The Four Functions of Myth
“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism, and you know how reliable that is.”
In my coaching, I lean heavily on myth and metaphor because it is the fastest way I know to get to the root of any pattern.
That doesn’t mean I launch into the story of “Eros and Psyche” or the “Twelve Labors of Heracles” every time someone asks a question. Though I’ve done that, it’s usually more beneficial to reference someone’s favorite superhero or movie character, since nearly every story turns on mythic themes.
As the Christian Bible says, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Generation after generation, we face the same struggles.
We seek wealth, freedom, love, and approval, and the world presents us with challenges like plague, wild beasts, and human interference. Humans oppress one another and rise up in revolt. All the while, we all deal with our own internal struggles as we mature, reproduce, age, and die.
Mythology contains the collected wisdom of generations of people who captured their experiences and observations through art and poetry, wisdom that others found valuable enough to pass on. These are the tales that have withstood the test of Time.
A myth is more than just a story. It’s a cosmic truth, a pattern that permeates multiple layers of reality, at once personal and universal. It’s an instrument that helps us recognize the mysterious cosmic coordination of the individual with the universe.
Sarah Lawrence professor Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the man who identified the monomyth (aka the Hero’s Journey), is responsible for our current mythological paradigm. He described four aspects of mythic meaning:
Mystical or Metaphysical
For a story to be a myth, it must first and foremost engage what the Sioux called Wakan Tanka. The Romans called it Mysterium Magnum. The Great Mystery. A myth awakens us to the wonder of the world, directing attention to sensations and understandings that words cannot capture, even (and perhaps especially) in the face of the terrors of the world. At the core of the Great Mystery is our own mortality. What is the significance of being alive? And what happens when we are not?
In the modern world, we have mechanical explanations for why the sun rises and sets. Still, we’re confounded by quantum theory, faced with the reality that objects are simultaneously particles and waves and that the universe is only solid when we look at it. Never mind the multiverse theory that comic books nailed in the 1960s, only to be taken seriously in the 21st Century. It seems that science frequently finds itself playing catch-up with mythic imagination.
Myths offer a way to order the universe, explanations for why things are the way they are, even if such explanations are not the point of the story.
Educated Greek philosophers knew Earth was round and that neither Hyperion nor Apollo drove a literal chariot across the sky, blazing or otherwise. They used the sun’s path across the sky as an anchor for psychological teachings about heroism, determination, and hubris.
Star Wars describes the Force, an ever-present energy like chi or prana that runs through every physical entity in the universe, with a light and dark side, a choice the hero must make.
In The Matrix, the world has two realms: the digital realm, which is inhabited by slaves of the machine, and the physical realm of free people.
When we watch Star Wars or The Matrix, we understand at some level that these stories are about more than just two hours of entertainment. That’s why they have achieved such massive success.
These myths speak to something we know to be true, even if we can’t quite name what it is. Like the films’ protagonists, we know we have choices to make, and that we struggle with our allegiances. Do we do what is right? Or do we do what is convenient?
The sociological aspect of myth is the transmission of cultural values to validate and uphold a particular social order, a shared moral code that binds a group together across generations. Myths teach behaviors and systems that everyone in the community is expected to uphold. They may be subtle or overt. We do some things not because our parents or leaders say so, but because it is the will of the gods.
Star Wars inspired a devoted fan base that has transcended generations. The philosophy presented in The Matrix emerged from the Landmark Forum, a human potential training program. The heroes of both myths align themselves with rebellions against the forces that would enslave them, alongside others who do the same.
Misaligned societal mythology is a primary contributor to modern cultural breakdowns. The Greek myth of Pandora, the woman responsible for releasing evil into the world, was used to uphold patriarchal domination over women. The story of Adam and Eve does the same thing.
America is currently experimenting with different sociological mythic structures, searching for ones that fit. The pace of change during an era that elevates individualism over community has made it difficult for new large-scale sociological myths to take root.
The modern myth of the rugged individual, the self-made man, ignores the reality of human interdependence and has fostered anti-social behavior.
We have a Statue of Liberty, but we no longer agree on what she represents. The stock market has a mythology that values growth over all else (which in biology is the value system of cancer.)
A myth teaches you about developing as a human being and the stages of life, from childhood dependency to adulthood, and from maturity to the death passage. According to Campbell, this pedagogical function of myth is what everyone must attempt to learn: “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”
Greek, Norse, Hindu, Native American, and other pantheistic mythologies offer myriad ways to mature as a human being, patterns of human behavior that a we may recognize in ourselves.
Odysseus was clever and crafty, but too proud for his own good.
Thor and Hercules were incredibly strong, but guileless.
Apollo dedicated himself to achievement and excellence in all things, but burned so bright he injured objects of his affection.
Like the Amazons, Atalanta and Artemis refused to submit to patriarchal gender expectations.
In addition to the development of your identity, myth teaches you how to dissolve that identity, how to let go of youth, rear and protect the next generation, and prepare for death.
The more myths you read, the more deeply you study them, the more you’ll see who you are and who you are not. Or at least the parts of yourself you want to display and the pieces you’d prefer to leave to others.