Moana and the Ocean

The other day, I was surfing a Buzzfeed article about Moana and came across a delicious little tidbit:

“Moana” means “ocean,” and it’s a nongendered word.

This is a significant detail in the context of the movie. Spoilers below.

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So, here’s the thing: The whole point of the film is that Moana is struggling with the fact that the ocean is calling her. When she’s a baby, the ocean chooses her. She wanders over to the sea, lured by a pretty shell. She reaches for it, and the ocean parts a pathway for her. She follows the trail of shells and meets a column of ocean, who essentially kisses her in the universal symbol of blessing, and gives her the green heart of Tafiti. She drops the heart as she runs back to her father, who is very nervous about the lure of the ocean (although he recognizes that Moana experiences the same call as he does–but this really isn’t a story about father atonement, so don’t get distracted by this detail).

Until she finally heeds the call to adventure, she struggles with the call of the ocean. I wrote about her anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” in another post. One of the other members of my Doctor Disney trinity, Dori Koehler, wrote this great post about the Call to Adventure and Moana’s message for our country. (Our third is the ever-wonderful Amy Davis. You know, that Amy Davis.)

But think about it this way: if her names mean ocean, that call that she’s struggling with is the call of her Self. So let’s talk about how this film isn’t just about empowerment; it’s about individuation.

Personally, I think that individuation is one of Jung’s best concepts. This is the process by which one becomes a whole in-divid-ual, with a balanced psyche (conscious and unconscious). One of the arguments I get into with older Jungians is whether or not individuation can happen in younger people. One way of interpreting Jung’s theory about individuation suggests that once you achieve it, you’ve achieved nirvana, and you’re done. The way I tend to interpret individuation places emphasis on the process, and brings together the end goal of the process with the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell. One often overlooked detail about Campbell’s journey is that the hero has to go home and share the boon, and once this is done, the hero goes off on another journey. Stories aren’t written to share with us the next step of the journey. So what if the heroes aren’t just going off into the woods…but rather going on their next journey?

That, to me, is closer to the reality of life. We constantly go from one journey to the next. Each journey builds on the previous to define who we are, adding a facet to our in-divid-uality.

When Campbell writes about what happens to us when we ignore the call to adventure, he’s cautioning us from getting so static that we forget about the journey and forget who we are. That little voice constantly calling us tells us who we are. It’s our heart.

The ocean is calling Moana. The heart of Tafiti is her heart. Her heart is literally calling her home.

Moana’s boon is to restore her people to their Wayfinding tradition. She learns from Maui how to navigate the seas, and she takes her people back on the adventure. As the song of the Wayfinders tells us, they always know home in their heart as they go searching for the next island. The point of her people is to go on the hunt for the islands that Maui raises with his fishhook. To constantly go on questing journeys for the next adventure.

When I sat through the credits of the film, I posted on Facebook the observation that this film out-Campbells Joseph Campbell. Because it does: Campbell may have given us the literary road map of the hero’s journey, but this film takes to that next level: the journey continues. Literally. We continue.

Speaking of heart, I want to give a shout-out to the short film ahead of Moana, called Inner Workings of the Human Body. Do you follow your head? Or your heart?

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Some Draper Thoughts

Over this past summer, I watched Mad Men. While the series did end on a far more optimistic note than the 1960s did themselves, the show is ultimately a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense. we are moved toward pity for the characters, especially Don Draper, and through this, we can experience a catharsis.

In particular, I resonated with the female characters. Joan Harris showed me a professional woman’s path full of sexual harassment…something I’ve been protected from by industry standards and Equal Rights laws (and perhaps also my Throne of Privilege). Peggy Olson showed me a woman who was willing to overcome social norms and pursue her authentic self. Betty Draper gave me cause to look in the mirror of my own relationship to my mother, thus prompting all this recent work on Demeter and Persephone, a myth that has underscored so much of my identify formation.

***Some spoilers about Mad Men are ahead.***

At the end of the series, we find out that Betty is dying of advanced lung cancer. Her daughter, Sally, has to carry the burden of this looming death in the special way that only a daughter can. But it’s even more upsetting that she’s a teenager when it comes to light. My own mother died from complications with COPD, also a decaying lung disease, when I was 16. She was 54. Really, this is my primary reference for what aging looks like. She spent her “middle age” growing progressively sicker, and I spent my youth struggling with the constant battle between my innate daughterly-duty of taking care of her and rebelling against the whole thing. I’ve had to find Demeter entirely as a Persephone, alone and without the veiled mother longing for my return.

Being the same age that Betty was in the show, her character provides a helpful lens for dissecting the Demeter-Persephone balance that I’m missing. It’s difficult for me to read the books of the women who came before, because they frame their experiences and myths according to a narrative that doesn’t align with my Millennial upbringing. I’ve been fed a narrative that women as they age should do everything they can to maintain their beauty and youth until they no longer can deny the inevitability of their age. In other words, I’m supposed to go from young to old overnight without the journey in between. That narrative is missing. Betty’s narrative helps provide some context, except for the fact that she dies young.

