Mineke Schipper

In the Beginning There Was No One

How the first people came into being

Did Adam and Eve come from Saudi Arabia? A taxi driver in Egypt tells Mineke Schipper they did, but it grew so hot there that they fled to south-east Africa, where scientists now believe humans originated. People everywhere have wondered about our beginnings. Who were our first ancestors? Why are there two sexes? Their answers can be found in myths of origin and in creation stories, of which the biblical version is but one example.

Schipper has collected hundreds of stories from all over the world and looked for shared patterns. The stories are remarkable and fascinating, and they have a surprising amount in common. Part one of In the Beginning There Was No One is about the first human beings: How did we get here? Were we cast down from heaven or did we crawl out of a hole in the ground? Or hatch from a golden egg? Were we fashioned from clay or wood, stone or gold, or did a powerful word from our creator do the job?

Part two looks into the origins of man and woman. The human sexual apparatus fascinated early storytellers, as it fascinates people today. Perhaps the fact that in real life women give birth to sons as well as daughters disrupted the balance between the sexes. Some stories compensate for this unfairness by having male gods give life to the first humans, or making the first man create his own wife. Even the first pregnancy is not necessarily a female matter; sometimes it results from intercourse between two men, one of them turning into a woman just long enough to give birth. In other stories, by contrast, the first humans are exclusively women.

As with Schipper’s previous book, in which she analysed proverbs about women, her ambitious approach makes for an informative, amusing and unique read. We are taken on a spellbinding journey through different cultures, the author always ensuring that a clear thread runs through her rich material. She concludes: ‘To know where we want to go, it’s good to grasp where we come from. The echoes of old stories reverberate in contemporary relations, in a world where billions of believers and non-believers interact more with each other than ever before.’

  • Examines the basic questions about the beginnings of humanity that have preoccupied all cultures and collects a multiplicity of answers together for the first time
  • The profound fears expressed between the lines of ancient creation myths seem strangely familiar to people living today
  • Provides innumerable insights into human nature and religious thought, contributing to the building of bridges between cultures

Schipper has written a delightful book – profound, sharp-witted, discerning, pleasingly objective, paying meticulous attention to the smallest details.

de Volkskrant

On Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet:
A fine contribution to the cosmopolitan conversation that ought to come about with globalization.

K. Anthony Appiah, Princeton University


Mineke Schipper

Mineke Schipper (b. 1938) is Emeritus professor of Intercultural Literature Studies at the University of Leiden and the author of several academic books, essays and novels, including Imagining Insiders: Africa and the Question of Belonging (1999). Her book on proverbs about women Never Marry a

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In het begin was er niemand. Hoe het komt dat er mensen zijn (2010). Non-fiction, 320 pages.
Words: 91,000

With notes and references

Themes: religion



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