A powerful part of our minds, as noted by people such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Frazer and others is myth. Myth sounds to many of us at first glance like an archaic and outmoded concept – something relegated to the dust bin of history or the stuffy halls of an anthropology class. But myth is still very active today. It’s everywhere in fact.
Most obviously myths show up in our super hero movies. We have similar stories about people with extraordinary power – in modern times usually granted through some scientific malfunction or direct application in lieu of the supernatural batteries of yore; an irradiated spider bites a young man with glasses, a young man with glasses is actually an alien from the planet Krypton, a young man without glasses but with infinite wealth at his disposal devises contraptions to harness the fear of his enemies through a bat motif etc. An extremely obvious example of modern and ancient myths colliding is found in Marvel’s Thor and Avengers series with its cadre of Norse gods.
Myth as it stands though isn’t just about super heroes – we see legendary figures in our modern world, heroes and villains. Politicians, musicians, and athletes often become larger than life or mythic figures. George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Michael Jordan, John Lennon, Oprah Winfrey – any of these people could be seen as modern mythic figures even if they actually lived (or live).
Old Myths, New Faces
In Joseph Campbell’s 1949 work “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” he explores the fundamental structure of mythology. Campbell calls the archetype “the hero’s journey” which Campbell summarizes as:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
(In this light it is interesting to note that the Egyptian Book of The Dead is more properly translated as The Book of Coming Forth By Day).
We see many of the older myths retold in Disney films. We are often introduced to these stories in childhood, whether through films or books. Disney as a cultural phenomenon introduced many of us to Robin Hood, King Arthur, Aladdin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and other legends, myths, and Fairy Tales for the first time.
The Shadow Out of Time
Myth transcends time. Like a shadow it lurks in the hidden places of our minds, sometimes forgotten, but always in our psyche. A lot of our modern mythic figures – real and imagined – are recognized for extraordinary beauty, generosity, strength, forbearance etc.
In the old mythic legends of Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, Africa, and Scandinavia (just to name a few) we find similar ideas. These ideas speak to our aspiration as humans; They point to the things we value for good or for ill.
For instance, cleverness is displayed by both real and mythical legendary figures from Anansi, Robin Hood, Hermione Granger, Thor, Gandalf, and Aladdin to Benjamin Franklin and Harriet Tubman. Strength and beauty are displayed in various forms by Michael Jordan, the Prince and Princess in Sleeping Beauty, Prince Rama, Hercules, Superman, Cleopatra, Achilles, and Galadriel of Lothlorien.
Self-sacrifice is demonstrated by many figures as well, from more mythological and fictional characters like Odin and Harry Potter to real life heroes Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Gandhi who ultimately paid for their selfless actions with their lives.
Towards a Personal Mythos
The power of myth is in its application to daily life. In this way myths live on within us. What choices will we make in the coming days? On our best days do we exemplify the qualities of the archetypal hero? Bringing back benevolence and wisdom from danger? On our worst do we exemplify the villain? Giving in to avarice and anger? Myth also challenges us to decide what we value. Do you value wealth? What do you mean by wealth? Money? Property? Friendship? Do you value intelligence? Athleticism? Inner and/or outer beauty? Wisdom? Courage? Perhaps even trickery or cleverness?
This moth we challenge you to think about your own story – your own personal mythos if you will. What stories are you telling yourself? Are they working for you or do you need new ones? How will you apply your myths to your own life?