The Cosmogonic Cycle: An Overview

Where the hero’s journey describes the life of a single hero and his community, the cosmogonic round narrates the life cycle of the universe. Countless heroes live within the confines of a single cosmogonic cycle, and while it is almost never mentioned in discussions of the hero’s journey, the cosmogonic round is the journey’s backbone. On the surface, the cosmogonic cycle concerns itself simply with the creation and eventual destruction of the universe, but this round has echoes in each individual’s life. As the essential formula of the hero’s journey is: Separation, Initiation, and Return; likewise, the essential formula of the cosmogonic cycle is: Emanations, Transformations, Dissolutions.


In this stage of the cycle, the universe is born, and the life of the world begins. These are the creation myths: whether that of the cosmic egg, the world created by the Word of God, or the tortoise who creates the earth by bringing mud up on his back from the ocean floor. But the important question in these myths is not “how is the world created?” but “from whence is the world created?” As Joseph Campbell explains, “the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world – all things and beings – are the effects of a ubiquitous 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.” The universe comes from, and is supported by, “a ubiquitous power,” which Campbell describes as “the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as Sakti, and the Christians as the power of God.”

This power is the spiritual or mystic source, and force, made visible in the world. The realm of the unmanifest – that which exists behind the universe, and from which the universe emanates – is absolute, immortal, and unchanging. It is the realm of Oneness, which is beyond duality of any kind. The known world, on the other hand, is the realm of duality, where Oneness is broken into many, and separateness appears to be real. This is the emanation of the world – the point where the universe appears to break from the unmanifest (though it is never truly separate), and becomes visible. As the first stage of the hero’s journey is his separation from his community, so too is the first stage of the cosmogonic cycle a kind of separation, or departure from the unmanifest source which lies behind the known universe.


The world now exists and supports life of its own, and the focus of the cosmogonic cycle shifts to human life. We are now, also, firmly in the realm of duality: male-female, light-dark, high-low, good-evil, life-death. In this stage the universal round is moved forward by the succession of human generations in the world. Within the context of the hero’s journey, Campbell here describes the cycle and evolution of heroes with each succeeding generation. The hero quest itself reveals the importance of the cosmogonic cycle, for the hero journeys precisely to come back into relation with the mystic realm from which the world arises.

The hero generations themselves sequentially evolve from being firmly invested in the external appearances of the world, towards the manifestation of a spiritual life in the world. As the hero, in the initiation stage of his individual quest, learns to let go of his attachment to physical life in order to come into contact with a spiritual power, so too does the universe transform by the succession of heroes who reach the realm of the unmanifest to renew the flow of energy into the visible world, continuing its life.


The dominant “effect” of the completed quest on the hero is what Campbell calls “reconciliation with the grave.” The hero either experiences a metaphorical death, or actually dies and is resurrected. It is through this death that the hero is able to come back into contact with the universal source, as the unmanifest is beyond what can be directly experienced in the visible world. The cosmogonic cycle’s importance, and power, lies in its transformation of our ego-perceptions of the physical world: where from the limited perspectives of our individual point of view the death of the hero may seem tragic, in the life of the universe his death is transformed into the hero’s crowning glory. As Campbell underlines: “Here [in death] the whole sense of the life is epitomized.”

Life gives way to death which gives way to new life: this is the cosmogonic cycle, and it is the hero’s quest. As the hero must die and return, so too must the universe. In the mythological systems of the world, visions of apocalypse tend to be overwhelming and terrifying, but this not because the end of the world is something that should not happen, or because it’s “bad.” Those are judgements made in separation from the the perspective of the cosmogonic round. Like the death of the individual hero, the disappearance of the universe is only horrifying in the sense that it is sublime. The god you aren’t ready for appears terrifying, but it is only the ego-perspective that dissolves. As Campbell points out again and again, images of the destroyer gods and menacing threshold guardians all over the world always have a raised hand, signalling “Do not be afraid.” And, at last, as the death of the hero is followed by his resurrection which brings new life to the world, the death of one universe precipitates the birth of another. As Campbell reassures: “The basic principle of all mythology is this of the beginning in the end.”

The cosmogonic cycle describes the source from which we move away and then back towards, like a single wave in an ocean which ripples outward to the shore, and then turns back again towards the centre. Each event, each life tumbles into the next like a nesting doll with infinite shells emanating outward and being open inward all at once.

But, Yakko does a much better job of explaining the nesting doll analogy:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 Responses to The Cosmogonic Cycle: An Overview

  1. You know some of us may say that every work of art produced by a conscious being has the capacity to give man the experience of the Cosmogenic cycle as long as the appreciator meditates on it thoroughly enough. Every part of the universe is a microcosm of the rest, and as Campbell himself said the essential nature of a household object like a chair is just as much a transcendental thing as the essential nature of the entire universe. I would consider this when calling any work as not representing the Cosmogenic cycle, as after all it is impossible for something which exists to avoid representing the fundamental nature of its own existence – and existence as a whole. Anything which can pull a person to that bliss deserves recognition.

  2. Sinead, Simply the best explanation of the Campbell’s cosmogonic cycle I have encountered, including my own. Very lucid but thorough.
    Thanks for the work that went into this.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.