On papyrus dated to the reign of Pharoah Ramesses II (13th century BCE), is a cycle of poems called The Leiden Hymns. These hymns have a pseudo-monotheistic tone, portraying Amun, the sun god, as first and chief god of the Egyptian pantheon.
One of The Leiden Hymns attempts to answer, in poetry, that most perplexing of questions: If God created the universe, then who created God?
Here’s the hymn, as translated by John Foster in the Norton Anthology of World Literature (2002):
God is a master craftsman;
yet none can draw the lines of his Person.
Fair features first came into being
in the hushed dark where he mused alone;
He forged his own figure there,
hammered his likeness out of himself—
All powerful one (yet kindly,
whose heart would lie open to men).
He mingled his heavenly god-seed
with the inmost depths of his mystery.
Planting his image there
in the unknown depths of his mystery.
He cared, and the sacred form
took shape and contour, splendid at birth!
God, skilled in the intricate ways of the craftsman,
first fashioned Himself to perfection.
This is a kind of “intelligent design” argument from 3300 years ago, in which the universe, being apparently exquisitely crafted, must have a master craftsman who was created by—well, who?
The poem answers: God himself.
In other words, God created himself. The buck stopped there.
He was, the writer suggests, alone in the dark, musing, cogitating, thinking.
He was, if you will, without form and void, without boundary to his person.
And when he got to work, he engaged in self-fashioning, forging “his own figure,” hammering his own “likeness out of himself,” mingling his seed with himself, and though without apparent ground, “planting his image there / in the unknown depths of his being.”
This is an almost frightening, fearsome depiction of God forging himself, with fire and sparks flying—and recalls William Blake’s tiger being forged “in the forests of the night.”
Western theology and mysticism, it seems, despite three millenia of speculation about what might be the nature of God, has not made all that much progress beyond the paradoxical poetry of this hymn.
(Nor has science, if God does not exist, made much progress in the question of why there should be anything at all.)
In this hymn, the author depicts God as a kind of ouroboros—the snake that bites its tail; the Zen koan at the edge of time; a recursive iteration, akin to this definition of what an “endless loop” is, as cited in Stephen Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2008, p.12):
endless loop, n. See loop, endless.
loop, endless, n. See endless loop.
And who cannot hear, at the beginning of this hymn, an emerging Moses-like resistence to the idea that God can be, or even should be, depicted as a physical form or in human terms?
In this sense, the poem is in tension with itself, and even deconstructing itself, for God forges an idol of himself even as it is also true that:
[N]one can draw the lines of his Person.
Thus the paradoxes and confusions inherent in this poem are also its strengths, and resist closure.
As Emerson once wrote (and with apologies to hobgoblins):
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.