Ainulindalë: The God Who is Music and Beauty

“In the beginning,” the inspired writer declares, “Elohim created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Elohim said . . .” (Gen. 1:1-2). With a mere word the Lord Almighty speaks the universe into being:

  • “Let there be light,” and there is light” (Gen 1:3).
  • “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters” (Gen. 1:6).
  • “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night” (Gen 1:14).

And so it was and is. Elohim commands and the chaos obeys. Potentiality becomes actuality; cosmos comes into being.

The creation story of Genesis 1 stands out starkly from the ancient Near Eastern myths that preceded it. The Babylonian myth, for example, speaks of a great battle between Tiamat, the dragon mother of the gods, and Marduk, the god of rain and storm. Marduk slays Tiamat, splits her body in half and from it forms the heavens and the earth. Life in the polytheistic world is an ever-repeating cycle of struggle, death, rebirth. Such are the necessities of existence, to which even the gods must submit. But then a new story came to be spoken, a story of the one God, transcendent maker of heaven and earth. This God need only speak, and the universe appears; he need only command and nature obeys. The only necessity is his sovereign will. To his chosen people Israel, the one God is known as Elohim (a plural term often paired with a singular verb) but especially by his ineffable name YHWH, shared with Moses on Mt Sinai (Exod 3). To his people of the New Covenant, however, he is named and praised as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In his colloquial and inimitable style, Robert Farrar Capon imagines the conversation of the Holy Trinity that brings the world into being:

Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things, new ways of being and new kinds of being to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch.” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific, I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in. And after supper that night the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs. Pinecones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam in the wine glasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers, and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind. Tove, tove, tove.” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing, “Tove, tove, tove.” So they shouted together, “Tove me’od—very good.” And they laughed for ages and ages saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine, inu ta te Spiritus Sancte, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia secula, seculorum. Amen.1

And on the seventh day Elohim rested.

But millennia before humanity fell into polytheistic belief and ages before Elohim revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, the Quendi also spoke of the one Creator and his making of the world. They called him Eru (“The One,” “He that is Alone”) and Ilúvatar (“Father of All”). A comparison of the biblical and Elvish accounts confirms that Eru and Elohim name the same transcendent Deity.2

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Then said Ilúvatar: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days.3

We must remember at this point the metaphorical nature of this account. The Ainur are incorporeal beings. Lacking bodies, they lack voices: they communicate soundlessly, mind to mind in a mode of immediacy. As Sam McBride writes:

Even given that Tolkien’s is a fictional reality, a secondary world, the Music of the Ainur can hardly be music in the sense that we use the term today (or even in the same sense that Elves or Hobbits use the term in The Lord of the Rings); a later phase of the creation process shows that the Ainur have not yet experienced physical reality. There cannot be music (at least not as a phenomenon Humans can understand) where there is no air (or other physical medium) through which vibrations can transmit. Furthermore, Humans cannot conceive of music without time, and the events of the Singing of the Ainur take place prior to the creation of time (a statement that reveals the limitations of language in describing cosmological reality). Thus music functions as a trope for something beyond Human (or Elven) comprehension.4

The singing of the Ainur may therefore be described as abstract, celestial, nonverbal, communicated directly to the mind of Ilúvatar and to the minds of their fellow Ainur.

Though notable differences exist between the Ainulindalë and the creation story of Genesis, perhaps the most striking—and certainly the most profound—is the former’s introduction of the divine music. Whereas Elohim speaks, Eru sings. The Silmarillion does not explicitly state that Eru sings the Ainur into being, but it is mentioned in another ancient manuscript:

Then said Rúmil: “Hear now things that have not been heard among Men, and the Elves speak seldom of them; yet did Manwë Súlimo, Lord of Elves and Men, whisper them to the fathers of my father in the deeps of time. Behold, Ilúvatar dwelt alone. Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first, and greatest is their power and glory of all his creatures within the world and without. Thereafter he fashioned them dwellings in the void, and dwelt among them, teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.”5

Scholars debate whether this version of the creation story represents an independent, perhaps earlier, Elven tradition or is an elaboration of the original Silmarillion tradition. Some scholars have suggested that the Elven loremasters intentionally distinguished between Eru’s speaking and the Ainur’s singing in order to stress the radical difference between Creator and creature. Perhaps. Regardless both traditions witness to the eternal music of the One.

