Modern Mythology

As of late I have been on an interesting journey into what can be called modern mythology. A friend of mine is teaching a college English course, and she wants the students to consider looking at comic books and other articles of pop culture interest as the modern mythology of our lives. Since she has a lesser understanding of comic books than I do, she asked me for suggestions about what characters and books would be considered a modern mythology. Right now I have her working on a definition of modern mythology before we delve into things. From another direction, a friend of mine commented to me directly about my post about Jackpot, explaining to me that the vigilante archetype has been a member of the American monomyth for quite some time – and then she gave me book recommendations. I am currently waiting for the library to deliver those books, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The American Monomyth, so that I can really get into what it all is. However, a few months ago I picked up a book by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers called The Power of Myth, which is a collection of conversations between the two scholars about the meaning of symbols and the workings of Campbell’s mind months before his death.

"Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with the experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is."

Even just a quarter of the way into the book, I am learning quite a bit about Campbell’s view of mythology and its place in the world. Mythology really serves four functions, which I will copy from Wikipedia:

[T]he Mystical Function–experiencing the awe of the universe; the Cosmological Function–explaining the shape of the universe; the Sociological Function–supporting and validating a certain social order; and the Pedagogical Function–how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.

Myths are stories from which we are supposed to learn about life. Not every story is a myth or will prove to function as one. Many stories, especially in this day and age, are just entertainment. We gain nothing from them – not unless we seek to do so.

By the time of Campbell’s passing, the only modern story he considered on the level of mythology is Star Wars, thanks in large part to the fact that George Lucas wrote the initial story with the Hero’s Journey in mind. From the sound of it, it would seem that to be considered mythology one needs to follow a certain format. I hope that is not the case, and my further investigations will help me to understand that.

"Myths are so intimitely bound to the culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them."

The other element would seem to be the perpetuation of the story. Star Wars is a modern myth in part because it is well known. Darth Vader pops up internationally, and most people understand some of the more broad references made to the movie. (The people who do not understand jokes relating to the Force or to Jedi are likely foreign or after a certain age just made it a point to not see Star Wars films. You can imagine the latter were difficult people for me.) The question then becomes what else can be elevated to the level of a modern myth?

Popular television series and movies would seem to fit the bill until one really thinks about them. Star Trek is well known but the stories being told about the series fall to minor references: “Beam me up, Scotty,” (which was never uttered in the series), “Dammit, Jim, I’m a Doctor, not a…”, Spock is logical and rational, and Kirk sleeps with every type of woman in the universe. MASH? More minor references but little dealing with the overall theme. Lost would be a great current example, except the ending has seemingly killed discussion of the series due to disappointment. The same could be said for the Matrix trilogy of movies. The first one could have been a new myth, but the following two hurt where it would land historically.

My friend, the college teacher, would like to think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has created its own modern mythology, but that does not seem to be the case. Not only is it only well known for the cult of Joss Whedon fans, the stories told about it do not seem to have any coherence. Each episode certainly says something and many tell a meaningful story with great metaphor and allegory, but I might say that each episode is a wonderful fable in the volume of Buffy, which is probably far too long a tale for many people’s investments.

In my mind, it would seem that a modern myth needs to be something that is well known and told succinctly. This differs from classic mythology, found in long volumes like The Odyssey and The Bible. Back then we lived in smaller tribes and stories were shared among the people on a more personal level. The stories became a part of the culture and informed the culture. We are too connected in this age, with far too much cultural noise coming at us. Not only do we lack these stories and their symbols being repeatedly told to us, unless you are a regular religious service attendee or a fanatic of specific audio and/or visual literature, but we are receiving stories and symbols from other lands that experience the world much differently. Campbell would no doubt suggest that there are universals, especially since he believes in a Freudian and Jungian collective unconsciousness linking us all (with which I find it hard to disagree most of the time), but finding those universals does not make works inclusive of those elements modern myths.

"One of the Shinto texts says that the process of nature cannot be evil. Every natural impulse is not to be corrected but to be sublimated, to be beautified."

