with art by Roxanne Swentzell
Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. -- Genesis 3:19
A Dirty Joke: One day the scientists decided that mankind no longer needed God, so one of them went to Him, bearing the news. "God," he said, "we don't need you anymore. We can do our own miraculous things. We can clone people on our own. So why don't you just get lost?" God was patient and kind. "Very well," He replied. "If that is how mankind feels, then let us resolve this with a contest. Let us see who can make a man." "Sure," said the scientist, "that's fine with me." "But there is one condition," said God, "We will do this just the way it was done the first time when I created Adam." "Sure, no problem," said the scientist. He bent down to grab a handful of dirt. "No, no, no," said God. "You go get your own dirt.
One of the most prevalent motifs among myths that explain the origin of humanity (usually the first man) is the image of his creation from the earth. The idea even crosses over into the realm of jokes, like the one above, which has been circulating in the scientific community for quite some time. The humor in the joke is immediately apparent, relying on themes that are quite topical these days. It's an old joke that has appeared more and more frequently in the e-mail culture and on Internet sites since the human genome project—and, more recently, the controversy over cloning human stem cells—has been prominent in world news.
I've always wondered about this connection between humans and earth, even before I was old enough to understand the logic of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." When I was a child, before I could speak English, my Korean uncle explained the origin of the human races by referring to the motif of creation from clay: After He made the world, Hananim was lonely, so He decided to make people to keep Him company. He took some clay from the earth and formed it into a man, then He baked it until it was done. But the first attempt was a failure; it was overcooked and burnt black. So Hananim tried again, and this time He didn't bake the man long enough, and he came out a sickly white. On the third try, Hananim got it right and baked the man perfectly, making him a golden yellow, which is the color of Asians.
This explanation did not jibe with the other creation story I learned later, which was the Biblical account in Genesis, nor did it fit with the scientific explanation, which I learned even later, but it did introduce me to the connection between humans and clay, quite early in life when children have the leisure to ponder such questions at length. I played quite a lot away from home in various parts of town and in the hills, and I did more than my share of experimentation. I did find, for example, that you couldn't really make people out of just any dirt. Sandy dirt and regular mud never retained their shapes and couldn't really be formed, but a certain kind of mud, namely clay, would hold its shape while it was wet and then harden when it dried. Some clays cracked and some did not, depending on their texture and color. Later, I saw many different types of clay when I visited a ceramics factory, and even later, when I finally attended an American school, I was delighted by the Modeline brand of modeling clay, which became my favorite toy, much to my mother's annoyance. In the hot summers, I would store my creations—mostly dinosaurs and monsters—in our refrigerator, and they would permeate our food with that distinct petrochemical odor. (I was never a Play Doh user.)
So what is this connection between clay and the creation of humans? Why is it so primal and prominent? The question struck me again not too long ago when I reread the story of the Golem of Prague to my daughter from Peter Sis's book, The Three Golden Keys. There was something about it that preoccupied me because it brought up another connection I hadn't really noticed before, but which promised to be interesting. So I decided to do some research. I started out by trying to find some fundamental and logically coherent connection between clay and the creation of humans. What I found was far more than just confirmation of a strong mythological association between men and mud.
Men out of Mud
When you consider the connection between clay and the creation of humans from a commonsensical point of view, there are good explanations. For example, clay is something from which humans can create things ranging from ceramics to figures of people, so it would be logical to project that association back onto an anthropomorphic god figure and its creation of the earth and humanity. The ability to construct artifacts out of various materials, among which clay was one of the first, is a feature that distinguishes "civilized" peoples from "savages," and if the gods are even more advanced than humans, then they should certainly be able to work clay better than mere mortals (and thereby the motif of the clay coming to life).
Clay and mud are also associated with fertility because they are earth mixed with water, and we tend to associate fertility with creation. Clay figures, particularly those made of terra cotta, have been revered in ancient cultures; in the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Xihuangdi, one finds thousands of life-sized substitute people who were to be his subjects in the afterlife—they were all made of clay.
