The origin of death is a theme in the myths of many cultures. Death is a universal feature of human life, so stories about its origin appear to be universal in human cultures. As such it is a form of cosmological myth (a type of myth that explains the origins of a culture and the problems that faces it). No one type of these myths is universal, but each region has its own characteristic types. Such myths have therefore been a frequent topic of study in the field of comparative mythology.
Pervasively in the myths of African cultures, in the beginning there was no death. This can be because a supreme being makes people young again when they grow old; people die but are reborn; or go to heaven to live. In some stories eternal life is lost through some flaw (such as greed, curiosity, stubbornness or arrogance), or as a punishment for disobedience, or as the result of human indifference. Other themes are the failure of a message to be delivered to humans, or a severing of the link between heaven and Earth. Sometimes it is as a result of an accident.
The origin of death is a common theme in Native American mythology. The myths of the plateau tribes blame its origin on the interference of the trickster figure Coyote. The Chiricahua Apache myth also blames Coyote. The plains tribes ascribe it to the result of unfavorable chance. For example, in the Blackfeet account, Old Man and Old Woman arguing over whether people should die, with Old Woman using magic to ensure that the sign that they agreed upon gave her desired result.
Among the native peoples of the Western United States, a common explanation of death was that it was the result of a debate between two people or animals in which one would favour death and the other immortality. For example, the story of the Thompson Indians was that Raven wanted death as there would otherwise be too many men. Coyote preferred sleep to death but was outvoted by Crow, Fly and Maggot, who sided with Raven. Raven's daughter was then the first to die and so Raven wanted to reverse his choice. But Coyote, the trickster, said that the decision was now irrevocable.
In Oceania, the most common myth is that originally people had the power to rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin like a snake. However, when somebody, usually an old woman, does this, she frightens her grandchildren, who cry until she resumes her old skin, an act which mandates death for future generations.
In Polynesian mythology, death is the result of the hero Māui being swallowed up by Hades or Night. If he had escaped, mankind would be immortal, however one of the birds that accompanied him burst out laughing, awakening Hine-nui-te-po who crushed Māui to death, ending hopes of immortality with him.
In an early Greek myth, death is a consequence of the disagreement between Zeus and Prometheus. As a result of this quarrel, Zeus creates woman, in the form of Pandora and presents her to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus, with death being one of the results of his opening of Pandora's box, which she brought with her.
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- Opler, Morris (1994). Myths and Tales of the Chiricahua Apache Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-8032-8602-3.
- Alexander, Hartley Burr (10 March 2003). North American Mythology. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. pp. 115–120. ISBN 0-7661-3342-7.
- Franz Boas (1917), "The Origin of Death", The Journal of American Folklore (American Folklore Society) 30 (118): 486–491, JSTOR 534498
- Lang(2007) p119
- Lang(2007) p116
- Boas, Franz (1917). "The origin of death". The Journal of American Folklore 30.
- Beier, Ulli (1966). The Origin of Life and Death. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-435-90023-4.
- Segerberg, Osborn (1976). Living with Death. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0-525-33945-0.
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- Iloanusi, Obiakoizu (1984). Myths of the Creation of Man and the Origin of Death in Africa: a Study in Igbo Traditional Culture and Other African Cultures. City: Peter Lang Pub Inc. ISBN 3-8204-5408-X.
- Cavendish, Richard (1994). Man, Myth and Magic. London: Marshall Cavendish. ISBN 1-85435-731-X.
- Berezkin, Yuri, 'Why Are People Mortal? World Mythology and the ‘Out-of-Africa’ Scenario' in Peregrine, Peter (2009). Ancient Human Migrations. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-942-8.
- Berezkin, Yuri, 'Thinking about death from the very beginning. African origins of some mythological motifs', in Proceedings of the International Conference on Comparative Mythology (Beijing, May 11–13, 2006), Beijing: Beijing University Press.
- Leeming, David Adams (2009). Creation Myths of the World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-59884-174-2.
- The Origin of Death, a chapter of Modern Mythology, by Andrew Lang
- Collections of myths