Creation of the Soul

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A common conception of the soul is as an indwelling or inherent spark of light or divinity whose residence during life is within the body; artist unknown

The first question we must consider in our study of the soul is how it comes into existence.

Religious creation myths -- stories conveying profound truths about the origins of life, metaphorically, symbolically, culturally, spiritually, or even historically -- often discuss the soul, but rarely do they present the soul as a separate creation from the physical being. Therefore we shall consider ancient stories of the creation of the earth and its living creatures as we look for the origins of the soul.

Creation stories can be found in many variations, both across diverse cultures and within single cultures. There is rarely one authoritative creation myth for any given culture or religion; even the Bible book of Genesis contains two creation stories, if you look carefully.


Created "Ex Nihilo," from Nothing

It is a common belief that the soul is created by the Divine from nothing, or "ex-nihilo"
The soul -- and life itself -- may be conceived as a creation that has arisen from chaos or the unformed void, here imagined as a human embryo within a heart emerging from the backdrop of interstellar space; artist unknown
In quite a few creation stories, the Supreme Being is conceived as a potter who forms the Earth and its living beings from mud or clay
In this Christian image, the Creator God is conceived as breathing life into his mud-man creation, Adam, and thus imbuing him with a soul; artist unknown
"Soul in the Machine," an image which seems to imply a conception that people may someday develop robotic or mechanical beings powered by artificial intelligence who are given souls by their creators; artist unknown
The soul conceived as emerging from the primal sea; artist unknown

The three religions that trace their founding to Abraham -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- teach that God created the world and humanity from nothing, bringing creation into existence by verbal command. Before that event, nothing existed at all. This teaching resolves a certain philosophical awkwardness -- the tension between the disorder of primordial matter and God, the ultimate Orderliness. Where it appears, however, it is not the only creation story, nor is it the oldest. Creation ex nihilo was not featured until humans began to be interested in the origin of matter itself.

In Christianity, ex nihilo traditions began to show up during the second century C.E., when Christian, Gnostics, and Neoplatonists engaged each other. Judaism accepted this belief much more slowly — not until the 10th century C.E. was it part of mainstream Jewish discourse. Islamic thinkers concluded that if there was pre-existent, undifferentiated matter from the beginning of time, that God could not truly be considered the world’s Creator and First Cause.

Ancient Egypt grasped the best of both worlds: Ptah, the original and Supreme Architect, had such a powerful imagination that he could envision the entire universe in every detail; he would use his own original divine blueprint to speak each object into existence.

Created from Chaos

Though modern Christianity, Islam, and Judaism teach that the earth was created out of nothing, the oldest layers of their scriptures have nothing to say about the origin of matter; its creation begins with undifferentiated matter already in existence, and God's creative activity consists of ordering the chaos into orderly, interdependent environments and creatures. The same is true of creation stories in many other religious traditions; many of those stories, too, begin with undifferentiated matter. Whether created from nothing or from formless matter, the differentiation of existence into planets and stars, light and dark, starfishes and saurians also falls into a few recognizable themes.

Born, Created, or Spontaneously Generated from the Body of a God

According to traditional Chinese belief, Pangu was the first living being, and the creator of the world. Pangu is said to have emerged from chaos, which was in the form of a cosmic egg. In one version of the myth, Pangu actively participates in the creation of the world. Applying his knowledge of Yin and Yang, Pangu separated the earth from the sky, set the heavenly bodies in place, divided the seas, and created the valleys and mountains. After separating the sky from the earth. Pangu holds up the sky for 18,000 years, and then dies of exhaustion. From the various parts of his corpse, the world arises. For instance, Pangu’s left eye became the sun, while his right became the moon. His blood became rivers, while his body became fertile soil. His bones turned into rocks, while his hair turned into trees and plants. Humanity developed from fleas on his body.

The Sumerian creation story, the Enuma Elish, describes the chaos as consisting of two primordial deities, Apsu and Tiamat, intermixed and commingled. Nothing else existed and no destinies had been foretold. They separated and began creating pairs of gods, who began to disturb their creators with their activity. The creators decided to destroy their creation. The new gods heard of this and created a spell to put their divine parents to sleep. Apsu never woke up, so the god Ea took Apsu’s halo for a crown, and took up residence in his body, using parts of it to create other gods. This led to war, and the death of Tiamat, whose body was used to make the world. Humanity was created from the blood of the god Kingu, who had to be sacrificed to accomplish this.

The Kuba people of Central Africa tell a bleak-sounding creation story: Before the universe, there was only darkness and water, inhabited by the giant, pale god Mbombo. Eventually, Mbombo felt an intense pain out of nowhere, and vomited the sun, moon and stars into existence. The sun evaporated the primordial ocean, creating the clouds and land. Mbombo felt better for some time, but soon became ill again, and vomited once more, this time creating all of the animals. Thus, creation appeared as a spontaneous reaction of the divine body.

Created by a God from Earth or Other Natural Materials

The Fulani people of Mali tell the story of the world's creation from a huge drop of milk. God created stone; stone created iron; iron created fire, and onward through the traditional ancient categories of the elements, ending with air. From these elements God created humanity. When humanity became too proud, God created blindness to humble them. But then blindness itself became too proud, so God created the ancient ills of life, one by one, as each became too proud and needed a master. The last was Death, which became too proud, so God had to come to earth and defeat Death.

In the famous Jewish creation narrative of "The Book of Genesis," a second creation story describes creation of humanity in a single verse: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." In context, it sounds almost like an afterthought; but creation by verbal command is absent here.

According to some New Age adherents, especially those who embrace a world-view that includes scientific progress as a fundamentally transformative force, it has been conceived that in the future mechanical beings, such as robots or artificial intelligence programs, will achieve self-awareness and that such machine intelligence may lead to the imbuing of machines with souls. If this were to happen, it is theorized, humanity, as the creator of the self-aware and soul-filled machine entities, would have functioned as gods.

Earth Gathered Together from the Primal Sea Floor

Many Asian and First Nations cultures tell stories of an earth diver: a magical animal who brings up mud from the depths of the primal sea to create the bodies of land we know today. In many of these stories, the slumbering souls of animals and humans have been waiting in the primal sea; the earth-diver also construct plants and animals of mud and sand, which these souls awaken and occupy.

The earth-divers generally act on a command from the creator, but the Cherokee tell a story in which the motive for land creation is curiosity about the primordial sea-floor. Other stories attribute land creation to a desire to rest in a dry place.

Emergence from a Lower World

Several Native American and Asian traditions describe say that humanity originated in another world below the surface of the earth. These worlds were either incubators which nourished humans until they were ready to function on the earth, or failures of creation from which humans are refugees. In most of these stories, this world was an improvement on previous ones, though Cherokee and Lakota stories say that our world was a disappointment to the first humans.


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