, creation from primordial substance requires some form of a primordial soup or object. The best real-world example of this is the creation narrative of Graeco-Roman mythology, which is where we get the term Chaos from.

    On the other hand, Creation from Primordial Substance also takes the form of 'waters' as opposed to chaos being present in the beginning. In the Incan creation myth, the god Viracocha rises from the surface of Lake Titicaca. Some interpretations of the Biblical account of Genesis would place the Judeo-Christian myth squarely in this classification of creation myth because of the verse "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (Genesis 1:2).

    The common thread between these creation narratives is the existence of a primordial substance that is either causeless or unexplained, from which the first creative deities arise. In the case of the Greek myths, these primordial deities are called the Protogenoi (Gaea, Ouranos, Nyx, Tartarus, etc.). There is no fictional setting that has an equivalent myth, as far as I can recall, however.

    Cyclical Creation — What defines this kind of creation narrative is the existence of cycles as the pillar upon which they are built.

    More often than not, in these myths, there is an initial creative instant which is then undone in an episode of destruction that sparks another creative instant, thus outlining a cycle. Some of these myths imply that creation and destruction happen indefinitely, that they are two sides of the same eternally flipping coin.

    The most pertinent example of this from the real world is the Aztec story of the Five Suns, where each time, there is a god that sacrifices him/herself to become the sun, which, eventually, will die, followed by a disaster of cataclysmic proportions. These disasters are then followed by another god taking the role of the sun, thus ensuring that creation happens once again.

    In literature, this is exemplified in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time where hte world progresses through seven 'Ages' in every 'Turning' of the Wheel, before eventually, for reasons un-explained in the books, returning to the First Age.

    Eternal but Changing Universe — One of the most important things to remember about this kind of narrative is that while the universe in these stories may be spatially and temporally infinite, it is not static. An eternal but static universe will be hostile to life. Life could never begin in such a place, much less last for significant periods of time.

    These narratives are considered creation myths because they only state that the universe is eternal. There is no reason for a certain species or people to have an origin myth in this eternally evolving universe, after all.

    This is exemplified by the creation narratives of the Bantu peoples, where the creation of mankind itself is a separate event that happens at some point in the timeline of this temporally infinite universe. As far as I can tell, however, there is no proper fictional example.

    Creation from Death — Whether it be the death of a primordial deity, or a giant that lived at the beginning of time, this is one of the most self-explanatory creation stories that there can be.

    It is not, however, as simple as that. There are, in general, two variations on this single theme. The first assumes that the creation that arises from the death of this primordial entity is deliberate—that is, someone took the corpse of the dead entity and created the world from it—while the second assumes that the creation is spontaneous.

    One of the best examples of the first is the story of Odin, his brothers Villi and Ve, and the frost giant Ymir. Odin and his brothers kill Ymir, one of the first creatures to stir in all the cosmos, and using his corpse, they craft the world.

    A fantastic example, in fiction, of the second variation, is the tale of the creation of the world in Blizzard's Diablo franchise. The story begins with Anu, the first being, who was the sum of all things, light and dark, good and evil. Seeking to purify himself, Anu flung out the darkness in him into the void, creating the first Prime Evil Tathamet. These two did battle for untold millennia, until finally, they landed their final, fatal blows, and the universe arose spontaneously from their remains.
    Questions to Consider when Building a Creation NarrativeIs this Creation Narrative going to be an objective narrative or a cultural one? — This, I think, is the most important thing to determine at first. Remember, the answer can be that it is boht, and that the particular culture that has this as its creation myth is simply aware of how the universe came into existence. Remember: an objective creation narrative is the story of how the world actually formed, while a cultural one is simply the story that a particular culture, at some point in its history, made up.

    What kind of creation do I want? — This, too, is a vital question to decide early because it sets the tone for everything that follows. Do you want creatio ex nihilo? Do you want creation from death? All these types of creation narratives will reflect differently on the cultures which you are creating them for.

    Is the creative force/entity divine? Or is creation simply spontaneous? — A creative instance does not always need the hand of a maker. In our world, the inflation of the early universe has yet-unknown causes, but we are well convinced that the cause is not divine. In the case that you are making a cultural creation narrative, and if you have an objective creation narrative made, will there be a disparity in this area? This is important to decide because it determines whether the culture you are building a narrative for is wrong or has the right idea, but hasn't quite refined it yet.

    If creating a cultural narrative: what values of the culture do I want this creation narrative to reflect? — Like I mentioned above with the example of Genesis and the culture of human exceptionalism that permeated the medieval, and, to some extent, the modern Church, a creation narrative can reflect how a certain culture views itself. How it views nature around it, and how much, if any, self-importance it has. Once you have this decided, it will be easy enough to put the building blocks together and craft a creation narrative that will fit the culture you have in mind.

    So there we are. That's the end of this workshop. What I'd like to know is how helpful you found it, and whether or not you think this is something you will use in your own worldbuilding.

    Also, I'd like to ask a favour of you guys. Why don't you take a creation narrative of yours that already exists, or maybe create a new one, it doesn't really matter. Take a creation narrative, existing or new, and answer the questions above for it. Post your answers here! I'd love to read what you guys come up with.
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