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The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Part II, Chapter 2: The Virgin Birth)

Part Two: The Cosmogonic Cycle

Shiva and Pervati
Shiva and Pervati

Chapter 2: The Virgin Birth

1. Mother Universe

Some mythologies emphasize the maternal rather than paternal aspect of the creator, and she plays the roles that are traditionally assigned to males. She’s also a virgin, because her husband is the Invisible Unknown.

3. The Virgin Birth

Here Campbell tells us about the universal predicament that man faces, when society’s teaching lose their spiritual vitality. People are guided by the practical judgments of kings and priests. This narrows the collective consciousness of society to something superficial and shallow. The people, as a result, yearn for a savior who can come back and properly represent the lost image.

This type of myth exists across all cultures. Essentially, it is when the rejuvenation of society occurs as a “cosmic woman” is born who is uncorrupted by the misleading teachings of her generation or culture, and her womb “remaining fallow as the primordial abyss, summons to itself by its very readiness the original power that fertilized the void.”

“Now on a certain day, while Mar y stood near the fountain to fill her pitcher, the angel of the Lord appeared unto her, saying, Blessed art thou, Mary, for in thy womb thou hast prepared a habitation for the Lord. Behold, light from heaven shall come and dwell in thee, and through thee shall shine in all the world.”

This story is so common across cultures, that the early Christian missionaries thought that the devil himself was mocking their teachings when they came across these stories.

An interesting tale comes from Hindu mythology. The story is about Pervati, a maiden and daughter of the mountain king, Himalaya. There was a tyrant-titan called “Taraka”, and he gained master of the world. And a prophecy stated that only a son of Shiva (the High God) could stop Taraka. But Shiva was introverted and aloof, spending his time alone and practicing meditation. It didn’t seem likely that he would beget a son anytime soon.

Parvati, however, was adamant in changing the state of the world, and she began to match Shiva in meditation herself. She too became aloof and indrawn to her soul. She fasted naked under the scorching sun, and increased the heat by building four large fires. Her beautiful body shriveled to a “brittle construction of bones, the skin became leathery and hard. Her hair stood matted and wild. The soft liquid eyes burned.”

Until one day, a young Brahmin encountered her, and asked her why someone so beautiful would destroy themselves this way?

“My desire,” she replied, “is Shiva, the Highest Object. Shiva is a god of solitude and unshakable concentration. I therefore am practicing these austerities to move him from his state of balance and bring him to me in love.”

“Shiva,” the youth said, “is a god of destruction. Shiva is the World Annihilator. Shiva’s delight is to meditate in burial grounds amidst the reek of corpses; there he beholds the rot of death, and that is congenial to his devastating heart. Shiva’s garlands are of living serpents. Shiva is a pauper, furthermore, and no one knows anything of his birth.”

 

The virgin said: “He is beyond the mind of such as you. A pauper, but the fountainhead of wealth; terrifying, but the source of grace; snake-garlands or jewel-garlands he can assume or put off at will. How should he have been born, when he is the creator of the uncreated! Shiva is my love.”

 

The youth thereupon put away his disguise—and was Shiva.

4. Folk Stories of Virgin Motherhood

A common motif in virgin births is that they could happen inadvertently and easily. Accidentally swallowing a leaf or nut or breathing a breeze could fertilize the womb. The power of procreation is everywhere but carries with it a dangerous uncertainty. The child may either grow up to become a hero savior or a world-annihilating demon.

The virgin birth image is popular in myths and folk tales alike. There is a strange folk tale from Tonga, about the “handsome man” Sinilau. This one is especially interesting, not for its absurdity, but because it touches on every single major motif of the hero’s typical life:

“the virgin birth, the quest for the father, ordeal, atonement with the father, the assumption and coronation of the virgin mother, and finally, the heavenly triumph of the true sons while the pretenders are heated hot.”

The story starts with a man and his wife, who is giving birth to her child. When the time came to deliver the child, she asked her husband to come and lift her, so that she could give birth. But she gave birth to a clam, and her now frustrated husband threw her down. But she didn’t get rid of the clam, instead she left it in Sinilau’s bathing-pool. And when Sinilau came for a bath, and threw the coconut flask that he used to wash himself with to the water, the clam slid towards the husk and sucked it, becoming pregnant as a result.

Eventually, this clam gave birth to a boy called “Fatai-going-underneath-sandalwood.” As time passed, the clam bore another boy who was named “Myrtle-twinedat- random-in-the-atoz.” Both children were left to be cared for by the woman and her husband.

When the children got older, the woman heard of a festival that Sinilau was going to hold. She wanted her grandsons to be there, so she got them ready, and told them that the man who was holding the festival was their father. When the boys arrived, they received looks from all of the people present. All of them women couldn’t help but fix their eyes on them, and a group even asked them to join them. But the boys refused, determined to see their father. They arrived to the place where the kava (a sedative drink) was being enjoyed, and began serving it to others.

But Sinilau was angry at the youths disturbing his festival, so he ordered two bowls to be brought to him. As the boys arrived, he got one of his men to seize one of the boys to cut him up. But when the sharpened bamboo knife was placed on the boy’s body, it slipped instead of cutting through. At that moment the boy said,

“The knife is placed and slips,

Do thou but sit and gaze at us

Whether we are like thee or not.”

Sinilau asked what the boys had said, and they repeated the lines to him. He then ordered the boys to be brought to him, and asked them who their father was. They told him that he was their father. Sinilau then kissed his newfound sons, and told them to get their mother. The boys went to the pool and got the clam, and then took it to their grandmother. The grandmother broke it open, and out came a lovely woman. She was named “Hina-at-home-in-the-river.”

“When they came to Sinilau they found him sitting with his wives. The youths sat one at each thigh of Sinilau, and Hina sat at his side. Then Sinilau bade the people go and prepare an oven, and heat it hot; and they took the wives and their children, and killed and baked them; but Sinilau was wedded to Hina-at-home-in-the-river.”

 

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Part II, Chapter 2: The Virgin Birth) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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