IN THE BEGINNING was . . . what? The Word? Water? The Void? A giant egg?

Using archetypes, Penelope Farmer, whose earlier books include A Castle of Bone and Serpent's Teeth , takes creation stories from all corners of the earth and groups them to show the recurring, common elements of man's spiritual history. In the myths of Finland and Polynesia, the Earth is hatched from a giant egg. The Word as the beginning of all things appears not only in the Gospel of St. John, but also in Mayan, Maori and Tanzanian lore. Fire is the terrible secret, always with a price death in Prometheus' case, or merely, as in the Thai myth, the gadfly right "to suck for ever on the calves of the gentle and simple."

These briskly retold stories reveal also the functions of myth: In Babylonia floods occur because man is too nosiy; but in Molanccia by accident, because a man mistakes his father-in-law for a mouse. Mortality is not always punishment (Adam and Eve, Pandora), but can be simply an administrative act (Brahma's attempt to solve over-population), or the price of procreation (the African story of men and tortoises accepting death because they bear off-spring, while the stone remains childless and thus immortal).

A compact selection intended for young adults, Beginnings can be read out loud to the youngster. The woodcuts - whimsical and solid - have the quality of myth.