Pangu and the beginning of the universe

Another story for liberal religious kids; this time, from Chinese mythology.

At the beginning, there was little difference between heaven and earth. All was chaos, and heaven and earth had no distinct forms, like the inside of a chicken’s egg. Within this chaos, the god Pangu was born inside the egg.

Pangu grew and grew inside the egg. After 18,000 years, the egg somehow opened up. Some say that Pangu stretched himself inside the egg, and shattered the egg’s shell into pieces.

Once the egg had shattered open, the lightest part of it, the part that was like the white of a chicken’s egg, rose upwards, and became the heavens. The heavier part of the egg, like the yolk of a chicken’s egg, sank downwards and became the earth. Pangu took a hammer and an adze, and cut the connections between earth and the heavens. Then to keep earth and the heavens from merging together once again, Pangu stood between them, serving as the pillar that kept them apart.

Pangu lived within earth and the heavens, standing between them. And one day he began to transform. He became more sacred than the earth, and he became more divine than the heavens. The heavens began to rise, going up one zhang, or about ten feet, each day. The earth began to grow thicker, thickening by one zhang each day. And as the heavens rose, so too Pangu grew; he grew one zhang taller each day. And this continued for 18,000 years: each day, the earth grew thicker, and the heavens rose higher, and Pangu grew taller. Continue reading “Pangu and the beginning of the universe”

The Moon and the hare

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story, from an extinct language group in Southern Africa, offers an explanation for the beginnings of death.

The original language this story was told in was the |Xam language, which is now extinct. The people who spoke this language are part of a larger ethnic group commonly referred to as “Bushmen”; in academic circles, the term “San” is used. Both names may have pejorative connotations for the people to whom they refer; I have chosen to use the academic term.


When the San people first saw the new moon, they would look towards it, and put their hands over their eyes, and say this:

“Star, O Star, yonder in the sky!
Take my face there. You shall give me my face there.
When you have died, Moon, you return, alive again;
We no longer saw you, and then you came again.
Take my face that I may resemble you.
You always return, alive again, after we lose sight of you.
It was the hare that told you that you should do this.
It used to be that you told us that we also should return,
Alive again, after we had died.”

Having said this prayer, once a man of the San people named Dia!kwain followed the prayer by telling this story:

In the beginning, the hares looked much like a human beings. And when they died, they did not die forever, for after a time they would return to living once again. Continue reading “The Moon and the hare”

The hymn of Purusha

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is my adaptation of a hymn from the Rig Veda (book 10, hymn 90). Notes and discussion at the end.

Before the beginning of all things, a giant being named Purusha existed. Purusha had thousands of heads, and thousands of eyes, and thousands of feet. He was huge and embraced the earth on all sides; and at the same time he filled a space only ten fingers wide, the size of the space which holds a human soul. Purusha was the Primeval Man, the man who came before all human beings.

Purusha was everything, all that had once been, and all that which shall be in the future. He was the god of immortality, and he now lives through sacrificial food which humans offer up to him. All beings and creatures make up one quarter of him; the rest of him is immortal life in a world beyond this world. The three quarters of Purusha which are immortal life rose up high, and the remaining one quarter of him remains here on earth.

Before the beginning, Purusha gave birth to his female counterpart, who was named Virat. When she was born, she took the form of an egg. And then Virat in turn gave birth, and she bore her male counterpart, Purusha. Continue reading “The hymn of Purusha”

We try out “think-pair-share”

After a meeting of Sunday school teachers last night, Heather said to me, “You didn’t have the kids act out the story during Sunday school on Sunday, did you?”

“No, we didn’t,” I said, curious to know how she had figured it out.

“I knew it,” she said. “When I asked the kids what they had done in Sunday school, they said, ‘I dunno.’ I asked if they had heard about Joseph, and they didn’t remember. So I knew you hadn’t acted the story out.”

Because we had twenty children in one group, Joe and I had opted not to have the children act out the story. Instead, Joe had introduced one of his favorite pedagogical methods, think-pair-share. We asked a seventh grader to aloud the story of how Joseph’s brothers encountered him once again as a powerful official in Egypt. Then Joe asked the children think about a specific question about the story, pair up with another child, and share what they had been thinking about. After giving time for the pairs of children to share with each other, we called the children back to a large group discussion. Continue reading “We try out “think-pair-share””

This is what you get when you raise your kids in a UU church

As a religious educator, when I watch kids grow up as Unitarian Universalists, I hope that when they become adults they will be thoughtful and critical of the world around them, they will value the arts, and they will have a sense of humor. Like this:

“A Song.” Written and performed by Eli Grober.

(Click through and leave your comments for Eli on YouTube.)

Coyote creates human beings

The following story of the creation of human beings is a Miwok story heard at Little Gap, California, and reported in Tribes of California by Stephen Powers and John Wesley Powell (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1877), p. 358; the version below is an adaptation of the version given by Powers and Powell. This story is included in the old Unitarian Universalist curriculum Beginnings by Sophia Fahs and Dorothy Spoerl (Boston: Beacon, 1958), pp. 103 ff., but the version in Beginnings states in the first sentence that “the Great Spirit” created the world, whereas the story reported by Powers and Powell specifically states that Coyote created the world. I have also retained some details that Fahs and Spoerl left out; and I have degenderized the language for use in a Sunday school setting.

After the coyote had finished all the work of creating the world and the animals, he called a council of animals to deliberate on the creation of human beings. The animals sat down in an open space in the forest, all in a circle, with the mountain lion at the head. On her right sat the grizzly bear, next the cinnamon bear, and so on around according to the rank, ending with the little mouse, which sat at the mountain lion’s left.

