Man of Steel or Son of Man?

I had an interesting conversation last week about whether or not Superman is an archetypal Christ/Messiah figure.  It came up in the context of a discussion of the newest film incarnation of the Superman mythos- Man of Steel.

At that point I hadn’t yet seen the film, and to be honest I had never given the assertion all that much thought.  My Superman experience pretty much began and ended with


Christopher Reeve’s (may he RIP) goody-two-shoes portrayal in the 70s and 80s.


Both versions were so incredibly clean cut and American that mythological links to Jesus didn’t really come up.

Over the course of the discussion I came to the rapid decision that yes, of course Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is Jesus.  Perhaps with a little bit of Moses and Azazel thrown in for good measure.

Even his original/alien name features the Northwest Semitic (the language group that includes Hebrew and Arabic) word for ‘deity’.  If the method of family naming on Krypton is in any way comparable to that in many places on Earth, this patronym would suggest that Jor-El and Kal-El are in the family line of god.


You’d think someone who spends as much time with myth as I do would have made that connection before.  I guess Superman just usually isn’t on my radar.

Then, in a recent Twitter feed, I saw this article referenced.

Here I had just wrapped my brain around the Kal-El-as-Christ motif, now some Christian reviewers are saying that this recent iteration is actually Superman-as-ANTI-Christ (as in ‘against/not Christ’ rather than THE Anti-Christ, I’m presuming from the context).


I actually saw the film last night.


Yep.  The Jesus-mythology is there in fullest force.

Okay, in the final showdown (SPOILER ALERT!) Kal does NOT turn the other cheek.

But, if we keep to the whole of the (canonical) mythology, the Nazarene carpenter wasn’t above an act of violence himself.  Turning over some tables in the Temple ring any bells?

It’s in all four of the Gospels, but John spices up the incident by also including whips and chains (okay, not chains, but the whip IS there):

“In the Temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”  (John 2.13-15)

And then there’s this:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10.34)

Okay, so maybe neither of those outbursts is quite the same as the act to which Kal-El was driven (in order to save humanity).  But Jesus doesn’t seem to have been as completely opposed to expedient means for necessary ends, as some might maintain, either.

And he did hang out with Simon.  Who was a Zealot (Luke 6.15, Acts 1.13).  Zealots WERE violently opposed to Roman rule.  They were guerilla soldiers who could give some of the terror-mongers of today a run for their money.

Not that I’m an advocate of guilt by association or anything.  Jesus was more about making changes in the religious system that he adhered to than he was concerned with the Roman occupation of Palestine.  He may have palled around with some overly-Zealous guys, but he wasn’t necessarily guilty of complicity in seeking to violently oust the foreign rulers from the land.

Still,  I tend to take issue with people who ignore the bits of the myths that don’t suit their interpretation/belief.

People who are far more expert than I in the whys and wherefores of Superman mythology will no doubt endlessly debate whether or not Kal killing Zod (I WARNED you that there would be spoilers) and “completely disregarding the safety and welfare of the people around him” actually “blasted a hole in the traditional moral code of the character” (quotations from the article linked above- Michael Parnell and Jeff Weiss, respectively).

IMHO, Kal did what he needed to do.  There was certainly collateral damage (or ‘disaster porn’ depending on POV) but the greater good was served.  The military dudes (the guy who used to be on Law and Order: SVU and Toby from West Wing) sacrificed themselves in order to play their part in the salvation of the Earth.  Should Kal be vilified for doing what only he could do?

That’s not my call to make.  Admitted Superman neophyte and Johnny-come-lately here (see above comments re. the Super Friends and Christopher Reeve).

Believe me, I am all too aware of how uppity grouchy offended people can get when you mess with their interpretations of closely-held and much-beloved myths.

Whether of Superman or Jesus.

The adoration and devotion is often not all that dissimilar.

I also get that people don’t like to have their myths taken lightly.  Stories that are invested with sacred meaning are very personally important to those who sincerely believe in a particular interpretation of the myth.

