In THE POWER OF MYTH and THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, Joseph Campbell argues that any society deficient in mythology risks proper moral development. He presented four functions of myth:

The first function of a mythology is to waken and maintain in the individual a sense of wonder and participation in the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe...

The second function is to fill every particle and quarter of the current cosmological image with its measure of this mystical import...

The third the sociological one of validating and maintaining whatever moral system and manner of life--customs may be peculiar to the local culture...

A fourth and final, essential function of mythology, then, is the pedagogical one of conducting individuals in harmony through the passages of human life, from the stages of dependency in childhood to the responsibilities of maturity, and on to old age....The principal method of mythology is the poetic, and that of analogy...death by sleep or visa versa; and the experience of sleep then as the (supposed) experience of death; the light of the sun as of consciousness; the darkness of caves, or of the ocean depth, as of death, or of the womb...

Certainly as we know from his conversations with C. S. Lewis, Tolkien would agree with Campbell's assessment. This page will examine the rubrics of the Judeo-Christian and Greek creation myths (Genesis, The Theogony and Works and Days), as templates through which Tolkien's Silmarillion can be evaluated.

David Leeming (THE WORLD OF MYTH, N.Y.: Oxford University, 1990) notes that myths explore the "dreams of mankind" (p.6), and certainly one such dream is "Where did I and my world come from?" He later stipulates the following criteria for creation myths:

  1. creation myths define how the cosmos began
  2. a God or Gods participate in the human experience if they choose
  3. they stipulate metaphors for the awakening of human consciousness
  4. the myth "...establishes our reason for being, the source of our significance. As such it is often used to help individuals or groups to regain health or order."
  5. a fall from a preexisting state of Grace seems inevitable as "Life, by definition, implies death. To be alive is to be imperfect, to be on an evolving path toward death...To be in the world is to be part of the life-defining struggle to create order out of chaos." (pp. 15-16).

Ted E. Tollefson (click here) has an excellent site (WHAT DOES A CREATION MYTH DO?) on which he describes the several elements of a creation myth. I have added the examples from the sacred texts: Genesis and The Theogony...

1. Explains how the world came into being,

Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void...and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, And God said ... (I,1-3) (Some translations read: "...while a mighty wind swept over the waters.")

The Theogony: Chaos was born first and after her came Gaia/
the broad breasted, the firm set of all.../
Chaos gave birth to Erebos and black Night/
the Erebos mated with Night and made her pregnant/
and she in turn gave birth to Ether and Day./Gaia now first gave/
birth to starry Oruranos,/her match in size, to encompass all of her/
and be the firm seat of all the blessed gods./She gave birth to the tall/
mountains, enchanting haunts of the divine nymphs...(ll. 116-130)

The Greek definition brings order out of chaos. The existence of the participants and the inherent paradoxes is taken as a given. Not till the TIMAEUS will we find the famous application of reason to this process:

Thus far in what we have been saying, with small exception, the works of intelligence have been set forth; and now we must place by the side of them in our discourse the things which come into being through necessity-for the creation is mixed, being made up of necessity and mind. Mind, the ruling power, persuaded necessity to bring the greater part of created things to perfection, and thus and after this manner in the beginning, when the influence of reason got the better of necessity, the universe was created. (48) as cited in Timaeus and Critias ), Desmond Lee (ed.). Penguin Classics1977.

Timaeus anticipates the arguments for the existence of God fashioned by Aquinas.
The Judeo-Christian explication suggests a controlling Deity who "moved upon the water" order. Moved implies Aristotle's ACT that does not change, but causes all else on the chain of being to move.

2. Establishes a model of the creative process

Genesis: [The model of the creative process comes from the active voice verbs used to predicate what God did.] We are told that God "said," "saw," "made," "divided," and that two results occurred: 1--"It was so, and 2- "it was good." I, (passim). [Additionally God's creation simultaneously occurs with his will, and is intrinsically worthy: "]...and God saw that it was good" (I, 21). From the romantic period persecutive, we might recall Coleridge's reference in the Biographia to the primary imagination's "...infinite I AM."which coexists with the "conscious will."

The Theogony: [The model is order.] "Tell of the gods...the giver of blessings,/
how they divided wealth, and each was given his realm,/and how they first gained possession of many-folded Olympos./Tell me O muses who dwell on Olympos, and observe proper order/for each thing as it first came into being."(ll. 11-115).

