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Why is separation of earth and sky so common in different mythologies?

  1. May 1, 2014 #1
    Why is separation of earth and sky so common in different mythologies around the world?

    EDIT: Sorry about my poor phrasing of the question. My question is actually why people would assume earth and sky were joined once. Which observation/ reasoning led them to make up such a non-obvious story? I thought, for two things to be separated, they have to be joined first, and the idea of the earth and sky's being joined once would bring questions to people's minds spontaneously.
    Last edited: May 1, 2014
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  3. May 1, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Because that's what everybody sees.
    Any story about the World has to comment on what you see.

    Note: do not confuse "sky" with "atmosphere" or "air".
  4. May 1, 2014 #3
    Thank you very much. My question was actually why in so many mythologies we find that earth and the heavens ( whatever that means: skies/ stars/ space or I don't know what ) were once together, and then were separated. Why would they assume the Earth and the heavens were together once?
  5. May 1, 2014 #4


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    Can you give some examples of mythologies assuming that?
  6. May 1, 2014 #5


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    Is it all that common though? I can't think of a mythology that has Earth and sky as a single entity being then separated into two, unless you count Greek Gaia giving birth to Uranus.
    Other mythologies I know of have the sky born from primeval waters(Egyptian), separated from the primeval sea to form the firmament(Babylonian, Hebrew), being part of the world tree(Slavic), or not mentioned as a separate entity at all - just as a place to hang the stars on(Finnish, Norse).
  7. May 1, 2014 #6
    Thank you very much adjacent and Bandersnatch.

    Geb and Nut ( Egyptian )
    Kronos and Rhea ( Greek )
    Rangi and Papa in Maori Mythology
    An and Ki in Sumerian Mythology

    For more, please visit this google books page.
  8. May 1, 2014 #7
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  9. May 1, 2014 #8
  10. May 1, 2014 #9
  11. May 1, 2014 #10


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    I don't think you meant to include Kronos and Rhea. The Greek gods/titans of sky and earth were Uranus and Gaia. Kronos castrated Uranus, which is the type of separation your first link focuses on - not a single entity being split in two(as in Babylonian and Sumerian myths) but two entities that kept mating and giving birth to other gods until they were forcibly pulled apart.

    Just a minor nitpick.

    As for why would various peoples feel the need to include such type of myths, I think it all just boils down to what Simon said earlier - myths describe the world as it is seen.

    I'm not sure if this sort of speculation fits into PF rules, but let me give it a try:

    If you're a tribe living on flat plains, you see the world as consisting of Earth and sky, which appear to touch on the horizon. All the other stuff in the world is tiny and insignificant compared to the vastness of these two. So it doesn't seem terribly strange that you'd make these two the major/primal gods that you begin your creation story with. Since they're the first beings, all the other gods need to come from them. Then you end up needing to explain why they no longer make new gods like they did in the days of yore, so you come up with castration, patricide or other kind of separation.

    If you're a tribe living by the sea, you find the vastness of the sea much more prominent than that of the land, so it features in your mythology. The sea also appears to be "better" connected with the sky - they seem to blend into one at the horizon, so it lends itself even more to including the link between the two as a part of your creation story.

    If you're living in a heavily forested region, the horizon is less apparent, but trees are abundant. So you end up with world trees connecting the sky, earth, and underworld.

    The bottom line being, you describe what you see, and most cultures saw plenty of sky, sea, and open land.

    Then there's the regional intermingling of cultures, and borrowing of myths. The Hebrew bible took many ideas from the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which in turn was strongly influenced by the Sumerian creation myths. So it's not a surprise neighbouring cultures have similar creation myths, even if they had little to do with their conception.
  12. May 1, 2014 #11

    Simon Bridge

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    Other examples:
    Maori: Rangi and Papa start out as two entities in a tight embrace until they were forced to separate by their children needing room to grow.
    In Christian mythology God makes "firmament" to separate the waters above from the waters below (Gen 1:6-8) etc etc etc.

    The mythology story has to explain the separation that exists today ... the separation at least implies the possibility of togetherness so why not? Why not have the sky touch the ground and we are all swimming in blueness?

    There are two (obvious) broad possibilities: [1]
    1. the two were originally together and became separated
    2. the two started out separate and stayed that way.

    This is almost creation vs steady-state isn't it? Not quite but you see what I mean?

    It certainly seems that one style is more common than the other.

    Is that due to some human tendency to prefer creation/unified-origin (whatever) stories to "been that way forever/from the start" stories or is it more to do with the way Judeo-Christian culture dominates western society these days... so only similar stories tend to get retold? Maybe a combination?

    Have you been able to find stories where the sky and earth were separate from the beginning?

    But the way to understand the preference for one to the other - either way - is to look at what sort of problems the story is supposed to solve. What was the social and political role of the narrative?

