Dæmon in the Wood;
Up, Down, All Around, and Who Made the World

5. The Cosmogonic Triad

One of the Turkish tales previously cited in connection with the Vertical Journeys illustrates also the pattern of the Cosmogonic Triad. Sukru Dariji’s storyŞemsi Banı, Padişah [Emperor] of Pidgeons’161 is about a male person whose name, Şemsi Banı, means “Life-Giving Sun.” Both as the sun and as a prince of pidgeons, this wonderful person is a frequenter of the upper, aerial reaches of the world. The refectory where he and his fellow pidgeons regularly dine is however at the other extreme of the world’s vertical axis, on the bottom of the sea—that is to say, on the lowest level beneath the earth’s surface where living creatures are be found.

Thus Şemsi Banı is a vertical traveller par excellence. Indeed, his proclivity to perpetual travel poses a serious problem of stability as the tale progresses, though it does not in any way hinder his giving of life both to a nubile woman and to her progeny.

A bird flies into a palace and steals a crocheting needle from a princess. Later it finds her in the palace garden and takes away her thimble. As a result the girl sickens, and her father the emperor has a public bath built in the town where the fee for admission is the telling of a tale.

Meanwhile, in a distant land an old beggar woman is travelling about seeking food. She sees a caravan of camels and mules burthened with food and follows it down to the bottom of the sea. There she enters a great chamber together with the animals of the caravan, and finds abundant food, which, however, she is forbidden to eat. Soon hundreds of pidgeons also enter the hall, each being transformed into a handsome young man when it dips its wings in a decorative pool of water. These feast together, then resume their avian forms and depart from the chamber one by one. Finally only their leader is left. He has the girl’s crocheting needle and thimble, and commands the under-sea house and all that is in it to weep for the loveliness of the princess. All weep except the animals of the caravan, which laugh instead. The old woman returns with them to land. Eventually her lone wandering brings her to the emperor’s bath house, where she pays for her bathing with the tale of her fabulous adventure underneath the sea.

The sick princess takes a lively interest in the old woman’s story, and insists upon visiting the underwater palace. The two women go there together, and all the events of the old woman’s previous visit recur, except that when the crone leaves the sea with the animals of the caravan, the young princess remains as Şemsi Banı’s paramour. He hides her from his pidgeon mess-mates for nine months in the underwater hall, but when she is about to be delivered of his child by her, he sends her out of the sea to his earthly parents’ palace. There, after the birth of their son, Şemsi Banı visits his wife and child in the guise of a bird which temporarily becomes a man when it dips its wings in water. Eventually his wife and parents learn the secret of Şemsi Banı’s enchantment, burn his suit of bird feathers on a great pile of pitch pine, and so confine him to human form and human habitats.

Şemsi Banı is a miraculous male person whose primary element is the air. His descents are productive in numerous ways, while his ascents produce nothing useful. His contacts with water uniformly change his shape so as to make him amenable to dealings with women. Whether in the form of a bath-house on land or a pidgeon’s palace on the sea-bottom (the nubile girl’s bath-house being a house with water in it, and the crone’s underwater palace being a house in the water), water is a female asset, and the women of this story are peculiarly aquatic in that they depend in one way or another upon water for all the good things which they obtain (i.e., food and progeny).

Otherwise the two women are quite dissimilar. One is fertile and wedded in the course of the narrative, the other belongs to an earlier generation and is past reproduction. The old one, however, functions in a way that no one else in the story can. She is a giver of information and other wholly intangible perquisites. When the younger woman is sick and unable either to help herself or to be helped by anyone else, the old crone discovers the location and the fabulous nature of the masculine cure for her ailment. Then, when she has finished her mission to establish the terms and conditions under which new life can arise, the infertile crone disappears from the tale without trace. The marked geographic separation or hiatus between the two women that prevailed at the beginning of the story is thus reestablished and reaffirmed before the narrative ends.

Of the two women, only the elder is wise; the nubile one has no remembered experience to rely upon and so must obtain guidance from others in all matters except those immediately connected with reproduction and progeny. Consequently the act of story-telling is itself a generic motif in this pattern. Some of the nubile woman’s guidance comes from her old female companion, but animals are also peculiarly useful to her. The original of the πότνια θερῶν, she not only perceives in animals their potential as sources of food or as means of transportation, but also realizes their fabulous potential for obtaining progeny.

The Cosmogonic Triad thus consists of three persons:

  1. An unstable, aerial, male fertilizer.
  2. An aquatic, fertile female whose procreative destiny devolves upon animals.
  3. An infertile female giver of intangible terms and conditions.

