Stories of Origin

We all of us humans seem to want to know where we come from. The earliest religious stories, to the extent that we have been able to track them down, told their cultures whence they arose, how they began. To a superficial view, these are cosmic Just So stories. But they are more than idle speculation about why elephants have long noses. These ideas help to define us, help us to orient ourselves in the immensity of space and time. As far as I’m concerned, mr f (Herr Professor Freud) has taken this realization and warped it into a wriggling mass of dysfunctional relationships and sexual paraphilias. Still, we oughtn’t let mr f distract us from the fact that foundation narratives matter greatly. Perhaps this is part of why evolution has proved such a lightning rod for angry debate–it threatens to demolish all other foundation narratives.

Mormonism has defined, over its many decades of existence, a set of foundation narratives, both proximate (the First Vision, the Martyrdom, Brigham’s assumption of Joseph’s mantle, the seagull miracle) and remote (the Council of the Gods and theomachy, the First Family in Eden, Enoch’s ascension, the flood of Noah, Jesus in the Garden). I’m well aware of historical criticism of all of these, but this is not to the point. I’m interested in how we understand where we’ve come from, and the kibbitzing of revisionist historians and formons is not particularly relevant here.

My daughter has recently begun to explain what happened at her birth, in her first attempts at creating a narrative of origin. “I caught a fish and ate it when I was born,” “I had a manger in my hand when I was born,” “I saw baby Jesus when I was born.” Today she informed me that she was present (with her close friend Hazel) at my first date with her mother. My foundation narratives involve Gilgamesh, a 2-stroke Yamaha motorcycle, a theophany at a sacrament table, and The Oxford History of the United States.

What are your foundation narratives? How do your stories of origin correlate with those of Mormonism or your nationality? How important are they, and how much latitude should they be allowed in terms of historicity?


  1. Briefly, for now…

    I’m an example of someone who has no national myth of origin. You lot have 1776, I have…what?

    1066? No, that was a defeat (or a victory, I suppose, if it turns out I’m more Norman than Anglo-Saxon). Um, the restoration under Charles II (but what if I’m not a monarchist)? Abraham Darby and Ironbridge?

    There isn’t one. Some wring their hands and speak of a crisis of English identity. But I dunno, we seem to have coped thus far.

    (“Formons” — that needs to be patented. And I’m delighted you chose Gilgamesh. My Mormon origin myth is the United Brethren conversions in England.)

  2. Ronan, Gilgamesh is who delivered gifts to our family this christmas.
    re: brits, what about La Morte d’Arthur? or Chanson of Roland?
    I love the story of the United Brethren–so much like the Ghanaian pentecostal assemblies that awaited direction from SLC for all those years.
    Re: formons, my other neologism is reformons. I bet we can generate an onomastics of mormon ideology without too much prosodic butchery. Hemormons (elliding an i from hemi) is too obscure and multivalent, methinks.

  3. Gilgamesh says:

    Glad to see that I was so vital to your existence. I will accept the credit.

  4. I believe hemormon’s carry the sword of Laban (or one made after its pattern) and when faced with Lucifer’s minion Skelator, they pull out the sword and with booming voice pronounce that they, indeed, do “have the power.”

    Most of the founding narratives relate to my immediate family. My parent’s uncles and aunt’s, their siblings, and then the stories of my siblings (I’m the youngest).

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    J. when my daughter Emily was just a little girl, maybe 5, the He-Man cartoon was really big and she fancied herself to be She-Ra. So I bought her a Skeletor costume for some occasion or another, maybe a birthday, complete with the skull-like mask.

    From that moment on I’ve basically been banned from buying my daughter any gifts. (g)

  6. I guess I have a mix of my mission president’s conversion story (where he pulled a gun on a missionary and asked him to deny Joseph Smith), my wife’s grandfather’s conversion story (where he pretty much brought the gospel to over a 1000 people in amazing ways), and my conversion story. That is what I want to pass on to my children, anyway. So, barring a radioactive spider incident, I’d say I am deeply rooted in my religion.

  7. I’ve had a variety of events that defined my religious foundation. However, I am intrigued by the idea that mormonism solves the “where did I come from” question. As I understand it, mormonism just pushes the beginning back further. I came from heaven where I was with God, born as his spiritual child. If that answer is sufficient, then why isn’t “my mother’s womb” a sufficient answer to “where did I come from”?

    We push a little further and find that we were intelligences that existed in some sort of amorphous dust cloud. Why then was the spirit that inhabits me formed from the intelligence soup? If my spirit was somehow fundamentally tied to the intelligence floating in the soup? Why then did that intelligence exist?

    We are then back at the conundrum of why do I exist? So do foundational narratives just serve to distract us from our ignorance of “what really happened”?

  8. AC, that is certainly a tension within Mormonism, though in practice I think most of our foundation stories are more immediately rooted in a sense of the earth and the family that populated it.
    I think Joseph Smith actually believed that it was the fact of being integrated into an infinite family that answered the question. We were intelligences, but we came to life as we were engrafted into God’s family, and that act of creation defines us forever. I believe that Joseph Smith was, with his teaching on intelligences, trying to make the point of the eternity of the stuff of which we are made, while believing that our creation was fundamentally relational.

    Many of the foundation stories I see are in fact relational, which may mean something significant.

  9. Where did I come from? I thought the answer was “You have always been. To be more, you have become and are a Child of God.” It sure sounds better than a stripper and a sailor meeting on shore leave, at any rate.

  10. #9 As a parent of children, I know that each one comes with a personality unique to the child, which fits well with our notion of spirits existing with HF prior to getting a body. When “we were engrafted into God’s family” did we come from a similar pool or did the defining of me, as an entity, happen at the time of grafting into God’s family?

    Part of the angst for me is the notion (and consequent extrapolation) of a spirit being assigned to an existence (e.g. be born to a family in poverty in a 3rd world country vs. being born to a family of means in a 1st world country). Under our theology, I can ask why was I assigned where I was. If I extrapolate, I can wonder, “Did my organization as intelligence into spirit child of God preclude another intelligences chance at being in God’s family?” If it did, why specifically did I come into existence at all? Why did I not stay as unformed intelligence and never exist at all?

    Since our theology also includes the notion that God was once man and now has his family. Does God’s father have intelligences as children which progress to spirit to carnate spirit to deity to … Are those intelligences then assigned to be engrafted into God’s family?

    What do you suppose the “something significant” of relational foundation stories is? How would you define an absolute/non-relational foundational story?


  1. […] Sam MB has put up a post over at By Common Consent on “Stories of Origin” and the values these narratives have on our identity as communities and as individuals. He asks whether it matters if they are true or not. […]