Mythic motifs and characters are reflective of vital cultural values and beliefs.  They are recurrent- familiar themes are reintroduced in different forms, and common issues are revisited according to specific time and place.  They are also finite in number.  The same archetypes show up again and again because they address the same feelings, doubts, questions and anxieties as they always have.

Carl Jung and Prof. Cambell weren’t blowing smoke when they identified the figures (mother, child, trickster, hero…), the events (birth, death, initiation…) and motifs (apocalypse, creation, deluge…) that are the archetypes that we employ to structure our realities.

Myths are tools- for coping with our world and the human condition.  While the specifics are illustrated according to contextual elements like history, geography and culture, the underlying ways of presenting our responses to our common concerns remain the same.

As we saw yesterday, one person’s imaginary guy/girl in a lamp is an Allah-created supernatural being to someone else.  Humans who subscribe to a particular religious belief system tend to get a bit hinky when their sacred cows (or people, or divinities) are equated with fictional characters ostensibly meant solely for the purposes of entertainment.

Our myths are special stories, imbued with meaning, seriousness and importance, but I think we really need to lighten up some and appreciate that the repetition of the themes and character(istic)s in our stories is something that is going to happen.  We have pretty cool brains (when they are actually used to fullest capacity) but, for all their complexity, they remain somewhat limited in the ways in which we name and describe things.

In Man of Steel Kal did his damndest to save humanity using the tools he had to hand and at great risk to himself.  If he had seen any other alternative he would have taken it.  Cut the dude some slack.

Everything old is new againThere is nothing new under the sun.  And whatever other trite, clichéd tautology you might want.

Let’s keep that in mind- along with the fact that our cultural heroes are reflections of us (in the same way that 1st century Palestinian heroes are reflections of the cultural values and behaviours of 1st century Palestinians).  If we are going to take issue with their actions, we should probably evaluate why, exactly, we would have them act in that way.

Is Superman the real problem here?


Did I mention I LOVED this movie?

Go see it.

History vs. Myth

While cruising around the interworld a few days ago I saw this blog post by Bart Ehrman.  It is largely an advertisement for his latest book, but the underlying subject piqued my interest.

Granted I’ve been out of the formal world of academia for some time now, so I might be a little behind in my reading and in keeping up with newer (or at least more vocal) groups that posit a variety of alternatives to the common wisdom/learning, but I was completely unaware of this movement of mythicists.

Sure, I’ve heard of Harpur- even read his silly book The Pagan Christ.  Didn’t really give it much thought beyond the brief sensation it caused after publication (and the questions about it I had to field from students- second only to the freakin’ Da Vinci Code in raising my frustration level… but I digress).  I really was blissfully unaware that the idea that Jesus was a composite character of pagan source material, and someone who never actually existed, had become an actual movement.

There are always those who will force correspondences and positive comparisons upon diverse traditions.  Making something fit into a paradigm to match a preconceived idea or conceit that is just too familiar and therefore must have originated directly out of an earlier tradition… Not necessarily novel.   But a movement of “writers, bloggers and internet junkies” presenting the non-historical Jesus?  This was news to me.

N.B.– This is not what Joseph Campbell was about.  He examined the archetypal themes and characters and demonstrated how similar impulses and explanations could be seen throughout the cultures of the world.  He did not attempt to directly equate specific characters with those that came before- or from dramatically different cultural contexts- or suggests that any particular mythic figure was a composite of features of earlier deities.

Nor did he claim that the figures from mythology were not historical figures.  As mentioned here, we have evidence that a significant character from Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh, is found in the historical records, described as a king of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500 BCE.  While his story and characteristics (2/3s divine?) were embellished and enhanced to communicate a specific message, it is pretty much completely accepted that there WAS a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh.

I am (among other things) an historian, specifically an historian of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds of antiquity, and it has honestly never occurred to me to question the historical existence of Jesus.  All of the scholarship- primary, secondary, tertiary and on and on- I have examined sees his historical existence as fact.

Do I believe that he was divine/part of some godhead?  Yeah, not so much.  Or at all.  But I have never doubted the fact that he lived in the early 1st century of the Common Era in Palestine, sought to reform the religious tradition in which he was raised, created a stir among others who were like-minded, and profoundly influenced myriad later writers who created a new religious movement based, in part, on his teachings.