To this set of persons must be added a positional motif that is generically an indispensable circumstance in the triadic pattern of cosmogones:

  1. A geographic/cosmological separation of the two females.

A tale from the Baila of central Africa (present-day territory of Zambia) displays other revealing multiforms of the generic motifs in the Cosmogonic Triad:

In primordial time, before the present social separation of men and birds was complete, Blue Jay sued to marry the daughter of the Sky God. He already had a wife on earth, and at first the Sky God refused to let his daughter descend as Blue Jay’s second wife on the grounds that she could not eat the meat of large animals lest she die. But Blue Jay vowed to keep that taboo and so won his marriage-suit.

He tells his first wife to obey the taboo, but she purposely feeds the meat of a zebra to her rival, feigning that it is the flesh of a tiny gazelle. Consequently the Sky God’s daughter dies, is buried, and Blue Jay is called to account in heaven. When he again descends, her father comes too in the shape of a rainstorm and flood to disinter and carry his daughter back to heaven. Blue Jay is destroyed in the storm, and all of him except a few bones that fall to earth remains suspended forever in the aether. This accounts for the characteristic rising-and-falling manner of flight of all his descendants, the blue jays of today.173

Blue Jay174 is an innately unstable aerial male progenitor who ignores the fundamental social rule of polygyny, according to which multiple wives must be compatible. His ascents all end in futility, but his descents help to introduce new substance and form into the world. As does the Sun in Sukru Dariji’s Turkish tale, Blue Jay’s instability and proclivity to vertical motion have the effect of bringing together the disparate elements of heaven and earth with the intent of deriving progeny from the union.

The nubile female of the tale is obviously the Sky God’s daughter, who is enveloped with concern about animal species, food, forms of transportation, and water. She is nevertheless an inert figure whose destiny is managed and manipulated entirely by others. The crucial condition of life on earth—that one eats what meat is available regardless of mere personal predilection—is laid down by the old woman of the story, who has only this and no tangible part in (pro)creating either the intended or the actual (Blue Jay) progeny that is the Cosmogonic Triad’s ultimate joint product in this central African telling.

A Blackfellow tale from aboriginal tradition in Australia also manifests the Cosmogonic Triad:

On a certain day in primordial time, before animals and human society were completely distinct, two ‘women,’ Gwaineebu and Goomai, were gathering shellfish when suddenly a kangaroo fleeing from hunters hopped into the water near them and became entangled in the water plants. The women kill the kangaroo and hide it so that the hunters will not take it from them. Soon the two hunters, Ooya and Gidgerigar, appear but cannot flnd their game. The women share their meal of shellfish with the men, but Gwaineebu’s small son unceasingly begs for kangaroo meat. Fearful that his nagging will betray their secret to the men, Goomai hits the boy in the face hard enough to draw blood, which stains his chest. The hunters take the hint, however, and slip away to lie in wait until the women produce the dead kangaroo.

Thinking the men have gone, the women prepare to cook the kangaroo, but emerging from their place of hiding, the men claim it, and will not then share it even with Gwaineebu’s hungry son. The women thereupon retire into a hut where they shut themselves up to incant a great rain- and hail-storm. When the storm strikes, the men plead for shelter, but the women will give them none. Ooya and Gidgerigar perish in the downpour, and are transmuted into two parrots. Their descendants are the two species of parrot now known by the names ooya and gidgerigar.175

Like the cosmological difference between heaven and earth that separates Blue Jay’s two wives in the African story, a great vertical distance also ultimately separates the Blackfellow characters Gwaineebu and Goomai. Gwaineebu is the progenetrix, through the lineage of her little son, of the Redbreast species of bird. The injury which Goomai inflicted on Gwaineebu’s little boy is the aetion of the Redbreast’s distinctive coloration. Goomai is for her part, as her Blackfellow name says she is, a water rat. The two females are patently aquatic both in their habits (fishing) and in their powers of witchcraft (to destroy their enemies with rain and hail). The transportative, nutritional, and progenerative characteristics of animals are also a special province of the females’ concern. But otherwise they are different. Goomai, who has no children, is the old woman who imposes the (intangible) color condition of red breast on her fertile companion’s perfectly tangible offspring.

The pair of male hunters are also aerial progenitors (of parrot lineages), but they are unstable itinerants who have no proper understanding of social responsibilities: they accept nourishment from the women, but will give none in return, not even to an innocent child, a grievous offense against basic Blackfellow morality. The females riposte with the further social destruction wrought by their weather-witching. The Cosmogonic Triad of fertile woman, infertile female giver of conditions, and (geminated) unstable aerial progenitor in this Blackfellow multiform is nevertheless fabulously responsible for the substance and shape of several distinct species in the present Australian cosmos.