Unlike Genesis, however, the gods were pre-existed by Chaos etc. -primeval elements whose origin is not explained. Platonically, we know the maker needed a pre-existing model to create, so he looked to the forms, especially the form of the good whose existence in The Republic is a given.

3. Builds up a world view, a hierarchy of values, "first things first,"and (4) Often, but not always, this hierarchy includes genders, races, tribes, religions

Genesis: [The creation stories in Genesis is clear on the order: God establishes a macrocosm for man by separating the elements, and then populating earth with what man will need for happiness. Finally after blessing the macrocosm, God (I, 27)] "...created man in his own image male and female, and God blessed them." God gave man dominion over the macrocosm (order), and concluded by noting all "...was very good." (I,v31). Chapter II provides more detail on the creation of man from dust, followed by the creation of the garden and of course the prohibition (vs.16 ff.) Of note here is that God continues to populate the garden and gave Adam permission to name them; the process is culminated when Adam, whom God sees as lonely, is given a mate which comes from him, Adam.

Several ideas emerge--the order is from macro to micro suggesting the idea that indigenous to the human condition is opposites including gender. Secondly, God is pleased with His result, noting though that there is one opposite with which Adam cannot experiment, the result of which would be death: "...the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (v.17). Much will be said of this later, including Campbell's interpretation with which Tolkien might NOT agree.

The Theogony: Given the Greek idea of order from chaos, The Theogony outlines a detailed hierarchy not unlike Tolkien's. Critics including Edith Hamilton and Apostolos Aathanassakis (editor and translator of The Theogony) have studied the text from this perspective, and for our purposes, the following hierarchy is important. Aathannassakis notes, "The Theogony is a digressive poem with a unifying theme..." (p. 5). The explication of the unifying theme rings true for readers of The Silmarillion: "Hesiod had a formidable task to perform. He had to explain the origin of the world and of the gods who ruled it, and even though scientific thought as we know it did not exist in his day, his genealogical method and mythopoeic reasoning constitute a speculation that is rational in its own terms." (p. 7).

If stipulating that Tolkien wishes scientific thought did not exist, his rational is the same. I have noted the following themes pertinent to Tolkien.

  1. The muses "...join hands in lovely dances / and their pounding feet awaken desire. /...and raise enchanting voices / to exalt aegis-bearing Zeus and queenly Hera." (ll. 7-11)
  2. "It was they who taught Hesiod beautiful song / as he tended his sheep at the foothills of god-haunted Helikon." (l. 23) [We recall that although Tolkien may never have tended sheep, he would rather have...]
  3. The musical themes, so important in The Silmarillion's "Ainulindale" [The music of the holy ones], continue, "With their divine voices / they first sing the glory of the sublime race of the gods." (ll. 43-44)
  4. As with Tolkien, much of the Theogony explicate the genealogies of the gods from which ideas common to Tolkien can be derived in terms of values:
    • the Muses "breathed into me [Hesiod] / divine song, that I might spread the fame of past and future." (l.31-32). This is seen as a vision-quest, not unlike Tolkien's conviction as articulated to Lewis. Music is the motif that links elements of the divine hierarchy
    • Aathanassakis notes in a Tolkien like context, "To me he seems to be deriving a very vivid religious experience, which changed the course of his life by changing him from shepherd to singer." (p. 40). We recall that Lewis felt the same about Tolkien. Interestingly the "country bumpkins" metaphor is appropriate. Tolkien would see that as one of the hobbit-like virtues he admired.
    • Music themes continue, as the Muses, daughters of Zeus, regarding a king who wishes to honor Zeus, "...pour on his tongue sweet dew / and make the words that flow from his mouth honey-sweet, / and all the people look up to him as with straight justice / he gives his verdict with unerring firmness / and wisdom brings some great strife to a swift end." (ll. 83-88). Music as the essence of the creation myth is not new, of course, to romantics as readers of Keats' letters, his poetry and Coleridge's Kubla Khan know.
    • Myths apparently have rejuvenative powers, wherein Hesiod, writing as a labourer from a labour, knows the suffering of the common man and the rejuvenative effect of song and Tolkien (aka Hobbit), and Sam well understood : "A man may have some fresh grief over which to mourn [And who in LOTR does not?] and sorrow may have left him no more tears, but if a singer / a servant of the Muses, sings the glories of ancient men...the heavy hearted man soon shakes off his dark mood, and forgetfulness / soothes his grief, for this gift of the gods diverts his mind."(ll. 98-109). Sam as we know felt inside a song, and any reader of LOTR becomes aware of a vast mythology behind every tale.
    • The lines following invoke, with Hesiod asking, pleading for inspiration to explain the cosmos....
      • how the gods and the earth came into being
      • how the cosmos came to exits
      • how the gods came to be ('born of them")
      • how opposites derived ("each was given his realm")
      • how generically, order came from chaos
    • Aathanassakis (p.42.) argues that EROS " the motive force in the generative and procreative process." Hesiod's imagery is Tolkienesque, "...Eros, the fairest of the deathless gods; / he unstrings the limbs and subdues both mind / and sensible thought in the breasts of all gods and all men." (ll. 120-122).
    • The Orphic Hymn to Eros is referenced..
      • Come, great Eros, pure, beloved and sweet,
        The winged archer, nimble as fire, lively and keen,
        Who toys with divinities and with mortal men,
        Double-natured and deft, holder of all the keys,
        Of ethereal sky, of ocean, of earth, of the spirits
        All-nurturing that the verdant goddess feeds us
        And of vast Tartarus and the murmuring sea.
        For only you have in hand the rudder of the world.
        O Blessed, grant your initiates hallowed purpose
        And chase paltry longings far away.

