Heroes create. And in the act of creation, they carve order out of chaos. As Thor said in his latest movie, “That’s what heroes do.”
One of the earliest creation heroes in world literature is the Sumerian “Thor”: the storm god Enlil. Wikipedia describes the Sumerian creation myth as follows:
“…originally, there was only Nammu, the primeval sea. Then, Nammu gave birth to An, the sky, and Ki, the earth. An and Ki mated with each other, causing Ki to give birth to Enlil. Enlil separated An from Ki and carried off the earth as his domain, while An carried off the sky.”
In many of the ancient world’s creation myths, the primordial state of existence is that of chaos: an undifferentiated, intermingled confusion of forms. The cosmic creation hero, or demiurge, differentiates and de-mingles. He separates and sorts. He tidies the mess. He creates order out of disorder. Cosmos out of chaos.
One of Sumer’s cultural heirs was Babylon. In the Babylonian adaptation of the Sumerian creation myth, Enlil’s role is taken by Babylon’s local god Marduk. In this version, the primordial chaos is depicted as a monster — in some sources a sea serpent or dragon — named Tiamat. Marduk slays Tiamat and creates the world by sundering its corpse, separating its intermingled constituents and making out of them the elements of the universe as we know it.
The Culture Hero
Another hero type that creates order out of chaos is the culture hero. The culture hero tames the chaos of the primeval wilderness. Often this means slaying a countryside-ravaging, chthonic monster, and then, having cleared the land of this chaotic menace of nature, founding an orderly city. Thus in Greek mythology, Apollo slew Python and founded Delphi, and Cadmus slew the Ismenian Dragon and founded Thebes. Another common labor of the culture hero is to invent fire, agriculture, writing, or some other order-creative civilizational boon.
Confronting chaos and creating order is the daily task of every individual. Every little bit of entropy — every shirt on your floor, every unpaid bill on your desk, every unanswered email in your inbox— is a little dragon of chaos menacing the order that you’ve worked to build and maintain in your life. As psychologist and mythologist Jordan Peterson said in his lecture “Slaying the Dragon Within Us,” if you don’t deal with these monsters when they’re young, they will grow. Some can eventually grow big enough to swallow your whole life. An email not dealt with could cost you your job. An unpaid tax bill could land you in jail.
As Peterson says, whenever you sort out something messy in your life — whenever you slay a chaos dragon — you sort yourself out in the process and make yourself stronger. You attain growth in competence and self-efficacy: these are among the treasures you win. This boost in skill, clarity, and confidence is a magic charm you can use to slay even larger dragons.
With such strength, you can move from the defensive to the offensive. Instead of merely defending existing order from encroaching chaos, you can venture into the dark, dragon-haunted realms of the unknown and untried. There you can overcome challenges and create new expansions of order and beauty: new heroic works of art, literature, technology, enterprise, etc.
As human beings with the instinctive drive to grow and create, we are all destined to be heroes. And that’s what heroes do.