The industrialized, metropolitan culture of the contemporary West has not been hospitable to animal tales such as the Baila and Blackfellow ones that have just been analyzed. But like the other fundamental patterns of oral fable, the Cosmogonic Triad is nonetheless well preserved in those genres of fable which are congenial to modern Western civilization. The Western genre of ‘joke’ or Witz affords especially abundant evidence oftraditional fabulous patterns. The micro-cosmogonies of this characteristically Western form of traditional narrative are predicated no less than their ‘tribal’ or ‘high literary’ cousins on the twofold problem of how to get food and progeny using the requisite avian, aquatic, and animal instruments:

A bride, who has been given among her wedding presents a double boiler but no skillet, goes to consult her mother, a true donor of the conditions and terms of life:

“Mother, I need some advice.” Not waiting to hear the rest of her daughter’s question, the mother volunteers: “Of course, dear, it’s perfectly natural that you should ask. Now tonight, when your husband wants to get into bed with you, just remember that men are beasts, and do everything he asks.” The bride: “Oh, hell, mother, I know all about making love. What I want to know is, how do I scramble eggs for breakfast in a double boiler?”176

The unstable, transitory, familially insensitive character of the male progenitor is emphasized again in another, versified example:

A young woman got married at Chester,
Her mother, she kissed and she blessed her:
      “This man that you’ve won
      Should be just loads of fun;
Since tea he’s kissed me and your sister.”177

Like many other shibboleths of criticism and interpretation, terms such as ‘bawdy’ and ‘vulgar’ may help to define ethnic contexts in which the basic materials of oral fable are deployed. Thus the pattern of the Cosmogonic Triad may be differently colored in an Anglo-American limerick or ‘dirty joke’ than it is in the biblical narrative of Creation found in the Old Testament book of Genesis for example, or in the ancient Greek story of creation as told in Hesiod’s Theogony. But different ethnic interpretations or employments, be they vulgar, bawdy, sacred, or divine, in no way alter narrative patterns themselves or their generic meanings.

The Old Testament’s account of Creation in Genesis One uses the Cosmogonic Triad in a manner similar to the use of the Four Zones in Dante’s Divine Comedy; both are literary works that incorporate numerous schemata derived ultimately from oral fable. The great debate about the literal veracity of the biblical Creation which the Scientific Revolution engendered in the West should have taught us at least one thing: all that we or any other people can possibly know about cosmogony is someone’s fiction. None of us were there to see it, and the best any of us can do is to surmise by deduction how it ‘must have’ happened. Real disagreement arises only about the principles from which the deduction should proceed.

It is in the innermost nature of all creation that it should consist of the amalgamation or sunderance of things which are not (before creation) ordinarily found amalgamated or sundered. In that sense fiction and cosmogony (or creation of any kind) are, and must be, identical. One form of fiction or another may be more or less congenial to this or that historical era and its dominant philosophy; thus the ancient biblical tale of Creation gave way in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to a spate of new cosmogonic fictions or, as they have preferred to call them, ‘hypotheses’ contrived by natural scientists and their popularizers. Biology and astrophysics have been the great modern hotbeds of cosmogonical fiction, but the essential features of the Cosmogonic Triad have not much changed except in name even there. The researchers in great modern astrophysical observatories or biochemical research institutes still shape their cosmogonic legends around such central notions as instability, fertility, and “the right conditions” (by which they too mean such things as spatial array or distribution, cyclicity, functional balance between solidity and fluidity, and so forth). It cannot be said that in this sense the personifications in the Cosmogonic Triad of oral fable have ever had any generic meanings very different from those current in the cosmogonic fictions of modern science.

Because they too used the Cosmogonic Triad, the ancient Hebrew-speaking authors, compilers, or conflators of the Old Testament Genesis dealt in coin of the same metal as do their modern scientific successors, no matter how different the stamp which they put upon it. But their mintage no less than the serious modern cosmogonists’ also bore the motto ex nihilo nihil. The unstable male cosmogone of the biblical Creation in Genesis One is of course elohim, the ‘Elohist’ Hebrew ‘God,’ whose spirit is unmistakably described as both aerial and transient by the participle merahepet in the Hebrew text. Some construe that word to mean “hovering;” others see in it a more violent or aimless motion analogous to the action denoted by an English phrase such as “rushing about.” Either way, the instability depicted is both temporal and atmospheric or upperworldly. Together with the unstable, aerial male cosmogone, two grammatically female figures also preexist the first acts of creation to complete the biblical Cosmogonic Triad. They are respectively the fertile progenetrix ’areṣ (Earth) and the infertile old giver of terms and conditions, tehom (Abyss).