Eru opens his mind to the Ainur and instructs them in his music. The Ainulindalë states that he propounded to them various themes, which they in turn sing to him, each according to their limited understanding; “for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.”6 Through practice and careful attention, they grow together as a divine choir. When they are ready, Eru reveals to them an even more beautiful theme: “The glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.”7 To experience the divine music is to be drawn into the transcendent glory and beauty that is God.

Eru invites the Ainur to improvise upon this great theme he has taught them, not just to repeat it but to add to it, “each with his own thoughts and devices.” A remarkable passage. Not only are the Ainur given to participate in the music of their Creator—and thus in his divine life—but they are given the freedom to sub-create, to adorn and develop the theme in new ways, much as a symphonic composer will modify a theme through the course of a movement, introducing new motifs and variations, harmonies and tone colors. In a future post I will discuss the three themes of the Great Music. As we shall see, the Great Music anticipates and reveals the creation of Arda and its history. It should be noted that Elves and Men appear in the third theme, sung by Ilúvatar alone without contributions by the Ainur.

Eru’s intonation of the world immediately evokes for many readers Aslan’s creation of Narnia:

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too; he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.

“Gawd!” said the Cabby. “Ain’t it lovely?”

Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

“Glory be!” said the Cabby. “I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”

The Voice on the earth was now louder and more triumphant; but the voices in the sky, after singing loudly with it for a time, began to get fainter. And now something else was happening.

Far away, and down near the horizon, the sky began to turn gray. A light wind, very fresh, began to stir. The sky, in that one place, grew slowly and steadily paler. You could see shapes of hills standing up dark against it. All the time the Voice went on singing.8

The image of divine music is powerfully evocative. It brings to mind the eternal commu­nion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We might envision their mutual life as one of melody and harmony, the three persons of the Godhead singing to each other their love and joy to make one symphony, and in this jubilation the world is made and made known. Thus David Bentley Hart:

The harmony of Father and Son is not the absolute music of an undifferentiated noise, but the open, diverse, and complete polyphony of Father, Son, and Spirit. . . . The most elemental statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures (Oration 28.30-31). . . . God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons. This cannot be emphasized enough: the Christian God, who is infinite, is also infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form, transcendently determinate, always possessed of his Logos. True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the “mind” of God, but is an infinite “music,” drama, art, completed in—but never “bounded” by—the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure variation—all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference: shape, variety, manifold relation. Beauty is the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance. And the Holy Spirit who perfects the divine love, so that it is not only reflective but also evocative—calling out to yet another as pure delight, outgoing, both uncompelled and unlimited—also makes the divine joy open to the otherness of what is not divine, of creation, without estranging it from its divine “logic”; and the Spirit communicates difference as primordially the gift of the beauty, because his difference within the Trinity is the happiness that perfects desire, the fulfillment of love; for the Spirit comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the joy he seeks, reinflecting the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence.9

Robert W. Jenson also envisions as musical the perichoretic unity and harmony of the Father, Son and Spirit:

The discourse that is God is not other than its sheer occurrence as the divine perichoresis. Therefore the discourse that is God may be thought of not only as singing but even as “pure” music. It is the peculiarity of the aesthetic that in apprehending beauty we abstract from the content of discourse without becoming abstract in our understanding. God, we may thus say, is a melody. And as there are three singers who take each their part, a further specification suggests itself: the melody is fugued.

We must note what has just happened. The apprehension of God as beauty, in its concrete abstraction, has led us to another proposition of the same character as those in the preceding chapter, in which we said that God is an event, a person, a decision, and a conversation. The phrase “the one God” directs us finally to the sheer perichoresis of Father, Son, and Spirit, and that is to their communal music. We close the doctrine of God with this evocation of God’s being, beyond which there is no more to say: God is a great fugue. There is nothing so capacious as a fugue.10

The early tradition of the Church mentions neither the Great Music nor the subcreative contribution of the angels. But the Greek Old Testament, commonly named the Septuagint, witnesses to the creation of the angels prior to his creation of the world: “When the stars were made, all my angels praised me with a great voice” (Job 38:7). On the authority of this text (and no doubt others), many of the Church Fathers affirmed the creation of the angels before the creation of the world, as did also the Apostolic Constitutions (4th century):