Elements of outside influences certainly found their way into the various myths that developed around the historical figure and his (assumed) teachings.  One need not look too deeply to see the influence of Zoroastrian dualism in the apocalyptic strands that contributed to the eschatological message that became attributed to Jesus, for example (more on that to come- I am feeling a definite need to be writing about some apocalyptic stuff lately).

I am not as convinced as Ehrman seems to be that there were not archetypal elements woven into the descriptions of the mythological figure, elements that do bear resemblances to other mythological characters and themes.  As humans we have ways in which we describe and define the sacred that transcend differences of culture and point to our shared humanity.  THAT is why stories and characters and themes recur in different times and places.

Leaving his obvious academic snobbery aside (ONLY “two who actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study” and “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning n the Western world”, indeed.  Could he BE more condescending?  I DO have Ph.D. “credentials in relevant fields of study” and still found his comments offensive- the credentials ain’t always the whole shebang, Dr. Bart…), Ehrman is correct in assessing the dubious scholarship upon which the theories of the mythicists seems to be based.

I agree that there is a growing movement of ‘denouncers of religion’ and that these denouncers/deniers are often extremely hostile to the religions that they deride as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘dangerous’.  I mentioned this, somewhat in passing, here.  Although I am ideologically mostly on the same page as groups like the ‘New Atheists’ (I can never say/think/write that term without the New Bohemians’ song What I Am latching on as an earworm.  Shudder), I cannot condone the disdainful and antagonistic manner in which many of the more vocal pundits of ‘science and reason’ over religion express themselves and their position.

We have to work together to overcome the perpetuated illusions that come from clinging to myths (and the doctrines and dogmas derived from them) as ‘Truth’.  But bashing each other- and belittling the beliefs that differ from our own- is not the way to do so.  I will have more to say about the ‘New Atheists’ in the next little while.  For now, suffice it to say that hostile criticism is not the humanistic way to proceed with the necessary dialogue.


Brief Disclaimer:  This post is not really about myth and symbol, but it is very much about the best of humanity.  I wrote about heroes here and described them as people who establish something new and better- after leaving behind the old, tried and less-than-true ways of being.  Such people identify an issue or something lacking in society and work to amend the injustice, lack of knowledge or evident inequality, with their actions and example. Contemporary heroes affect change in an attempt to leave the world a better place.  It’s a hot, humid Saturday here in TO which gets me thinking about summers past- and the music that was the soundtrack of those long-ago summer days.  Which lead to memories of July 13th, 1985- “The Day the Music Changed the World”- and the man who started it all.

I feel like I’ve known him from waaaaay back, so I’m hoping he wouldn’t mind me leaving the ‘Sir’ off of his name.

Once upon a time Bob Geldof was a musician and singer in a band from Dublin.  The Boomtown Rats spent a fair chunk of a couple of decades in the ‘all time favourite’ spot on my personal list, and even today I get a little overwhelmed when I hear songs like


(likely their best known song- and one of the first popular songs I learned to play on the piano).  ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ was about school violence in the US, specifically a school shooting in California.  The song hit number 1 in the UK, but was denied airplay in the US as radio stations feared lawsuits and negative reaction from the religious right.

They appeared in a fantastic ‘To Sir With Love’ spoof on SCTV:

I can remember madly searching for a blank VHS tape when it popped up on my television.  I still have the tape.

Their songs were largely ‘story songs’- telling tales of people and places, slices of life in particular environments at particular times.  It’s interesting that they hardly seem dated or out of comprehensible context, despite the fact that they were mainly referring to characters in places like Dublin or London in the 1970’s and 19080’s.

The songs had elements of social criticism wrapped up in the lyrics- often about the lousy lot of the working class in the ‘Banana Republic’ that was Ireland at the time.  A ‘septic isle’ under the thumb of politicians, police and priests.  A place that was rapidly losing its young people to emigration- or the ongoing conflicts in the North.  It was a place that had banned the band from performances due to their outspoken critique of the nationalism, influence of the church and corrupt politicians that they felt were destroying their native land.

