The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Cosmogosgonosic: The World In Cycle

Welcome back to The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where we’re picking up with Part II, Chapter 1: “Emanations.”  I’m still frustrated with Broseph’s lack of layman-appropriate consistency and the constant reminder that mythology is inherently sexual in its metaphor. Nothing has changed!

“Emanations” deals primarily with beginnings, which is appropriate, given its title. But, at first, Campbell deals with the whole of time – cosmogonic cycles, which is, as it turns out, very hard for me to type.

Various mythologies and beliefs held/hold the idea that the world starts, ends, and restarts, over and over, through various ages and eras. Sometimes the world just ends up eyebrow-deep in “cyclic conflagration” (264), a mass of total annihilation that allows a brand new world to come into being. In other places (as in a particular Jain system, apparently), the world merely goes through ups and downs, valleys and peaks. People start out wonderfully good before they deteriorate, becoming so heinous that I guess they start World War III or the Hunger Games or World War XXIV, whichever is timeline-appropriate; then, somehow, the remaining dregs of humanity crawl from their fallout bunkers and start to build up again, redeeming themselves until they’re back at the peak. Which means that, yippie kay-aye, there’s nowhere to go but down again!

But in the sixth of the descending ages, the state of man and his world will be still more horrible. The longest life will be only twenty years; one cubit will be the greatest stature and eight ribs the meagre allotment. (264)

That quote doesn’t add anything of particular value. I just like the idea of moral uprightness being measured by how many ribs you have.

Of course not all mythologies hold to a cosmogonic cycle, but enough do to make the idea stick. One of my favorite mythological images is one post-Ragnarok, when the world has been reborn and Baldr has returned, and two humans – like the first two humans of the Norse creation story – come alive in this new earth. Campbell doesn’t record the beginning of the reborn earths of the Jain or Stoic beliefs; I can only assume they contain the poignancy and hope of the Norse.

Because that’s what the cosmogonic round means. That’s what, to a layman like me, the Norse end of days is all about. That’s one reason I think Ragnarok is, if not a household name, at least something that a lot of people know about. (That and the ship made of dead men’s toenails. Hel does nothing halfway.) It’s one reason that the end in general just has more of a spiritual punch than the beginning in just about any mythology. Look at the Norse beginning: what do you have except a sweaty sleeping giant and a cow licking some salty ice blocks out of sheer boredom? It’s near the same in any mythology. You don’t get existential shivers listening to the story of primal gods sleeping with their primal sisters so that the current pantheon can come to be. At least, I don’t.

And, okay, my own personal orientation (as asexual as you could ask for) might play into my feelings and tastes on the issue. I admit that my lack of esteem for carnal delight might be coloring my opinion of much of “Emanations,” dealing as it does with the innate sexuality of the birth of the world: eggs, godly incest, worldly conception, the lying-together. But I don’t think I’m totally disinterested in the place of sex in mythology; it has its place in the iconography and meaning of many, many, many stories. It’s just that it makes creation stories so… human-focused. It’s as if we bring the inconceivable (ha, ha) down to our own level. And, yes, that sounds like what I’ve argued, about how that’s exactly what makes mythology important. That’s even what Campbell argues (258). But it’s… different, isn’t it? Isn’t there some difference between bringing the inconceivable down to humanity versus boosting humanity closer to the inconceivable?

Creation myths are pervaded with a sense of the doom that is continually recalling all created shapes to the imperishable out of which they first emerged. …Mythology, in this sense, is tragic in its view. But in the sense that [mythology] places our true being not in the forms that shatter but in the imperishable out of which they again immediately bubble forth, mythology is eminently untragical. (269)

That’s what, I feel, Ragnarok gets at. It’s not the begetting of humanity or the gods, it’s the testing of them. It’s not their lineage, not the dirty details of how they came to be; it’s who they are, how they act, what they’ve done to get to this final, ultimate point.

And then, no matter who is on the right or wrong side – no matter who bites it from a snakebite or gets iced by a frost giant – it all starts again. No one makes it out alive, and the brightest hero ends up in the same place as the bitterest villain, which means justice and mercy are the same thing. All playing (or battle) fields are leveled. Then the fields grow fresh new trees and fruits, and fresh young people play games with the golden pieces leftover from the first age. I guess it’s not exactly the same world – Baldr wasn’t the first living god in the world before, was he? – but it all starts again with the same players. Though… different, maybe? The same, but different? And sure, Ragnarok will come again, and who knows who’ll be the first god to wake up after the next one and the next and the next. But everyone does wake up, and maybe, eventually, everyone will get it right.

The basic principle of all mythology is this of the beginning in the end. (269)

That’s the glory of a cosmogonic round: it’s a psychoanalyst’s way of saying “universal second chance.” And third chance, and fourth chance, and who knows how many chances we get? It looks like one Hindu eschatological system has about a million chances. How encouraging is that? If Loki and Jorgumandr and presumably even Surtr get a shot a acting right the next time around, what about us? Even if you don’t believe in a literal cyclical universe, this mythological mode says, “It’s okay. Every world is capable of coming back to life.”

So don’t worry about embarrassing yourself in Starbucks that one time when you said “You too” to the cashier’s “Enjoy.” You get a do-over next time. And if that’s not what mythology is all about, I don’t know what is.



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