Betty Draper doesn’t fully become an emotional mother until the opportunity presents itself for her to impart her wisdom on her daughter, but Betty and Sally’s relationship struggles underneath the weight of Betty’s own challenging relationship with her dead mother, one that also struggled to nurture and develop a healthy space for daughter to develop her identity. As Sally exerts her identity, Betty struggles with her rebellion and independence, blaming Don for not being a stronger authoritative figure for Sally. There’s a childishness in Betty’s mothering technique that isn’t resolved until she finally embraces her role as a mother.

Persephone got legs

Several years ago, as a fresh graduate student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I wrote a paper about Persephone, interpreting her story less as a mother’s loss for an abducted child, and more as a teenager’s rebellion for the sake of identity formation. My thinking hinges on the very tiny detail that if Persephone really wanted to leave the Underworld and return to her mother, then why did she capitulate and eat pomegranate seeds? Sure, you could say it was because she was hungry, but determined women are rarely bothered by minor inconveniences as hunger. I think that Hades made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Notice, after all, that the story is written from Demeter’s perspective. The only perspective we get of Persephone’s experience is when she is crying to her mother. Do we really think that she’s telling her mother the whole truth? She didn’t even want to reveal that she ate the pomegranate. Let’s pretend that Persephone donned a leather jacket and jumped onto the back of Hades’ motorcycle early one morning. Of course, her mother would see it as an abduction. The little snot didn’t even say goodbye.

Anyway, the other day I was watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I work from home, and don’t have daycare, so my daughter and I watch a LOT of Disney Junior (far more than I’d like). When they broadcast a movie that gives me some relief from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Doc MacStuffins that takes me to my Laughing Place, then I’m all for it.

Perhaps it’s because this time I watched the movie as a mother, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been recently giving new consideration to the Princess phenomenon, but I just happened to see Persephone in Ariel, only in reverse–Ariel wants to leave the Underworld for the human world, not the other way around. She wanted to shed her goddess powers (as a mermaid) so she could walk and dance. She, too, made a defiant departure from her father. She felt restricted and confined. He wouldn’t even allow her to dream about the human world. So she left. And got a pair of legs.

The story is far more complex, with a sea witch and losing her voice and such. But the point of any mythic story is that we put our own spin on the details, but the basic structure carries from version to version. Stories such as The Little Mermaid help answer the question of Persephone’s story–just what was her experience while she was gone? Disney’s version tells this story to a modern audience, with Ariel experiencing many of the same growing pains as the American teenager. Even 25 years after its initial release, The Little Mermaid continues to tell the story of the American teenager who is trying to separate herself from parental control and become her own woman. (I’ll save the Eric bit, and the leaving home for a boy bit, for another conversation.)

True Love’s Kiss is today’s pomegranate. It’s a literary symbol that symbolizes union with someone or something else other than a parent, the divine marriage, a key step in the Individuation process. Regardless of what one things about love in the real world, the symbolic marriage in literature and myth speaks on a psychological level, helps elevate the inner reaches of psyche to a conscious level, leading to wholeness.

I contend that Persephone, and Ariel, had to leave. Without the departure, a daughter can’t become her own woman. Disney’s Rapunzel and Pixar’s Brave both illustrate the problems of an over-bearing mother on a girl’s identity formation. Sometimes, it comes with sacrifice, like trading fins for legs, but often, as The Little Mermaid II demonstrates, it doesn’t mean forever.

The Hero’s Journey 2.xxx

I was having a mental conversation with myself this morning, contemplating how to teach Joseph Campbell’s writing style to my students. The trajectory of my thoughts led me to the almost-cliché Hero’s Journey. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell images the Journey thusly:

One key point of the Hero’s Journey is that it is a circle. The Hero leaves, the Hero must return. If the Hero fails to return, then someone needs to go in and bring him/her home. The Hero must return and share the boon. Sure, there are exceptions. But that’s a different conversation.

The Journey is also linked with Jung’s process of Individuation. In the process of becoming a whole in-divid-ual, Jung tells us that we need to descend into the unconscious, return, and repeat the process as often as necessary. Jung’s process is associated by “old school” Jungians as aimed for the second half of life, but I don’t buy that for one second.

Hero’s Journey, circular, continuous… Point made? Good. So, here’s where my thoughts were going.

In our current phase of epic literature [“literature” includes film, television, and any other “text” within myth/popular culture], our epics are episodic. Historic epics, such as The Odyssey and Moby-Dick (a nod to my Epic professor, Dennis Slattery), have episodes built into the larger Hero Journey of the character, but are themselves not episodic. By episodic, let’s consider Harry Potter.

Harry has a single journey that spans all seven volumes—to defeat Voldemort and rid the wizarding world of an evil. This single journey’s latent meaning involves breaking his bond with Voldemort, and individuating, moving beyond the Boy Who Lived and to become Harry.

Each volume of the series is itself a complete Hero Journey. In the first book, his Journey is to rescue the Sorcerer’s Stone, the second is to rescue Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets, etc. Each journey brings him ever closer to the ultimate boon battle with Voldemort.

