Some Thoughts about Modern Mythology

A question was posed over at mythicmusings.com that came to me via Twitter: Are we missing a modern mythology? My initial answer, which should come as no surprise to anyone who either knows me or has been reading this blog for awhile, is an emphatic NO! that is quickly followed with a series of examples (Disney, Harry Potter, Buffy, etc.). Gut reactions aside, this is a question worth considering a bit further.

Reading Joseph Campbell and the other modernist mythologists, it’s easy to conclude that myth in the modern world is dead. Campbell et al mourn for a romanticized era “long ago” when myth was a daily fixture and people ran with the gods. In the middle of Campbell’s research, though, is a very telling phrase: “What is mythology? Other people’s religion. What is religion? A misunderstanding of other people’s mythology.” Many times I have read this phrase, and many times I have underlined it, but I’ve never really mulled this one over properly. The first error of this statement is to assume that mythology is *only* other people’s religion, but it wasn’t very fashionable until recently to reflect inward and look at one’s own culture, which leads us to the second half of the phrase: to consider religion as simply a misunderstanding of other people’s mythology suggests a systematizing of a mythos that essentially takes the magic out of the gods. Campbell is highly critical of Christianity, and this particular phrase, though general, seems to be coming from his own Catholic wounding, which is a dangerous place to write from without some kind of acknowledgement.

So let’s ponder this further. Campbell goes on to give us four functions of mythology: cosmogonic (creation myth), religious (belief system), social/cultural (behavior system), and psychological (individual context). He tells us that true myths necessarily have all four components. But where this idea falls apart is when it comes to the American mythos. America was founded on Enlightenment ideals (the same ideals Campbell blames for the death of myth) of individuality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals have shaken the Western world for the last 200+ years, but especially so in the aftermath of World War II, a war that brought the world together in a way human history has never known and from which America emerged a victor. And of course, who writes the history and myths of a given “empire?” Always the one who wins the war. So these fundamentally American Enlightenment ideals have shaped the modern world, for better or for worse. American myth in the context of Campbell’s four functions looks like this: 1. Cosmogonic = the founding of the country by pilgrims and colonialists, the Revolution, and Manifest Destiny/Westward expansion; 2. Religious = the idea of the nation as unifying factor, a concept that gives a god-like identity to this pervasive unifying factor; 3. Social/Cultural = the Bill of Rights and the boundaries of our individuality; 4. Psychological = the Missionary’s Call to tame the West and our entitlement to our inalienable rights. The mythology is already built into the culture, but to fully grasp it, we have to redefine what we consider “god.”

Turning to another aspect of modern mythology – and one of my favorite topics – popular culture. In considering ancient mythological systems, I’ve often taken for granted that the gods were a daily fixture, just as Campbell suggests. One factor that tends to be overlooked, however, is that there was no separation between church and state in these systems. What we call their religious stories could just as likely have been their popular culture at the time, because the truly religious aspects were known only to the priests (which would not have been told to the Roman historians during the spread of the empire). Look at Greece as an excellent example (and since Greece is the foundation for Western civilization today, it’s the essential example). In Greece, there were festivals that included public displays of myth, notably the Dionysia, during which people would gather at the theater, worship Dionysos and watch a lot of plays. These plays, Aristotle notes, were meant to bring the Greek community together, to build communitas and to move us toward a communial catharsis. Plays to the ancient Greeks were like going to the movies today. Similarly, the poet Homer would have told his story on a smaller scale, sitting on the street corner and reciting to whomever would listen. Homer was like watching television. Then there were the initiation cults, and there are many modern parallels to those, from Boy Scouts to Freemasons, to college fraternities/sororities, to fan clubs. And it is from the plays, the poems of Homer and some of the leaked stories from the initiation cults that we have any idea what Greek mythology looked like. So the long-winded answer to the question about modern myth is to look at the movies, television, social organizations, and other literary media to find modern myths.

Our notion of God has changed, because we are a world in which there is now separation between church and state. In the Western World, we don’t believe that good government should be run by the deity, because we make a clear distinction between god as our spiritual leader versus the very-human leader who runs a country. Indeed, Western history is riddled with examples of how a king who rules with Divine Right can pose a major problem for a kingdom and some examples of those that succeed. Note that the successful god-kings were the ones whose country was completely isolated from the rest of the world, namely Egypt. The more contact Egypt had with the Greco-Roman world, the harder it was to maintain its Divine Right.

So then, what is mythology? Campbell gives us a good starter definition and some tools to work with. I use the working definition that mythology is comprised of the stories that shape the human experience with distinct flavorings of culture and time. To understand one’s mythology is to understand one’s experience in the cosmos, and vise versa.

The difficulty with the current state of the world is that there is not and cannot be a single unifying cultural mythos. Even the imposition of the American Enlightenment ideals is a dangerous game. Campbell had the forethought to recognize this when he told us that it was time to work on the myth of the planet. The planet is made up of diverse individuals, each of whom operate under their own mythological system. The one thing we do share in common is the planet and the limited resources she has to offer. When Campbell tells us to write the stories for the next generation, I believe he is wanting us to write the stories that encourage the next generations to work together to help the planet. This particular mythology, unfortunately, is a direct counter to the apocalyptic mythologies that the Western world has adhered to for so long.

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