‘Banana Republic’ is a fantastic example of how social commentary can be voiced in an articulate yet still entertaining manner.  Bob’s lyrics were often biting, but they demonstrated an incredibly clever mastery of language and turn of phrase.  The songs of the Rats always said something, and they said it in a tuneful, and often playful, manner.

“The purple and the pinstripe mutely shake their heads

A silence shrieking volumes, a violence worse than they condemn

Stab you in the back yeah, laughing in your face

Glad to see the place again- it’s a pity nothing’s changed.’

In 1984 Bob saw a BBC news report about the drought and famine in Ethiopia.  Out of his horror at the images he saw came this:

He and Midge Ure wrote a song and started a movement to raise money as a response to perceived inaction on the part of world leaders to intervene in the tragedy that was unfolding in Africa.  It was the impetus for other musicians to take up the battle cry, and it brought extensive coverage to the issue.

Bob visited Ethiopia to see the extent of the tragedy for himself and realized that a large part of the reason that African nations were in such states of emergency was due to the repayments of loans to Western banks.  The song wasn’t going to be enough to even scratch the surface.

So he and Midge got back to work and planned and executed an unprecedented stage show that would join the world together for one day in a desperate and despairing plea for action in the face of incredible need.  By July 13, Bob was exhausted and in pain with a back injury, but his intensity over the course of the day and through the entirety of the live broadcast can be seen in this clip:

He continually reminded the audience why we were all there.  It wasn’t just the greatest rock show ever staged, there was an underlying purpose that made the trappings and egos of popular music irrelevant and ridiculous (the day that ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ was recorded he famously admonished all the participants to ‘leave ego at the door.”).

The clip also demonstrates just how far we’ve come- technology- and communications-wise, anyway.  Today a simple electronic money transfer in support of hurricane victims can be completed in a matter of seconds.  In 1985 there was more involved, and Bob knew that he had to drive the message home and maintain the intensity of the day so that people would get off  their butts and DO something to help.

The way we thought about popular music and its ability to affect social change was forever altered.

A lot of people have done similar things since then.  They have used celebrity in positive ways and raised money and petitioned governments on behalf of many people in need of aid and intervention.  But he was the first to see the worldwide possibilities that could come with the exploitation of love of music.  No one has used music and story as a means of communication as earth-shatteringly as did Sir Bob Geldof.

He has continued his charitable movements for Africa and global peace, achieving success- and his share of critics- over the subsequent decades.  His caustic straightforwardness has earned him derision and some enemies.  He can be an insufferable jerk. He has amassed a fairly vast personal fortune- and may or may not have paid taxes on some of it.  His personal life has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs and negative publicity.  He is an unlikely hero in many ways.

Bob used the tools that he had to hand- his background as a songwriter/musician, his connections in the music and music journalism industries, and a seemingly endless supply of energy and passion- to start a worldwide movement that is still resonating in our popular culture.  He was recognized, at 34, with an honorary knighthood by the Queen, yet refused to sit on his laurels.  He continues to fight for social justice and reform in a number of spheres.

Joseph Campbell defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself.  Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society.  Sir Bob most definitely qualifies.  And he also writes some pretty wicked tunes.

P.S. If you didn’t get to experience it when it happened, definitely take the time to watch Live Aid in its entirety.  Over and above the significance of the day, it featured some incredible- and some never-to-be-repeated- performances.  It was truly a day of wonder. 

Until he gets you to the other side…

So the iPod shuffle daemon was at it again.  Today it was this :

I’m not sure that I can think of a better example of popular music using mythological themes and images than Chris De Burgh’s single from his 1982 album The Getaway.  The archetypal figure of the guardian to the next world- or of a liminal space that can lead onwards to enlightenment- is found in myths from many different cultures, and retains its impact when used in a pop song that is, now,  over 30 (!) years old.

The song is all about journeying, which makes it a fantastic song for road trips.  Especially ones that involve traveling along dark, deserted roads.  The lyrics evoke a sense of anticipation and mystery, and the use of the character of the Ferryman lends a sense of foreboding to the song, but wow, it can still make me tap my toes and sing along whenever I happen to hear it.