The limitations of words on this blog make the image I’m trying to convey a little difficult, but work with me here. The Little Hero’s Journeys build upon each other and culminate in the Big Hero’s Journey. Kind of like a spiral, with the first story being at the top moving down:

Though I’d prefer to imagine it the other way around, moving from narrow bottom up, but I couldn’t find a suitable image.

This new kind of Epic Hero’s Journey is nicely situated for integrating Campbell’s Monomyth with Jung’s Individuation. It’s a process. With each level, we gain experience and magical helpers that give us the strength to ultimately face that Bad Guy at the end of the game. (A notable exception is Epic Mickey. Again, something for another day.) We can see this Epic Monomyth at play in many different myth outlets these days, of which Harry Potter is only one voice. Others that immediately come to mind include Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games, and Star Wars.

And seeing the Hero’s Journey in this way makes it a better roadmap for our lives. Imagine what our world would look like if we imagined progress as a spiral and not as a linear evolution?

For your viewing pleasure, I pilfered this from overthinkingit.com (credit due where credit is due):

New Scholarship?

A friend of mine recently sent me an e-mail that contained the following question:

I have been thinking a lot about this statement you made on your blog over the summer:

And, while I’m happy to be a book-thumping mythologist and an arm-chair psychologist, it’s time to get some new scholarship published that isn’t just reciting or repackaging the same old theories that have been tossed around for 100 years now. In other words, stop theorizing and start doing. I’m still working on my plan of action for this step.

Have you figured out a plan of action yet?

Since this is a very appropriate question, especially as I slough ever closer a conclusion (to my dissertation, that is), I took a moment to jot down and answer. And here it is:

I’m not sure I have a specific answer, especially since somehow suggesting an answer seems to me to be a major act of hubris. But, as I read the Tweets about the Occupy movement, I’m more convinced that something needs to happen. The Occupy movement is great in that the youth are finally doing, but it falls short in that they don’t have a unified front of what they are protesting, which is what I’m afraid is going to happen when all the mythologists start doing something. "Saving the world" is an awfully big challenge.

It seems to me that the best course of action is for each mythologist to identify a particular aspect of "the world" s/he wants to see fixed and utilize the tools available for them to move in a direction of healing. For example, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of the Cold War instigating a paradigm shift in American myth and how our response to it constructed the environment we’re currently living in, one based on Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality. So then, my question is whether we can break down the simulacra and restore groundedness in some sense of reality without totally shattering America’s idealistic, Romantic, utopian views. My current tool, since I’m not formally published in many places, is to blog my thoughts, but to also construct lectures in my classes that invite students to think about these very questions and consider plans of action. Granted, only a few students actually walk away with any semblance of a plan, but I hold to the ideal that if I can sink into a couple of them, then they will spread the word and so on. I’m not expecting a quick fix, which is definitely not what we need–though I do think we need a mythic Band-aid in the interim as we realign our thinking, and that’s what really great myths these days are providing, such as Harry Potter or LOTR or Star Wars or whatever. They make us think about good and evil, love and hate, and model for us how to handle those emotions.

I once saw a Pacifica dissertation defense for a project constructed around using myths to help children of soldiers cope with their parent’s injuries (physical and mental). This student constructed a puppet stage play with the container of children asking an old wounded vet about why Daddy acts weird or why he had to lose a leg, and the old vet would respond with an older myth that answered the question, but the myth was used in the context of getting the children to connect their own situation with the myth and figure out for themselves the solution they were asking for. This particular model works great for younger kids, but I wonder how well it would work for older kids and adults. My concern with this latter example is that it pulls myths out of time and place (which is the point, according to the laws of archetypes), and I find that mythologists who use this practice ignore/overlook America’s own mythology altogether. I know this is a matter of opinion (and possibly national pride?), but overlooking American myth (not the same as Native American) reinforces the hyperreality by constructing a false relationship to myth that ignore the fundamental aspects of American culture.

I’m not really sure yet what overlooking American myth means yet. In the majority of my readings, the idea of American myth is something relatively recent, so maybe this is also something that will turn around.

Mythologists who toe the line between technology and myth are in a unique position. I think there is a lot of promise for a fusion between the two, but I haven’t yet figured out what that end goal should be. Pacifica recently launched the Study of Myth, which is supposed to be a discussion forum for all things myth, with a preference for the same conversation within the already established (ruts) discussions happening at Pacifica, the Opus Archives and the JCF. But discussion forums only go so far. Somehow, I almost wonder if an "Occupy Myth" movement is the next way to go. Except, rather than occupy a park, we occupy liminal space and democratically vote on our list of demands from the Cosmos and develop ways to take myth out of the discussion/educational forum and make it practical to everyday life. And to move away from the "Hero’s Journey" formula, because that formula cannot apply to everyone’s personal experience.

This is as far as I’ve thought. What are your thoughts, Dear Reader?

