Seashells found in the mountains inspired myths of a world ocean

Seashells found in the mountains inspired myths of a world ocean March 20, 2023

Myths of creation are filled with fantastical characters, surrealistic plot lines and supernatural magic. There are cosmic giants, serpents and goddesses who dance on the primordial waters, not to mention fireballs, vapors and thought-waves. And a planetary ocean without an inch of dry land.
While many collections of creation stories have been published, there’s no single definitive list and no serious academic effort has been undertaken  to define the genre or categorize the range of characters, themes and symbols. And while creation stories vary widely, there is one consistent element – most begin with a world covered entirely by water.

The inspiration behind the concept of a global ocean may have been the widespread discovery of fossilized seashells high in mountains ranges, thousands of feet above the ocean. The discovery of seashells so far from the sea — and other hard-to-explain fossils — may have shaped early views of world history, as described in Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor (2005, Princeton University Press).

Fossilized seashells. (Roberto Verzo/Wikimedia Commons)

Seashells in the mountains

The Toraja of Indonesia cited the discovery of seashells in the mountains as evidence that an ocean once covered the world. The Mangaia of the Southern Cook Islands found seashells and coral atop their highest mountains and came to the same conclusion.
The Ntlakyapamuk of British Columbia believed the presence of fish in mountain lakes and creeks was proof that the world had once been covered with water, which had ultimately receded and left the fish behind.

The 19th century explorer C.F. Hall asked an Innuit girl why her people believed the world was once covered by a great ocean. The girl responded, “Did you ever see little stones like clams and such things as live in the sea, away up on the mountains?”
The people of Greenland drew the same conclusion when they found whale bones in the mountain. An early Chinese encyclopedia reported that oyster and crab shells had been found in the mountains, far from the sea. Similar discoveries were made in ancient Greece and Egypt.

Lava meets the sea. (Catherine Masters/

Fiery gods evaporated oceans

The conception of an earth covered with water gave our distant ancestors a starting point for their oral histories. But if the world began with a great ocean, how was land created?
The Kuba of Central Africa describe a creator-giant Mbombo, alone in the primordial darkness when water covered the earth. Suffering a pain in his stomach, he vomited out the sun, moon and stars. When the rays of the sun hit the waters, mists rose up to the sky and formed clouds. Evaporation eventually exposed dry land.

The Tungus of Siberia believed the supreme being Buga set fire to the primordial ocean, causing the waters to evaporate so that dry land was exposed. The Pawnee of the Great Plains describe a mythic serpent presiding over an endless primordial sea. When Morning Star threw a fireball at the serpent, it disappeared and the fireball evaporated enough of the ocean to reveal land. The Pawnee could easily have found marine shells in the rocky outcrops of Wyoming.
The Sulawesi of Indonesia and the Native American Omaha tribe told similar stories of a red-hot rock emerging from the primordial sea, producing steam that rose into clouds. Soon, dry land appeared.

Wind rolled back the waters

The Quechan of modern-day Arizona believed the creator Kokomaht made a whirlwind that dispersed the primordial ocean and exposed solid ground. The Lipan Apache of Texas say a wind came from the world below and rolled back the waters of the earth to make a home for the Apache.
The Osage of the Great Plains describe people and animals living in the sky, until Father Sun and Mother Moon told them to descend to earth, which was covered with water. They floated downward, calling for help until an elk floated down and called on the winds to blow on the waters, producing mist and clouds and revealing land.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that karma from a previous universe blew as a wind at Creation and rolled back the waters.

A naturally terraced mountain. (Wikimedia Commons)

Storms made mountains & valleys

But if the evaporation of the waters ultimately revealed dry land, how were the mountains and valleys formed?
As the world-covering primordial ocean receded, its waters shaped the familiar drainage patterns that form the contours of mountains. The Lillooet tribe of British Columbia pointed to a series of horizontal terraces on a local mountain as evidence that floodwaters had slowly receded from the mountaintop.
The Yoruba conceived of a storm whipped up by angelic beings (Orishas) after creation, transforming what had been a completely level earth into a diverse landscape of mountains and valleys. For Aboriginal cave painters in Kimberley, Australia, the Wandjina were cloud and rain spirits who rose from the sea like mist at creation and rained down from the sky to shape the earth’s topography.

The Sulawesi of Indonesia believed the first storms were embodied in the goddess Lumimu’ut, who carved the earth into its present form. The Mandan of South Dakota credited the diversified landscape for allowing people to travel, compared to a smooth and level earth, which would provide no sense of orientation.

