In discussing creation myths, Joseph Campbell makes a distinction between myths of the cosmogonic cycle or “great mythologies” and what he terms “folk mythologies.” It’s not easy to really understand what he means, though. Possibly one characteristic of “folk mythologies” is that they don’t include all parts of the cosmogonic cycle (emanations, the virgin birth, transformations of the hero, and dissolutions). Another characteristic is the simplicity of these creation stories. Their ideas aren’t necessarily simple, though, as they try to explain why we don’t live in a perfect world.

Simplicity

A creator/demiurge pops out of nowhere, versus the more sophisticated cosmogonic cycle myths of the cosmic egg or space out of the void. In “great mythologies,” the life force underlying manifest existence (previously referred to as the Unmoved Mover) get center stage as that from which everything comes. In “folk mythologies,” this force isn’t specifically described, but it’s implied.

The arranging of the world, the creation of man, and the decision about death are typical themes from the tales of the primitive [i.e., “folk mythology”] creator.

The creator goes around the earth creating everything, sometimes from what appears to be rather ridiculous logic and sometimes without any explanation at all. Often “folk mythologies” will explain the creation of certain things in the local landscape (mountains, rivers, etc.). Eventually, the creator will create man and woman or just man, who will go on to create woman.

The question of the existence of death is an interesting one. The idea is that humans could have come off immortal, but through some error or whim, they lost that chance. We have here again the theme of our lack of knowledge regarding our true nature. If we can just get this one thing right, i.e., realization of the Eternal within us, we will be immortal because we are immortal. But from the point of view of material existence, we don’t know that, so we get that one thing wrong in the “folk myths” and lose the chance of immortality.

Campbell writes that it’s not always easy to tell whether the societies to which these “folk mythologies” belong take these myths literally or not. Some do, some don’t, and some give no indication one way or another. Before we look down on people who literally believe deity made marks in the landscape with his snowshoes (as, Campbell tells us, the Kamchatkans of Eastern Russia do), we should look at the Bible, which many take literally!

Illustration of elf-like creature approaching two children

Puck is one of many well-known trickster characters. Illustration to Rudyard Kipling’s “Puck of Pook’s Hill” by Arthur Rackham, 1906. In the public domain

Trickster

One more interesting aspect that’s popular in these “folk mythologies” is the Trickster character, sometimes combined with the shadow element (in Jungian terms). Everyone loves a clown, especially if there’s something a little sinister in him. This character is essentially a representation of evil and everything that goes wrong in the world. His motives aren’t always explained. He sometimes leaves his work undone. All of this is meant to explain imperfection in the world.

Sometimes his misdeeds have serious consequences, as when his tricks lead to our mortality. This isn’t very different from the story of the Fall. If we remove the whole complication of sin, we see a Trickster/shadow who plays on the weakness of naive story characters, tricking them into losing the immortal status for all human beings.

Though [devils] may triumph in the world of space and time, both they and their work simply disappear when the perspective shifts to the transcendental.

In other words, Satan doesn’t dwell in heaven. There is no perfection or imperfection because there is no duality. All is One and all is peace.

Joseph Campbell writes that these “folk mythologies” really aren’t fundamentally different from cosmogonic cycle myths. The Unmoved Mover/void/eternity is implied. It would be doing them an injustice to see them as simply attempting to explain in a childish way how things came to be. They do what the “great mythologies” do, reconcile “the many…in the One.”