This is Akitu, the New Year Festival, a time to hear of what we are... from the opening of an annual festival, Mesopotamia, before 2500 B.C.
An ancient custom apparently common to many primitive peoples on all continents, was the gathering on tribal New Year's days to recall the beginning of things. Rejoicing and pageantry marked these colorful meetings, held the first day of each year to commemorate what was to those ancient peoples the universe's first "New Year's Day."
The idea may have originated with the Mesopotamians, whose Enuma elish has been called the oldest "creation story" in the world. Conceived in the form of an epic poem, the Enuma elish pre-dated the ancient Sumerians by several centuries. These amazing Middle Easterners kept the poem alive until it was eventually written down in Akkadian cuneiform.
The poem begins by envisaging the primordial state (in terms of the Mesopotamian environment) as chaos:
When above no sky had yetbeen mentioned
And below no earth was named,
No reed hut had been matted,
No marsh land had appeared ...
Its central character is Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, who came into possession of "the tablets of destiny" through which he was able to devise mankind and the universe. The Enuma reaches its climax when Marduk takes "a female being" from the "waters of nothingness" and splits her in two parts, "like a shellfish." With one of the two halves, Marduk creates heaven. With the other, he makes earth.
As Marduk's story was chanted by a priest, a company of Mesopotamian youths acted it out in elaborate detail. When the ceremony was finished, the crowd became silent in the hope of hearing Marduk himself speak. It was believed that if Marduk was pleased, his voice would be heard decreeing the destiny of the state for the ensuing year.
The creation story told at the start of each new year by the ancient Jicarilla Apache, who dwelt in what is now New Mexico, was not as formal as that of the Mesopotamians. This simple Indian tale relates that in the beginning "there were only Grandfather and Dog." As Grandfather created the earth and its various features, Dog followed him, helping with some of the smaller details.
Dog was very happy in this, but when earth was finished the creator had bad news for him. "Someday soon," he told Dog, "I shall have to live far away."
"Then," said Dog, "will you make me a companion?" Grandfather nodded and began to make Man.
"He's wonderful," said Dog when Grandfather finished the first human.
Man was taught that same day to walk and talk. "What else?" said Grandfather.
Grandfather thought a moment. Then he knew what was missing. "Laugh," he said. Man laughed.
Dog was happy when the man laughed. He jumped up at him and then ran off a few paces. Then he ran back and jumped up on the man again. He kept jumping the way all dogs do when they are full of love and delight.
"Now, you are fit to live," said Grandfather, departing.
In the fifth century B.C., Anixamander stated that "Earth swings free, held in its place by nothing." One day, thousands of miles and years away, the story of "Mawu" would contradict the Greek philosopher.
The people of Dahomey in West Africa believe that Mawu is the creatrix and mother of all. She is also the moon. When Mawu created the universe, she rode on the back of Aido Hwedo, "the great rainbow serpent," who was so big he was able to encircle the sky.
Every morning, wherever the two had spent the night, mountains stood. But when the world was finished, Mawu and the great serpent realized that many geographical features were too large. The earth itself was so heavy Mawu saw that it would surely topple. "Coil around the earth and steady it," she ordered the serpent. "Bear its weight."
Aido Hwedo, say the back-country Dahomey, encircles the earth even today. To keep from slipping and perhaps dropping the earth, he holds the tip of his tail in his teeth. Once in awhile the tremendous task makes him uncomfortable. Then, he shifts a bit to ease himself, and there is an earthquake in the world.
The Melanesian peoples of the Banks Islands, northeast of Australia, believed that during the world's first days the total population consisted of 12 brothers. One of them, "Qat," started making things—stones, plants—whatever he thought up. At the outset, the earth basked in neither darkness nor light. His brothers didn't like the earth this way and complained to Qat.
Eons passed and then Qat got an idea. He would make the sun. The brothers in time came to enjoy the bright rays of the sun. One day, the brothers saw the sun moving to the west. "It is departing! Can't you make it come back?" they cried.
"This is night," said Qat. "Lie down and keep quiet."
The brothers lay down, and in the dark they felt strange and dreamy. Their eyes grew heavy and finally closed.
