Chronicles of creativity: from Egypt to Middle Ages (1/3)
This text is part of a 3-piece series I am doing on historic concepts of creativity and it’s etymology. Much of what we believe today is a result from such previous thoughts, and I find it interesting to see how they merged and changed until reaching more contemporary conceptions (and misconceptions). The views I’ll present here in no shape or form neglects the plurality of concepts that exists or existed, but how schools of thinkers thought about creation given their socio-historical period. As I like to say, all is up for interpretation and many insights may arise from us discussing about how we came to and what contributed to contemporary concept of creativity.
Life is creative. Since creativity is coming up with new and useful ideas, nature is a master expert on creation. It has been doing that to perpetuate life for billion of years in a constantly changing environment. Way better than us humans, I guess. Genes combine, cells mutate, animals create tools, and life evolves. As we are part of nature (though some may disagree), creativity is in our DNA. We are ourselves intrinsically creative, and we are always trying to adapt and come up with new things to make our lives better. But we stand out due to our capacity of not only creating, but doing it systematically. As ̶s̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶u̶s̶ we are rational beings, we gather experience and learn faster, which is most times better than leaving everything to chance.
During our short lives in this planet, we sensed that random ideation was inefficient, and started to create ways of creating. Though I can’t guarantee that is best for the long run (and for the planet), we have sustained such creation mode for thousands of years. Alongside the evolution of our creative methods, our perception of how creativity works has also changed. We have been talking about creativity since ancient times, and most of these conceptions are still somehow present nowadays. They add up to build our current view of creativity, but also resulted in several misconceptions.
Humans create since always. Aboriginal communities represented their lives in paintings on walls, developed communities, refined agriculture and made several other primal innovations. This all dating from ten-thousands of years ago. But the concept of creativity is a little trickier to trace back. Though Egyptians, Mayans, Chinese, and Indians created intensively, most of their conceptual developments has had some difficulty for reaching modern occidental society. This may be due to the destruction of their legacy and culture, different writing mechanisms, or predominance of Greco-Roman traditions (and erasure of the Egyptian roots).
Even so, as most of our history, the concept of creativity can be traced back to Africa. Ancient Egyptians created marvelous things, from the pyramids and their means for constructions (still astonishingly technological), to irrigation systems, agriculture technology, religion, arts, astronomy, math, language, craftsmanship, and even wine and beer. The strict Egyptian concept for creativity is hard to pinpoint, but it appears behind deities such as Ptah (who though the world into existence), Seshar (associated with wisdom, knowledge and writing), and Thoth (creator of language and related to the development of science). It is important to mention here that the word “creativity” or its linguistic roots would still take some time to appear. The word was not used, but the concept was there somehow in the gods bringing forth life and earth, or humans building monuments and technology.
The idea of creation in ancient Egypt proceeds from imitation, translation, interpretation or emulation. In their culture, creativity and innovation were attached to tradition and archaism. Though counterintuitive, creation derived from the reuse, study, copy, inspiration, and interpretation of ancient models in order to produce something new. Looks a little like what we nowadays call incremental innovation, doesn’t it? A more deepened eye on Ancient Egyptian Creativity (focusing in arts) can be found on the marvelous book “(Re)productive Traditions in Ancient Egypt” edited by Todd Gillen, especially on the paper “Tradition and Creativity. Toward a Study of Intericonicity in Ancient Egyptian Art” by Dimitri Laboury.
Much of the Egyptian view ended up mixed inAncient Greek’s imaginary, and reflected on their written and more available works. The notion of “create” in this era was similar to “make”, and the two concepts would only diverge latter on. Though there were gods of creation in Ancient Egypt, it is hard to say if, in their concept, human creations were anyhow affected by gods’ will. And that is the main difference to what Greeks thought.
In fact, Socrates (5th-century BC) attributed most of his knowledge to his own “demon” or a semi-deity. This brings forth the notion of creativity as involuntary, with human beings as only vessels for the creative powers that come from gods. It was not seen as an illness (yet), but something uncontrollable or a “divine madness”, as Plato stated. Many deities from ancient Greece (and later Roman Empire) were related to creativity, such as the nine Muses and Apollo.