In Greek mythology Charon is the boatman who ferries the newly dead across the River Styx (or the River Acheron- it depends on the source) and demands payment for the ride.  If the cash isn’t forked over,  the soul is left to wander on the far shore as a restless ghost.  Charon is featured as an important character in many Greek Hero tales.  Hercules, Orpheus and Aeneas all run into him over the course of their respective adventures.

He also appears in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3, as a forbidding old man, unwilling to let Dante on board since he is tasked with ferrying the dead to the realm of the damned, and Dante remains among the living.  Virgil pulls rank, and the two travelers are permitted passage, though it is explained that in the regular course of things only sinners have to make this crossing.  This makes sense in the context of Dante’s mythology (they are at the Gate of Hell at this point in the Divine Comedy after all) but is in contrast to the Greek tradition which requires all souls to pay their way across the river in order to gain access to the afterlife.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (which I also discussed here) the Ferryman is named Urshanabi and he acts as a companion to the King of Uruk as Gilgamesh continues his quest to rescue Enkidu from the realm of the dead.  Urshanabi teaches Gilgamesh respect of the river, Hubur- the Mesopotamian river of the dead- and of nature itself.  He is kind, and helps Gilgamesh- despite getting grief from Utnapistim for doing so.  This encounter provides part of the guidance that leads Gilgamesh to the understanding that the right order of the world, including the rules of the living and the dead, are not to be circumvented, even when the lost one is greatly beloved and mourned.

Likewise, Buddhist traditions feature the liminal character of the Ferryman who teaches respect for nature and the lessons that the river can impart to those who are willing to listen.  In some stories of the Life of the Buddha, the Ferryman refuses to let him cross since he lacks the fare.  The Buddha responds by making himself disappear and reappear on the other side of the river, much to the Ferryman’s consternation.  This story provides an etiology for the tradition in Buddhism that allows those on the path to Enlightenment to traverse ferry crossings without payment.

In his novel Siddhartha, written as an attempt to allay his own doubts regarding the purpose of life and the resulting existential malaise, and based in Buddhist teachings and mythology, Hermann Hesse presented the character of the Ferryman as a benevolent spiritual guide who aids Siddhartha in his journeying.  His name, Vasudeva, is one of the names of the god Krishna, suggesting divine intercession in the progress of Siddhartha’s adventure.

Whether a positive or negative figure, the Ferryman is always presented as the person guarding the threshold to an altered state of being: from life into death or from ignorance into wisdom.  Chris De Burgh’s Ferryman is in keeping with modern representations- a sinister figure, often pictured as a cowl-wearing skeleton, not dissimilar to the image of the Grim Reaper- which reflects our cultural fear of death and apprehension about the unknown, more in keeping with the Greek and Medieval personification of the liminal character.

Yet the hero of his song decisively and actively seeks the river and the Ferryman, despite the warnings that ‘too many men have failed before’, perhaps as part of his own Hero’s journey, and therefore more akin to the Mesopotamian and Buddhist (and 20th century interpretations of Buddhist mythology) perspectives about the paths all must take to progress through this life in an effort to gain wisdom and fulfill whatever purpose one seeks.

As such, the mythological theme as presented in the song seems to be an amalgam of the different ways of looking at the passage into a different state of being, highlighting the reality of human existence that demands change and movement from one state to another.  Stasis is not possible, and the process of change, as described in the ancient myths, can be greeted either with fear or with welcoming anticipation of lessons to be learned.

The story told in Don’t Pay the Ferryman seems to suggest that the middle path- of respect, some fearful hesitation but definite positive momentum- is the best way to navigate the trials of life.  Pretty hefty subject matter- and it’s still a great song to have on a mix tape for 21st century journeys- whether towards enlightenment or a weekend road trip up north.

*Geek Note: Listen for Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) at the bridge, reciting lines from The Tempest.  So cool.