Myth Collection as Consumption

A recent bee started buzzing in my bonnet. Something about people who just collect myths and spit them out to prove a point has gotten under my skin, and this has been festering for awhile and it’s part of my current disillusionment with Joseph Campbell. On one hand, it’s a very superficial way to win an argument. But on the other, it does a disservice to the myth. Each myth has a context, and it’s important to recognize this context. I sort of addressed this in a previous post. What was once a learning tool for young Greek boys is probably not a learning tool for young American women. Sure, it can work if you force it into a new context, even revising the story to fit. But have you ever tried forcing a puzzle piece into a place where it doesn’t go? It’s the same with a myth. If you pound it enough, it’ll fit wherever you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it belongs there.

In my dissertation research, I’ve been recently captivated by the idea of consumption as an inherent part of the American psyche. In fact, I have boldly come to the decision that consumption is the driving force behind Manifest Destiny, which itself is the core of the American psyche. We have been consumers since the pilgrims came to this country; since the Revolution made it our own; since the Frontiersmen, women, and settlers claimed the land; and since we started mass producing “stuff.” Unlike our Old World forefathers, it’s not enough for us to consume food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. It’s not enough to consume art, religion or ideas. We want to consume everything and in increasing amounts. George Ritzer terms this “hyperconsumption.”

Since consumption is the core of our psyche and since I’m a self-declared cultural relativist (a remnant of my early Anthropology training), I don’t find fault with the fact that we consume. But we’ve made consumption an addiction. We don’t just consume for the sake of consuming, but somewhere along the way we started forming the core of our identity with the things we consume: by the clothes we wear, or the brands we choose to advertise, the car we drive, etc. We consciously project to the world what we want the world to think of us based on the items we are consuming.

But there’s a neurosis in hyperconsumption. We call them “collectors,” “hoarders,” or even “pack rats.” Chances are we all either know a number of friends who we would tag with those descriptions, or maybe we have certain aspects in our own lives that others would label as such. At various stages of my life, I’ve had things I’ve consciously collected, and I’ve held onto them in the classic pack-rat mentality until one move too many and they lost any and all meaning. As of right now, if I had to claim any conscious act of collecting and/or hoarding, it would be books. But the danger to collecting depends on what you do with it.

And this is where myth collecting comes into play. It’s good to know the various myths of the world. I say it many times that myths are some of the best artifacts we have from all times and cultures. They reveal so much about a culture’s beliefs, behaviors and psychology more so than many of the artifacts that do survive the times. This is one reason why I hold a very broad definition of what constitutes a “myth.” But so what? So what if you can recite a passage from Homer for me to prove a point in an argument? Or so what, Professor Campbell, that you can find three examples from world myth that supports your claim? What do you want me to do with it?

The academic realm of mythological studies threatens to become a myth collection. More importantly, choose a few mythologists, follow their work, and regurgitate their findings and sound very smart at a cocktail party.  People turn to myth when they are seeking answers. I’ve heard many people tell me that they found the answers they were looking for to a particular crisis in the works of Joseph Campbell. But while they may find the answers, do they actually put them to action? This is isn’t easy.

This is where  my dissertation has taken me. It’s become important to me to be able to read a myth and cull from it not only a culture-specific understanding of the myth’s context but also gain an understanding of the tools of mythology so that they can be applied to the current myth spectrum. It is only through this that we can begin to unlock the hidden mysteries of American mythology, long ignored as “too popular for serious scholarship.” It is through this that we can begin to understand the phenomenon of fanatic behavior that has helped define so many modes in the past 50 years. And I firmly believe that this will help us gain a better framework to create those myths that might actually initiate the healing process this country so desperately needs.

Persephone versus Anti-Persephone in MirrorMask

The film is the 2005 collaboration, MirrorMask, between fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. The story follows Helena, a teenager and daughter of circus performers, who, after her mother falls ill, journeys into the world she has unintentionally created in her drawings to find that the Queen of the Light has fallen into a deep sleep and cannot be awoken without the charm. Helena volunteers to find the charm, and her quest leads her into the Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess has just run away. The charm, the MirrorMask, helped the princess to leave the world entirely and switch places with Helena. Knowing that Helena may eventually find the mask, she slowly destroys the drawings hoping to prevent Helena’s return. Helena outsmarts her, and returns home to a happy ending with her parents.

The archetype present in this film is the mother/daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I propose an alternative reading of this myth that implies that Persephone’s abduction was not entirely a plot by Zeus and Hades, but, rather, an opportunity for Persephone to gain independence away from her mother. Under this reading, Persephone’s grief at being separated from her mother was exaggerated to appease her mother, and that she knew with certainty what it would mean for her to eat the pomegranate seeds on her way out of Hades. This reading hinges entirely on a Jungian interpretation as a myth of individuation. The only other evidence that suggests that Persephone’s story was not a simple abduction and rape is that there is no concrete evidence of a child between Hades and Persephone. Myths involving sexual intercourse between a god or goddess often include the birth of a child.