A quick survey of myths from around the globe regarding the creation of humans also gives a sense of the prominence of this motif. We can quickly spin the globe from east to west: In China, one of the creations myths describes the first humans being formed of yellow clay (for the Christian-influenced Miao in southern China, the first man is called Patriarch Dirt, because that is what God made him from). In Babylonian mythology, Marduk, chief among gods, creates humans out of his blood mixed with clay from the earth. In one Egyptian creation myth, the first man is made of clay on a potter's wheel. For the Magyars (the inhabitant of present-day Hungary), the sun god Magyar turns himself into a diving duck and makes humans out of sand and a seedy muck from the ocean floor.
Now across the Atlantic to the New World: For the Salish, Old-Man-in-the-Sky created humans out of clay; because he formed them in the dark, he did not realize that some of the clay was red and some white, and that is why there are red and white people in the world. For the tribes in the mountains of Southern California, the creator Chinigchinich made humans out of white clay from the shore of a lake. In one Mayan myth, the two creators, Tepeu and Gucumatz, make the first humans out of clay because their earlier creations could not praise them. Other Native American tribes have myths that describe the entire world made of mud from the back of a great turtle, humans emerging from under the earth, the earth rising up from the sea already inhabited. In Australia, among the Aborigines, one tribal creation myth describes how the Dreamtime Elders made themselves out of clay and then brought the rest of the world into existence by singing.
From Asia, to the subcontinent, to Europe and Africa, then to the New World and even among the isolated Pacific cultures—in every inhabited part of the globe, one finds that the creations of humans out of clay is a prominent motif in local mythologies. One could argue that the human connection with clay is universal or suggest that the motif originated in one culture and then was dispersed around the globe and leave it at that. But that hardly does the motif justice.
Let us look next at familiar turf from an unfamiliar perspective, beginning with God's creation of Adam in the Bible. Lee Adams Young summarizes what he believes to be a more accurate rendition of the epigraph at the beginning of this article. He refers to Theodore Hiebert's analysis in The Yahwist's Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (Oxford University Press, 1995):
"Dust" is a translation of the Hebrew word apar, which in this context is better translated as "dirt" or "soil." For the farmer, dirt and soil signify something of great value. The Hebrew name Adam is a pun on the Hebrew word adama, which is commonly translated "earth," "ground," or "land" but in Genesis 2-3 is better rendered "arable land."
Hiebert's revised translations are as follows: "God formed the man (adam) out of the dirt (apar) from the arable land (adama), and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man (adam) became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). Hiebert's rendition of God's curse on Adam is also less harsh in his retranslation: "By the sweat of your nostrils you [Adam] will eat bread until you return to the arable land (adama), for you were taken from it; you are dirt (apar) and to dirt (apar) you will return" (Genesis 3:19).
Hiebert's point is to distinguish our notion of dust from a particular kind of dirt. Adam, through the wordplay in his name, is connected not just to dirt, but to dirt that can be cultivated, i.e., dirt from which something can be created. What Hiebert doesn't mention is that in Hebrew, a-dam can also be read as "of blood" or "of clay" (mostly likely red clay), and so is associated with earth and the creative potential in a complex network of possible meanings.
The Koran, whose original sources overlap in many respects with the Bible, is actually more vivid and explicit about the creation of man from the earth. In a move to authenticate the scientific accuracy of what is usually read as figurative imagery, to prove the Koran to be revealed truth, Islamic scholars have consulted numerous scientists. On a website called "Stages of Creation of Man" I found the following, which I quote at length because it is fascinating material:
We asked Professor Moore to give us his scientific analysis of some specific Qur'aanic verses and prophetic traditions...pertaining to his field of specialization. Professor Moore is ... Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Toronto. ...He wondered how the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam), fourteen centuries ago, could describe the embryo and its development phase in such detail and accuracy, which scientists have come to know only in the last thirty years....
Allah says in the Qur'aan [Koran] about the stages of the creation of man: 'Man we did create from a quintessence (of clay); Then we placed as (a drop of) sperm (nutfah) in a place firmly fixed; Then we made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood ('alaqah); Then of that clot we made a (fetus) lump (mudghah); then we made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then we developed out of it another creature' (Qur'aan 23:12-14).
The Arabic word 'alaqah has three meanings. The first meaning is 'leech'. The second is 'a suspended thing'. The third meaning is 'a blood clot'.
In comparing the fresh-water leech to the embryo at the 'alaqah stage, Professor Moore found a great similarity between the two. He concluded that the embryo during the 'alaqah stage acquires an appearance very similar to that of leech.
