The Ancient Modern
The Raven Creation Myth / Joshua Alan Sturgill
“There are many stories of creation,” my old friend said suddenly as we were hiking through the Dome Wilderness. We had been discussing the wildfires and floods that this corner of the Jemez Mountains often suffer. This was followed by a long silence.
“Many stories?” I prompted, when it seemed that another pause had commenced.
“Of course,” he said, “The Origin is not something that can be described, so it has to be told. And since it all happened before language, it has to be told many times and many ways. A sunrise is a single event, but to paint it takes many colors and quite a lot of skill.”
Months earlier, while hiking through a different region of New Mexico, my friend related what I later called the Coyote Creation Myth. I was hoping he might continue that story, or explain it.
“And the explanation is something that happens as you listen,” he added—uncannily answering my unspoken thought. “It’s a change of focus, maybe. Or, an expansion—like becoming aware of a mountain on the horizon.The mountain was always there, but you were busy with something close by.”
“Do the different stories agree?” I asked.
“They don’t interfere with each other, if that’s what you mean.” My friend waited a moment. I knew him well enough to know he was considering a way to bring me from one kind of thinking to another. “Contradictions and comparisons are not very helpful. They miss the point.”
He went on, “You know in the Bible—in Genesis—there are two Creation stories? And there is another description of Creation in Job, and references in the Psalms to the Origin of things. And all these stories are different. They don’t necessarily agree on details. But they don’t get in each other’s way, either. There was a time before facts and details…”
“Why do you think all those stories are there?” I asked.
My friend looked at me as if to decide how much he wanted to say. “In the first story of Genesis, everything comes in pairs, right? Night and day, sea and land, Heaven and Earth.”
“Sure,” I said, “the Seven Days.”
“Yes. So if everything comes in pairs, and the pairs are very different but don’t contradict each other, why not a pair of Creation stories? Day is not enough to reveal the world; Night has to be there, too. Both the sea and the land have something to say about God’s character. There has to be both.”
“Like male and female?” I mused.
“Exactly,” my friend said, “the two Creation Stories at the beginning of Genesis are like male and female. The first is very well-ordered, with one thing emerging from another.There’s structure and direction. But then, we get a different perspective. We are in a verdant garden with rivers and hidden gold and fertile ground, and nothing can happen until Eve arrives.”
“I’ve heard scholars say that the two stories are from two different sources.”
“So what?” he laughed. “A wise person saw that they belonged together and put them side by side. Obviously, both are necessary. ‘Two different sources’ isn’t a meaningful statement, anyway. It’s like saying, ‘there’s no such thing as the Mississippi River because it comes from two different sources.’ That’s not how rivers work. It’s not how stories work either.”
I was delighted to get so much from my friend, who is usually quite laconic. Sometimes, we walk for hours with little or no conversation. Both of us prefer silence to small talk. I was anxious to keep the dialog going as long as possible.
“You said there are many Creation Stories,” I reminded him. “Was there one you had in mind?”
“Actually, yes,” he said.
I knew better than to press for the story too soon. So, I waited and turned my attention back to the hike. The Dome Wilderness was ravaged by a fire back in the mid-90’s, leaving the landscape bare and exposed to the strong light of the desert sun. Copper globemallow, barrel cactus and young aspens have taken over what used to be a forest of tall Ponderosas.
I have been here a few times. The whole area has a patient, resigned sense. It remembers, but doesn’t regret. Charred trunks of huge trees still stand among the red granite boulders; vines and wildflowers scatter like happy children along the trail. There will be sunflowers and lupine blooming soon.
“I was thinking about the Ravens’ creation story,” my friend said eventually, still half in thought. “It’s very different from the Coyotes’ story—I suppose as different as Ravens and Coyotes are from each other.”
I listened quietly.
“The Ravens say that at first there was only God, who was like a great Bird. He had wings, so he wanted something to fly in. He sat very still, breathing deeply, and His Breath spread out all around and became the whole sky.
He had feet, too, so He wanted somewhere to stand. He began to flap His wings, gathering some of His Breath together into a dense ball and grasping and shaping it with His feet.
Now, His Breath had been smoothly spread out all around Him, but as He opened and closed His wings, everything was disturbed: the turbulence caused great billows of cloud, it tossed and gathered the stars and galaxies together.
God did not know how big to make the ball on which He was going to stand, so He made it the same size as His Heart. He pressed and sculpted it, and his talons left great scratches that were valleys and hills. The echo of His Heart made all the valleys shake and the new Earth wanted to speak back.
So the trees and the plants grew in response. Each is a different kind of echo or reply. When He saw the trees and plants which had grown from the echo of His heartbeat, he began to speak. Each Word became an animal, and He taught the animals how to breathe His Breath so that they could speak back to Him…”
Here, my friend stopped and seemed to be thinking what to say next.
“Is that the whole story that they tell?” I asked. “The Coyote story talked about humanity, and something like the Fall. Do the Ravens talk about people or evil?”
“The creation part of the story ends here. They don’t talk about sin or a Fall. The Ravens say that God sits on the Earth like a mother bird sits on an egg, and that the Creation isn’t finished yet. God spoke, and still speaks, and He is waiting.”
God is waiting. That does sound something like Genesis, I thought. “What do they say about death? Do they have an explanation for it?”
“They do talk about death, of course. I think, for the Ravens, life as we know it is only one part of Life. For them, life is like a great house—or maybe a great sky to fly in. We pass from one room or height to another as we move up toward God’s Heart. And this is only one room and only what we can see. Maybe the first room. Maybe just the nest, the Ravens might say.”
I considered this idea of myself as the echo of a Word of God. It was beautiful, but also, I admit, a little disappointing. Something in me wanted more—more independence, I guess. Autonomy. But then I wondered: from where does that idea of autonomy come? I didn’t cause myself to be born. I appeared. Circumstances outside my control allow me survive and grow. All of everything is outside my control. Maybe that’s what I didn’t like.
But the image of God resting on the Earth struck me as so intimate, so alluring.
I saw, in my mind’s eye, a mother raven sitting on a single egg—warming it with the heat of her body, her feathers pressed against it, her eyes vigilant. And I saw the galaxies and nebulae and stars all spread out around the her, still spinning and dancing from the turbulence of wings when the Earth was made.
Made from breath, I thought to myself. Everything breathing. Everything prepared.