    Finally: wouldn't we expect broad similarities in these sorts of stories between different cultures? They are all stories told by human beings. Differences in culture seem to show up in the dissimilarities of the details instead.


    [1] technically 3. both of the above, and 4. none of the above - but hey ho...
  13. May 1, 2014 #12

    Simon Bridge

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    I can't read it .... I cannot find a reference to Cronus and Rhea being Sky and Earth anywhere else - can you?

    I find lots of references to Gaia being Earth and Uranus being sky.
    In this mythology, the sky and the earth are periodically together and apart, but finally separate permanently due to Cronus' action.

    So here we seem to have another possibility apart from the obvious ... sky and earth start out apart, and come together only to be forced apart again.

    Perhaps the prevalance you have noticed is just due to that particular story being "obvious"?
  14. May 1, 2014 #13
    Thank you very much for such a nice answer.

    However, it's still not clear to me why people would assume the sky and earth were TOGETHER in the first place? It's certainly not a commonsensical thought.

    I can give you other examples. I was born in a Muslim family, and read Quran. 21:30 says, "Heavens and the earth were joined together as one united piece, then We parted them?" It was almost identical with creation myths from around the world. I was familiar with the story of Geb and Nut already, so I thought it must have come from Egyptian mythology. How could I find evidence?

    Well, in the next verse, it was said, "We created every living thing from water." Well, of course, that doesn't make sense. I wasn't "created from" water. Then some translators translated it like this: "We created every living thing of water." Well, that makes sense, though. So, if it was imported from Egyptian mythology too, then the creator of living things in Egyptian mythology must be a god of water, too. And there, I found it. Khnum. And moreover, Khnum created living things out of a potter's wheel. The Quran mentions it, too, in 55:14.

    Then I thought, why would they assume a river god was supposed to make living things also? Well, it was obvious. The Nile would flood its banks every year, and out of silts and water would emerge plants, and animals would live on it. Moreover, since out of silts grew plants, they assumed, out of clay life originates, hence the myth of the potter's wheel.

    So, I asked myself, which observation led them to believe that Earth and heavens were once joined together? Why wouldn't they exist separately from the beginning? I knew other mythology stories said the same thing. But I haven't yet quite understood.

    EDIT: I was thinking what is common between the geographies of Egypt, New Zealand, China, Iraq? I haven't found anything yet.
    Last edited: May 1, 2014
  15. May 1, 2014 #14

    I can't recall at the moment if I have ever read a mythology story in which in the beginning, earth and heavens were separated.

    But I am interested in knowing the reason you asked there, too. What observation did lead them to make up a story that earth and heavens were joined together? And why prefer a joined version to a separate version?
  16. May 1, 2014 #15


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    I think it's pretty intuitive that anytime two related things are apart humans will assume they were once together.

    If you saw an apple cut in half, you wouldn't assume it came that way.
  17. May 1, 2014 #16


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    This is a feature of Christian mythology too, in genesis god separates the Earth (at that point just ocean) from "Heaven" AKA the sky. It may be common as a lot of creation stories assume the world was made as one then separated out and the sky and the ground are two very prominent parts of nature. It's probably also worth considering that many mythologies are based on older myths, Greek and Roman mythologies share a lot of gods and other characteristics for example.

    This book is a bit dated but seems to cover just this topic:
  18. May 1, 2014 #17
    But the two halves of an apple look more or less exactly similar, while no such thing between the sky and earth.
  19. May 1, 2014 #18
    Yes, but Maoi and Chinese mythologies are more likely to have originated independently of Greek and nearby mythologies.

    My hypothesis would be: People thought earth is the "natural place" of everything ( like Aristotle thought of "natural places." ) They thought so, because if you do not hold an apple in midair, it always drops. So, it's pretty reasonable to assume that everything would remain on Earth if no external force was there. So, stars must have been on Earth someday as well. Now that they are above, they must have been separated by some external deities. They would think earth is the original home of everything, because earth looks very large relative to those celestial objects. You might say they were the earliest physicists trying to explain why some objects always drop on Earth and not others.
  20. May 2, 2014 #19


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  21. May 2, 2014 #20
    Hahaha, you almost go me there. Thanks.

    However, I'm still not convinced since it's just reflection, not the original thing. For example, no fish swim in the sky.
  22. May 4, 2014 #21
    The separation of earth and sky in creation myths is probably shakey, tentative groundwork in an attempt to explain gravity and buoyancy. I base that on Aristotle, who worked it out most elaborately:


    So, the separation of earth from sky probably doesn't arise from any natural or obvious hint they must once have been joined, rather, it makes sense in explaining the observation that some things have an upward reaching propensity while others have a downward one.

