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The Jellyfish

By Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (New York: Bantam/Turner Books, 1992). Used by permission.

This story (Ishmael said) takes place half a billion years ago—an inconceivably long time ago, when this planet would be all but unrecognizable to you. Nothing at all stirred on the land, except the wind and the dust. Not a single blade of grass waved in the wind, not a single cricket chirped, not a single bird soared in the sky. All these things were tens of millions of years in the future. Even the seas were eerily still and silent, for the vertebrates too were tens of millions of years away in the future. But of course there was an anthropologist on hand. What sort of world would it be without an anthropologist? He was, however, a very depressed and disillusioned anthropologist, for he'd been everywhere on the planet looking for someone to interview, and every tape in his knapsack was as blank as the sky. But one day as he was moping along beside the ocean he saw what seemed to be a living creature in the shallows off shore. It was nothing to brag about, just a sort of squishy blob, but it was the only prospect he'd seen in all his journeys, so he waded out to where it was bobbing in the waves.

He greeted the creature politely and was greeted in kind, and soon the two of them were good friends. The anthropologist explained as well as he could that he was a student of lifestyles and customs, and begged his new friend for information of this sort, which was readily forthcoming. "And now," he said at last, "I'd like to get on tape in your own words some of the stories you tell among yourselves."

"Stories?" the other asked.

"You know, like your creation myth, if you have one."

"What is a creation myth?" the creature asked.

"Oh, you know," the anthropologist replied, "the fanciful tale you tell your children about the origins of the world."

Well, at this, the creature drew itself up indignantly—at least as well as a squishy blob can do—and replied that his people had no such fanciful tale.

"You have no account of creation then?"

"Certainly we have an account of creation," the other snapped. "But it is definitely not a myth."

"Oh, certainly not," the anthropologist said, remembering his training at last. "I'll be terribly grateful if you share it with me."

"Very well," the creature said. "But I want you to understand that, like you, we are a strictly rational people, who accept nothing that is not based on observation, logic, and the scientific method."

"Of course, of course," the anthropologist agreed.

So at last the creature began its story. "The universe," it said, "was born a long, long time ago, perhaps ten or fifteen billion years ago. Our own solar system—this star, this planet and all the others—seem to have come into being some two or three billion years ago. For a long time, nothing whatever lived here. But then, after a billion years or so, life appeared."

"Excuse me," the anthropologist said. "You say that life appeared. Where did that happen, according to your myth—I mean, according to your scientific account."

The creature seemed baffled by the question and turned a pale lavender. "Do you mean in what precise spot?"

"No. I mean, did this happen on the land or in the sea?"

"Land?" the other asked. "What is land?"

"Oh, you know," he said, waving toward the shore, "the expanse of dirt and rocks that begins over there."

The creature turned a deeper shade of lavender and said, "I can't imagine what you're gibbering about. The dirt and rocks over there are simply the lip of the vast bowl that holds the sea."

"Oh yes," the anthropologist said, "I see what you mean. Quite. Go on."

"Very well," the other said. "For many millions of centuries the life of the world was merely microorganisms floating helplessly in a chemical broth. But little by little, more complex forms appeared: single-celled creatures, slimes, algae, polyps, and so on.

"But finally," the creature said, turning quite pink with pride as he came to the climax of his story, "but finally jellyfish appeared!"

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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