One other central theme to the film is the concept of the shadow. Helena’s adventure is plagued by the chaos left by the princess, identified in the script as Anti-Helena. Similarly, the queens of the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Shadows are both sides of Helena’s perspective of her mother. Helena’s journey involves exploring both sides of her dream world and reaching an understanding that the two sides of her mother (kindly versus possessive) are out of love for her. In order for Helena to succeed on her mission, she has to confront her own shadow self, Anti-Helena, with the MirrorMask and reflect her back into the realm of her psyche in which she belongs.

The shadow is an important theme in Neil Gaiman’s stories, especially to the extent that one must both confront and integrate with one shadow, otherwise one’s personally balance is disrupted in a bad way. In this film, the balance is disrupted with a complete teeter-totter and the shadow lives in the conscious realm, and the ego is forced to live in the unconscious. The unconscious is slowly destroyed in the film by Anti-Helena as she destroys Helena’s drawings. The possibility exists of Anti-Helena’s balance as long as she learns how to better relate to her mother, which is the exact thing Helena has to learn in her own life.

Intro, 0.44-4.54 minutes

This scene establishes the relationship between Helena (Persephone) and her mother (Demeter), and how her mother’s love and worry for her daughter will induce to her do whatever is necessary to find her. Helena, on the other hand, reveals her feelings and desire to get out of the circus. The circus represents the garden of the gods. It is removed from “reality” in a contained fashion. As Helena cries out that she wants to leave this “garden,” her mother remarks that she could not handle “real life.” This scene also establishes the theme of the shadow, as depicted in Helena’s sock puppets playing against each other.

After the end of this scene, Helena’s mother falls ill and is rushed to the hospital to have surgery. This is parallel to Demeter’s distraction when Persephone goes off to pick flowers.

Descent into the Underworld, 20.09-24.34 minutes

In this scene, Helena is lured by some late night violin playing, and is pushed through the door by Valentine, a juggler, trying to escape some deadly black stuff. Valentine represents both Hades and Hermes throughout the movie, but mostly Hades in this scene. He is the one who forces Helena into the dream world and becomes her consort throughout her adventure.

Once through the door, Helena encounters a sphinx, which, much like the Sphinx that guarded the gateway into Thebes in Oedipus the King, represents a threshold guardian between the conscious/unconscious, living/dream, or rational thought/primordial thought. Rather than answer a riddle, however, Helena has to feed him a book. Then she can proceed fully into the underworld.

After the end of this scene, Helena realized that there is a Kingdom of Light, whose queen is sleeping and can only wake with the help of the charm, and a Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess ran away using said charm, the MirrorMask, and who bears strong resemblance to Helena.

Light versus Shadow, 37.17-38.53 Minutes

I wanted to include this scene because it sets up the idea of the shadow, but otherwise has nothing to do with the Demeter/Persephone story.

Following this scene, Helena continues on her journey and winds up in the clutches of the Queen of Shadows, who is really angry that her daughter ran away and really just wants her home.

The Dark Palace, 1:10.27-1:11.39 & 1:19.51-1:20.59 Minutes

This scene shows the extent of the Queen of Shadows’ longing for her daughter, to the point that she will accept Helena as a substitute, giving her full power and benefit of the princess. Helena is transformed into a copy of Anti-Helena, much like how Demeter placed the baby into the fire to make it immortal. Although we see her at the dinner table and talking about food, we never see Helena actually eat, suggesting that she will be able to return home. Helena reminds the Queen that the chaos in the world is caused by Anti-Helena, just like the personal chaos Demeter experienced after Persephone left her.

Meanwhile, Valentine, who all this time has lead Helena around her dream world, returns to take Helena home to the upper world, fulfilling his Hermes role.

The Return and Homecoming, 1:32.10-1:34.45 & 1:36-28-1:38.02 Minutes

Valentine and Helena find the MirrorMask in the Princess’s bedroom and run away from the Queen. When they get to the threshold, Valentine almost keeps her in the underworld (feeding her pomegranate seeds) by keeping the mask for himself. Helena returns to her correct world by integrating Anti-Helena back into her psyche and the world is right again. Her mother wakes up, the two are reunited, and they live happily ever after. Helena now has a better appreciation for her mother.

The Great Debate: Myth Versus Fairy Tale in Joseph Campbell’s The Flight of the Wild Gander

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, I was asked to do the impossible: to define "myth." I had read enough of Joseph Campbell’s works to understand that "myth" in his use of the word is not definable. Further, to define it would destroy the very nature of mythology. Faced with this dilemma, I nonetheless set out to dream up a definition of "myth." My working definition came to me in a dream, one that encompasses myth’s metaphorical nature and its influence on culture, religion and psychology. But I was still faced with one more conflict. My primary research involved analysis of modern children’s and young adult fantasy literature. After reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark essay, "On Fairy-stories," I came to realize that the books I was reading were essentially fairy tales, with strong mythic elements. This lead to an exploration of fairy tales and to my ultimate conclusion being that the distinctions between myth and fairy tale are categorical and distracting from the mission of both forms of storytelling.