The second meaning of the word 'alaqah is 'a suspended thing', and this is what we can see in the attachment of the embryo during the 'alaqah stage to the uterus (womb) of the mother. The third meaning of the word 'alaqah is 'a blood clot'. It is significant to note, as Professor Moore stated, that the embryo during the 'alaqah stage goes through well-known internal events, such as the formation of blood in closed vessels.... During the 'alaqah stage, the blood is caught within closed vessels and that is why the embryo acquires the appearance of a blood clot, in addition to the leech-like appearance.
Professor Moore also studied the embryo at the mudghah (chewed-like substance) stage. He took a piece of raw clay and chewed it in his mouth, then compared it with a picture of the embryo at the mudghah stage. Professor Moore concluded that the embryo at the mudghah stage acquires the exact appearance of a chewed-like substance.
Although it devotes much more particular attention to the issue of ontology, the Koran, like the Bible, brings up the same fundamental set of associations: God's creation of a human with blood and clay.
The more one looks at the parallels between creation myths and current scientific knowledge, the more striking and eerie they become. This is particularly apparent when investigating the Jewish folklore regarding the Golem.
In "The Golem: A Mute Man of Words," F. Levine gives a good definition of the creature: "A golem, perhaps the best known of the Jewish legends, is an automaton, typically humanoid and typically male, created as the result of an intense, systematic, mystical meditation. The word golem means (or implies) something unformed and imperfect, or a body without a soul.... The best-known tales of the golem concern one Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Marharal of Prague, who created the mythical being to protect the Jews from blood libels and plots" in the late 16th-Century. But golems are ancient lore. "Stories of artificial creations made by Jewish sages appear very early, during the Talmudic era (prior to 500 C.E.). In theological discussions, Adam is described as a golem during the time of his formation, but prior to God blowing life and (more importantly) soul into him. The earliest written story of such a creature occurs in the Babylonian Talmud."
The theory and the method for creating a golem are found in the Sefer Yetzirah, a Jewish mystical text (from sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries) also known as "The Book of Creation." According to the Sefer Yetzirah, God created the cosmos by using the ten divine emanations of the Sefirot and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Levine continues, "Medieval techniques of creating a golem often revolved around a highly complex procedure which required the mystic(s) to recite...an array of Hebrew alphabet letter combinations and/or various permutation of one or more Names of God."
The final key to golem creation is an activation word, which also serves as a deactivation device. In most versions of the golem story, the word is EMETH (truth) written on the golem's forehead. To deactivate the golem, the Rabbi rubs out the first letter, leaving METH (death). There are numerous variants on the activation word, but the one most likely to be the original is ADAM, as one might predict from Jewish creation lore. As I've shown above, ADAM has the layered meanings of "man of blood and clay"; erasing the A would leave DAM, which can be read as "clay" or "blood." (The letter A also signifies an ox, which might explain why several golem stories are about the creation of a golem cow, which the rabbis eat; there are also kosher rules for the slaughter of golem animals.) According to Pennick, the Hebrew A (Aleph) also signifies the Hermetic and Alchemical concept of "As above, so below," thus referring to the parallel creative powers of God and man. Man is God's golem made of clay, and he in turn makes his golem servant of clay.
There are surprising, scientifically relevant, reasons for why clay might be the best medium for creating life. In an article called "Clay: Why It Acts The Way It Does," F.H. Norton notes:
If one takes any finely grained non-clay mineral and mixes it with water, a crumbly mass will be produced with almost zero formability. If the same is done with clay, however, there is produced a mass that is readily formed into any desired shape and, most interesting of all, it will retain that shape under the force of gravity. In other words, the clay mass has three unique properties; first, it may be deformed without cracking; second, when the deforming force ceases, the shape will remain fixed; and further, when the clay mass is dried, it has considerable strength.
Clay's unique features, Norton goes on to say, are due to the fact that its molecular structure is that of a hexagonical crystal. This hexagonical structure, it turns out, might be the key to the origin of life. Paddy Carroll, in his review of A.G. Cairns-Smith's Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, gives the following summary:
The author goes against most received wisdom by contending that it was inorganic substances—namely, complex forms of clay crystal . . .—that provided the essential initial springboard for organic evolution. . . . Cairns-Smith proposes that organic substances only became alive after being co-opted, organized and supported by a form of 'scaffolding.' This scaffolding was made up of clay crystals, complex forms of which can evolve after a fashion; they used . . . organic substances as tools with which to propagate themselves more efficiently. This argument was first put forward by the British crystallographer J.D. Bernal, who wrote the visionary The World, The Flesh and The Devil.
