Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
Where to begin? Last month we talked some about my own love for stories and looked just a bit at some of the things I love, but it wasn’t quite the whole picture.
What is myth, anyways? Myth is defined as a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
The study of myth, Mythology, is somewhat complicated, difficult, and tenuous, much like archeology- because we can no longer directly observe many of the cultures these myths come from, nor observe their societies, how each individual interacts with one another. And even if their descendants remain, the world is quite different from the one these stories were first recorded in. Our current preconceptions and biases can influence how we interpret these stories if we are not careful. Poor students of mythology, like the amateur archeologists of the Victorian era, can force a certain interpretation on a myth to suit their needs or desires. Crash Course does an episode in its series on the theories of myth, which is helpful in defining out the misconceptions about Myth.
So we must look deep, and hard- by looking without aiming. It is possible we have achieved this- but it’s just as likely we’ve missed the mark entirely and our ancestors may just laugh. Who knows for sure.
The monomyth breaks down into the masculine, and feminine hero’s journey. This doesn’t necessarily mean that only men go on the masculine journey, and women only go on the feminine journey- or that even the two are mutually exclusive. (Some have theorized that Harry Potter follows elements of both.) Human males are not only masculine and females are not only feminine. The traits of masculine and feminine are more like a Venn diagram in an individual. But the rest of that digression is another show. (tl;dr: men/women and masculine/feminine don’t quite mean what you think it means. Yes. Even what you just thought. Its meaning is older and deeper than “society”.)
The masculine journey can be seen as a way of storytelling on how the individual should live in the world, and the feminine emphasizes a division of the self and a struggle with the duality of one’s nature, and the journey they take to heal the division of the self and transcend.
And the Heroine’s Journey, as outlined by Maureen Murdock.
So here is where I’d like to add the note that the Heroine’s Journey is not often seen or portrayed in current stories, or as often in ancient myth. Many will bemoan that this is because of *dramatic music* “The Patriarchy™”, but I don’t agree. From my own thoughts, this journey is not as often mapped out because it is not often taken in the first place, by either male or female. Murdock defined the Heroine’s journey because she felt that the Hero’s Journey did not account for the transformations specifically women undergo, which is more or less true, but also not true. A woman undergoing a mythological journey does not require or always undergo a separation from her feminine side. The division of self, or resolving duality in one’s self can be found and healed through the typical hero’s journey and could be another reason why it was not explicitly laid out.
I see it as an unfortunate thing that the study of stories and myth has become crushed under the current socio-political atmosphere and subsequently, the meanings of myth have been skewed to fit the political agendas of ideologists. This only limits our understanding of our selves, and of the collective history our psyches descend from. Yes, some things occurring in myth and story seem abhorrent, archaic, and backward to our current social norms. This isn’t an excuse- this isn’t me being some moral relativist. It takes the understanding that people told stories to make sense of the world as it was manifesting around them, and also of possible ancestral memories. Using this thinking we can better understand the history of our species and how we got to where we are today. A current thinker on mythos and belief I have found who does their best to take a multifaceted yet realistic approach is Jordan Peterson. *waits for the ruckus to die down* He sets forth an understanding of what comparative mythologists have been assessing in many of his lectures, like his class on Personality and It’s Transformations, and Maps of Meaning. But not only the comparative nature of Myth and Story, but why we find it so meaningful.
The Monomyth may have its shortcomings, and it’s use in modern storytelling may be poorly or too overtly exercised at times, but it has a great utility. I love this article here talking about that original meaning that was set out in the study of the Monomyth.
Storytellers have since taken this formula, and with greater and lesser talent at applying it, used it to convey successful and engaging novels, movies, tv shows, and video games. Even those not conscious of the outline find great enjoyment and meaning in such things when expertly applied. Mythic journeys resonate with us. They move us and inspire us. They show us how we can be more than we are today. I find this to be a testimony to the closeness of Truth this comes.
I believe that a central part of understanding and interpreting Myths and Stories is knowing not just the formula, but the Archetypes. Archetypes were first put forward by Carl Jung as a part of his theory on the collective unconscious, and expounded upon by his students, and thinkers like Joseph Campbell and Jordan Peterson. The Collective Unconscious and Archetypes can be thought of as the distillation of characteristics central to human thought and behavior. This distillation has occurred over the millennia of our existence, going back to even before we were apes. Things happened. We encountered elements of reality and those who encoded and learned survived, preserving the information for the next and the next and the next generation. Then came the stories, and the millennia of retelling and retelling in oral, then written tradition.
Carl Jung identified four main Archetypes, as well as a number of smaller ones. These are often interpreted into stories as a singular character, such as The Wise Old Man/Woman, the Trickster, and the Hero, though Jung proposed that all the archetypes exist within a person, with a few dominating the personality. Erich Neumann, one of Jung’s students, used the analogy that the archetypes are like the “organs” of the psyche.
Jung’s four main archetypes are The Self, The Shadow, the Animus, and Anima. For those interested, The Academy of Ideas has a great series of articles on Jung and his theories. The Crash Course for Mythology does discuss how these archetypes manifest in stories throughout cultures across history, so it’s very worth watching the series through!
It is in part through observing these archetypes in stories that we learn to identify them in ourselves, and better understand we are- and can be.
It’s useless to ask if myths are “true”. Of course, they aren’t true- not in the way it’s true that I wrote this post first on my phone and then edited it on my computer. Or true in the way that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, or that geese hatch from eggs and migrate, and do not come from barnacles.
They’re more than true. Myths and stories take the things that you don’t quite have words for, the deep unifying unconscious part of your human self, and give them form- in a bizarre, off-kilter manner that somehow gives you the tools to orient yourself in the world. Because, as we are beginning to discover, we don’t truly view and process the world in a material way– that comes later in our “newest” systems. (Which makes empirical sciences a goddamn miracle.)
Next month we’ll focus more on the ways these steps in the Journey, and the Archetypes show up in stories, and how they can relate to your own life.
“Stories may not be real in the same way as this poltuice, my son, but they are real nonetheless! Real enough to help me live. And work. And find the meaning in every leaf, every drop of dew.”
The Lost Years of Merlyn, T. A. Barron
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