“Order and Truth are born when Passion is aroused. From them is born Night and from Night the Ocean and its waves. From the Ocean’s waves is born the Year, which apportions Night and Day and governs all that the eye sees. The Creator gave shape first to the Sun and Moon, then to the Sky and the Earth, then to the Air and finally to Light.” Rig-veda, X, 190.
According to Vedic tradition the Creation took place in a completely different order from that specified by the familiar Jewish/Christian story: on the first day God created matter and light out of chaos; on the second day He, created the air by separating the sky from the waters; on the third day He divided the earth and the waters; on the fourth day He created the celestial bodies, on the fifth the fish and the birds and on the sixth the animals and man; finally, on the seventh day, God rested and contemplated his work.
According to Genesis the separation of light and darkness took place on the first day, the sun and moon not appearing until the fourth. The light which existed on the first day therefore did not come from the sun. Here the bible is perpetuating an ancient belief that light and darkness are independent of the sun, moon and stars, which exist not to provide light but merely to increase it, to distinguish between day and night, to mark the changing of the seasons, and so on. “We must remember that daylight is one thing and sunlight, moonlight and starlight another – the sun’s purpose is to give daylight additional brilliance,” wrote St Ambrose in his Hexameron.
This idea is clearly illustrated by the mosaics in St Mark’s cathedral in Venice and by the frescos in the baptistery in Florence and the basilica of St Francis at Assisi, all of which show the Creator placing in the sky two discs of equal size distinguished only by their colour or by an inscription.
Whereas mythical and religious stories describe the creation of the world (by one or more gods), scientific “accounts” are concerned with the formation and evolution of the universe and its content. There are, however, many parallels between these two approaches.
The Creation of the World According to the Nuremberg Chronicle
The famous Nuremberg Chronicle, an encyclopaedia of historical and geographical knowledge on the eve of the Renaissance and the largest book published in medieval times, was the work of the humanist scholar and Nuremberg doctor Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). With the help of his fellow doctor Hieronymus Munzer (d. 1506) and the poet Konrad Celtis (1459-1508), Schedel trawled his vast collection of books (most of which are now preserved in the Nuremberg Library) to find material for this immense work – a history of the world since the Creation, beginning with an account of the traditional heptameron.
The Chronicle was published by Anton Koburger, a leading bookseller who was largely responsible for the development of the woodcut as an artistic technique. For the work’s 1,089 illustrations he turned to two local artists, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (1434-1519) and Michael Wohlgemut (d. 1494) – teacher of Dürer, whose godfather Koburger was. This German translation, dated 23rd December 1493, was published a few months after the original Latin version.
Cosmic Evolution According to Big Bang Theory
Big bang theory is now the established historical framework for the study of the universe and today’s astrophysicists claim to be able to give a plausible account of its 15 billion year history right back to a micro-second after its birth. At that time the universe was so dense and so hot that it was opaque. It was not until approximately a million years later that it first emitted light – light which can still be detected today by radio telescopes. A billion years after that, the first galaxies were formed. One of these was probably our own Milky Way, in which several generations of stars have since come and gone. Cosmic gases condensed to form the sun about nine billion years later, i.e. about five billion years ago. Within a relatively short time the planets solidified around it, the most reliable figure for the age of the earth being 4.56 billion years. Once the initial intense meteorite bombardment had ended and the earth had cooled, life began to appear in the oceans: single cell organisms first developed 3.5 billion years ago. From then on the pace of evolution accelerated: the first vertebrae appeared 600 million years ago, the first mammals 200 million years ago. Our own species, Homo Sapiens, developed only recently – two million years ago. The seven corresponding pictures illustrate the modern equivalent of the traditional heptameron.
I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. Jorge luis Borges, The Aleph (1949)