Such a perspective is hardly incompatible with the Christianity of Tolkien, the lynchpin of which is a God who "...has in hand the rudder of the world."

4, 5, 6, and 7. Have in common the fall from grace, in Christianity known as the "fortunate fall" allowing the redemption...

Gender implies sexuality, which is often linked to salvation. Explains how things come to be (#1) often involves explaining how and why bad things happen. The description of the Fall or Descent tell us who to blame (malogony). Myths of Fall imply myths of Return; Sin implies Grace, Disease implies cure.

Obviously the problem of evil has always conflicted with our gods whom we wish benevolent: so either God is "willing but not able," or "able but not willing" to prevent it. We will reference Genesis.

Chapter 3 (1ff) details the well-known account:

"Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord had made. The serpent asked the woman, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden.?" The women answered the serpent: "We may eat of the fruit of the tree in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, " You shall not eat of it or even touch it, lest you die. But the serpent said to the women: "You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it, you eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad." The women saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom, so she took some of the fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked." (1-6)

God's response seems defensive: "...See! The man has become like one of Us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever." (v. 22)

The moral issues are complex. First, Tolkien's view is orthodox. In a letter to Christopher dated 30 January, 1945, Tolkien lamented (interestingly by castigating scientists) those who "...tucked Genesis into a lumber room of their minds... (He lamented cutting down trees) as not very fashionable furniture, a bit ashamed to have it about the house..." His position is clear: Lauding the value of myth, he warned, "I do not now feel either ashamed or dubious on the Eden 'myth'...Genesis is separated by who we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of 'exile'." (Letters, p. 110). He continues to argue a perspective not unlike Wordsworth's "Intimation's Ode," wherein (Stanza V) "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting." (A Platonic modification).

Thus, while rejecting the literal (I am reminded of Galileo's, "The Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." ), Tolkien obviously endorses the idea of the fall, but others including Joseph Campbell do not share the perspective. In The Power of Myth, he notes,

...the serpent represents the primary function of life,
Namely the biblical tradition we have inherited,
life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless....
it has been baptized.

from The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 42-49.

Tolkien and Campbell, however, do not completely disagree as the Tolkien interview of this site makes clear. The myth, especially as read by Milton in IX of Paradise Lost squarely asserts feminine culpability. A misogynistic interpretation would not surprise readers of Milton, but the biblical text argues that the women gave it to the man who ate it. Does this imply that the passion of Eve, seen as an allegory for lower reason in the Middle Ages, conflicts with Adam's higher reason or wisdom which seeks God. Feminist interpretations rightly deconstruct this analysis.

He elaborates that without leaving the garden, we "would all be a bunch of babies." Man must leave the garden to grow, as one reading of Job validates when he demands an explanation from God for his suffering. This read suggests, with a bit of imagination, that one day, man might be as God, a fear which animated many STAR TREK episodes given Gene Roddenberry's belief

The conflict animates civilization. Pope well understood ("Essay on Man") that man "created have to rise, half to fall," will always be "The glory, jest and riddle of the word." (Epistle II). Campbell and Tolkien of course disagree on the read of the myth; Tolkien's conservative Catholicism mandates the fall as a necessary pre-condition for the redemption (think Gandalf). Campbell, however, sees theology as a reduction from mythology in which "...everything is reduced to a code, a creed." (p. 141). The birth of Jesus becomes a transcendental spiritual experience motivated by compassion (p. 176). With that, at least, Tolkien would agree.

