What do we mean by Myth?

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining aspects of human life and the world we live in. Most cultures, for instance, from ancient times through the present, have creation stories which tell how the world came to be. These stories are sacred in more than one respect: they are sacred in that they frequently deal with deities and divine mysteries, and they are sacred in that they are worthy of reverence and respect.

In modern usage, the word myth has acquired an additional, negative meaning – we often hear the word used to denote falsehood, as in That’s just a myth. This use of the word is ironic because myth – in the sense in which we are discussing it here, as a sacred narrative – is something that transcends any assessment of true/false. Myths speak to us in symbolic and metaphoric language. The stories are meaningful and poetic, rich in truths about human life.

The Monomyth of the Hero

In the course of analyzing the myths and lore of various world cultures, mythologist Joseph Campbell saw an underlying similarity throughout the stories, and in fact perceived and articulated a storyline-structure he believed to be universal for hero-myths. This storyline he called the monomyth.

Here is an outline of the basic structure of the universal hero’s monomyth, as Campbell discussed it in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

I. Departure
- The Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Supernatural Aid
- The Crossing of the First Threshold
- The Belly of the Whale

II. Initiation
- The Road of Trials
- The Meeting with the Goddess
- Woman as the Temptress
- Atonement with the Father
- Apotheosis
- The Ultimate Boon

III. Return
- Refusal of the Return
- The Magic Flight
- Rescue from Without
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold
- Master of the Two Worlds
- Freedom to Live

And a diagram of the Hero’s circular adventure:

Not only does the monomythic structure apply to classical Hero mythology, it can often be applied to modern stories, also. These websites, for instance, discuss the Hero’s Journey as explored in such vehicles as Star Wars, Superman, and even The Simpsons. Perhaps you can think of other examples of heroic quests from film, television, comic books – or video games. The Hero Monomyth is a popular model not only for some screenwriters, but for some game developers as well. Harris, Reg. “The Simpsons.” The Hero's Journey in Education is a resource for educators, students and parents. <http://www.yourheroicjourney.com/simpsons.shtml>

South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (mcli). The Hero’s Journey. <http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/ smc/journey/>

Verbeeck, Muriel. Campbell, Star Wars and the Myth. <http://ibelgique.ifrance.com/swanthropo/txt/camptexteanglais.html>

Webb, John. Superman and Hercules as Examples of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth. <http://www.cv81pl.freeserve.co.uk/monomyth.htm>