Holding out for a Hero

It hasn’t been a great week (using understatement as a rhetorical device there).  Daily- sometime it feels like hourly- it seems that the news is full of stories about corruption and/or just plain BAAAAAAAAD judgement in the hallways of power and alleged public representation and service.

I could add my voice to the din surrounding our now-internationally-infamous mayor, but I prefer to hope that his chickens have finally come home to roost and he will no longer be able to escape the just desserts (my outrage is leading to terrible mixing of metaphors) his actions and attitudes warrant.  Gotta give props to the American comedians’ take on the situation though- however embarrassing it might be for this City that I love- and those of us who sure as hell didn’t vote for the guy.  And then there’s the wonderful home-grown commentary by brilliant writers like Jude Klassen/Tasha James.

I have already made my feelings fairly clear about the PM and his actions and ‘Action Plan’, so his non-response to the scandalous goings on with his senate appointees and high-ranking staffers is, sadly, no surprise at all.

Then there are the tragedies making international headlines.  The senseless killing of a young father (seemingly) over a truck.  A tornado that destroyed a town and  too many lives.  And, just today, a British soldier hacked to death by frustrated alleged adherents of one of those faulty ideologies I have written about here.

The media has once again resorted to ‘tragedy porn’, ‘reporting’ unimportant or unsubstantiated details and filling time with mindless chatter when there is nothing new to actually report (although how wonderful was the footage of the woman finding her dog, unharmed, under the rubble of her house while being interviewed?  THAT was worth the camera time).

The scrums surrounding the mayor, however deserved, are stomach turning as far as I’m concerned.  The impulse to harangue and harass and get ‘answers to nothing’ while beating out other ‘reporters’ for market share is morally and ethically repugnant (but is more important than actually providing the public with information or insight, apparently).

These events, and the way in which they are covered by media outlets, are feeding that anomie that I discussed before.  And although I have started a number of posts about the apocalypticism that is generated by this disconnect between societal expectations and reality, right now I don’t feel like adding to the negativity.

Joseph Campbell’s focus on the symbolic role of the Hero in myth and symbol was one of the starting points of his body of work.  He defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself.  Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society.

A Hero is often the founder of something- leaving the old ways behind on a quest for the new.  The Hero’s journey begins with something having been taken from the society or with a serious absence- of justice, rationale, compassion and etc.- in the Hero’s world.  Following the example of the Hero places all of us on an ancient trajectory- or the branch of an ancient tree- linking us all together as part of something that started long before any of us were around and that will still be here long after we are all gone.

I have created a new category for this blog- ‘Hero Worship’- and I will be rolling out examples of humans who are fighting the anomie through their actions, writings or general ways of being.  I need that positivity right now.  I have to climb out of the mire of the reality of injustice and greed in this world of ours.  Despite more prevalent news to the contrary, we DO have people who are doing things worth celebrating and leading by examples worth following.

I am going to give THEM my time and attention for the next little while.

Standing on the Shoulders of the Master

Myth.  It is a word that has become ‘loaded’ in that it is used, in the common parlance, to indicate something that is inherently untrue.  On any given day one can find at least one example on interworld newsgroups discussing “10 myths about healthy foods” or the like.  There are television shows devoted to the supposition that a myth is, by definition, a lie, just waiting to be debunked by someone. The television show “Mythbusters” comes easily to mind.

Myths have become equated with lies, when what they really ARE are stories- tales that help to describe and explain the lot of humans and their interactions with their environments, both earthly and the postulated divine realms.  Myths help us to understand how people of other times and cultures understood and shaped the world.

In Religious Worlds, William Paden stated that myth “addresses and resolves conflicts and contradictions in human experience.”  Northrup Frye described myth as “charged with a special seriousness and importance” (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature).  And, in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell stated that myth is “humanity’s one great story… or, as it says in the Vedas of India, Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

Sure, there are examples in popular culture that give myths their due.  They can sometimes be seen as the means of communication that they were intended to be.  In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘Darmok’) the crew of the Enterprise encounters a culture whose language is constructed through the use of mythic imagery and events.  Jean-Luc recounts the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as a means of communication with his alien compatriot.