In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the face of the waters [or the spirit of God that hovered over the face of the water].178

In regard to the description of earth as being “without form and void,” it may be that the Hebrew words tōhu wābōhu (“emptiness and confusion”), which grammatically have masculine gender,179 should be understood not merely as the condition of earth before the work of creation began, but rather as the thing (since it is a noun construct) that earth was before it was Earth, or out of whose formlessness Earth was formed. But the feminine person Earth’s functions as one of the Cosmogonic Triad in the subsequent creation show that it is immaterial which comes first, ’areṣ (Earth) or tōhu wābōhu (void and disorder). In substance, earth’s ‘void’ or ‘emptiness’ is the primordial deficiency of all vegetable, animal, or human life, and the ‘confusion’ or ‘formlessness’ of the earth proves as the text progresses to be nothing more than feminine earth’s condition of indiscriminate mixture with water. Thus, regardless of whether ’areṣ is merely liberated from her vacancy and muddiness, or should be thought of as gaining her proper identity by virtue of that liberation, Earth is the abundantly fertile, aquatically defined female upon whom the unstable aerial male progenitor elohim begets the life forms and shape of the present cosmos.

In perfect accord with the pattern of the Cosmogonic Triad the fecund, wet female ’areṣ is deeply involved with the kinetic, nutritive, and procreative functions of animal life. She is, however, entirely physical in character, concerned exclusively with matter and the material substance of the new cosmos. She has no remembered wisdom of her own to guide her, and so must be shaped by others. Before her mission can be accomplished, certain intangible terms and conditions must be established, and these are the province of the Cosmogonic Triad’s third primordial figure in the Old Testament story of Creation, tehom, the ‘abyss.’ Tehom’s primal condition is “darkness (over the face of the abyss),” and elohim’s first creative act is to impose the further intangible conditions of visibility and cyclicity on the elementary, insubstantive abysmal state:

God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light; and God saw that the light was good, and he separated light from darkness. He called the light day, and the darkness night. So evening came, and morning came, the first day.

These purely abstract, immaterial modifications of the abysmal darkness set the stage for the substantive creation. True to pattern, once tehom’s terms (periodic night and day) and conditions (light and dark) have been established, she drops out of the story not to be mentioned again. The fecund pair of male and female, elohim and ’areṣ, are left alone to do their work of shaping and enlivening matter.

Like the building of shelter to house a new family, elohim’s first tangible creation is architectural:

God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters, to separate water from water.’ So God made the vault, and separated the water under the vault from the water above it, and so it was; and God called the vault heaven. Evening came, and morning came, a second day.

The engineering effect of the new vault is to discriminate functionally between solid Earth and her aqueous ambient. The empyreal progenitor with his typical proclivity to motion moves earth’s waters away first along a vertical axis, and then horizontally:

God said, ‘Let the waters under heaven be gathered into one place, so that dry land may appear;’ and so it was. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters he called seas; and God saw that it was good.

When elohim’s work of physical construction is finished, ’areṣ’s progenerative bearing begins. The aerial male stimulates, and feminine earth produces, abundant vegetation:

Then God said, ‘Let the earth produce fresh growth, let there be on the earth plants bearing seed, fruit-trees bearing fruit each with seed according to its kind.’ So it was; the earth yielded fresh growth, plants bearing seed according to their kind and trees bearing fruit each with seed according to its kind... .

The intangible condition of visibility and the basic periodicity of night and day have already been established in connection with tehom. It is, however, a peculiar kind of night and day, because the segregation of light into the several heavenly bodies of sun, moon, and stars implies a concrete substantiation or hypostatization of light, and the substance of the cosmos belongs to elohim and ’areṣ, not tehom. So the creation of sun, moon, and stars devolves like all the other shapes, species, and physical matter of the aborning cosmos upon watery Earth and her overarching defensive firmament, but only after the invention of intangible light itself:

God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to separate day from night, and let them serve as signs both for festivals and for seasons and years. Let them also shine in the vault of heaven to give light on earth.’ So it was; God made the two great lights, the greater to govern the day and the lesser to govern the night; and with them he made the stars.

The vertical rhythm of elohim’s creativity continues as he turns his attention next to the animal species of aquatic earth. First he stimulates nether species, then upperworldly ones, and finally earth’s spatially intermediate progeny:

God said, ‘Let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven.’ God then created the great sea-monsters and all living creatures that move and swarm in the waters, according to their kind, and every kind of bird; and God saw that it was good. So he blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase, fill the waters of the seas; and let the birds increase on land.’ Evening came, and morning came, a fifth day.