But history is not so homogeneous, and different views can coexist. Plato’s disciple Aristotle brought the idea of Perittos as people with notable talents for artistry, poetry, and philosophy, but with a tendency to be instable, excessive and eccentric. On “Problems”, he questioned if creative geniuses are necessarily melancholic* and affected by an excess of the “black bile”. This puts creativity essentially in the within, reversing the godly view from Socrates and Plato. Though the term did not exist then, they used words as poiéō (ποιέω) to mean make, produce, create, compose. This term is somehow still used today specially in biology, but as the suffix -poiesis.
Influenced by the Greek culture, these concepts can be seen in Roman philosophers as well. Though the meanings were left somewhat unchanged in this period, here we can start to piece together the creation of the word creativity. In Proto-Indo-European languages, the root *ḱer- meant grow, or become bigger. From it derived the Proto-Italic *krēāō to reach then the Latin verb creō, which means to create, make, produce. Though it is hard to pinpoint when these terms appeared, the Latin one was already fully in use by the start of written history.
* Differently from nowadays, to Aristotle the term melancholy carried a sense of exceptional talent, especially related to creativity, imagination, or inspiration
Human and divine
In Middle Ages, creativity got closer and closer to the divine. Medieval view was much closer to Plato’s concept, except for the profanity of polytheism. Well… instead of several gods responsible for different parts of creation, there was one and only one god to embrace all. Philosophers in Europe saw creativity as a result of god’s will, and human stood (again) as only a tool for his work. This lack of change throughout roughly a thousand yeas may be explained by knowledge being secluded in monasteries. Written in books in Latin. In a society that mostly did not speak Latin. Well… most of them could not even read. It was hard to question something then.
It was around this time that the term creation started to gain shape and differentiate from simple “making something”. During Middle Ages there was a strong division between facere or “to make” as a human thing, and creāre or “to create” belonging to god. The separation accompanied this whole era, from St. Augustine in the 4th-century to Robert Grosseteste in the 13th. On late 14th century the substantive creatio was already in use, which is already closer to our word creation in form, but not in meaning.
Naturally other connotations for creativity appeared along the road, but they mostly put god as creator and humans as makers. Since my take here is occidental and really Eurocentric, I can’t affirm what was happening in other parts of the world. But apparently creativity stood unchanged for centuries, until the Enlightenment started to flourish new artistry, breaking the religious tradition and making some of the knowledge a little more accessible. But this we will leave for latter.
Neither here, nor there
We can see that creativity was (and still is) a very debatable concept. It goes back and forth, from “it’s human nature”, to “it’s god’s will” since ancient times. And this still goes on today. It is interesting to notice that the Egyptian concept in which creativity comes from previous creations is still actively present nowadays. We always use previous references to create, based on our experiences, knowledge and other references. Even when we want to detach ourselves and go out-of-the-box, this is only possible because there is a box in the first place. Creating from thin air seems a little “godly” and odd for such a rational society as ours.
But for hundreds of years the godly genius was the main concept of creativity, from Socrates/Plato in ancient Greece, throughout the whole Middle Ages. And this can still be perceived in our current vision. Many people still think that some are creative and others are not. Simple as that. Though our current view of creativity deny that, this notion in widespread and almost subconscious. “Oh, he build this company because he is a genius” or “My god, she had that idea out of nowhere!”. Behind these thoughts is the notion of chosen masterminds, being illuminated by god or by nature itself. This puts a non-existing distance between us mere mortals and them the geniuses, as if this gap was impassable.
As we see today, creativity is learnable and developable in many aspects, though we still do not grasp some parts of it. We can see how it works in our brains, stimulate it, and make people more creative. It is not rocket or divine science anymore. Especially in organizations, creation is a multifaceted team effort. Some ideate and some analyze, some gather and others interpret. Even in arts the study of theory and use of references is essential. Nothing comes from thin air. Creativity is not a god’s favor and is not limited to geniuses. So where does it come from?