Study Guide

The Hero with a Thousand Faces Part II, Chapter 1

By Joseph Campbell

Part II, Chapter 1

Part II is called "The Cosmogonic Cycle." Don't worry, guys: we'll explain.

From Psychology to Metaphysics

  • Psychologists, Campbell argues, understand that myths and fairy tales hold patterns that match our dreams….and by extension our internal thoughts and emotions.
  • Myths express our unconscious fears, desires and tensions, using symbolism to give those vague emotions a form we can latch on to.
  • The difference between myths and dreams is that myths can be given formal shape by our conscious thoughts, while dreams are vague and don't always follow logical patterns.
  • They also represent specific spiritual principles, whether it be energy (in a purely rational context), mana, karma or simply the power of God.
  • They help awaken our minds and put us in a more spiritual state of being.

The Universal Round

  • The cycle of the universe—and of myths—matches that of night and day.
  • Existence is an endless cycle of awakening, living, sleeping (dying) as the light fades and rises again each dawn to do it all over again.
  • He cites examples from the Aztecs, and the myths of the Jains from India (who pictured time as a twelve-spoked wheel, which incidentally happens to be on the Indian flag).
  • The wheel is just another symbol, a way of showing us what Campbell calls the cosmogonic cycle.
  • In this cycle, our consciousness travels through three states of being: waking experience, dream experience, and dreamless (presumably blissful) sleep.
  • In the first stage, we encounter life lessons.
  • In the second stage, we absorb these lessons as we dream.
  • In the final stage, we enjoy it all and know everything.
  • We cycle through them all every day, and throughout our entire lives.
  • The Hindu culture expresses this through the chant "AUM"
  • A is waking life.
  • U is dream life.
  • M is deep sleep.
  • The silence surrounding the chant is the unknown: God, the cosmos, or some suitable stand-in.
  • Myth is a way of giving it all concrete shape, especially the silence.

Out of the Void – Space

  • Mythology, especially that involving creation, is also laced with destruction.
  • Myths carry a sense of doom, but are ultimately about fulfillment and life.
  • The meaning isn't carried in the symbols, but rather in the person himself or herself.
  • Dramas present us with strange images that shock us out of our complacency, forcing us to look at the world differently.
  • Campbell then breaks down the stages of the cosmogonic cycle.
  • First, there's the creation of form from formlessness.
  • He cites a creation myth from New Zealand as an example, as well as more examples from Hebrew, Indian and Chinese cultures.

Within Space – Life

  • The creation of the world provides space for the second stage of the cycle: the production of life.
  • For this task, the world is separated into male and female, and the process resembles physical birth.
  • Campbell goes back to the New Zealand creation myth to illustrate this.

The Breaking of the One into the Manifold

  • As life expands into the world, a crisis is created.
  • The world splits into two planes of existence: the sky and the underworld.
  • The first part of the cycle focuses on the Creator, or God; the second part focuses on humans, or the life within the Creation.
  • That involves a sudden transformation, from perfect to flawed.
  • This prevents the cosmic cycle from continuing, as the "children" (humans) seize and divide the power of the "parent" (god).
  • Examples abound, from the New Zealand story to the Greek myth of creation to the story of Marduk from Babylon.
  • But destroying the god-creator doesn't really destroy it; just divides it up into little pieces.
  • Campbell observes that this is a paradox, like many in mythology: a beautiful act of creation made up of pain, destruction and division.
  • Myths serve to acknowledge the agony of that process, while reminding us of the peace and harmony that surrounds it.
  • Again, the crucifixion of Jesus makes a great example: beauty and harmony is achieved through unbelievable suffering.

Folk Stories of Creation

  • Simple folk stories are much more straightforward than the cosmogonic cycle: they don't seek to understand the meaning of it, they just observe.
  • Creation myths are usually the same: a shadow creator gives the world a form slowly, then deals with the creation of man and the finality of death.
  • Campbell notes that many of these myths are playful, and their simplicity suggests that people didn't actually believe them as literal truth.
  • He points out the presences of clown figures in creation myths, who create troubles and difficulties in the newly formed world.
  • Again with the examples, this time from New Britain and Siberia. (We might also point out the Christian serpent in the Garden of Eden as a good example.)
  • Nevertheless, folk stories contain the same spiritual truths as the more elaborate or textured myths.