A thunderstorm in Miami, Texas..(Brad Smull, NOAA Photo Library/Wikimedia Commons)

Seeds from the heavens

The forgers of myth constructed a timeline of events that explained the formation of earth as we know it, but there were still puzzles to be solved. What of the grasses, flowers, berry-bushes and fruit-trees? How did they arise? Who was their mother? Who was their father?
The phrase “mother earth” reflects the ancient conception that the verdant earth was a vast and fertile womb. What is largely unknown today is that many ancient cultures believed that spring rain literally impregnated the womb of mother earth with grasses, flowers and trees.

The Pima of New Mexico believed mother earth was made pregnant by a drop of water from a cloud. The Pawnee describe the Evening Star giving birth to a daughter, whom she placed on a cloud along with “seeds of all kinds that should go to the people of earth.”
When the Navajo sun god Johano-ai rides on the “woven blankets” of the clouds, sacred pollen surrounds him in a yellow mist. The Navajo Song of the Horse says, “There in mist of sacred pollen hidden …”
In West Africa the Dogon philosopher Ogotemmeli said, “Water, the divine semen, penetrated into the womb of the earth, and generation went on … The earth came to life through water .”
The rain generated by the ancient storm gods of the Near East was equated with semen falling upon the womb of mother earth. In the Sumerian language, “a” referred to both water and sperm.

Evolution of humans

With explanations in hand for the landscape and the origin of vegetation, the biggest question presented itself: Where did the creatures of the earth come from?
Many creation stories identified the first animals as fish, shellfish and snakes who could live entirely in the water, along with waterfowl who thrived in the water and the sky. In ancient Hindu texts, the first earthly form (or avatar) of the Vishnu was a fish.

The Kabbalic tradition calls sea creatures “great” because they were the first to receive the divine energy that flowed from the highest world in the universe. The Babylonian astronomer Berosus wrote of a half-man, half-fish named Oannes, who emerged from the Red Sea to teach early humans the basic elements of civilization, only to swim off at sunset.
The Mangaia of the Cook Islands believed the female supreme being Vari’-ma-te-akere created Vatea, who was half-man and half fish. On one side, he had a human head, an arm and a leg, but on the other was a porpoise head, a fin and a tail. The Ahts of Vancouver Island say their spirits once dwelled in fish, birds and other animals that lived long before humans. The Karajá of Brazil believed there was a time when “they still lived in the water.”

The Babylonian Oannes. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Zuni Pueblo account of evolution describes a creature with “clammy skin, goggle-eyes, bat ears, webbed feet and tails” as “unfinished” humans. The Dhammai of northeast India told of deities who created the world and gave birth to two frogs, Lujjuphu and Jassuju, who gave birth to the first humans, who were covered with hair.

The Maidu of northern California believe they slowly and steadily evolved into people.
“At first they walked on all fours, then they would begin to develop an isolated human feature, one finger, one toe, one eye,” wrote 19th century scholar Andrew Lang. “ … then they doubled their organs, got into the habit of sitting up, and wore away their tails, which (the Maidu) unaffectedly regret, as they consider the tail quite an ornament.”

A Tibetan painting representing reincarnation. (Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii /Wikipedia)

The immortal soul

While these stories depict radical transformation, there is an underlying continuity. A baby girl emerges from a cockleshell, ravens father human children, humans emerges from the bellies of fish. Sounds sort of like evolution.
This continuously transforming thread of life reflects one of the oldest and still most pervasive of beliefs – the primordial waters contained a dormant original soul that manifests in material form and reincarnates continuously through eons of time. The Onondaga of the Iroquois nation believed all flesh was a temporary manifestation created by a shape-shifting power inherent in the universe.

The Egyptians believed the souls of all future people lay dormant in the primeval waters of Nun. In the Taoist tradition, “undifferentiated primordial vapor” contained an invisible eternal spirit that was capable of animating flesh. Native Americans often refer to reincarnation as “changing houses.”
In ancient Ireland Tuan MacCarell was said to survive Noah’s flood by reincarnating as a salmon, then proceeding to live dozens more lifetimes before relating the history of Ireland to St. Patrick.
Demonstrating the fundamental separate-ness of body and soul, the ancient Lapps believed a divine couple created humankind; Madder-akker was responsible for creating the body and Madder-atcha was responsible for the soul.
Hindus believe the soul can return in any number of lower or higher forms, largely depending on the good or bad karma that accumulates during earthly life. Chinese Taoism conceived of the Hun soul as the warm, expansive and rising force of yang, bringing consciousness, willpower and intuition to human beings. At death, the Hun soul rises to the clouds.
About 2,400 years ago the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi described advanced and ascended spirits as clouds, flying freely in the heavens.

“There are spiritual people … delicate and graceful … (who) sip the wind and drink the dew. Mounted on the energy of clouds, driving flying dragons, they travel beyond the seas … ”

(Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion, coming March 31 from John Hunt Publishing, now available for pre-order. More information can be found at this website, which links to a YouTube video.)

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