For Thou, O eternal God, didst make all things by Him, and through Him it is that Thou vouchsafest Thy suitable providence over the whole world; for by the very same that Thou bestowedst being, didst Thou also bestow well-being: the God and Father of Thy only begotten Son, who by Him didst make before all things the cherubim and the seraphim, the æons and hosts, the powers and authorities, the principalities and thrones, the archangels and angels; and after all these, didst by Him make this visible world, and all things that are therein. (VIII.2.12)

If true, then perhaps we have sound warrant to theologically interpret those Old Testament texts that refer to God as surrounded by his divine council—for example, Psalm 82:1: “God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods [elohim]”—as intimating some measure of involvement of the angels in divine creation.11 Perhaps. Peter Kreeft suggests that while the claim of the Ainulindalë  that Eru used the Ainur in the creation of the material world is outside the mainstream of Christian belief, it “is not heretical. It is a theologoumenon (a possible theological opinion) that is found in some of the Church Fathers. And it helps to solve a difficult aspect of the ‘problem of evil,’ the problem of reconciling real evil with an all-good and all-powerful God.”12

If Jenson is on the mark, perhaps we may speak of the divine music as constituting the perichoretic unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The singing of the angels thus becomes theophany and revelation, offered in the Spirit to the glory of the eternal Composer, through the divine Word who is simultaneously cantor and cantillation. The hymnody of the angels resounds in the Sanctus of the Holy Mass:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

(12 February 2018; rev.)


[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Third Peacock, reprinted in The Romance of the Word, pp. 176-177.

[2] See Kevin R. Hensler, “God and Ilúvatar,” lecture given at the 2nd Mythgard Institute, December 13-15, 2013. Also see Stratford Caldecott, “A New Light: Tolkien’s Philosophy of Creation in The Silmarillion,” Journal of Inklings Studies, 4 (October 2014): 67-85.

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, pp. 3-4.

[4] Sam McBride, Tolkien’s Cosmology: Divine Beings and Middle-earth (2020), chap. 1.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Music of the Ainur,” The Book of Lost Tales, I:52; emphasis mine.

[6] Silmarillion, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Magican’s Nephew, chap. 8.

[9] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (2004), pp. 176-177.

[10] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (1997), I:236.

[11] See Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm (2015). Heiser notes, e.g., the plural “us” in Gen 1:26: “And God said, ”Let us make humankind in our image and according to our likeness,” and comments:

Many Bible readers note the plural pronouns (us; our) with curiosity. They might suggest that the plurals refer to the Trinity, but technical research in Hebrew grammar and exegesis has shown that the Trinity is not a coherent explanation. The solution is much more straightforward, one that an ancient Israelite would have readily discerned. What we have is a single person (God) addressing a group the members of his divine council.

It’s like me going into a room of friends and saying, ”Hey, let’s go get some pizza!” I’m the one speaking. A group is hearing what I say. Similarly, God comes to the divine council with an exciting announcement: ”Let’s create humankind!”

But if God is speaking to his divine council here, does that suggest that humankind was created by more than one elohim? Was the creation of humankind a group project? Not at all. Back to my pizza illustration: If I am the one paying for the pizza making the plan happen after announcing it then I retain both the inspiration and the initiative for the entire project. That’s how Genesis 1:26 works.

Genesis 1:27 tells us clearly that only God himself does the creating. In the Hebrew, all the verbs of creation in the passage are singular in form: ”So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him: The other members of the council do not participate in the creation of humankind. They watch, just as they did when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:7). (pp. 39-40)

In his book Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal (2015), James S. Anderson writes that the “us” in Gen 1:26 intimates either the divine council or a divine couple, El/Yahweh and Asherah (pp.26-27).

[12] Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien (2005), p. 72. I intend to return to the question of patristic antecedents, focusing on St Augustine, in a future posting in the series.

(Go to “The Cacophony of Melkor”)

This entry was posted in Inklings & Company, Mythopoeia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ainulindalë: The God Who is Music and Beauty

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This evening I made a minor change in order to clarify, in light of recent reading, my remarks on the singing (or non-singing) of Eru.


Comments are closed.