Power and Knowledge: Common Cross-Cultural Themes in Native American, Incan, and Judaeo-Christian Traditions

This blog post was written by students in Carolyn Ross’s Writing and Rhetoric course, “Writing Nature: Discourses in Ecology, Culture, and Technology,” at Stanford University in California, USA, in response to their reading of two creations stories:  Genesis 1-3 from the biblical Old Testament and a Pomo (California) Indian creation story, “Marumda and Kuksu Make the World.”  In addition, it considers a third creation story of the students’ choosing to expand and enrich our discussion of these texts.  Comments posted are from students in Mark Michael’s Rhetoric 102 course at The American University in Cairo, Egypt, and by other students in the Stanford class.  The American University, Cairo, students have posted their own blogs, addressing the Judeo-Christian creation story, the Pomo Indian creation story, and other creation stories of their own choosing.  For more on this exchange, visit this introductory post.

Every culture across the world has its own version of “the beginning.” Interestingly, despite the varied content of the world’s many creation stories, ideas of power and knowledge stand out as common themes. This commonality is exemplified by the stories of “Marumda and Kuksu Make the World,” the creation story of the Incas, and Genesis. In addition, they show us a glimpse of superhuman entities working in astonishingly human ways to create forms of life that we recognize today. Often, the creation of the first humans falls short of producing the pure, rational beings according to the creator’s original intent. However, through experience and learning, these primitive beings evolve and become forefathers of human cultures. Let’s examine each of these three unique stories in greater detail.

“Marumda and Kuksu Make the World” is a particularly memorable creation story. The story starts out when an old man named Marumda decides to talk to his brother about making the world. He pulls out four hairs to direct him towards his brother. The hairs float around and finally he rides to his brother Kuksu’s house on a streak of fire. Marumda enters through the east side and the two brothers smoke. They discuss their plans of creating the world and decide that their “knowledge will succeed and go smoothly.” Then Marumda scrapes himself to gather armpit wax. He gives his armpit wax to Kuksu who adds his armpit wax to form a ball. After both of them blow on the wax, they mix it with their hair. Then they describe their plan for the world. They decide that they will make traveling-fire in the sky. One type of Fire will be called Daytime-Sun. The other will be called Night-Sun which lights the earth in the night. After turning in all four directions and blowing tobacco smoke, the brothers say farewell. Marumda starts traveling north in his cloud house. Before he falls asleep, he sings and ties a string to the ball of armpit wax, passing the string through his ear-hole. The string jerks his ear many times and the ball of wax grows, forming the earth. The theme of power and knowledge is clear in this story. Marumda and Kuksu seem to be all-powerful and can summon magic at will. This is clear because Marumda lives in a flying house and has hairs which have the ability to direct him to his brother. Both Marumda and Kuksu possess “good knowledge” and are confident that they will spread this capably into the new world they are creating.

According to Inca myth, the world came into being from the sun, Pachacamac, who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca high in the Andes. Upon realizing that he was the only being in the cosmos and the brightest object in the sky, he set upon removing the emptiness of the heavens by creating the planets and the stars. His greatest creation was the moon, Pachamama, who became his wife and joined him on the throne of heaven and earth. The sun, Pachacamac, then set upon creating humans from a huge mountain, fashioning them from the rock of the earth. These first humans proved to be a failure, however, since they lacked the knowledge to live in the world. Thus, in order to make his creation complete and successful, Pachacamac sent his son and daughter to the Earth to enlighten the people in the art of survival. As long as they taught the values of kindness and fairness to humankind and taught them to remember their creators, he promised to provide warmth and light for the world. Pachacamac’s son, Manco Capac, educated the men in agriculture and development, teaching them how to raise food in the fields and how to build houses. His daughter, Mama Ocllo, taught the women how to cook as well as how to weave and fashion clothing. The people became capable of surviving on their own, and Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo became their first rulers. They named themselves Inca and then set upon finding a place for the people to settle. As they wandered the Earth, they stuck the sun’s golden rods into the ground, marking places where cities were to be built. Eventually, they came across the valley of Huanacauri, where the rod sank into the Earth. Here, they decided, would be the location for a temple of the sun as well as the homeland of the Inca people.

The story of Genesis also covers the creation of the Earth and of humankind. The section begins with the end of God’s labors to create the earth, when he “blessed the seventh day and made it holy” as a day of rest. Initially, there was no life on earth, but then God created man “of the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” He placed man in Eden and created a bounteous garden to support man. In this garden God also planted the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The only requirement man had was to not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Man eventually got lonely, so God created woman out of his rib in order to keep him company and help him tend to the garden. The serpent spoiled their happiness, though, through tricking woman into eating from the tree of knowledge. Once woman ate the fruit of this tree, she also gave the fruit to man, and “the eyes of both were opened.” God then visited the garden and they hid from him. However, God knew what had happened and enforced consequences, making the serpent “cursed above all livestock,” the woman feel pain in childbearing, and the man work to survive. He then forced man and woman out of the garden and they were made to work the land.

