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Vájra or stylised thunderbolt from Tibet (17th to 19th century CE), Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Anthropology, Bĕijīng Dàxúe Hăidiăn, Beijing, China. In Buddhist mysticism, the flattened sphere in the centre represents the bindu, the original particle from which creation exploded outward – following the contours of the bilobate thunderbolt.

Does it Matter?
Dec 08, 2010

Does the universe have a beginning in time? Was there a time ‘before time’, when the visible world did not yet exist in any form? Was visible matter once formed out of nothing?

These questions have exercised human minds for thousands of years. Yet surprisingly, out of myriads of traditional myths of creation worldwide, very few support the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo or ‘formation out of nothing’.

One of the most perplexing cases is the opening verse of the Hebrew book of Genesis. This is commonly understood as saying that ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ were called into existence by the deity and therefore had not hitherto existed. But the matter is not quite so easy. Serious objections have been raised against this reading from a purely grammatical point of view.

Some have argued that this line is really a dependent clause, so that the sentence must be translated as follows: ‘In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth, when the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the abyss, and the spirit of God was hovering over the water, God said: ‘Let there be light.’’ If this translation is correct, the absolute origins of heaven, earth and the watery void remain unspecified, while God’s activity is restricted to bringing order into this pre-existent chaos. Other philologists have claimed that the verb bārā, which is usually rendered as ‘to create’, in this case referred to ‘cleaving’ or ‘separating’ – which is an entirely different matter: ‘In the beginning, God cleft heaven and earth.’

Again, the upshot would be that these two extremities of the known world had already been present in some form prior to God’s involvement. And the medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), commented on the matter at hand that even those who prefer to read ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’ still run into the difficulty that the provenance of the waters, mentioned in verse 2, is not given. Whichever way one looks at it, the Hebrew myth of creation leaves a strong impression that the act of God’s creation consisted primarily in the rearrangement of matter that had already been present to begin with.

On a global scale, traditional enunciations of a ‘creation from nothing’ do exist, but are exceedingly rare. In the Judaeo-Christian world, no examples are known prior to the Hellenistic period. The Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint, opens with words meaning: ‘In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.’ In a version of the Hebrew legend of Enoch, God is made to explain: “Before anything existed at all, from the very beginning, whatever exists I created from the non-existent, and from the invisible the visible.”

In the Vedic cosmology of India, it was repeatedly declared that “In the beginning this was non-existent. It became existent, it grew.” “Verily, in the beginning there was here the nonexistent.” And the Jesuit historian, Bernabé Cobo (1582-1657 CE), observed that some of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the former Inca empire “believe that creation came forth from nothing” while “others hold that it came from clay”.

This handful of examples contrasts with the overwhelming majority of creation myths, according to which the earliest remembered state of the world was not one of an empty vacuum, but a limitless expanse of ‘water’, the unformed mass of sky and earth joined in primordial union, or a sea of intermingling elements, always shrouded in permanent darkness. Clearly, the philosophical question whether there was an absolute beginning to visible matter was insubstantial and of no concern to most people, with the exception of a few isolated original thinkers pioneering proto-scientific traditions.

Modern scientists face the same ontological dilemma as the old myth-makers did when contemplating the universe. Unlike the earlier societies, proponents of the ‘Big Bang’ theory claim that the entire universe, including the concepts of matter and of time, sprang into existence at a single instant – prior to which ‘pure energy’ alone is thought to have existed in a greatly condensed form. The spiritual father of this theory, the Belgian priest, physicist and astronomer, Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), did not conceal his conviction that this explosive event, billions of years ago, vindicates the Christian teaching of God’s creation from nothing.

Yet as in mythology, so in science creatio ex nihilo is challenged by champions of a universe that is infinite in space as well as time – first by advocates of a ‘steady state’ cosmology, including Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold, and now again by plasma cosmologists, who have developed better ways to ‘save the phenomena’ than the mind-boggling postulate of a ‘singularity’ triggering uniform expansion.

To be sure, the concept of a cosmos bursting into existence from a primeval ‘atom’ has much in common with age-old creation myths. Even though archaic traditions did not make much of the idea of a mystical era of ‘nothingness’ preceding creation, a very prevalent notion is that of an ‘egg’, a ‘gourd’, a ‘womb’ or some other receptacle pregnant with the ancestral seeds of sky and earth and all their living denizens. Hence, it is not for nothing that historians of science cannot help wondering whether Big Bang theory rests on more than mathematical derivation alone, owing some ideational input to such widespread cultural ideas.

Even so, in the cold light of day ancient traditions about the ‘construction’ of the cosmos and the ‘formation’ of life are quite immaterial with respect to the actual origins of the universe or, indeed, the solar system in deep time. On current knowledge, it is rather more likely that creation myths began as recollections of highly turbulent episodes in the recent history of the earth, involving geomagnetic storms, earthquakes, floods and conflagrations. As such catastrophic events would have involved drastic changes in geological, climatic and atmospheric conditions, it is understandable that early myth-makers would conflate the most recent ‘fashioning’ of sky and earth with the question of their true beginnings.

Not a single ancient civilisation of any importance failed to recognise that the universe goes through periods of destruction and renewal – perhaps in infinite succession. For that reason, despite the mythological aura that surrounds Big Bang theory, there really is no conflict between the world view relayed in ancient lore and that explored by modern plasma cosmologists. The latter are, indeed, much better placed to make sense of the ‘cosmic egg’ and similar recondite aspects of ancient memory. What better authority to cite, then, than Heraclitus of Ephesus, who not only claimed that 'Thunderbolt steers all things', but also said:

'This (world)order did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an everliving fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures'.

Contributed by Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon




"The Cosmic Thunderbolt"

YouTube video, first glimpses of Episode Two in the "Symbols of an Alien Sky" series.


And don't forget: "The Universe Electric"

Three ebooks in the Universe Electric series are now available. Consistently praised for easily understandable text and exquisite graphics.

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