God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures, according to their kind: cattle, reptiles, and wild animals, all according to their kind.’ So it was... .

Others have observed and commented on the similarity between the biblical Creation and the pagan cosmogony in the first poem of Elias Lönnrot’s Finnish Kalevala. That likeness resides precisely in the Finnish cosmogony’s incorporation of the pattern of the Cosmogonic Triad. Its aerial male cosmogone is the high god Ukko, its giver of terms and conditions (including light and temporal periodicity) is Ukko’s brooding goldeneye, and its miraculously fertile, aquatic progenetrix is the so-called ‘mother of the water,’ parent of the cosmotact Väinämöinen, who is nubile but unwise, being dependent in all her progenerative accomplishments upon the stimulation and deliverance of others.

The ancient Greek story of creation in Hesiod’s Theogony also replicates the pattern of the Cosmogonic Triad. There the infertile female giver of intangible terms and conditions comes first:

ἤτοι μὲν πρώτιστα Χάος γένετ᾿·    116
Verily, Chaos came into being first of all.

The word is grammatically of neuter gender, but the commentators generally understand the personified deity Chaos as female. She is pure empty space, the epitome of intangibility. Her one and only generative act in Hesiod’s cosmogony is parthenogenetic, self-initiated and devoid of any social dependence, and its results are, like Chaos herself, utterly without material substance.

ἐκ Χάεος δ᾽ Ἔρεβός τε μέλαινά τε Νὺξ ἐγένοντο·    123
Out of Chaos Erebos and gloomy Night were born.

Chaos’ offspring are twins as it were, Erebos and Nyx. Erebos is male, and personifies perpetual, unqualified darkness. Nyx or Night is a personification of darkness too, but she is female and carries as Night the implication of another intangible condition, periodicity or cyclical alternation with light. Nyx and her brother Erebos unite incestuously to realize the further condition of light, which is again expressed in the form of a male and female pair, the one invariable and the other periodic, Aither and Hemera. These in turn have no offspring, and so the line of descent from Chaos remains barren of anything but the same intangible terms and conditions that everywhere characterize the generic motif underlying Chaos in the universal pattern of the Cosmogonic Triad.

Chaos’ substantial counterpart in Hesiod’s cosmogonic scheme is the epitome of unthinkingly fertile matter, Gaia or Ge, the Earth. An unstable and destabilizing male progenitor, Eros, attends the two disparate, substantive and insubstantive females from the very first mention of them in the poetry of the Theogony:

     ἤτοι μὲν πρώτιστα Χάος γένετ᾿· αὐταρ ἔπειτα
Γαῖ᾿ εὐρύστερνος, πάντων ἕδος ἀσφαλὲς αἰεὶ
ἀθανάτων . . .
. . .
ἠδ᾿ Ἐρος, ὅς κάλλιστος ἐν ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι,
λυσιμελής, πάντων τε θεῶν πάντων τ᾿ ἀνθρώπων
δάμναται ἐν στήθεσσι νόον καὶ ἐπίφρονα βουλήν.180
Verily, Chaos came into being first of all. But thereafter
Broad-bosomed Earth, who is the secure dwelling-place
Of all the immortals forever...
. . .
And so too came forth Eros, who is goodliest of all the deathless
     gods to look upon,
Who brings melting weakness to the limbs of all gods and men
     alike,
Overruling in their hearts all their wits and wise provisions.

Eros as a personified male “force of generation and reproduction” (M. L. West181) at the very beginning of Hesiod’s cosmogony presides over the period of cosmogonic time during which the aerial male cosmogone Ouranos (Heaven) consorts with Gaia. But Ouranos’ predictable insensitivity to the requirements of orderly social life leads to his castration, and he is thus made to meet the further typological description of himself as a transient cosmogone. His demise as empyreal progenitor results directly in the appearance of the personified female force of generation and reproduction, the goddess Aphrodite, who coincidentally displaces her counterpart Eros as the demiurge of further reproductivity.

Gaia’s first progenerative acts are, like Chaos’, parthenogenetic, but they are all massively material in nature. They proceed vertically downward; first high Heaven (Ouranos) is born, then mountains, and finally Pontos, the great raging and indivisible body of salt sea water. Thereafter Gaia mates with Ouranos. The very first of their numerous material offspring is, like Pontos, a further reinforcement of Gaia’s typologically predictable wetness and aquatic attributes, the eirenic and tributary Okeanos from whom all of Earth’s springs and rivers rise. With Pontos beneath and around her and Okeanos’ manifold offspring to water her inwardly, wet Gaia subsequently becomes the mother and sanctuary of all kinds and lineages of material beings—kinetic, animal, and vegetable.

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