In each of the creation stories, it is critical to consider how humankind received knowledge. Was it a mistake? Did the gods purposefully give it to them? The interesting idea in Genesis is the extent of knowledge God was willing to give Adam and Eve. He taught them how to care for the animals and the land in the Garden of Eden, yet he did not want them to know of good and evil. This could be interpreted as God’s way of maintaining control over humankind (the snake’s perspective) or as his attempt to protect humans from themselves. In Marumda and Kuksu’s story, they purposefully give knowledge to their creations in order to allow them to care for themselves. The Incan creation story shows that humans received knowledge almost as an afterthought, when the first version of humankind died because they did not know how to survive. In all of the stories, though, human knowledge must be passed down from the gods, demonstrating a direct line of power.

Laura Benard, Darren Jindal, and Jose Gutierrez

Stanford University

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Stanford-AUC, Fall 2010: Creation Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Power and Knowledge: Common Cross-Cultural Themes in Native American, Incan, and Judaeo-Christian Traditions

  1. Hyunsuk(Shawn) Yoo says:

    Hi, I am Shawn. First of all, it was very fun to read your group’s essay. The elements of “knowledge” and “power” in the stories were things I haven’t thought deeply into. However, I think it is far-fetched to claim “knowledge” as a common element in all stories. Knowledge that appears in the three stories are vastly different: in the Indian story, the knowledge refers to God’s knowledge in creating mankind whereas the knowledge in Incan creation story is that necessary for human survival. On the far end of the spectrum, there is the knowledge that appears in the Chrisitian creation story, which is used synonymously as “human sin.”

    Furthermore, the claim that knowledge empowered humans is correct for the Incan story, but knowledge actually made human suffer in the Christian story, and the knowledge wasn’t actually passed onto humans in the Indian story. I would like to hear from your group, the clarification on these issues.

    • Darren Jindal says:

      Hi Shawn. Sorry for the delay in replying. I agree that in this particular Indian story, the author doesn’t explicitly show knowledge being passed onto humans. However, to me, it is implicit, based on other Indian stories that humans get some of this great knowledge. In other tales, it is told how such beings teach people how to farm, cook, etc. In the end, I agree that there is rather minimal evidence to support the theme of “knowledge,” but I believe that there is enough to be sufficient.

  2. Jaqueline Galal says:

    Hey Laura , Darren and Jose.
    Well, I liked your idea to link between God’s knowledge and its effect on the people on earth in the different stories. but I have a question , are we supposed to write on the relationship between Human and the Environment? Even if God’s knowledge helped the people to connect with the environment or any other proof that can verify this point.
    I only saw the part of Genisis that God created the Garden to support men in living, and even if there any other part considering this relation on your essay , I think it wasn’t clear.
    what do you think?

    • Darren Jindal says:

      Hi Jaqueline. We were not explicitly directed to consider the relationship between humans and the environment. Our assignment was to identify key themes running through all of the creation stories. Sorry about the delay in replying.

  3. Yasmeen Awamleh says:

    I must say I really like the theme you dicussed here. It is fascinating that each one of these stories has a completely different belief , or story about the birth if Earth and life . However they all share the fact that human received their knowledge from god. You talked about how knowledge is passed on from Gods to humans , my question is, in what way is knowledge linked to power ? And does having power means humans are responsible for everything that is powerless?. I am mainly asking, What comes with the possession of knowledge, responsibilty, power , or both (if both how are they related)?

    • Darren Jindal says:

      Hi Yasmeen. Those are some very deep questions, which require pages of justification to properly answer them. In short, however, in my opinion, knowledge is necessary to sustain power, but not always to acquire it. Also, power comes with responsibility. Humans have become more powerful and are capable of making permanent changes to our world, whether good or bad. In my opinion, knowledge sustains power which we must wield with responsibility.

  4. Yasmeen Awamleh says:

    i appologise if there are any grammar and spelling mistakes
    Thank you 🙂

  5. malak koura youmna hawas says:

    firstly id like to say that i did enjoy reading your groups essay. and the points you discussed were valid. This is a very broad subject that can be discussed in great detail and we like how your essay tried to capture all the details from different angles. each story greatly differs to the other in terms of belief and creation.It was interesting seeing how you were able to connect knowledge with Power, we never thought of it that way and unfortunately i still couldnt relate both to each other.

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