“Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings” – Soren Kierkegaard
A good friend of mine recently became a father. As my own experience with those first few years of trying to keep the little buggers alive is still fresh in my memory, I’m happy to lend a sympathetic ear when he stumbles on one of those weird revelations that manifest to most fathers when they’re deep into the diaper changing, bottle-warming, and sleep deprivation. He confessed to me that in those rare moments when he isn’t playing, feeding, rocking, talking to, singing, changing, baby-proofing, attending to some aspect of caregiving, or simply marveling at the speed with which children actually start to become little humans, and nothing around the house imminently needs to be rebuilt, cleaned, repaired, or put away, he stands in his apartment, and has absolutely no idea what to do. It’s not that he’s a boring dude – he’s an ace mathematician, technologist, and accomplished artist with wide-ranging interests and a wonderful wife. There’s simply something about the creation and nurturing of another life through those scary larval stages, particularly for first time parents, that is all-consuming, and its absence for even an afternoon induces a kind of existential vertigo. Mircea Eliade once remarked, “The gods create out of an excess of power, an overflow of energy. Creation is accomplished by a surplus of ontological substance. This is why the myth, which narrates this sacred ontophany, this victorious manifestation of a plenitude of being, becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities. For it alone reveals the real, the superabundant, the effectual” (Eliade, 1959, p97). Now, when us humans realize we have a few moments of existence with no immediate demands, we may initially falter and wonder what the hell to do with ourselves, but we rapidly recover and strike off in pursuit of one of our neglected obsessions. What about the gods? Well, when they’ve finished creating the universe, the sun is rising and setting on schedule, the critters are frolicking in the fields, the land is being all substantive, and the oceans are acting appropriately watery, they tend to get a serious case of divine ennui. And then they go and do something exceedingly rash, say like create mankind out of boredom, a folkloric theme that appears with frightening regularity, and emerged as soon as we started writing about the gods, and puzzling over the meaning of life.
The Babylonian Enûma Eliš, a thousand lines recorded in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform (in use at least as far back as the third millennium B.C.) across fragments of seven clay tablets, were unearthed in the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq) in 1849 A.D. and detail the Babylonian creation myth as it was understood in the 7th Century B.C. Most scholars suggest it was actually composed sometime between the 18th and 11th Centuries B.C. The Enûma Eliš attributes the creation of the human race to the boredom of the gods. Even before we came up with the idea of alphabetic writing, our species’ earliest literary records mention the barrenness of divine existence without a bunch of little monkeys running about singing their praises. As soon as we could carve an intelligible sentence into clay with a stick, we concluded that the gods slapped us together because they had nothing better to do. The Fifth Tablet of Creation was probably the most mutilated of the texts, but is believed to detail the awesome works of the god Marduk (patron god of Babylon whose theological preeminence in the divine pantheon was established somewhere around 200 B.C., and believed to derive from a more ancient amar-Utu – “bull calf of the sun god Utu”) in arranging the heavens, followed immediately by the opening of the Sixth Tablet that specifically concerns the creation of man.
When Marduk had arranged heaven and earth, and had established the gods in their places, the gods complained that their existence was barren, because they lacked worshippers at their shrines and offerings. To make a way out of this difficulty Marduk devised another “cunning plan,” and announced his intention of creating man out of ” blood and bone” (dami issimtum)…Marduk made known to Ea his intention of creating man, and Ea suggested that if one of the gods were sacrificed the remainder of them should be set free from service, presumably to Marduk. Thereupon Marduk summons a council of the gods, and asks them to name the instigator of the fight in which he himself was the victor. In reply the gods named Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband, whom they seized forthwith, and bound with fetters and carried to Ea, and then having” inflicted “punishment upon him they let his blood.” From Kingu’s blood Ea fashioned mankind for the service of the gods (British Museum, “Summary of the Sixth Tablet of Creation”, 1921, p26-27).
It would seem that the gods were so bored that they were perfectly willing to cut up one of their own just for a little entertainment. Given Ancient Mesopotamia was a bit of a rough and tumble place, but this seems a little extreme. In addition to creating us out of sheer boredom, gods often appear to suffer from attention deficits that distract them while they are creating us, which of course is typically identified as the source of human imperfection. An ancient Chinese goddess called Nüwa, generally credited with creating humanity, in the 4th Century B.C text of the Shan-hai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”), the source of much of what we know about pre-Qin China, was feeling a bit bored and lonely after Pangu set up the universe, so she set about fashioning animals and humans. After an initial enthusiasm, it seemed like too much work.
Legend has it that at the very beginning when heaven and earth first took shape, there were no human beings, Nu Wa patted and modelled yellow clay in order to create human beings. The task was very tedious and her strength could not tolerate the burden. So she pulled a rope through the mud, lifted it up and each drop of clay that fell off became a human being. Therefore, the rich and the noble were those made of yellow clay, whereas the poor and the ordinary were those made of pulling the rope through the mud (from “Feng Su Tong Yi”, Cheng, 2004, p14).
The Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin traditionally have a similar origin myth (at least in some versions), both in terms of the creation of man, and the wandering attention of the gods. The god Obatala was tasked with making the earth by the sky god Olurun and his wife the goddess of the underworld Olokun and told to manage things. Unfortunately, he gets bored, and fashions the human race out of clay. All this sculpting was somewhat tedious, so he tossed back a few glasses of palm wine, which seriously impacted his artistic skills, resulting in a less than perfect bunch of Homo sapiens. The Chuckchee, indigenous inhabitants of the northeastern Siberian territories near the Bering Strait posit that man was created by two bored, married ravens, but interestingly reverses the more typical order of creation. The female Raven creates humanity first, and then the male raven (who feels somewhat inadequate) creates some land for them to live on.
Raven and his wife live together, — the ﬁrst one, not created by any one, Raven, the one self-created. The ground upon which they live is quite small, corresponding only to their wants, sufﬁcient for their place of abode. Moreover, there are no people on it, nor is there any other living creature, nothing at all, — no reindeer, no walrus, no whale, no seal, no ﬁsh, not a single living being. The woman says, “Ku’urkil.” — “What?” — “But we shall feel dull, being quite alone. This is an unpleasant sort of life. Better go and try to create the earth!” — “I cannot, truly!” — “Indeed, you can!” — “I assure you, I cannot!” — “Oh, well! since you cannot create the earth, then I, at least, shall try to create a ‘spleen-companion.’” — “Well, we shall see!” said Raven. “I will go to sleep,” said his wife. “I shall not sleep,” said Ku’urkll. “I shall keep watch over you. I shall look and see how you are going to be.” —— “All right!” She lay down and was asleep. Ku’urkil is not asleep. He keeps watch, and looks on. Nothing! She is as before. His wife, of course, had the body of a raven, just like himself. He looked from the other side: the same as before. He looked from the front, and there her feet had ten human ﬁngers, moving slowly. “Oh, my!” He stretches out his own feet, — the same raven’s talons. “Oh,” says he, “I cannot change my body!” Then he looks on again, and his wife’s body is already white and without feathers, like ours. “Oh, my!” He tries to change his own body, but how can he do so? Although he chafes it, and pulls at the feathers, how can he do such a thing? The same raven’s body and raven’s feathers! Again he looks at his wife. Her abdomen has enlarged. In her sleep she creates without any effort. He is frightened, and turns his face away. He is afraid to look any more. He says, “Let me remain thus, not looking on!” After a little while he wants to look again, and cannot abstain any longer. Then he looked again, and, lo! there are already three of them. His wife was delivered in a moment. She brought forth male twins. Then only did she awake from her sleep. All three have bodies like ours, only Raven has the same raven’s body. The children laugh at Raven, and ask the mother, “Mamma, what is that?” — “It is the father.” — “Oh, the father! Indeed! Ha, ha, ha!” They come nearer, push him with their feet. He ﬂies off, crying, “Qa, qa!“ They laugh again. “What is that?” — “The father.” — “Ha, ha, ha! The father!” They laugh all the time. The mother says, “O children! You are still foolish. You must speak only when you are asked to. It is better for us, the full-grown ones, to speak here. You must laugh only when you are permitted to. You have to listen and obey.” They obeyed and stopped laughing. Raven said, “There, you have created men! Now I shall go and try to create the earth (Bogoras, 1910, p151-152).
Being a god is no picnic, even when you have some immortal buddies to pal around with. You’re sitting there in the primeval chaos and wondering what to do with your omnipotent self. You get the bright idea of redecorating the universe. A little light here. A few planets there. Some water and earth. Maybe some new drapes. But as everyone knows, straight up Legos are only fun by themselves for a little while. You build a house. You build a skyscraper. You build a tank, a spaceship, or maybe a robot. Then the bloom comes off the rose, and you realize you need those little Lego guys to populate your blocky little reality and act out weird scenarios. Maybe you just throw in a few plastic army guys, Smurfs, or some My Little Ponies. Without imaginary egos running about, simply moving inanimate architectural components into different configurations loses its charm quickly. Humans should probably count our blessings that the gods get bored and depressed, otherwise we probably wouldn’t exist. Henry Miller warned us against fearing boredom, and perhaps captured the essence of our origins when he commented, “The life of a creator is not the only life nor perhaps the most interesting which a man leads. There is a time for play and a time for work, a time for creation and a time for lying fallow. And there is a time, glorious too in its own way, when one scarcely exists, when one is a complete void. I mean — when boredom seems the very stuff of life.”
Bogoras, Waldemar, 1865-1936. Chukchee Mythology. Leiden: Brill, 1910.
British Museum. Dept. of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. The Babylonian Legends of the Creation And the Fight Between Bel And the Dragon: As Told by Assyrian Tablets From Nineveh. [London: Harrison & sons, ltd.], 1921.
Cheng, Christina M.B. “Matriarchy at the Edge: The Mythic Cult of Nu Wa in Macau”. Presented at the 17th Triennial Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, August 8-15, 2004, in Hong Kong.
Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959