Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.

7 thoughts on “Monomyth Myth

  1. Jeff Hora

    I finally read Campbell’s “Hero…” book last year. Not having a lot of context for other points of view or research, I take it at face value without the background for being more critical. I would be interested, Steve, in your recommendation for broadening and deepening my study concerning myth in context….being retired, I now find myself with more of the time and space I require to dive deeper. Thanks!

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    • Hi Jeff–thanks for the note. The main concern specialists have is that syntheses such as Campbell’s (and Frazer’s) leave out the context in order to get at a more general point for comparison with other myths. This isn’t so bad, but they do tend to brush differences aside. From a purely specialist (and perhaps snobby) point of view, you need to take each culture separately. Campbell (and I think Frazer) were influenced by Jungian thinking–Frazer may have been too early, I need to look into that. The idea that there were archetypes that transcended cultures meant that broad-stroke comparison was valid.

      Specialists tend to say that such approaches misrepresent the original myths. Those myths should be taken in context to understand how their respective cultures viewed them. That would mean picking a specific culture and trying to learn about their myths specifically.

      I’m not ready to throw Campbell out, though. The Jungian aspect has some explanatory value. Specialists are sometimes too close to their subject to allow for this. I actually find it problematic that specialists gain traction by critiquing popularizers–their specialization is based on certain presuppositions too! Campbell, in my opinion, can be used with caution.

      The best way, I think, to get at this is to spend some time with a specific culture’s myths (I can suggest some for some cultures) and see what they look like in context. After you’ve done that for two or three cultures, try comparing that against Campbell’s ideas. From my point of view Campbell made some good comparisons–he makes a lot of sense. I could never use them in an academic setting, though.

      Is there a culture whose mythology you’d like to explore? I might be able to make some suggestions.

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      • Jeff Hora

        Thanks for the reply! As to more particular cultural mythology, I think I’d like to start with Eastern myths. Although my reading in history tends to Western (Greco-Roman) culture, I’m finding Eastern (both Middle and Far) myths more intriguing if only because I haven’t done as much reading there and I feel getting clearer view of them will help me as I delve into the “eastern” religions (Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism, Islam, Jain, Sikh, Tao, etc.) more deeply ….Suggestions/Guidance are always welcome from a scholar!

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        • Thanks, Jeff. This weekend I’ll cull some sources from my shelves to suggest. A lot of these myths are fragmentary, but the scholars who translate them can be trusted with most of their reconstructions. More to come!

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    • Hi Jeff, here are a few suggestions: Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia is a good starter. For Ugaritic myths (a bit more tricky since most have missing material), try Michael Coogan and Mark Smith, Stories from Ancient Canaan. Hittite myths are interesting but quite fragmentary. Hittite Myths by Harry Hoffner covers them well. There’s tons more, but these will get you started, I hope!

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