The Power of Myth in Storytelling

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fantasy-castle“If a being from another world were to ask you, ‘How can I learn what it’s like to be human?’ a good answer would be, ‘Study mythology.’ ”—Joseph Campbell
For Joseph Campbell, perhaps our era’s most influential student of mythology, myths express our basic need to explain, celebrate and immortalize the essence of life. Given that life itself has no “meaning”—it simply is—it is our stories (pulled from the ethers of our “muse”) that give meaning to life. We tell stories about how the world began, our struggles to survive, our victories against greed and evil. Each culture clothes its stories according to the place and time and associated issues. And each defines its heroes and villains accordingly. At the root of all these lies a universal and timeless human experience; where metaphor and imagery of myth transcend culture, time and place to encompass all of humanity and our striving journey toward truth, grace and peace. This is why all myth, from Plutarch’s Theseus & the Minotaur to George Lucus’s Star Wars, resonates with us, regardless of whether it was created yesterday or thousands of years ago.
Greek, Roman, Norse, African and Asian myths all address fundamental questions about our humanity: the fall of Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts, Romulus and Remus, Oedipus, Medusa, Perseus, King Arthur, Oedisseus, Vassilisa, Siegfried and the Nibelungenleid, Beowulf and Grendel, Jonah and the whale, Isolde and Tristan, Persephone and the underworld, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hercules, Osiris, Gilgamesh … the list is endless.
Artist as Mythmaker … and Shaman
“There’s an old romantic idea in German, das Volk dichtet, which says that the ideas and poetry of the traditional cultures come out of the folk. They do not,” says Campbell. “They come out of an elite experience, the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe.” He is referring to the artist, who speaks to “the folk”, who answer and create an interaction. “The first impulse in the shaping of the folk tradition,” says Campbell, “comes from above, not from below.” He is referring to the divine source, the muse, the gift of “seeing” bestowed on those willing to open themselves to it. According to Campbell, “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” Like the shamans of ancient times, the storyteller— whether painter, writer, actor, singer or filmmaker— interprets the divinity in nature for others. We interpret unseen things for a tangible world.
Artists are the mythmakers — the shamans — of today. The ancient shaman’s authority came from individual psychological experience, not a social ordination (like a priest). A shaman’s powers were symbolized through his own familiars and the deities of his own personal experience. His personal truth. As artists we wholly participate in our “landscape”. Like Dante, we journey to the depths of our world, become its deepest truths to emerge later and share.
The Mythic Hero’s Journey in Story 
In my opinion, the best stories follow the mythic hero’s journey plot structure. This is because “hero’s journey” stories are transformative for not only the protagonist (our hero) but for readers following along and identifying with her. Stories that pull a reader through the three steps of a human being’s evolution (separation, transformation, and return) promise great depth and fulfillment. This is what great storytelling does: they take us on a transformative journey of learning, through challenges of change to realize a prevailing victory. Writers are the shamans of today and the heroes we write about are our agents of change. Through our artistic drama of metaphor, we make commentary on the world and what it means to be human.
The hero archetype is particularly interesting, given that he or she is essentially us as we journey to prevail over the obstacles of our fears, weaknesses, and disappointments. Every hero is on a quest or mission (whether she realizes it or not). The true mark of a hero is in her willingness to sacrifice something of value, perhaps even her life, on behalf of an ideal or a group and ultimately for the greater good. A hero is the ultimate altruist. And she is you, the artist.
The Power of Mythologist
I recall a discussion with a young friend some time ago about her knowledge of writers vs. book titles (she knew few names of writers, even those whose works she had enjoyed, but could happily recite book titles). I realized that she chose her books based on their cover and the promised story within—with no attention placed on the author and no intention of following the author’s other works.
“When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything s/he has done,” says Campbell. “Don’t say, ‘oh, I want to know what so-and-so did’—and don’t read the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has given you … the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view … When you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such —but he hasn’t said anything to you.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article, and an enjoyable read. However, there are a couple of points I would like to contest.

    You have made a fair summation of some of Campbell’s theories in the space allotted, but please recognize that much of his work is now considered to be out of date. In particular, the Monomyth theory which you mention above, also known as the Hero’s Journey theory. While it was groundbreaking for its time, the majority of scholars consider this particular theory to be far too broad and oversimplified to be useful. It does have some utility as a teaching tool and a lens for literary analysis, but only as a starting point.

    Certainly, Campbell managed to popularize Comparative Religion through such texts as “The Power of Myth” and “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, but the body of knowledge has advanced greatly since their publication while popular knowledge of Comparative Religion has not. It would be like reading an Asimov science text from the 1950s and thinking that it contained the most modern theories.

    Campbell’s work should still be read, and read more widely than it is, but it should be read in context. His best work is still discussed widely in the field, but if you were to argue points out of “Hero With a Thousand Faces” you’d be mildly patronized. Given your interest in Campbell, you should read the four volume treatise “The Masks of God” if you haven’t already. Again, it is considered somewhat obsolete, but much of the theory contained there is still sound.

    As for the writer as shaman; there are certainly aspects of the role of the shaman in modern art and art theory, particularly in drama and fiction, but again, the comparison is tenuous. The shaman (by which I mean any pre-history religious mediator rather than a specific enthnological or racial functionary) performed more than a sacred story-telling or dramatic function: he was the mediator between the spirit world and the mundane performing a whole set of very complex socio-religious functions. While it can certainly be argued that the writer performs the function of the shaman in a basic way, writers are not shamans. There may be some writers who will enter into trances, undergo sweatlodge or otherwise alter their consciousness as a method of inspiration, I doubt that many of them would be willing to undergo the rigorous and dangerous actions that shamans took and still perform.

    You have been careful to point out that shamanism and its authority derives from individual spiritual experience, but its foundation is found in the shared collective religion of the tribe and thus is awarded him by society. The shaman is an expression and extension of those structures and should be seen as more of the tribe’s scape-goat (in the original religious sense) than as its myth-maker. The authority investing the shaman comes not from his spirits and allies, but from the tribe’s collective mythological beliefs. The spirits and gods are the agents of the shaman’s power and authority, but the collective belief of the tribe is the origin.

    Sacred drama has gained a lot of traction lately and it is a valuable tool for understanding not just culture, myth and the human experience, but also for investigating human consciousness, emotional states and cognitive processes. Modern writers, particularly writers of the fantastic stand to learn a great deal from sacred drama, shamanism and comparative mythology. But, please, do realize that saying writers are shamans is facile and misleading. Shamanism is an extremely complex and intricate religious function and is much more than just a story-teller.

    For a deeper appreciation of shamanism in a broad sense (rather than specific Tungu religious personages) I would suggest Mircea Eliade. Eliade is also criticized for over generality, but his “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy” provides a wealth of detail on the roles, purposes, functions and specific actions (like trances) of shamanic traditions world-wide. Wendy Doniger is another very good scholar, and her “The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth” is well worth the read.

    Please don’t misunderstand; Campbell and the Monomyth is a good tool for literary analysis and creative writing. However, over reliance on his overly broad theory can lead an author into error in the creation of myth and hero journeys. Even I have been guilty of this: one of my undergrad papers analysing “Dune” through the Campbellian Monomyth. While the paper was assigned a very high grade in the literature class, a follow-up paper on the same subject in one of my Comp. Myth grad-school seminars was (and rightly so) torn to shreds by my fellow students.

    I am glad to see articles such as this being published on the site. Thank you for writing it for us. Hopefully it will inspire more readers and writers to investigate not just myths but the study of Comparative Mythology. It is a great resource for all writers.

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