The Cosmogonic Cycle: Emanations

In case you need it: here’s a quick overview of the entire Cosmogonic Cycle. Once again, all quotes unless otherwise noted are from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The beginning stage of the cosmogonic cycle, emanations are the creation myths of the world, of which there are many forms. One of the most recurrent creation images in world mythology is that of the cosmic egg, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell transcribes the Hindu telling:

“In the beginning of the world was merely nonbeing, It was existent. It developed. It turned into an egg. It lay for the period of a year. It was split asunder. One of the two eggshell parts became silver, one gold. That which was of silver is the earth. That which was of gold is the sky. What was the outer membrane is the mountains. What was the inner membrane is cloud and mist. What were the veins are the rivers. What was the fluid within is the ocean. Now, what was born therefrom is yonder sun.”

The most important element of this stage in the cosmogonic round can be found here. Yet, it is not the belief that the world is a cosmic egg, but rather before the egg appears, before the world exists, there “was merely nonbeing, It was existent.” Campbell goes on to quote a physicist who declares: “That which is is a shell floating in the infinitude of that which is not.” The “nonbeing” which exists before the apparent creation of the world is the source from which the visible universe is born. As the root meaning of emanate is “to flow out,” the critical point of this stage is that the visible world flows out of an essential, invisible source. This source is beyond any category of thought, language, or symbol, even the terms “nonbeing” and “beyond” fail to reach it. Nonbeing is the unmanifest, it has no form, and it has no opposite. The world we take to be real is a shadow of the unmanifest only, an infinitely small fraction of this source materialized into something visible. The unmanifest is the source from which all life flows, from which all visible entities arise and are supported. As Campbell explains, this source is “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.”

The world emanates from this unmanifest, mystic, timeless realm, and is supported by it, but the unmanifest is not immediately visible in the world. At the creation of the universe, “the forward roll of the cosmogonic round precipitates the One into the many.” The unmanifest realm is that of total Oneness, it would be too overwhelming to be perceived by our earth-bound minds – in fact, any direct contact with the unmanifest would require the total dissolution of you because individuals and separation are not real in the mystic dimension. What we see and experience in the world, and as ourselves, are fractions of fractions of fractions of fractions of the source from which everything arises. Like pure white light entering a prism and breaking into all the visible colours in the world, the unmanifest energy of source must “break” into many separate and opposing dualistic images in order to made visible. Thus the created world gives rise to the existence of duality – or at least, the appearance of duality. Campbell describes this “breaking” into the manifold of existence “a great crisis, a rift, [which] splits the created world into two apparently contradictory planes of being.”

It is important to note, however, that it is only from the point of view of the created world that duality of any kind exists. Quoting his friend Heinrich Zimmer, Campbell often said: “‘The best things cannot be told’ because they trasncend all thought. ‘The second best are misunderstood,’ because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, and one gets stuck in the thoughts.” Myth is of this second order, they are misunderstood because in attempting to describe something which transcends all experience, language, and comprehension, they only have the commonalities of human experience, language, and thought to communicate with. So while the concepts of male and female do not exist in the unmanifest realm, mythology often ascribes male and female aspects to heroes, gods, and elemental forces because they are the only references we understand, and not because some god or force is actually male or female. It is, for example, why many cultures in the world present the image of God as either androgynous, or as having both male and female faces.

In the creation myths of the world, it is often the female principle which brings the world into being. Correspondingly, the unmanifest energy, or source, in myth is often characterized as male: The Father. However, pure source must pass through the female principle in order to become the manifest world we see. Not unlike the conception and birth of a child, the female principle translates the pure energy of the “father”, unmanifest energy, into material form. It is the female principle who literally “gives birth” to duality. Even the gods themselves are simply personifications of this unmanifest realm, not the energy themselves. So in the Eastern tradition the gods are habitually seen holding their own severed heads, calling us to move passed their image to a relationship with the energy they only represent. Or, in the words of Meister Eckhart: “the ultimate and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God, leaving your notion of God for an experience of that which transcends all notions. I and you, this and that, true and untrue – every one of them has its opposite. But mythology suggests that behind that duality there is a singularity over which this plays like a shadow game.”

The realm of the unmanifest is the single most important aspect of myth. Commenting on a then-recent definition of myth given in an article from Foreign Affairs, Joseph Campbell summarizes the author definition of myth as “an order of acceptable ideas concerning the cosmos and its parts and nations and other human groups,” but finds this incomplete. He goes on to state that any definition of conception of myth must include the unmanifest source of the universe: “the mystic dimension informs all this. If that’s not there, you don’t have a mythology, you have an ideology” (quoted from Transformations of Myth Through Time). Campbell distils the cosmogonic cycle into psychological terms, making a link between the emanation, life, and death of the universe, as compatible with an individual’s life cycle experience of sleeping and waking: “as the consciousness of the individual rests on a sea of night into which it descends in slumber and out of which it mysteriously wakes, so, in the imagery of myth, the universe is precipitated out of, and reposes upon, a timlessness back into which it again dissolves. … the passage of universal consciousness from the deep sleep zone of the unmanifest, through dream, to the full day of waking; then back again through dream to the timeless dark. As in the actual experience of every living being, so in the grandiose figure of the living cosmos.”


This stage’s presence, in micro-cosmic form, in the hero’s journey is most often found in the motif of the virgin birth. Explaining the role of the female/mother energy in the creation of the world, Campbell states: “the world generating spirit of the father passes into the manifold earthly experience through a transforming medium – the mother of the world. … More abstractly understood, she is the world-bounding frame: ‘space, time, and causality.’ – the shell of the cosmic egg.” As the visible world is a physical manifestation of the unmanifest realm’s energy, so is the hero the earth-bound reflection of ‘The Father’s’ energy, and his journey is often a quest seeking his father. This is ultimately a spiritual journey, the hero attempts to connect with (or, more accurately, re-connect with) the unmanifest, supporting source of the world. To return to Campbell’s analogy of the cosmogonic round with the cycle of sleep, he says: “as the mental and physical health of the individual depends on an orderly flow of vital forces into the field of waking day from the unconscious dark, so again in myth, the continuance of the cosmic order is assured only by a controlled flow of power from the source.” The hero’s journey’s aim is precisely to renew the flow of this source into the world, allowing life to continue. The hero’s mother is a virgin because “her spouse is the Invisible Unknown,” and the virgin birth is a symbol of the beginning of a spiritual life – it has absolutely nothing to do with the “morality” of sex. Likewise, the emanation of the world is a kind of virgin birth of pure unmanifest source being translated into material form. And as the creation of the world is precipitated by the “breaking” of the One into the many forms of the visible world, the hero’s journey is again the cosmogonic round in microcosm: the first stage of the journey is that of separation, where the hero splits away from his community – either by choice or exile.

And so the world of form is created, and in the next phase of the emanation stage, life on earth begins. The primordial, super-God-like beings who first populate the earth bring the mountains, oceans, rivers, plants and animals into being. As the cycle continues these primordial deities are usurped by the next order of beings, monstrous, God-like creatures: in the Greek tradition, these were the Titans. The cycle continues forward as generation topples into the next generation of pre- and supra-human beings until we come at last to our “human-historical form,” as Campbell puts it. It is at this point that the second stage of the cosmogonic cycle begins: Transformations.

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About Sinéad Donohoe

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