In his work, The Flight of the Wild Gander, Joseph Campbell outlines some definitions of myth, legend, folk and fairy tales. In keeping with the trend of his time, he separates myth from fairy tale as sacred text from entertainment. In my research, I exemplified this distinction as metaphor versus simile. The metaphor, like the myth, carries within itself symbolic meaning, whereas the simile, like the fairy tale, draws upon real life comparisons to derive meaning. In other words, myth is and we adapt ourselves around it. Fairy tales, on the other hand, adapt themselves around us.

Campbell recognizes myths as "religious recitations conceived as symbolic of the play of eternity, in time" (Campbell 16). Elsewhere, he is cited as saying that mythology is an "organization of images metaphoric of experience, action, and fulfillment of the human spirit in the field of a given culture at a given time" (Osbon 40). The first definition clearly responds to the research of the 1920s through 1950s mostly from the prominent anthropologists who restricted mythology to the religious sphere. The second definition recognizes mythology from the more practical viewpoint of mythology’s relationship to a culture or society. To restrict mythology by the first definition excludes the vast wealth of practical myths from scholarly study and popular recognition. Because it is my belief that humanity is governed by a composite of myths from all backgrounds, I am inclined to agree with Campbell’s second definition, and have broadly defined mythology as the metaphor that governs the beliefs and behaviors of a group of people when manipulated by cultural mores. These metaphors can be found in various places, not just religions, depending on the needs of a particular culture. The West, specifically Western Europe, the United States and Canada) has allowed its culture to drift away from traditional understandings of mythology, thus forcing a new understanding to achieve the same goals of mythology. I have borrowed these goals from the four primary functions of myth outlined often within Campbell’s works: 1. The Cosmogonic Function, to provide a group of people with a creation myth in which to believe; 2. The Religious Function, which outlines a system of beliefs of a group of people that then helps develop communal cohesion; 3. The Cultural Function, which outlines a system of behaviors to govern the community united under the aforementioned beliefs; and, 4. The Psychological Function, which helps contextualize the individual within his or her role within the community and place within the universe. The failing of traditional myths within the West leaves a void that can be filled by, among other things, popular culture and fairy tales.

Campbell describes fairy tales, used interchangeably with "folk tale," as pastime and as the myths whose meaning has been lost over time. My own definition of a fairy tale is a fantasy story, commonly aimed at children, that serves to both entertain and to model behavior. In his essay, "On Fairy-stories," J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and popularly identified as the father of modern fantasy, gives as much reverence for fairy tales as Campbell does myths. Tolkien’s primary distinction between myth and fairy tale is the inclusion in the latter of the Realm of the Faërie, understood to be the fantastical realm of magic. Because of the inclusion of the Faërie, fairy tales are often discounted by adults, "relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused" (Tolkien 37). Tolkien argues that adults need fairy tales as much as Campbell says we need myths, in order to retain a link with the imagination and with the Faërie. This can be interpreted as being a link to the mythic, only placed within the context of fantasy rather than sacred settings.

Tolkien’s works led to a new understanding of fantasy literature, which has blossomed into new categories: literature of the Faërie, such as The Lord of the Rings, stories wherein mortals from our world travel into the Faërie, such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and more recently stories in which the non-magical world and the Faërie coexist, as in J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. The stories are absorbed in new, exciting ways that extend far beyond the nursery and well into adulthood: the realm of role-playing video games, live-action and table-top role playing games, and, as in the case of the Harry Potter fan community, creative interactions that include arts and crafts, music, fan-fiction, and lots of costuming. Through these interactions, participants ritualize and concretize the stories with a religious fervor, and it would seem that applies to a fulfillment of the religious function of myth by uniting a group of people under a common set of beliefs and canon. It is not my intention to compare Harry Potter with Jesus, but if the traditional myths are not functioning properly in the West, then it seems to me that the West needs to look elsewhere to find that which the collective psyche is lacking.

This is how I was lead to coin the term, "fairy-myth" for the stories of my research. A story or cultural phenomenon that is clearly on the surface a fairy tale, but that also fulfills the four goals of mythology, cannot be simply disregarded as entertainment. The Western cultures are so hungry for myth that they have grasped for it in these other places. I am limiting my consideration at the moment to fantasy stories because that is the realm I find most personally fascinating, coupled with the collective response to them.

My husband and I recently discussed my concept of the fairy-myth. He said that stories are not religious, and that he seeks "truth" from any religious doctrine above all else. My response was to point out that a central theme of both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings is good versus evil, which is, in a way, a truth. Delivering truth was one of the initial purposes of the scriptures, much of which has lost its meaning. Plenty of Americans grasp onto Christian traditions, but the groups dominating news and politics do not fully embrace the meaning. For example, the Bible calls for tolerance, and various groups preach tolerance except for “unholy” groups such as homosexuals, abortion doctors, Muslims and Democrats. Also, these groups extend their mission and spread the Word, either using mostly negative language to say what is wrong and what not to do, or preachers, Joel Olsteen for example, base their entire sermon on making people feel good about themselves with scripture quotations to support their message without teaching the lessons of the Gospels. The segmenting of the Christian faith represents a collapse of the Ultimate Truth of the Bible, for how can 1,000 different sects each preach a different Ultimate Truth based on the same source text? The death of a system of symbols occurs "when its references to the field of waking consciousness have been refuted and its notices to the seats of motivation are no longer felt" (Campbell 170). The rise of fundamentalism comes from a fear of this symbolic death, and the extremity of the behavior indicates a degree of unconscious doubt in the truth of the symbol.

