Friday, April 22, 2011

Separation, Morality, and Evolution: A comparison of the Genesis and the Ainulindale Epics of Creation

In both Genesis and the Ainulindale, creation is a direct result of thought. In the Ainulindale, the Ainur (themselves products of Illuvatar’s cognitive faculties) cognize and manifest their own thoughts by collaboratively weaving a profound and multifaceted musical symphony. Afterward, Illuvatar himself is stated as bringing about his “children” through intellectual contemplation. In the Genesis account, the thinking/intellectual processes of the creator are actualized by language. God orders Being into existence by naming and bounding Chaos. In a sense, God’s speech is the offspring of his thought since the act of speaking is a posteriori the ability to cognize (perceive reality) and reason (judge reality). His cognitive speech then, serves to form, separate, and vitalize the gaping void of darkness and watery prima materia. Thus in both accounts of creation, thought serves as an élan vital,* a catalyst of life and “Secret Fire” for the emergence of complexity. It is akin to a single ray of light that when shot through a prism (like that on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover)** seemingly evolves, diverging and separating into the many colors of the spectrum.

In the Ainulindale, life does not necessarily arise as it does in sequential stages as it does in Genesis. Rather, life arises—mostly—from one symphonic act of musical intellection. While the Ainulindale differs on whether the creation is viewed directly or as a vision, we can still surmise that everything for the most part arises as a whole. Things do not have to be explicitly separated out and defined; they already exist as they are; they are just being “brought forth” from the depths of Illuvatar’s mind (“no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite” pg 5 of Illustrated Silmarillion). On page 174 of the Lost Road version of the Ainulindale, we read: “they [the Ainur] observed the air and winds, and the matters whereof the middle-earth was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances…” Life becomes more complex after Illuvatar retires in contemplation and the Ainur descend to take suzerainty over Arda. As they become the “Valar,” their earthen “raiments” allow them to develop previously undiscovered aspects of their nature. Furthermore, the “Valar” gain new epithets as men and elves spread their own languages and populate the new creation.

Interestingly, in the Genesis account—life can ONLY come into being through separation. Thus as I mentioned earlier, God’s speech bounds and subsequently orders creation. First God names the object, therefore giving it essence or being. This is the first separation—the separation ex nihilo. Next, God separates the object from what already is, that is—that which has already has been categorized. Hence when God states “Let there be a light,” he calls light into being and separates it from non-being, and when God “separates the light from the darkness,” he is separating the newly created category “light” from darkness. Most importantly, the Genesis god’s separation/categorization process as a function of thought manifesting through speech allows life to progress from the most fundamental (e.g. light) to the most complex (e.g. humans). Thus—at least in Genesis 1—humans are presented as the crown of creation, the cognitive and speech-capable (in the image of their Creator) overseers of all life on Earth. Yet, there is still another degree of separation that I need to explain. This degree of separation is that of morality.

As soon as the Genesis god calls objects into existence, he also denotes their morality. While he doesn’t call anything evil (how could he—if everything that exists was created by him?), he does vary between refraining from defining the morality of a thing (e.g. darkness) and giving things levels of goodness (ex. Very good, good). Thus the Genesis myth is at its core an etiological myth overladen with moralism. This is a significant difference from the Ainulindale, which—mostly—refrains from overt categorizations of morality. Violent and tumultuous events and regions on Middle-earth are not evil in essence, (that is in categorization of being) since they have their origin only in the discord (the separation/diversion from harmony) of Melkor. Once this ‘heavenly discord’ reaches earth, the earthborn elves and men perceive it as evil. It follows then that Rumil’s elvish account of the Ainulindale is more moralistic. Melkor is described as imbuing “terror as fire, sorrow like dark waters, wrath like thunder, and evil” into creation. Markedly, while creation does evolve and become more complex as Illuvatar emanates his cognitive Ainur-effluvia, it does not reach a final end as it does in Genesis. The God in Genesis is described as completing his work and resting on the seventh day. In contrast, Illuvatar’s creation of man comes long after the Valar’s settlement of Arda. In addition, Illuvatar makes provisions for “things that are new and have no fortelling,” including a second redemptive/recollective music of the Ainur.

In both of the Ainulindale and the Genesis accounts, we have seen how thought can give rise to complexity through separation. In the Ainulindale, thought literally proceeds from the Neoplatonistic monad, (“Eru the One”) and evolves into a tree of consciousness that contains all of Ea. The Ainur are offspring of thought. Arda and its peoples are the offspring of the Ainur’s thought and Illuvatar’s sole intellection. Everything has its origin in this pleroma of Nous! In Genesis, it is God’s clear-cut thought, embodied by speechcraft, that forms the world. Moreover, it is man’s (through Adam and Eve) cognitive choice that brings about the expulsion from the mythic time*** of Eden and the entrance into the historical time of peoples and nations.

Andrew Manns

*the theoretical “vital impetus” of life and consciousness first proposed by the philosopher Henri Bergson

**a link to the Pink Floyd album cover

***defined by Mircea Eliade, mythic/sacred time refers to the timeless illud tempus of origins. When I refer to the “historical time of peoples and nations,” I’m referencing the long genealogical tables that follow Adam and Eve’s departure from Eden.


  1. I think you hit on some really interesting points's a logical comparison to make, but you call attention to things I hadn't thought of, like the separation versus harmony that characterize Genesis and the Ainulindale respectively. I'd be interested to see how you carried this approach on to the beginning of the New Testament. I think there are some interesting parallels between the "Word with God/Word is God" in John 1:1 and the idea of the Ainur's creation coming as thoughts of Eru. I don't know much about Neoplatonism (shameful, for a once-upon-a-time Classics major) but I think it might apply there as well. Or maybe there are some themes that unify all three stories? (Besides, well, creation, of course). Just some thoughts to keep your investigation going...

  2. I agree with Blair: I like very much the way you describe the differences between Genesis and the Ainulindalë, but I would like to hear how the latter corresponds to John, particularly given the clear Neoplatonic echoes in the Elvish myth. Is there a difference in the morality of the Creation if one comes from differentiation and the other through the Word that is God?


  3. LOVE your analogy that God’s speech acts as a prism, which separates and makes vital the original, dark broth of potential creation! You make a good point that all things exist in the mind of God/Iluvatar before their ‘creation,’ so that creation is in fact a brining to light, so to speak, of what is already there. You also note that Iluvatar’s creation is dynamic and continuous, being added to by the Valar (and even, to some extent, by his Children), as well as being modified or redirected by Iluvatar himself. Since there is no clear end point in Iluvatar’s creation, as opposed to God’s, where then can we say that creation ends? Does it even end, or does Iluvatar establish the outline for a self-perpetuating system of eternal creation, recreation, and sub-creation?

    Going back to the Children of Iluvatar, you seem to imply, in your second paragraph, that Elves and Men contribute to creation in their own way by giving names and epithets to the Valar; by viewing them through their own lenses as Iluvatar’s Children. If this is in fact what you are, I agree completely - one could call it the Children’s first act of sub-creation!

    You make a good observation that in Genesis, creation depends on the categorization and separation of things from their opposites and that Iluvatar, unlike God, does not make moral or value judgments on his creation; initially everything simply is, as intrinsic parts of the whole. It is the actions that take place after the initial creation and the perceptions of the Children that define ‘evil’ – yet another facet of their sub-creation in Arda.