Which is a shame because it means for the past while we have been producing the equivalent of cultural bubblegum. Great fun for a while, but then it loses its flavor and gets discarded. This might ultimately be our own fault, too, because of the mass commercialization inherent to a capitalistic world society. Godzilla could have been a powerful mythic parable about the dangers of living in a world abusing nuclear power and the price we have to pay to set it right again (or so we think…), but the 27 sequels (and American remake that lacks any context) have made the original story a lesser creature. Doctor Who is seemingly a powerful British myth about an alien being traveling through time and experiencing multiple cultures through a lens somewhat familiar to viewers, but the sheer volume of works and loss of potentially powerful material may convince many that it is impossible to penetrate…or merely meandering.

Then there are comic books, not to mention their other associated commercial properties. Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and the Hulk are likely the most powerful myths constructed and reconstructed for the current age. They are just as hard to escape as Star Wars. We generally know their origin stories, but we do know who they are. Spider-Man is a man with the abilities and proportionate strength of a spider, Batman is crime fighter who strikes fear in the criminal mind primarily at night, Superman is an alien ubermensch who fights for truth and justice in the world (not just the American way anymore), and the Hulk is a retelling of Jeckyl and Hyde with super strength and anger (and warnings about playing with nuclear power). The only problem I have with them is that their stories are generally disregarded. Not their origins but rather what they have done. What stories, other than their origins, are retold? What do they say about the world, people, etc.? There is a great lesson in Spider-Man about great power begetting great responsibility, but he came up with that in one issue. What more is there?

It does not seem that there are any modern myths out there, but my understanding of mythology so far is limited. I will definitely come back to this as I further familiarize myself with what mythology is supposed to be and the power of the symbols. It seems there is a strong interplay between the stories and culture, but maybe there is something more. I know at least one person will likely comment on this and give me further insight, but I would really love to have a discussion about this everyone who stops by here.

What is mythology to you? Are there any modern mythologies out there that I am overlooking? Or are we just rehashing and referencing the past, creating no new symbols and no new meanings?

About Gospel X

Media commentator who tries not to waste time - and often fails

Posted on September 8, 2010, in culture, literature, modern mythology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Wonderful story !!! This is a good for my experience ,thank you for your sharing.

  2. Your College Professor Friend

    Excellent thoughts, all. I’m interested in the idea that you think that modern mythology has to be “told succinctly.” Star Wars, it seems to me, is anything but. Of course, the only bit of Star Wars that I actually like are the original three films, but that’s mostly because Jar Jar Binks annoyed me so much that I refused to see the other two new films. (Perhaps I should suck it up and see those eventually…) I like how you bring up The Odyssey and The Bible — original myths that are pretty darn long. Yet the myths that I’m teaching in my course are each only a couple pages long at most. So length doesn’t really seem to be a qualification to me… although the Greek myths are a set… a series, if you will. You can read them separately, but you could also read them as one long narrative.

    I’m also interested in the idea that a myth must be universally received in order to be “universal.” As you noted, when cultures weren’t so inter-connected (thank you, globalization) a culture’s myths influenced an entire society. This seems to be part of why you disqualify Buffy as a myth — because it influences Whedon’s fans, but not culture as a whole. Yet I would disagree with that on a couple of levels.

    First of all, I would like to make the argument that Whedon’s fans qualify as a culture, or rather a “sub-culture” — which I think often functions in our society today rather like an entire culture used to do. In such an expanded world, we need to find a community and a way of life that makes our decisions and beliefs easier to manage and the larger world easier to negotiate. A sub-culture often provides that kind of a community, which then guides a person’s way of thinking. So, perhaps we could qualify modern myth as something that expresses “universal” truths but is not necessarily “universally” received simply because of all the “cultural noise coming at us.” To have our world, all our sub-cultures, be on the same page would be impossible.

    (To disagree with you on a second point regarding Buffy, I would say that there is an over-arching story, but I will leave the actual rebuttal to Rhonda Wilcox, “the mother of Buffy Studies.” See if you can get ahold of her book “Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and read chapter 2, “Pain as Bright as Steal.” It actually details how Buffy follows Campbell’s hero monomyth.)

    So, I think that we could argue that a definition of modern myth is that it has the potential to relate the same kinds of universal truths, but that the very nature of our globalized society has handicapped the possibility that most of these stories will be able to function as myths on a grand scale.

    I’m still working on further details of a definition of modern myth, though. πŸ˜€

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