In a rather eccentric book called The Language Crystal, Lawrence William Lyons points out some of the significance of number 6 (the number of sides in a hexagon). As others have shown, the number 6 is associated with man, particularly the human body, but Lyons takes it a bit farther. He quotes from Revelations, "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six" (13:18), pointing out that "man" here is "anthropos" in the Greek, which refers to all of mankind. 666 happens to add up to 18, for which Lyons has an amazing series of meaningful associations; many of them are unfortunately a bit far-fetched and laden with conspiracy theory, but two examples stand out: Water has a molecular weight of 18; Glucose has a molecular weight of 180. Both, of course, are absolutely essential to human life.
Lyons also provides a periodic table of the elements showing their crystal structures, and it is interesting to note that more than a third of them are hexagonal; three of the four constituent elements for carbon-based life are hexagonal in their crystal forms (carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen—the other being oxygen). Lyons points out that in the Kabbalah, 18 is the number of life (it also happens to be 6, the number of man, multiplied by 3, the number of the divine Trinity).
To the Edges of the Field
Perhaps the numerology and the wordplay I've discussed above seem merely to be mystical, but there are numerous approaches to the same problem of meaning. Steve Krakowski, for example, began his investigation by recognizing a potential parallel between coherent numerological systems. In "Interpreting Sefer Yetzirah through Genetic Engineering" he writes:
A number of years ago I stumbled across a unique similarity of form between the genetic code and a fusion of the Hebrew alphabet with the ancient Chinese divination system of the I Ching; or 'Book of Changes.' I was studying the I Ching when I came across a book that demonstrated an isomorphism between the 64 symbols of the I Ching (called hexagrams or kua) and the 64 codons of the genetic code. I wondered if there might be, among the mystic or occult systems of other cultures, a corresponding set of symbols for the amino acids of the genetic code for which the 64 codons code. I turned to the Hebrew occult system of Qabalah and discovered the Sefer Yetzirah or 'Book of Creation.'
Because the 22 trump cards...of the Tarot system of divination have Hebrew letters assigned to them, I thought that maybe I could compare the symbols, images, and concepts in the Tarot trumps with the corresponding contents of the I Ching kua. Then, if there are enough similarities, I could assign each of the trumps to a group of I Ching kua. The result would be a Hebrew letter assignment for each amino acid and punctuation codon in the genetic code.
What Krakowski found was an uncanny isomorphism. He continues, "in the Sefer Yetzirah, we have a magical text which purports to allow those who understand and use it to create living creatures. This is accomplished using 22 letters, which are manipulated, like bits of clay into chains that are arranged into complementary parallels and other shapes. This is very similar to scientific descriptions of the activity, which takes place within the cells of living things. Scientists use the language metaphor to describe these chemicals and their activities. Lengths of DNA and the genes, which reside there are referred to as genetic sentences and their chemical components are referred to as words and letters. Counting the stop codons as 2 separate groups there are 22 amino acid letters in the chemical alphabet of life."
The human genome happens to be made of 22 basic pairs of chromosomes with one additional pair that designates sex. In his book on the human genome (Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters), the central analogy Matt Ridley uses is that of the book:
Imagine that the genome is a book.
There are twenty-three chapters, called CHROMOSOMES.
Each chapter contains several thousand stories, called GENES.
Each story is made up of paragraphs, called EXONS, which are interrupted by advertisements called INTRONS.
Each paragraph is made up of words, called CODONS.
Each word is written in letters called BASES.
Ridley goes on to say, "The idea of the genome as a book is not, strictly speaking, even a metaphor. It is literally true. A book is a piece of digital information, written in linear, one-dimensional and one-directional form and defined by a code that transliterates a small alphabet of signs into a large lexicon of meaning through the order of their groupings."
The bases of the genome are the "letters" ATCG, which (you probably recall from high school biology) stand for adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, which form the codons/words; Ridley points out that the basic sequences are "written entirely in three-letter words." The technical language that scientists use to refer to genetics, as Ridley notes, is full of terms like "translation," "messenger RNA," "transcription," "copying," "reading," and "decoding." He also organizes his own book into 23 chapters, titling each chapter loosely after the function of that particular chromosome.
