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Religion and Origins

Religion and Origins

Author: David Dillard-Wright

Identify the role played by origin stories in the context of religious studies.

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Welcome to this tutorial on religion and origins. Religions attempt to answer the question of where did I come from. And that question applies on both the individual and on the community level. Religions begin by telling stories-- a story of where that particular people came.

Here's an example from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian and then Babylonian poem about a great king. We can imagine that those ancient Babylonians would have liked looking back on Gilgamesh, their ancestor, since he was, after all, 2/3 god and only 1/3 human.

Origin stories, we can say, have at least three functions. First of all, the I function. How do I fit into the world? How do I fit into [LAPSE IN AUDIO] people? People listening to sacred stories-- whether it be the story of Abraham going south to the place that God said that God would show him, or Moses bringing the people up out of Egypt, or whether it's a story from a non Judeo Christian tradition, like the churning of the ocean of milk in Hinduism, where the gods churn the ocean and out emerges the goddess Lakshmi and they all fall down and worship her-- we can put ourselves in the places of the characters, and we can imagine ourselves being there. So listening to these stories has a certain formative function.

Then we can also say that there's a we function. There's a sense in which the sacred story actually creates the people that listen to it. It actually calls a people into existence. Next, a should function. These aren't just any people in these stories. But they are, in essence, exemplars for the people listening to the origin story. They tell religious people how they should act and the sorts of things that they should be doing.

We can say, then, that origin stories have ethical implications as well, for teaching people how to act within the group, but also towards outsiders. And this is where religious violence begins to come into the picture. Oftentimes, these origin stories are very troubling indeed.

Next, origin stories may foster a sense of group pride as origins are pushed into the remote past. Who wouldn't want to have a divine ancestor or an ancestor who was a great hero? Next, origin stories show [LAPSE IN AUDIO] between sacred history and present day history. They connect people still living today with those who lived long ago.

So story has the power to found a civilization, but it also has the power to tear people from one another, to divide people. Story has the power to generate art and literature and music, and to tie generations together, to build goodwill and community. So yes, an origin story is just a story. But it's also a whole lot more. We could say, well, it's just a myth. But myths, after all, are what we live by.

Thank you for watching this tutorial on religion and origins. One of the questions that religions attempt to answer is where did I come from. This applies on both an individual and a communal level. Religions provide people with a place in the world, what it means to be human and what it means to be an adherent of a particular religion.

Religions often do this through origin stories that use narrative to make a larger point, such as the story of the desert wandering of the Hebrew people and their eventual arrival in the land of Canaan, an ancient land in the Eastern Mediterranean which corresponds to present day Israel and Palestine, the very land promised by God to Abraham in Hebrew scriptures.

Religion and Origins

Source: Intro. music and images by David Dillard-Wright

Terms to Know

An ancient land in the eastern Mediterranean, roughly corresponding to present-day Israel and Palestine; the land promised by God to Abraham in the Hebrew Scriptures.


A story; an approach that uses storytelling to make larger points.