In the second part of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which he calls “The Cosmogonic Cycle,” Campbell broadens the context of the Hero’s Journey and relates it to metaphysical and social aspects. This section begins with a discussion of how we need to move from seeing a myth psychologically to seeing it metaphysically.
Campbell points to psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Stekel, and Otto Rank who saw how myth taps into the human psyche. The myth Oedipus Rex, for instance, demonstrates male psychosexual development, and the myth involving Electra demonstrates female psychosexual development. The Underworld is a symbol of the unconscious. The guardians of the Underworld, like Cerberus, are our defenses. The monsters the hero encounters represent the Shadow archetype. The wise old man or wise old woman is an archetype. And so on.
However, seeing myths as symbolic of the psyche can only take us so far. Myths go way beyond the workings of the human mind. They’re a compact, pictorial way to express traditional wisdom. This is true, Campbell writes, even of seemingly crude tales like those found in folktales (see also my discussion “Beyond the Simplicity of the Myth” in the article on the hero’s boon). He reminds us that myths and folktales were deliberately created in the way that they were created to express spiritual ideas that ran through different cultures and different time periods.
Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world–all things and beings–are the effects of a ubiquitous [i.e., present everywhere] power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.
This power, Campbell states, can appear as something felt but without form (chi/Qi in Chinese philosophy, for instance, or the libido within the psyche, according to Jung) or as the power of a personified deity (God, the Goddess, Jesus, etc.).
Myth as Metaphysics
Our senses and conscious mind, tied as they are to a physical level of being, can’t understand what this power is really about. It’s beyond the senses and beyond language. But myths can move beyond the senses and language, as all creative works can*, and present material to us that we can meditate on.
Forms and concepts that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond.
It’s this “truth or openness beyond” that we can meditate on “and be dissolved” in.
Where the gods/deity/creators dwell in myths, Campbell writes, symbolizes the unconscious. But there’s more than just symbolism. Campbell quotes Jesus in Luke 17:21: “For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” The unconscious we all have is the creative power from which the world and everything in it arises and to which it returns. The Fall in Genesis is, according to Campbell, a fall from superconsciousness (also called higher consciousness, cosmic consciousness, Christ consciousness, etc.) or knowing our true nature to unconsciousness or not knowing it.
The manifest, physical world presents to us reflections of that pervasive power in a way that our conscious mind and senses can relate to it. So in order to manifest the world, it was necessary to black out the knowledge of our spiritual nature. When that knowledge becomes known to all that was created, the state of manifestation will cease to exist. This is what Campbell feels the concept of redemption is really about.
There is, however, another way, and that’s what the Hero’s Journey represents: enlightenment.
The hero is the one who, while still alive, knows and represents the claims of the superconsciousness which throughout creation is more or less unconscious.
In the human life cycle, we’re born from a state of knowing all (superconsciousness) to a state of complete unknowing (unconsciousness). Upon death, we return to that state of superconsciousness or knowing all. The hero has the courage and strength to break through this cycle and reach a state of superconsciousness or knowing all without having to die for it (except metaphorically).
The World Axis, World Tree, World Mountain, cross, etc., symbolizes this exchange of power or consciousness. At this point, the hero releases the knowledge of his true spiritual nature into consciousness. At the same point, the power descends into a state of unconsciousness in order to manifest the world. So according to Campbell, this concept that’s so easily thrown around, the unconscious, is a key to understanding our true nature that goes way beyond how we cope with everyday life.
*Even stories and poems, which use language to express their ideas, can do this because as we read, our mind forms pictures and our feelings are evoked. We connect to these pictures and feelings, not to the letters or words on the page or screen.