The individual has to find an aspect of myth that relates to his own life. Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function—realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery […] The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned—showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through […] The third function is a sociological one—supporting and validating a certain social order […] But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to—and that is pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myth can teach you that. (Joseph Campbell)
It’s the ‘How to live’ function of the myth which interests me. Life can be difficult to navigate. It’s unknown and random which can bring about unexpected situations. How to deal with these hardships and struggles? Or what’s the best way to improve yourself? How to build a strong character? One which is courageous and active. Or how to get connected with your spiritual side, your feminine or masculine side? Questions like these and others like it are always at the forefront of my mind.
One way myths can set you down the right path is by understanding that you’re not unique in these thoughts. These questions and troubles have been thought of before you. The fact that other people have had them and have dealt with them and have immortalized possible solutions in the format of stories and myths is an important reason why these myths should be studied.
When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself.
Instead of blindly trying to get through life and only relying on your own experiences to come up with some manageable way to solve your problems, you can instead lean on past stories for support.
You may find comfort in Odysseus‘ struggle to get home. The repeated obstacles he has to somehow overcome in order to get back to his family. The story may give you hope that there is a way to achieve your goal if you keep facing your own obstacles with grace and a calm mind. In modern-day such a story is exemplified in Rocky where the character is repeatedly beaten down but refuses to stay down, each time he gets back up and it’s the value of that simple motif which can allow you to keep facing your own troubles, as it did for the former navy seal and ultramarathon competitor, David Goggins.
Or understand the negative effects of greed can have on a family through the story of King Midas. Or even see how the overabundance of fatherly love can be harmful to your children, as shown in Balzac’s Old Goriot.
These simple stories can guide you into being a better parent, a more cohesive family unit or simply to accept the continuous struggles of life.
Mythology is littered with the idea of death and rebirth, but in the sense that in order to move up in life, to transition from one phase of your life to the next, you must sacrifice something.
Mythology has a great deal to do with the stages of life, the initiation ceremonies as you move from childhood to adult responsibilities, from the unmarried state into the married state. All of those rituals are mythological rites. they have to do with your recognition of the new role that you’re in, the process of throwing off the old one and coming out in the new, and entering into a responsible profession.
The rituals of primitive initiation ceremonies are all mythologically grounded and have to do with killing the infantile ego and bringing forth an adult.
Once again we see the importance of initiation and sacrifice in the Odyssey. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, is a boy who is simply hoping that one day his father returns restores stability and order in his life. However, Athena comes and gives the boy advice in which she tells him to set out and seek his father. It’s action that Athena advises. And by undertaking this action, Telemachus has to sacrifice the comforts of his own home and by doing so, he begins his transition from boyhood to manhood.
Many of us cling on to things from our past as we attempt to grow into the individual we wish to be. It’s usually the things we enjoy the most, the ones which bring us the most comfort, that need to be abandoned in order to grow and enter the next phase of life. It’s this letting go that is hard, which is why we may see grown adults behaving like children. Because these people haven’t made the right sacrifices. Unlike Bilbo, who gave up the comforts of the Shire in order to venture out into the world and face challenges, these people hold on to the comfort and, in doing so, remain the same while their bodies grow older.
This theme of embracing what is uncomfortable runs throughout the myths. Of how long-lasting character growth only comes by facing hardship and struggle.
All these different mythologies give us the same essential quest. You leave the world that you’re in and go into a depth or into a distance or up to a height. There you come to what was missing in your consciousness in the world you formerly inhabited.
And what all the myths have to deal with is transformations of consciousness of one kind or another. You have been thinking one way, you now have to think a different way […] Either by trials themselves or by illuminating revelations. Trials and revelations are what it’s all about.
Think about Hercules’ 12 labors or Buddha’s revelations through stillness. It’s going beyond your comfort zone that myths embody. Self-growth and self-improvement are the goal of many people, but it’s difficult to know how to go about achieving these aims. The myths tell us the embrace trials or to go into a depth or height which we are avoiding. It’s what we consciously avoid that may be the exact thing we need to get better.
Whether it be a relationship that we aren’t happy in, or a job that we dislike, or an opportunity that scares us or an activity that intimidates us, it’s only in facing these trials and figuring out how to overcome them do we experience transformation in our consciousness.
Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in situations that will evoke your higher nature rather than your lower.
Your higher nature is often revealed when you tackle something that is difficult. When you have to make difficult choices and decisions. While the lower nature is when you constantly expose yourself to immediate pleasure and comfort. At least that’s what the myths which have stood the test of time tell us. The heroic quest doesn’t start and end with you avoiding engagement with life. Rather, it starts when you embrace of experience of life, which includes failures and disappointments. Just understanding that life is full of obstacles may be enough reason why you should read the ancient Heroic tales. It can brace you for the inevitable and, if you care enough, it can also guide you through these universal troubles.
Book referenced: The Power Of the Myth By Joseph Campbell
Youtube: Learned Living
Poem: The Many Yous
Article: Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth
Short Story: Everything Work’s Itself Out
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