The mountain lion was the first to speak, and she declared, “I would like to see humans created with a mighty voice like myself, with which they could frighten all other animals. For the rest,” the mountain lion said, “I would like to have humans well covered with hair, with terrible fangs, and with strong claws, like mine.”

The grizzly bear said, “It is ridiculous to have such a voice as my neighbor, the mountain lion, for she was always roaring with it and scaring away the very prey she wished to capture.” The grizzly bear shook her head and went on: “Humans ought to have prodigious strength like mine, and they should be able to move about silently but very swiftly if necessary, and be able to grip their prey without making a noise, like me.” Continue reading “Coyote creates human beings”

Teaching teachers to teach

Joe introduced me to, a Web site with online resources for professional development for schoolteachers, as well as classroom resources. Joe particularly mentioned the online videos that are designed to help schoolteachers become better teachers. So I watched a video of a fourth grade teacher leading a small group literature discussion. The small group setting was somewhat akin to a Sunday school class: plenty of personalized interaction between the teacher and the students, and teacher-guided interaction between the students. The general subject area, responding to literature, is also akin to Sunday school classes: discussing a work of literature, and talking about what’s going on in the work. The video shows an experienced teacher, Rich Thompson, actually teaching children, and the video also includes Thompson reflecting on how he teaches.

I found I learned a lot from watching this experienced teacher. I learned a lot just from watching his body language with the children, e.g., as the two boys drift away, Thompson puts his hands on the backs of their chairs to keep them included. I also liked the tone of voice he used: he was warm and calm, open and friendly; you can tell he likes the children he’s working with. I noticed the way he expressed his own thoughts and ideas about the book they were discussing, so he could model how an experienced reader engages with a text (“Did you notice that the book was War and Peace? Do you know how big that book is? That’s the book she used to hit the bear with”). And I really liked the way he did formative assessment at the end of the lesson, talking briefly with each child about what they did well, and where they could improve.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have resources like this for volunteer Sunday school teachers? Unfortunately, producing a series of twenty-minutes videos like this would be expensive, and liberal religious institutions don’t have the resources to do something of this caliber (and I feel that producing a poor video would be worse than no video at all). But given how hard it is to deliver training to volunteer teachers, it is something to think about.

More stories from Yoruba religions

Still looking for stories from the Yoruba religions. Since it’s primarily an oral (not a written) tradition, it’s hard to know which sources to trust. At this point, I’m simply collecting sources. is a Santeria Web site cited in a number of scholarly works. The site has five itas or patakis — i.e., stories — which are here.

Teachings of the Santeria Gods: The Spirit of the Odu by Ocha’ni Lele [B. Stuart Myers] (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny, 2010) is one recent book with lots of stories about the orishas. These stories strike me as being heavily interpreted for a U.S. audience.

A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Recollections, Legends, Tales, Songs, Religious Beliefs, Customs, Sayings and Humor of Peoples of African Descent in the Americas by Harold Courlander (New York: Marlowe, 1976) is a well-known book that has a section titled “Some Yoruba Legends in Cuba” with stories about the orishas; two stories from Haitian Vodoun; and other possibly relevant entries. Courlander also assembled the book Tales of Yoruba gods and heroes (Crown Publishers, 1973).

Yoruba Legends by M. I. Ogumefu appears to have some relevant material.

Orisa devotion: sources for religious education

A number of scholars consider Yoruba religions, also known as Orisa devotion, to be a world religion. For example, Stephen Prothero counts Yoruba religions as a major world religion in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, and Why Their Differences Matter. The scholarly essays in Òrìsà Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yorùbá Religious Culture, ed. Jacob K. Olupona and Terry Rey (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2008), also make the case that Yoruba religions are a world religion. Yoruba religions include some indigenous African religious traditions as well as religious traditions of the African diaspora including Santeria, Vodoun, Candomble, etc.

Because of their importance, I’ve been searching for ways to present Yoruba religions to children in Sunday school. I have plenty of resources for presenting Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism — and (to a lesser extent) Daoism and Confucianism. But most of the books I’ve found on Yoruba religions are heavily academic, and concerned with matters that would not interest children all that much. What I really want is stories from Yoruba religious traditions; I have stories from Islamic sources, stories from the Christian scriptures, stories from the Hebrew Bible, etc. — but I’ve been having a hard time finding stories from Yoruba religions.

Recently, however, I came across a Web site that provides some of what I want. The Web site is titled Awonifa: Study the Teachings of Orunmila; authorship of the site is credited to Awo Ni Ifabité. Of particular interest for my purposes is the page on this site titled The Orishas, with links to fifty-eight stories that are more or less suitable for use with school-aged children. (Elsewhere on the site are twenty-one stories taken from yoruba folklore.)

My only problem: I have no idea how reliable this Web site is; none of the stories has a citation or source or attribution. Looking at other parts of the site that cover material that I can check against other sources, I’d say the site appears to be fairly reliable; so I’ll probably use some of these stories in Sunday school classes this year, though I will do so very cautiously.

Hindu resource

The Association of Grandparents of Indian Immigrants (AGII) is a nonprofit that is “dedicated to the production of audiovisual materials for the families of Indian Immigrants.” Not only is AGII an interesting example of an attempt at identity formation for non-white families; not only does AGII draw on a faith tradition for identity formation; they also offer some excellent online text-based stories on the Indian and Hindu tradition: Kidz Korner: Stories from Indian Mythology.