Just as there are folk stories of creation, Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that there are folk stories of the virgin birth. As with many folk stories, they appear simplistic, even childish, on the surface but capture many of the motifs that “great mythologies” do. The heroes born may not be world saviors, but they’re still great men and blessed by the Divine.
The Folk Virgin
The procreating power is everywhere…. Images of virgin birth abound in the popular tales as well as in myth.
Just as in the myths of great leaders, the chosen folk virgin is virtuous and thus ripe for bringing the hero into the world. Campbell gives an example from the Tonga where a woman gives birth to a clam. The clam subsequently gives birth to the two heroes when she comes into contact with something discarded by the revered owner of a large estate. Later it’s revealed that within the clam is a beautiful, virtuous woman who is the mother of the heroes.
The two heroes go on to follow some of the other phases of the Hero’s Journey:
They’re raised by others and then return to their real father, who threatens to kill them. When he tries, however, the killing knife fails to harm them because they’re protected by Spirit. The father then happily acknowledges them (atonement). Their mother, the virgin, is brought before the father, who joyfully kills his previous wife and the children she bore him and marries her, thus uniting with his “real” family. The implication is that those who appeared true were recognized as false when the true ones revealed themselves and that the true is of the Spirit.
Fascination with Birth
Joseph Campbell doesn’t have much else to say about the virgin birth, but I see in this motif a fascination with the whole process of birth. In my work as a writing tutor, I run across a lot of essay assignments asking students to write about the most meaningful experience of their lives. I can’t count how many times mothers have written about the birth of a child, and I’ve even read some essays from fathers on this. Whether the parents write humorously of the birth or grumble at the inconveniences, all acknowledge the miracle of birth.
This doesn’t, though, only relate to the birth of human beings. Really the birth of anything is a miracle. Creating something out of nothing is a sacred act. It perhaps makes us feel as close to a spiritual creator as we can get.* When we create art, for instance, and we feel it expresses something that only we can express, we feel incredible satisfaction. The same goes for a business or any creative project. At such times, we can feel how the breath of life has come from some secret place beyond our understanding.
* Being an abuse survivor, I want to emphasize that this feeling of being an all-powerful creator can be incredibly destructive when it comes to kids. Some controlling parents really believe that their children should do everything they say and be who they want them to be just because they “created” them.