The Theogony and Works and Days

Hesiod's account of creation is well known from the Promethian perspective insofar as he stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. Romantics such as Tolkien and Coleridge and Shelley have used fire metaphorically for the creative process, whether it be a divine spark, an imperishable flame, and the fading coal. In The Theogony, the implication is generic. His mind is described as "labyrinthine" (l.522) perhaps anticipating the hubris Sophocles will condemn, for man [cannot] be the "measure of all things." [Protagoras].

Writing for the "common man," Hesiod in Works and Days immediately establishes the question that plagues Job--strife. Hesiod notes there are two kinds. Rejecting strife that would eventually produce the horrors of WWI, he turns to the second as necessary condition for growth: " She [Night's eldest daughter] is much better, and she stirs even the shiftless on to work.../This strife is good for mortals. (ll.17-24). In Campbell's sense, strife is the catalyst that can (and should) propel man out of the garden, but this Job-like desire to know comes with a consequence: the loss of innocence and the potential for error. In this poem, more details of Promethius' 'crime' is provided. Zeus notes not unlike Genesis

..there is none craftier than you,/and you rejoice at tricking
my wits and stealing the fire/which will be a gift of evil/to
charm the hearts of all men as they hug their own doom/
This said, the father of the gods and men roared with laughter

Our God does not laugh (or is not supposed to), but these and the Homeric ones do. Depending on the perspective, much good derives. Consequences become gender orientated, and it would be instructive to compare Pandora to (Milton's?) Eve:

  1. her shape is lovely
  2. Athena teachers her "skills and integrate weaving," but Aphrodite (of "apple" fame speaking of Genesis), gives "...stinging desire and limb-gnawing passion,"
  3. She is a bitch with a "thievish nature." who lies and entices
  4. And again paralleling Genesis, she is "fashioned from earth."

The source of the evil varies in The Theogony and Works and Days. In the former, she has a "tempting snare" (l.589), her descendents are wicked, and Zeus made her, " be an evil for mortal men.../And he bestowed another gift, evil in place of good" culminating in a catch - 22: the single man dies lonely, but the married one risks marrying into a "foul brood." In Works and Days, Pandora opens the box out of which came our woes, all escaping but hope per the decree of Zeus.

For Hesiod's mythology and Tolkien's, the fall suggests a decline in grace, in Medieval and Renaissance terms, a descent on the chain of being. Traditionally from the 9 choirs of angels to man, who alone on the chain, being nominalist and realist (body and soul) can fall or rise. Hierarchically, Hesiod (Works and Days) find the gods creating 5 ages of men (who share a common descent with the gods):

  • GOLDEN...."lived like gods..shielded from pain and misery...every good thing was theirs...they knew no constraint/and lived in peace."
  • SILVER..."much worse...lived only for a short while...plagued by the pains/of foolishness, They could not refrain from wreckless violence against one another." We learn that Zeus kills them for blasphemy.
  • BRONZE ...{Of Iliad fame}...:..dreadful and mighty...with weapons and homes and all the rubrics of civilization made of bronze. "Black death claimed them for all their fierceness" to be in turn replaced again by Zeus.
  • HEROES...whom Hesiod calls "better and more just." than the rest, those who heroically fought and died at Troy.
  • IRON...seems to be the most disparaged. This age's nihilist characteristics will result in its own destruction. "...shame and retribution will cover their fair bodies," and they will eventually will go to Olympus," leaving men in grief and pain.

This hierarchical order, anticipating Plato and Augustine, suggests an ethical perspective.

8 and 9. Patterns of divine/human interaction establishes modes for ethics, and all creation myths cast a shadow, evil disguised as other, often that of displaced gods of Goddesses.

The foregoing ethical perspectives may be derived, and judged as righteous or not:

  1. A being greater than man establishes order from chaos
  2. Eventually philosophy will displace myth--Plato's 'necessity'
  3. Man uses metaphors to explain the creative process: music and fire
  4. man seeks equality with the creator
  5. An evil principal that paradoxically may be good disturbs the universe (T.S.Eliot?)
  6. hubris is a sin
  7. strife is a necessary condition for growth
  8. man does and does not long for the state of lost innocence
  9. myths often proceed from a misogynistic perspective
  10. without myth, man faces moral sterility
  11. we know ourselves from the myths we narrate.