"Are we dying?" asked the brothers. "This is sleep," said Qat. Thus, according to the Banks Islanders of the last century, man came to obtain night and day.
The concept of brothers, some of whom held supernatural powers, is actually widespread throughout the Pacific. Certain of the Polynesian tribes trace ancestries today back to brothers such as "Maui," "Limo" and "Tane."
In the first days, according to the Polynesians, there was only darkness and void. Then, light was born, growing from a flicker to full daylight. One by one, the brothers appeared: Maui, who produced the Pacific islands by fishing them up from the bottom of the sea with his hook and line; Limo, who noosed the sun and forced it to go slower, making the day "longer even than night"; a third brother stole fire and brought it to earth, but it is Tane the Polynesians identify with best, for he was the brother who made mankind. To do this, Tane first moulded a woman-figure out of earth. She was called "Woman-pile-of-sand," and she married a sand-man to eventually become the mother of all Polynesians.
When Ferdinand Magellan sailed through the archipelago of islands at the southern tip of South America in 1520, he was fascinated by the number of outdoor fires the inhabitants kept burning. From these, he gave the islands their name, Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) and sailed on. No one knows if the explorer's visit coincided with local New Year's festivities, but it may have. The first peoples there built countless fires the first few days of each year in honor of the powerful god whom they believed to own the world.
Tierra del Fuego natives referred to this god only as "that one there above." They thought he lived far away, but whoever ate meat late at night threw a small piece out of his hut, saying, "This is for 'that one there above.'"
Creation stories in the northern hemisphere contrast with those of Tierra del Fuego and other southern lands, in that the creator was often an animal. Among these have been eagles, ducks and fish. The early Finns, for example, believed the world was formed when a beautiful teal landed on the primordial waters and laid seven eggs. Six of the eggs were golden, the seventh iron. All but the last egg sank to the bottom of the water and were forgotten. The iron egg, however, broke open, and from its lower shell the solid parts of the earth were formed. From the upper shell the sky arched itself over sea and land. The yolk slipped into the sky and became the sun. From its white the moon and stars were formed.
The small Eskimo village of Unisak sets on a cape which juts out into the waters of Bering Strait from the Chuckchee Peninsula, Siberia. Eskimos there say that "Raven and his wife" created the world. The pair made Unisak from the bill of an eider-duck, then Alaska out of a long knife. The island of Imalik, situated between Siberia and North America, was made by Raven and his mate from the button which fastens a knife scabbard around a man's hip.
Scholars have found that most of the heroes in stories of the world's first days were happy gods. The happiest of them all, perhaps, must have been "Old Man Madumda," father and protector of early California's Pomo Indians.
The Pomos believed that Old Man Madumda took some bits of dried skin from his arm and fashioned them into a tiny ball. In time, this little ball grew into the earth and Madumda hurled the ball out into space. Finally, blowing sparks from his pipe into the southern sky, the creator chuckled and started the sun.
Madumda walked around in the world, fixing things. "Here a mountain, here some rocks," he said. "Now, a valley, a lake, clover growing, acorns on the mountains, juniper and cherries. There must be potatoes and rabbits," he said. "And on that mountain over there, let there be bear, puma, wolf, coyote, fox, skunk; on this one rattlesnakes, king snakes, garter snakes...."
When every creature had been made, Madumda gave the various peoples their languages and dances. "Take care of each other. Live in happiness," he told them and then he went to talk to the animals. Madumda called together the wolves, the lynxes, pumas, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, martens and the bears. He told each kind where to live and where to find his food. He called together the elk and the deer and told them to live in the hills.
He told the rabbits, the moles, gophers, mice and badgers that it would be nice to live in holes underground. He called together the rattlesnakes and big and little snakes, the lizards and the snails, and told them how best to get along in the world.
He called to the fish to tell them how to live, too. Turtle came ashore followed by all the fishes. "You're not a fish!" said Madumda to Turtle, "but you can catch your food in the water if you want. Now, you fish," he said, "must not come ashore. Live in the water."
And so Madumda's work was done and it was time to disappear. "Hold together," he told the world as he did so.
And so it has.