The Role of Myths

What are Myths? 

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell shows us what the myths of the past have in common. He identifies an archetypal story structure that explains the patterns most great myths and folk stories follow. He describes the role of the archetypal characters within the story and what they symbolize.

The central thesis is that mythological texts should not be considered in the same light as scientific texts. The latter tries to explain how physical phenomena occurs while the former is a manifestation of the collective unconscious. Myths are a tool for human beings to find their place within the group that they belong to.

Of course, many things have changed since these myths were written. The world has become more integrated. Today, you no longer belong to one tribe or one country, but to a global society. And Campbell’s point is that this development is not without its consequences.

While it is true that you have more freedom and individuality, you are also more lost in cultivating your own identity. Society has outgrown myths. Few believe that the gods or stories of religions are literally true. The scientific method has given us a reliable, powerful way of navigating the world, with no need for recourse to our ancestors’ supernatural and confused understanding of the world.

A world, that moves as a collective towards the accumulation of more wealth and resources. The primary motivator is profit – and the result is a more prosperous and advanced civilization. But what have we lost in the process?

According to Campbell, we have lost our sense of meaning with respect to the group. The individual today is more free than he has ever been in history, but he does not know what to do with this freedom. He gains his independence from his group at an early age. He cultivates his own unique identity. But the strings that hold his identity together are delicate – he is insecure in his assessment of what he ought to be doing. And there is no longer a unifying story that he can rely on for answers.

“Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many  who in other ages would not have been neurotic-that is, divided  against themselves. If they had lived in a period and in a milieu in  which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors,  and thus with nature truly experienced and not merely seen from  outside, they would have been spared this division with themselves.  I am speaking of those who cannot tolerate the loss of myth and  who can neither find a way to a merely exterior world, to the world  as seen by science, nor rest satisfied with an intellectual juggling with words, which has nothing whatsoever to do with wisdom.”

Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung

The individual today suffers from the opposite problem his ancestors did. Whereas they suffered from lack of individuality, the modern individual suffers from a lack of collective identity. There no longer is the same sense of meaning in belonging to a group. And while the average person is more powerful today that he would have been in the past, he often struggles to find his proper role in life.

This is where Campbell believes myths play their part. Instead of discarding mythology, you should study it. You should understand what archetypal patterns have been represented, which symbols, characters, and rituals have been preserved, and decipher what they (collectively) can teach you about the essential nature of who you are. The stories, with their variable plot lines and characters, teach us that the roles we play in life – including our age, sex, and occupation are merely costumes that we wear. They are not our essence..

I am often skeptical when people throw around ambiguous terms around such as “essence”, but in this context, the meaning of the word is not lost on me. The “essence” that Campbell was talking about is the unchanging aspects about ourselves – it is what we all share. Our fears and apprehensions, our deepest desires and longings, what gives our lives meaning, and what takes meaning away from our lives – these are the things that truly define us.

It is not the job you have, or the city you live in. It is not the constantly changing beliefs you have about the world, or your changing relationships with people. It is not your financial circumstance, it is not how old you are, or what gender you identify as.

The myths of the past were overwhelmingly a meditation on our most essential nature. That is what enabled them to propagate, and to survive the passage of time. They were successfully transferred from generation to generation, not because they contained scientific truths about the nature of the world, but because they could accurately represent the deepest sentiments of every generation.

They cultivated a sense of belonging to the group by giving you group identity (as teacher, warrior, saint), they contained rites that symbolized the passage from one state to another that allowed you to overcome your neurotic fixations such as the Oedipal complex, they comforted you with an understanding of the cyclical and finite nature of the world, and challenged you to strive to reach your potential through stories of the type of hero you most identified with.

It is the role of religious symbols to give a meaning to the life of man. The Pueblo Indians believe that they are the sons of Father Sun, and this belief endows their life with a perspective (and a goal) that goes far beyond their limited existence. It gives them ample space for the unfolding of personality and permits them a full life as complete persons. Their plight is infinitely more satisfactory than that of a man in our own civilization who knows that he is (and will remain) nothing more than an underdog with no inner meaning to his life.”
Man and his Symbols, Carl Jung 

Reconciling Past with Present

Myths are a way of understanding who you were, who you are, and where you should go. No matter who you are, you belong to the human species. You are one piece of a large puzzle. You can choose to defect, or to rebel, but it is you who will pay the price. Human beings will survive without you. And yet, the salvation of humanity is in the individual. This paradox is important.

The human organism does not require every single individual to survive, in the same way your body continues to survive despite the constant death of many of its cells. But individuals can nudge the world in one direction or another, either by introducing a solution to an old problem, or finding an old solution to a new problem. The former is the work of science. It is the fight against disease and ageing. And to make progress, it is up to the individual to discover the solution. The latter characterizes the work of mythologists, lawyers, philosophers, psychologists, historians, and theologians. It is relying on the past to find solutions today.

Figuring out how to deal with artificially intelligent robots legally will be the work of lawyers and philosophers. Discovering your purpose in the present requires psychological, philosophical, and mythological work. They are old solutions to new problems. Both require looking into the past, but this is not regressive. The past contains patterns that we can learn from. If we study world history, we can understand why countries today behave the way they do.

There is no question that science can help you answer fundamental questions about the nature of the world, that wealth can drastically improve your living conditions, but myths help you cultivate meaning, and far from being dispensable, are more valuable today than ever – precisely because they have been forgotten.

The socio-political conditions of the present have distorted your perception of your place in the world. You are bounded by the contingencies of today – and its realities, but only focusing on these will create a mismatch between what you deeply crave as a human being, and what you peripherally seek as a living organism that merely wants to survive.

The two have been conflated, and that is the problem.To subvert the destructive religious influences of the past, we have gotten rid of a powerful thread that allowed us to securely cultivate our individual and collective identity. Campbell calls on us to become the culture heroes of our time and attempt to restore it.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian