The cosmogonic cycle, Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, begins when the unity of the void is split apart into forms. This is the birth of the world that begins the process of the universal round. Campbell reminds us that this void is also what all return to, and as myth assures us, it’s a place of bliss. Creation myths can prompt our imagination to enter a meditative exercise where we make our way from the physical world that surrounds us and back through the different stages of creation, ending in the void.
Tragic and Not Tragic
Campbell begins this section by reminding us of the cosmic round. The void brings forth the material world in a state of near perfection. It gradually deteriorates until it brings upon itself complete destruction. After a long time, the round begins again, only to end in the same way. This, he tells us, implies tragedy. Something is born only to be destined for destruction.
This, however, is a superficial reading of the cosmic round because the destruction isn’t a true end. It returns the world to the place of bliss, the void, from which it emerged. Myth
places our being not in the forms that shatter but in the imperishable out of which they again immediately bubble forth.
The general trend of the cosmic round is also towards a higher level of consciousness. With each round, the worst in the human race improves and a little more knowledge is gained.
Stages of World Creation
The world emerges from the void in stages, and this is even a familiar concept to monotheistic religions from Genesis. God created the world, it tells us, in six days, each day focusing on something else. Different traditions depict this in different ways, and we learn a lot about a tradition’s beliefs by how it tells of the world’s origins (with, of course, special attention to its own culture).
Campbell shares a chant of the Maoris of New Zealand that he found particularly fascinating because of the various levels of mysterious substances before anything concrete, as we think of it, is created. There are nine types of “void,” including The Vast Void, The Unpossessing (having no possessions) Void, and The Delightful Void. There are five kinds of night that follow, ending with The Daughter of Troubled Sleep.
Then The Dawn emerges followed by The Abiding (in a fixed state) Day and the Bright Day. Then there’s Space. Moisture and the Great Expanse of Heaven emerge from Space and eventually solidify into the parents of the gods, The Heavens and Earth. On the surface, the chant seems repetitive and even simple-minded, but we can see complex philosophical ideas about existence. This is the sort of imagery Campbell was talking about when he said mythic images are a doorway to meditation.
Campbell also refers to probably the most well-known image of the Kabbalah (Jewish mystical tradition), the Tree of Life*. It’s essentially, according to Campbell, a pictorial myth of the process of creation. It begins with Kether or Crown, the Great Face or I AM or that which created God (for one of the great secrets of Jewish mysticism is that the God of the Bible isn’t the All Powerful; He just thinks He is!). From Kether emerge nine emanations including Chokmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding) Chesed (Mercy), and Geburah (Severity). The world is made manifest at the bottom, Malkuth (Kingdom).
World Creation and the Hero
Campbell in this section has only one thing to say regarding the hero:
The levels [of creation] correspond to the profundities sounded by the hero in his world-fathoming adventure; they number the spiritual strata known to the mind introverted in meditation.
Let’s try to unpack this quote. Profundity means “a statement or idea that shows great knowledge or insight.” Fathom means “to come to understand the meaning of.” Sounded here means “expresses or conveys.” Number here means “make up.” Finally, strata means layers. So Campbell is saying that these levels of creation that appear in myths correspond to knowledge gained and expressed by the hero on his journey of understanding how the world works. They’re also levels of spiritual knowledge one gains in meditation.
Campbell is perhaps thinking of journey myths where the hero makes his way to the symbolic center of the Universe (World Tree, World Axis, World Mountain, etc.). This is where the energy that sustains the world flows and the doorway to Eternity. The magical places the hero must go through to get there may, to varying degrees, represent these different layers of creation. In that case, we would expect the places to gradually get less concrete and familiar to the rational mind and more mysterious and magical.
Creation myths can appear simplistic on the surface, but they tell us a lot about the culture from which they sprang. The details are meant to get us to reflect on how the world was created and thereby travel within our minds away from the physical reality that surrounds us into the non-physical planes from which it emerged. When we contemplate the creation process backwards, we’re returning in consciousness back to the source of creation.
*The Kabbalah and Tree of Life are complex topics, and much has been written about them. I’m just focusing in this post on what Campbell says about them.