My own myth is defined by Harry Potter at this stage of my life. When I initially read the first four books, I was attracted to Harry’s student life because I was likewise being young (20) and an undergraduate. The later three books were released after my graduation and I was able to read them during their first print run. These three are more political than the first group, coinciding with my own blossoming political awareness. I do not pretend that everyone will agree with my mythic reading of Harry Potter, nor do I claim that everyone must read the series for the Ultimate Truth. Harry Potter is simply the myth that works best for me at this stage in my life. Perhaps in five to ten years, something else will play a dominant role in my personal myth-making. I believe it is a tendency of the West to seek a unifying theory, or, in this case, a mythology, a byproduct of the Western "divide and conquer" mentality and the Christian mission to spread Word of the Gospels. The diversity offered by potential mythologies caters to the diversity between psychologies.

As a mythologist, Campbell is very concerned with the preservation of a society’s myth, but not in the same manner as anthropologists, ethnologists, and folklorists, who want to preserve a cultural artifact as it is. Campbell, though nostalgic for older myths, is open to the evolution of new myths, understanding that they are likely to evolve as humans evolve. This evolution is a necessary response to the changes brought about by science and technology. "The propositions of science," he writes, "to which we are referred for our morality, knowledge, and wisdom, do not pretend to be true in any final sense, do not pretend to be infallible, or even durable, but are merely working hypotheses, here today and gone tomorrow" (Campbell 190). The implication is to not rely on science for our mythos, despite it being the natural byproduct of human evolution.

With the recent surge of fairy-myths comes an attempt to preserve society’s myths by combining folk and popular culture with philosophy, psychology, and human interactions. The stories give fundamental "truths" in a way that is entertaining and informative. In doing this, they have created an air of religiosity about them in response to shifting sentiments not globally felt towards the established cultural myths and doctrines. The stories are something new, fresh, and invigorating. I disagree with simply passing fairy tales and similar stories off as mere entertainment, because they are the basis of our understanding of our culture and ourselves. Verily, they are new perspectives on an old concept that needed updating anyway.

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensions of Fairy Tales, Legends, and Symbols. New York: HarperPerennial, 1951.
  • Osbon, Diane K. A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Tolkin, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1986. 3-84.

Unbreakable Chains and Immoveable Beds: Marriage in Homer’s The Odyssey

The Odyssey is taught as an early example of epic poetry, recounting the courageous deeds of the hero, Odysseus, who has to find his way home after the Trojan War, but is distracted because he angered the gods. Odysseus is brave, strong and intelligent, appropriate attributes for a noble’s son, but he is also a liar and a cheat that resorts to trickery to get his way, tasks in which he has the support of Athena. His plight reminds me more of a Jobian story, except that Odysseus is easier to appreciate as a classic anti-hero. As a woman, however, I am more attracted to Penelope’s story than I am to all of Odysseus’ deeds and travels. She is the one left behind to raise her son and to protect Odysseus’ home, duties that designate her as a good wife. Her success as a wife is based on two scenes in the epic: one involving Aphrodite and her lover, and the other surrounding Odysseus’ return.

In Book Eight lines 265-366, Demodocos sings to the court of the Phaeacians the marital conflicts between Hephaistos and Aphrodite. By her very nature, she is unable to maintain fidelity to her marriage, and takes advantage of Hephaistos’ long work-days to take a lover in Ares. Helios reveals her infidelity to Hephaistos, who

Went to his bronze works plotting evil in his mind

And put a great anvil on the anvil block and hammered bonds

Unbreakable and indissoluble, that would hold them there fast. (Od. 8. 273-275)

Once the two were ensnared he invites the gods to observe the dishonor done to him. The contrast between Hephaistos and Ares is meant as a foreshadowing to Odysseus’ return. The implication is that while he is away, his wife, like Aphrodite, will take another lover. Indeed, Odysseus is aware of the suitors vying for her hand. Furthermore, the implication is that Odysseus will return home broken from his travels, weary and exhausted, whereas Penelope will have taken a young, strong man as her husband.

While it is true that Odysseus returns to Ithaca a broken, weary man, this is entirely due to Athena’s magic as opposed to a genuine travel fatigue. The disguise is to help him infiltrate his home and assess the situation before he takes action. He learns that Penelope refuses to take another, leaving the suitors to consume his estate. Her intentions are made clear to him during a late night conversation while he is still disguised as the old beggar. In Book Nineteen, lines 130-156, she relates to him her unwillingness to be wooed by the suitors, and of her task of weaving and unweaving a burial sheet for Laertes to detract them. When her plan was revealed, she came under duress as she was urged to marry. Later, after Odysseus is revealed, she tests his identity in Book Twenty-Three, ordering the nurse Eurycleia to pull the bed out of the room for Odysseus to sleep upon (Od. 23. 177-180). Because he gets angry at the suggestion, knowing that the bed was built around a tree and thus immoveable, he reveals himself to her.

