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The Power of Monomyth

March 19, 2013

It has been said that you can understand a culture by examining their founding mythology. What does that say when we find that our heroes are all the same across cultures? Does it mean, in the words of most fictional villains, “We’re not so different?”

Joseph Campbell, a name that might be familiar to high schoolers, argued in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that our shared stories say quite a lot about us. Campbell points out that despite the cosmetic differences between nations and cultures, there are more fundamental stories we will always share. The fact that those stories have any kind of resonance speaks to our innermost and unchangeable feelings and ways of seeing the world. Because we share our common foundation as human beings that make us subject to the same biological imperatives and urges, we can come to understand other culture’s essential commonality with ourselves.

An evolutionary psychologist (or someone who’s simply read more Jung than I have) might have more insight into possible explanations for why Campbell’s thesis is true on a neuro-/psychological level, but the point is that there are bedrock experiences that we can relate to across cultures. If you want a more comprehensive version of the story, Campbell and Bill Moyers got together to produce a six-part miniseries called The Power of Myth, which was just released for free online.

Campbell suggests that the fact that archetypal events like the flood myth and characters like Orpheus (whose tale of travels to the underworld to save a loved one appears not only in Ancient Greece but also in Feudal Japan, Sumeria, and Mayan cultures) or Jesus (whose life-death-ressurection heroic antecedents existed in Medieval Europe, Ancient Egypt, Hinduism and Buddhism).

And of course, for those wise enough to slavishly learn the lessons of history, like George Lucas or the Wachowskis, you can make a movie that appeals across all cultures. Which is why people who don’t like Star Wars or The [Original] Matrix probably shouldn’t be trusted.

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