    The process of separation of things that are mixed together; wheat from chaff, metal from ore, and so on, was directly experienced daily by people in early societies, and they might well project the process onto the creation of any two things regarded as dichotomous. They wouldn't have to have an inkling of what mixed sky/earth, or, undifferentiated up/down, would be like to propose they were the result of a separation process.

    As we know, Aristotle doesn't work very well, and has been supplanted by better descriptions. I would imagine that most of these creation myths that contain a separation of earth and sky were once more elaborate but fell apart at some point and were edited back to the basic indisputable, that there is up and down, and these are fundamental. The notion that earth and sky were separated is probably mankind's first groping toward explaining gravity, as it is in Aristotle.
  23. May 5, 2014 #22

    Simon Bridge

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    The main reason I am asking the questions I did is because your comments appear to have been taking an approach which is the opposite of science in a scientific forum - i.e. you have obtained an aidea from personal experience (reading material etc) - generalized from it (so far so good) looked for more evidence that confirms that idea (still OK) but then, crucially, there is no indication that you have attempted to find any counter-examples.

    Deliberately and energetically trying to disprove your own theories is probably the defining characteristic of scientific thought. iirc Gregory Benford wrote extensively on the subject of science vs mythological thinking.

    Counter-examples abound.

    i.e. Egyptian mythologies (there are several) include water, sky and air being formed together with the Earth/ground appearing later. Even the Genisis reference I gave earlier is not as clear-cut as starting with Earth and sky together and then separating them - Gen. starts with water and earth together - the firmament of heaven is interposed to separate the waters into "below" and "above" and then the water below is caused to collect in one place. The "sky" is, then, an effect of the waters above sitting on the firmament ... i.e. there is no sense of separation, in the sense of post #1, at all.

    Therefore - I think you need to work harder at attempting to disprove your own hypothesis.

    Aside: from a human-centric POV I think it is very clear that the sky and the earth are closely related - the Earth touching the sky is something that will occur to anyone who takes a look at the horizon on a clear day - and this leads a lot of people to ask why the sky does not touch the Earth everywhere at once but only at the edges, so to speak. It's the same sort of question as "what holds the Earth up" and so on.

    You don't seem to be happy with the replies you are getting. It will help us help you if you would explain why you find a particular style of mythologies surprising. Which stories seem more obvious to you?
  24. May 5, 2014 #23
    Thank you very much for pointing out an important thing I was not doing much. Trying to disprove my own hypothesis. I should do it more.

    About different versions of Egyptian mythologies. I was particularly talking about the one which starts with Nun (chaos), and then Atum ( the god that created itself ), followed by Shu ( air ) and Tefnut ( moisture. ) Shu and Tefnut gave birth to Geb and Nut ( Earth and sky, respectively. ) They were first inseparable, but then were separated by Atum.

    I agree that there are different Egyptian mythologies, but why did this one have to be like this?

    I have mentioned some other mythologies earlier in which at first the earth and the sky were together, and then separated. Of course, there are several mythologies which are vastly different. I never said all mythologies have the same story. I just noticed that several mythologies that have a common element in their stories which is not very intuitive, at least to me. ( Even if it's intuitive to everybody else out there, I would like to know why it's so obvious to them. ) I can't just accept the idea that it was all co-incidental.

    And about considering different mythologies, such as the Genesis one. Actually, I thought about it. If I can find something common in all those societies/ their geography who have this same element in their mythology, but cannot be found in the society/ their geography who made up the Genesis, I might find an answer.

    I did not understand that horizon idea. It's obvious that earth and the sky are closely related, but they were joined together is not such an obvious thought to me.

    I found this idea of the earth and the sky joined together surprising, because it doesn't seem an obvious idea to me ( I can hardly picture this without thinking of the Big Bang. ) The kind of story that would be more obvious to me is like this: "In the beginning, god created Earth ( which contains water bodies such as oceans ) and heavens, and air in between."
  25. May 5, 2014 #24

    jim hardy

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    I will duck after this post.

    You might enjoy Velikovsky's "Worlds in Collision" which delves into myths. Some include fire raining from the sky and fire engulfing earth.
    One even talks of "A time before the moon".

    But he's rejected by scientific community.

    This is a physics forum... so you'll have to go to any of several Velikovsky blogs to discuss him .

    Have fun.

    taking cover now,

    old jim
  26. May 5, 2014 #25


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    How would you ever be sure you've got the actual source society pinpointed? Genesis story can be traced through Hebrew bible to Babylonian Enuma Elish(http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145/lecture-3) and further back to Sumerians. Does it mean the Sumerians came up with the story? Who could ever tell if there wasn't an earlier version?

    Tracing origins of myths is like tracing your ancestry. You can be sure your great-great grandmother existed, if you find the relevant sources, but it sure as hell doesn't mean she was the first woman in your family.

    The ultimate origins of ancient myths are lost in the mists of time and oral tradition. We can only speculate.
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