Both the chains of Hephaistos and the immoveable bed symbolize the bonds of love. In binding Ares and Aphrodite, Hephaistos is reinforcing their bond, forged by the unbreakable chains. Similarly, Odysseus’ bed symbolizes the steadfastness of the love between Penelope and him. Just as the bed cannot be removed from the chamber, so Penelope refuses to leave her husband’s house.

That said, I do not agree with Penelope’s position. She was left at home, a single mother, while her husband went to go fight a war in Troy, a similar, modern scenario to the wives and mothers left at home while their husbands go fight a war in Iraq. Whereas these soldiers are gone for two to eight years in some cases, Odysseus is gone for almost twenty. In that time, he had at least two divine lovers in Circe and Calypso, while Penelope had to fend off all those suitors jeopardizing her position. She took the symbolism of her marriage bed seriously, while Odysseus played about. Had she made the decision to remarry, she at least would be with someone who could take care of her, rather than people who ravage Odysseus’ home and resources. Her delay is not in the best interest of her husband nor of her son, Telemachos, who would inherit the estate. At the very least, she could have returned to her father and given the property over the Laertes to steward until Telemachos came of age.

Meanwhile, Aphrodite is not only taking a lover, but she is doing it right under the nose of her lame husband. Why would the Greeks establish this conflicting scenario in the society? They go to all the trouble of giving the gods similar attributes as the people, only to make them above any sense of fidelity. Their behavior cannot be simplified to metaphorical archetypes. The stories and attributes had to come from somewhere localized and not the collective. It is more as though they were attempting to give the gods attributes that embodied more of how not to behave rather than how to behave. So maybe Penelope behaves according to her station, but her actions are just as selfish as Odysseus’ divine infidelities. Give me a break.

Works cited

  • Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Albert Cook. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.

Primitive Myth vs. Modern Science

On the one hand, there is the viewpoint of myth that it has no literal interpretation. On the other, there is the viewpoint that there is a literal interpretation of science. Bridging between the two is philosophy, which is open to both the non-literal and literal interpretations. Robert Segal’s article, "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor" questions not only the relationships between myth, philosophy and science, but also the relationship between the primitive versus modern mentality. Segal provides the positions of various theorists to build the case for or against Tylor’s assertion that primitive myth is separate from modern science.

Tylor, like many of his colleagues, assumes that there is a distinction between myth, science and philosophy. He assumes that "primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion" (18), and that there is no science in the primitive world. Primitive religion in this model is the counterpart for science "because both are explanations of the physical world" (19). The role of myth, according to Tylor, is to explain why the gods do what they do, whereas religion states that they do it (19). Furthermore, this assumes that the primitive mind is no less interested in manipulating the physical world than moderns, and that science belongs only to the realm of the theoretical. In the primitive realm, there is no conscious need to separate science from myth, religion and philosophy. Primitive science teaches the community how to survive within the environment. Primitive "scientists" could better understand the rhythms of the world, a perspective from which Tylor seems divorced.

If primitive religion functions in order to make sense of the physical world, then it would follow that the purpose of primitive religion is linked to that of survival. In contrast, modern thought is influenced by new discoveries in science and technology, and religion is not linked with survival but with coping. The ethnocentrism that plagues Western thought has traditionally recognized primitives as lesser beings: interesting for study but in no way related to "civilized" beings. Segal seems to support the argument that the primitives are of a different developmental caliber than moderns, and are crucial for understanding the core of archetypal and metaphorical thought. An understanding of primitive myth from this perspective yields an understanding of human myth. Because of Tylor’s ethnocentrism, he fails to see the relationship between primitives and moderns. Perhaps the modern generation is so concerned with preserving primitive myth because these populations are dying out or were greatly altered as a result of colonialism.

As the theoretical paradigm shifts out of the post-modern era, more and more students attempt to shed the old ways and embrace perspectives better suited for the shrinking global market, one digitally linked with more cultural exchange than imagined following the World Wars. As food shortages and natural disasters top the world news, the need for myth grows stronger as communities need explanations for why god or gods do what they do. Science has tried being the voice of reason, but it lacks a universal audience, because it can only explain so much.

The post-Enlightenment eras have focused on finding a universal truth, and this fever is still strong through the modern and post-modern eras. Segal’s article demonstrates that there are as many answers as there are thinkers, who are as varied as snowflakes. What Tylor’s claim is not prepared for is the post-modern, holistic thinking that believes that there are many answers for every question and no universal perspective, but, rather, many perspectives for the same thing.

Works cited

  • Segal, Robert A. "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor." Rpt. in Thinking Through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Kevin Shilbrack. New York & London: Routledge, 2002. 18-45.