Why Read Mythology

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 at times 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. All of 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 that he has to somehow overcome in order to get back to his family. The story may give you hope that there is a possible 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.

Additionally, 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 Odessey. 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 advices. And by undertaking this action, Telemachus has to sacrifice the comforts of his own home and by doing so, he beings 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 in 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 is the goal of many people but it can be difficult to know how exactly 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 are consciously avoiding 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 begin to 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


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The Hero’s Journey: Understanding The Departure

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation–initiation–return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

The monomyth is often referred to as the hero’s journey because this pattern of, separation, initiation, and return, can be studied in many mythologies from all over the world. The typical hero’s journey has a character leave their home in order to face different trials and tribulations which they eventually overcome by growing as a character and then, with this new found understanding, they return home to help others on their journey to self-improvement.

Separation is the first step which Joseph Campbell refers to as Departure. The Departure has five subsections: The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, The Crossing of the First Threshold and The Belly of the Whale.

Starting with The Call To Adventure.

The first stage of the mythological journey–which we have designated the “call to adventure”–signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.

The call to adventure is an opportunity, which may start as a blunder or be forced upon someone due to circumstances outside of their control but nonetheless, this opportunity is one that can elevate the individual by “awakening of the self” through the acceptance of this call.

For those who are familiar with the story of the Lord of the Rings by J.r.r. Tolkein, you may recall how Frodo Baggins, the young hobbit, is gifted the ring of power by his uncle, Bilbo, and this initiates the call for once the significance of the ring is discovered, Frodo has to travel outside his comfortable Hobbit hole into a land unknown.

However, just because there is a call to adventure it doesn’t mean everyone accepts it. There is also a refusal of the call.

Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.

These individuals are usually shown as examples of what not to do, of who not to be. These people have let go of their interests and stopped advancing in their life-roles. And so, such an individual becomes passive and is left to “create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.”

Literature is full of old, corrupted kings being overthrown by the young Prince. The old king representing someone who refused the call and strayed off the path while the young Prince took on the mantel of what the King should have been and restored order to the land.

For those who accept the call to adventure usually open themselves to receiving Supernatural Aid.

For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.

Two clear examples of this in our culture can be found in the Star Wars series and once more, in Middle Earth. The first individual Luke Skywalker meets once he accepts the call to adventure is Obi-wan-Kenobi, the Jedi Master who acts as his teacher and guide, teaching Luke the way of the Jedi. While in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series, we have Gandalf providing wisdom and knowledge to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

This symbolizes possible order or peace that can be attained by the adventurer as he is being rewarded for his courage.

That though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever-present within the sanctuary of the heart and even immanent within, or just behind, the unfamiliar features of the world.

After the supernatural aid comes The Crossing Of the First Threshold. Simply put, this is the first trial, first struggle, the first conflict that the hero faces once he has started on the path.

With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the “threshold guardian” at the entrance to the zone of magnified power […] Beyond them is darkness, the unknown, and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the member of the tribe.

The plunge, the leap of faith which requires courage on the behalf of the adventurer. This is seen clearly in the Lord of the Rings series as the four hobbits come into imminent danger the moment they decide to leave the Shire. This danger is the Black Riders who are searching for the ring.

Another reason why courage is required is because what comes after crossing the first threshold is The Belly Of The Whale.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died.

Once more the Rings series demonstrates this notion when Frodo is stabbed by the Black Rider or the Nazgul. At the brink of death, Frodo is saved, reborn because now he is forever changed. There is no turning back from this point onwards. No matter what happens, having been swallowed by the “whale”, the hero is transformed, he is changed, he won’t be the same person he was before.

And so begins the transformation of the individual. Having departed from his comfortable life, he steps into the initiation phase which is full of trials and tribulations through which he either breaks or becomes a stronger version of himself.