One way of approaching creation myths is to outline some of the themes that commonly occur in them. It should be noted at the outset however, that these themes or motifs are the creation of modern scholars of myths and mythology, not the people who created the myths in the first place. While they are useful and can provide us with a great deal of insight, individual creation myths cannot be expected to conform rigidly to a single modern stereotype. Rather, any one creation myth will have several thematic features to a greater or lesser degree. This is the rule rather than the exception. This article will attempt to deal with some of the main themes occurring in creation myths.
One myth that may be used to illustrate several themes is the traditional Chinese creation myth. This is the myth of Pan-gu (also known as P'an-ku). There are written texts of this myth going back to the 6th century CE and there are parts of Southern China where the cult of P'an Ku still persists. The most common form of the myth is as follows :-
The first living thing was P'an Ku. He evolved inside a gigantic cosmic egg, which contained all the elements of the universe totally intermixed together. P'an Ku grew by about 10 feet each day. As he grew he separated the earth and the Sky within the egg. At the same time he gradually separated the many opposites in nature male and female, wet and dry, light and dark, wet and dry, Yin and Yang. These were all originally totally commingled in the egg. While he grew he also created the first humans. After 18,000 years the egg hatched and P'an Ku died from the effort of creation. From his eyes the sun and moon appeared, from his sweat, rain and dew, from his voice, thunder, and from his body all the natural features of the earth arose.
The formless chaotic egg which was the birthplace of P'an Ku is an example of the idea of a primitive chaos, or featureless, undifferentiated universe. This is the most frequently found primordial stuff of the universe in creation myths. The Greeks referred to this initial formless state of the universe as chaos and this is the origin of the term. One very common variation on this idea describes the primordial universe as a great featureless body of water. For example this idea was used by the ancient Babylonians in their creation myth. The story of the Japanese gods Izanagi and Izanami stirring the waters of the earth to produce the island of Okonoro is another example of this theme of a primordial sea. In this case the ocean is the precursor of the earth rather than the whole universe.
In contrast to a primordial universe consisting of a some undifferentiated matter, there are some creation myths that describe a creation of the universe from nothing or ex nihilo. A god who exists in a void performs some action which results in the universe coming into being, sometimes in an undifferentiated state. The Egyptian creation myth as related in the Pyramid Texts is one example of creation from nothing. Atum is the first god who creates his brother and sister Shu and Tefnut. Another case of creation from nothing occurs in the most common of the Samoan creation myths. Tangaroa, who is the supreme god in Samoan mythology, but usually only the god of the ocean for other Polynesians created the world by thinking of it. A further examples of ex nihilo creation is the creation myth of the Kalahari Bushmen of Africa. Monotheistic religions also usually envisage an ex nihilo creation. Numerous other instances of ex nihilo creation myths exist.
It should be noted that creation myths may involve one or several stages of creation. In the latter case a primordial god typically creates part of the universe and has offspring who then further differentiate the primitive universe. They too have offspring who do further things. Often there is conflict between different generations of gods for mastery of the universe. Also at some stage, human beings and the world as we know it come into being. The creation myth of classical Greek mythology is a good example of a multi stage creation of the universe. The creation myth of P'an-ku is likewise a good example of a single stage creation myth.
A second theme of creation myths that occurs in the story of P'an-ku is the idea of the earth and the sky forming by the separation of the original matter of the universe. Most often, the earth and sky are primordial deities of different sexes. In most cases the earth is female and the sky male. The Maori and Polynesian creation myth of Rangi and Papa is a good example of this. In this creation myth the primordial universe is the bodies of the two gods Papa and Rangi. Their separation by their offspring is the act which creates the universe as we know it. A similar idea is embodied in the Egyptian creation myth of Nut and Geb. In contrast to most earth and sky deities, Nut, the sky god, is female. However, like Rangi and Papa, Nut and Geb are separated by their offspring.
Another theme that occurs in the P'an Ku creation myth is the idea that the earth or the world or even the entire universe is the bodily remains of a primordial being or deity. This also occurs in the Norse creation myth where the primordial giant Ymir is killed by Odin, Vili and Ve. The earth is formed from the dead body of Ymir. His flesh becomes the land, his blood becomes the sea, his bones become the mountains and his hair becomes the trees. His skull becomes the vault of the heavens. A similar story occurs in the Babylonian creation myth related in the Babylonian epic Enuma elish written around 1100 BCE. The Babylonian god Marduk fights and kills Tiamat, the primordial goddess of the ocean. He cuts her body in two. One half becomes the sky, the other half the earth. The Norse and Babylonian creation myths also involve the notion whereby the creation of the universe involves a struggle between primordial gods and/or beings. This idea is also a common theme in many other creation myths. Classical Greek mythology, for example, has several struggles. There is the original one between Uranus and his offspring, ending in the death of Uranus at the hands of Cronus. Later on there is the struggle between Zeus and the Titans.
The final general aspect of creation myths shown in the P'an Ku myth is that they always involve the creation of human beings at some stage by gods or other supernatural entities. By doing this, a connection is established between the everyday world of human beings and the supernatural world of the god or gods who created the universe. It also establishes the place of human beings in the hierarchy of life inhabiting the universe. Man is placed below gods and other supernatural beings but above animals and plants. This aspect shows us the aetiological or explanatory function of creation myths.