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.

Syncretism Synchronicity

By strange coincidence I had two friends ask about syncretism over the last few days. As generally understood, syncretism refers to the blending of religions. In the ancient world when one culture came into contact with another inevitable sharing resulted. Since all religions at the time were polytheistic, there was no concern about sharing deities too. Ancient people wanted to assure their good fortunes and survival just like modern folk do, and so the safest course of action when you become aware of a new deity is to placate her or him. There are few risks at worshipping additional gods in a polytheistic system, since all deities thrive on adoration. Some ancient societies, such as that of the Mesopotamians, realized that the number of gods could grow well beyond reasonable proportions. After all, many kinds of phenomena had gods, including the natural world, human inventions, and the cosmos. Recognizing overlap between the roles or functions of certain deities they began to draft up lists equating the various gods. Some of these lists are quite extensive.

This is the practice of syncretism. Your Yarikh is my Sin, and why offer two sacrifices when one will suffice? Ancient worshippers did not worry about the endless confusion that this would cause for future monotheistic scholars rediscovering their lost civilization. James Frazer, of Golden Bough fame, was a Victorian scholar who saw syncretism everywhere. Ancient cultures became a melting pot with countless variations on every theme. With more sophisticated anthropological methods Frazier’s work eventually fell into disfavor, and syncretism with it. Each ancient culture was distinct, with nuances and subtleties unguessed by rampant blending and blurring of the lines. Some scholars today shy away from the word syncretism since it has such unholy associations.

Fallen Saint James George Frazer

Part of the issue is where our culture stands. We are not the final word in discovery or understanding of our world, and yet monotheistic religions, the majority position in the western hemisphere, make absolute claims. Those of us who examine ancient religions are born into these outlooks, assured that modern-day religion is the true religion and that it, unlike other aspects of culture, will cease to evolve. Religion, however, changes as soon as it leaves its founder’s mouth or hand. The multiplicity of human perceptions and outlooks assures us that each believers’ religion is unique. We may be ashamed by the implications, but syncretism, it seems, will always have the last laugh.