The separation of Earth and Sky

Shu separates Nut (sky) from Geb (earth) – Wikimedia Commons (Cairo Museum)

Firstly, he crafted for children of men
Heaven as a roof, holy creator.

[from Cædmon’s Hymn; my own translation]

In Indo-European traditions, Earth Mother and Sky Father are generally worshipped as the two of the primary deities.  However, many of these same mythologies, as well as others across the world, tell of a primordial separation between earth and sky, potentially effected by some third god or hero figure, albeit the details are somewhat hazy or disconsonant.

Adopting an etymological perspective, according to Wiktionary, the English word ‘heaven’ derives “from Proto-West Germanic *hebn (“heaven, sky”), of uncertain origin.” 

If, however, we were to speculate more freely, we may canvas a possible connection with the English word ‘hebban‘, meaning ‘to lift’ or ‘to raise’, made plausible when we think of the sky as something that has been raised up as a firmament or heavenly vault.  This line of thought gains further strength when we consider the many creation myths about the separation of earth and sky to make room in the cosmos for us.  The Book of Genesis seems to imply a kind of division of what was at first unified in the following words –

“And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.”

[Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 7; KJV]

An earlier image which may perhaps indicate an original prototype is provided by Euripedes as follows –

“The story is not mine, but from my mother:
Sky and Earth were once a single form.
When they were split apart from one another
They created and delivered all things to the light:
Trees, birds, beasts the sea supports
And the race of mortal men.”

[Euripides,fr. 484 (Melanippe Wise), translation from Sententiae Antiquae]

This quote also provides an important reminder that much of our knowledge is something that is handed down from one generation to the next, rather than reinvented within each generation.

A somewhat similar idea of a division into earth and sky, but this time of a primordial spirit or person, seems to be intimated in the following verse from the Rig Veda –

From the navel was the middle-space; from the head the sky took shape
From the feet the earth; the directions from the ear; thus they formed the wide spaces

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 90 Verse 14 of Ṛṣi Nārāyaṇa; my own translation]

Another verse attributes the splitting of the cosmos to Indra, interestingly also making a reference to the primordial waters being divided –

Let me praise heroic Indra, by whose might the bright sky was pulled apart from the earth.
The two parts were willing.  The waters gave way to [him who was] being born.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 89 Verses 1ab and 13cd of Ṛṣi Reṇu; my own translation]

In the Sumerian epic tale, “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World”, we read –

After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven,
After the name of man had been fixed;
After An had carried off heaven,
After Enlil had carried off earth,

[Sumerian Mythology; Prof. Samuel Noah Kramer; p.40]

As Prof. Kramer explains –

“Heaven and earth, originally united, were separated and moved away from each other, and thereupon the creation of man was ordained. An, the heaven-god, then carried off heaven, while Enlil, the air-god, carried off earth.”

[Sumerian Mythology; Prof. Samuel Noah Kramer; p.40]

A similar idea is also present in Egyptian mythology as follows –

“According to the Heliopolitan cosmology, Shu and Tefnut, the first pair of cosmic elements, created the sky goddess, Nut, and the earth god, Geb. Shu separated Nut from Geb as they were in the act of love, creating duality in the manifest world: above and below, light and dark, good and evil. … The Egyptians believed that if Shu did not hold Nut (sky) and Geb (earth) apart there would be no way for physically-manifest life to exist.”

[Shu (Egyptian god) – Wikipedia]

This final creation myth, perhaps even the most ancient of them all, is interestingly described here as creating not merely a physical separation, but also a conceptual separation in the form of various dualities.  This perhaps captures the idea of an increased consciousness and self-consciousness of humans about their own integration into, and apparent separation from, the natural world, a theme perhaps also reflected in the overall story in the Book of Genesis.  In this light, the proposed idea of a raising up of heaven away from earth perhaps takes on a further symbolic significance, as a raising up of human consciousness from the earthly plane.

Interestingly, similar ideas about a separation of sky and earth, originally together, are also found in other mythologies, as wide-ranging as Chinese and Hawaiian.  Ultimately, however, we can only speculate about the original thinking of ancient peoples that would have given rise to this commonly held model of creation, and what role it might have played in originating our own thinking about the cosmos and our place within it.

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