A cursory comparison of those chapter titles with the Kabbalistic meaning of the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet provides an alarming possibility (which I hope this article will inspire other to pursue at length). Let me give a few examples, which I found by consulting Nigel Pennick's Magical Alphabets:
Chapter 16 of Genome is called "Memory"; the 16th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Ayin, which symbolizes (among other things), foresight. Chapter 17 is called "Death," which corresponds to the letter Pe, signifying immortality. Chapter 22 is called "Free Will," corresponding to Tau, which signifies the "chosen ones"; as Pennick puts it, "Esoterically, this represents the 400 Sephirot of the four worlds, which is 'synthesis'. It is the completion of the utterance of God, and thus encompasses creation"—rather fitting for the final chromosome. By strange coincidence, the 22nd letter of the Roman alphabet happens to be V, whose Hebrew parallel is Vau, the 6th letter, signifying liberty.
The functions of chromosomes 16 and 17 seem to be inversions of the esoteric meanings of their Hebrew letter counterparts: memory, which is the ability to recall the past, as opposed to the ability to see forward; death, as opposed to immortality. Chromosome 22's function seems to be oddly parallel, and the transformation to the Roman alphabet brings up an incredible coincidence, which hinges on the number 6 as well.
It should be no shock by now to learn that one of the techniques described in the Sephir Yetzirah involves the use of the Hebrew letter pairs AB through AK (the 1st through 11th letters) to create a golem and the pairs AL through AT (Aleph paired with the 12th through 22nd letters) to take the golem apart once again. This sounds remarkably similar to the "zipping" and "unzipping" of DNA in its replication process. And it just happens that the 12th letter, K, happens to correspond inversely to the function of chromosome 12, which in Ridley's book is called "Self Assembly."
What is one to make of these correspondences? I will leave the final interpretation to the reader. But what I've shown is that there are profound religious, mystical, and scientific reasons behind what, at first glance, seems to be a mildly interesting prevalence of the humans-created-from-clay motif in world mythology. These reasons could not be known until only recently, when advances in physics, biochemistry, and information theory provided the necessary scientific insights, only to validate previously "religious" or "mythic" explanations.
On the cutting edge of literary theory, one prominent idea is that everything is merely text; in the Judeo-Christian story of cosmogenesis, in the beginning was the Word; in Hinduism and Buddhism, creation began with the primal syllable; in astrophysics, one of the major Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of the past century was the three-degree background radiation in the universe, what we now know is the "echo" of the Big Bang, the sound that started it all. Perhaps that loud explosion was a word, after all.
When humans began their own creation of texts written not in pictograms, but in symbolic letters, around 5100 years ago (according to current theories), their first medium was clay. Many of oldest Mesopotamian clay tablets, which date back to approximately 3000 B.C., happen to record creation myths.
My four-year-old daughter still has trouble pronouncing "mother," and when she's tired, she calls my dear wife "Mudder." I used to correct her, but I don't bother anymore. She's been onto something all along—it's one of those synchronicities you just come to accept when you begin to suspect that your life is a text.
Some of the material for this essay comes from the following sources, which you may want to peruse for your own interest.
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley.
The Language Crystal: The Complete Solution to Civilization's Oldest Puzzle, by Lawrence William Lyons (this is full of truly brilliant insights, a work of genius and eccentricity; a valuable book if you know enough to sort the useful scholarship from the conspiracy theory).
F.H. Norton's "Clay: Why It Acts The Way It Does" appeared in Studio Potter, Volume 4, Number 2 (Winter 1975/76).
About the Author:
Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of Memories of My Ghost Brother and other fine works fiction, nonfiction, folklore studies, and memoir. Raised in Korea, Germany, and America, he now lives in upstate New York with his wife and daughter, where he teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Visit his website to lean more about his work.
About the Artist:
Roxanne Swentzell an award-winning Native American sculptor working in clay and bronze. She comes from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, and now runs her own gallery near Santa Fe. Please visit her website to see more of her beautiful work.
Text copyright © 2002 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. (The article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1997.) It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission. The art is copyright by Roxanne Swentzell and appears here with the artist's permission; all image rights reserved by Ms. Swentzell. This page was updated for the JoMA archives 2014.