Generally speaking though, myths have become things to be discounted and dismissed.  In misusing the term this way the implication is that myths are the stories of those who are “other”- i.e. not Western, 21st century, rational, thinking individuals.  The perception is that they are totally fictitious and somehow ‘wrong’.  There is a negative value judgement inherent in designating something as a ‘myth’.

Myths are integral parts of religions and societies- both ancient and contemporary.  They are stories that were created, repeated, believed and beloved.  Yes, there are lots of stories about the gods, but myths also recount tales of historical events of significance to a particular tradition.  As one example, the ritual celebration of Passover reenacts an important mythological event in the religious tradition of Judaism- the release from bondage in Egypt, as described in the biblical book of Exodus.

Ritual, doctrinal and theological dimensions of religions are supported by the myths of the belief system.  Theology uses myths to create doctrines- coherent systems used to present a total picture of the realities of a particular worldview.  Without ‘myth’ there can be no ‘religion’.

But the myths behind various belief systems are not always particularly ordered or coherent.  As such, and given our human (and myth-based) propensity for the establishment of order, we are constantly seeking to make sense of the symbols and themes that recur across cultures and religious systems.  This involves human interpretation of human-created stories which can be both wonderful and dangerous, depending on the lens through which the interpretation is attempted.

Joseph Campbell, the prolific author and celebrated teacher of comparative mythology, brought myth, and its importance, to the masses.  He was the non-academic academic; he made the stories of humanity accessible and brought their study into our homes and consciousness through a body of work that included the series “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers in the late 1980’s.  His message, and conversational approach to the study of world mythology, is timeless and remains without peer.

Following Professor Campbell’s example, we have to stop blindly citing short passages of longer, larger, less-ordered myths, waaaaaay outside of their created contexts, as a means of ‘justifying’ current ideologies and culturally based prejudices, and realize, as Campbell emphasized throughout his worldwide teaching career, that our myths connect rather than separate us as humans.  Myths certainly have things to teach us and a determinedly human wisdom to impart that transcends the time and location in which the individual stories were composed, but they must be viewed through the specific lenses of time and place.  And they must be examined in this context in their totality with the irrelevancies and injustices of history removed to better reflect our human evolution.  We are learning, growing organisms, and our interpretation of the wisdom of the ages has to reflect this reality and our advances in science, philosophy and cultural discourse.

Discovering our collective and individual myths is an important way of connecting as humans- and of getting to know others who may, at first, seem incomprehensible to us, but the stories MUST be interpreted according to our contemporary ideals, values and consciences.  They should never be seen as static, but as living, developing representations of people being people who are trying to make sense of the realities of living and dying and everything in between.  As Professor Campbell so eloquently stated:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.  That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues (myths) help us to find within ourselves.”  (The Power of Myth).

He was not suggesting that our stories should be unexamined prescriptions for living, but that they can inform our ways of interacting in THIS world and help animate and celebrate this ‘go round’ on the wheel of LIFE.  I realize that I’ve already said that his views are timeless but it bears repeating.  In this world of instant communication we have to strive ever harder to connect with the stories that define our humanity, while relegating those cultural mores that no longer reflect our continually progressing stages of development to the dust bin of positive change.  Doing so will help us to see that we are all looking for our own, personal and societal, ‘raptures’, and will demonstrate that most of our differences pale in comparison to the common drive of all humanity to live the best life possible in the time we are given, through the use of the tools we have created.

Such tools can form the basis of dialogues that will ultimately lead us to an understanding of one another, regardless of the surface differences that are highlighted daily in the media, and that contribute to an atmosphere of fear of the ‘other’.  If we need anything in today’s climate, a release from that fear certainly tops the list.  Joseph Campbell’s model for the appreciation of our myths- both ancient and modern- remains an excellent means of unpacking the symbols and meanings behind our attempts at making sense of our existence.  The wonders of our technological advancements allow us to access his teachings, and our stories, with the click of a mouse or the tap of a touch screen.  With such tools so readily to hand, can we honestly make excuses for not accessing the databanks and attempting to understand the perceived ‘other’?