On the Monomyth

Joseph Campbell‘s work, specifically his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, argues that there is a single, overarching narrative pattern which he calls the “monomyth” (or “hero’s journey”) that connects stories as varied as those of Perseus and Jesus Christ. While I think the pattern most certainly applies to many mythic narratives, it does not apply to all of them. Rather, it only applies to those featuring a somewhat naive hero who must go through a series of trials in order to learn something about himself and ultimately make the world a better place to live in. It doesn’t apply to mythic narratives such as Homer‘s Iliad or Odyssey, both of which come from Ancient Greece, the time and place most commonly associated with mythic stories. In those epics, we have heroes like Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus who are all at the top of their games; they have already gone on their own respective journeys and are heroes at the start of the narratives. None of them learn anything about themselves throughout the storyline and in fact remain quite static in terms of their characterization: stubborn Achilles at the beginning of the Iliad is still stubborn Achilles at its conclusion. To say that the monomyth applies to all myths is a gross generalization.

While the monomyth pattern does seem to work exceptionally well when applied to the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, Christ, and others, there are also instances when Campbell’s pattern only partially applies. Take, for instance, the myth of Perseus: the young hero certainly does hear a call to adventure, finds love with a “goddess” (Andromeda), finds his ultimate boon (Medusa‘s head), experiences a magic flight, and returns with the freedom to live happily and peacefully. However, he does not surpass any material temptations from a woman, does not undergo any sort of apotheosis, does not refuse to return, and experiences no rescue from without. In this case, the monomyth pattern has a strong presence but is ultimately incomplete.

What I propose is this: it is safe to say that each of the seventeen steps of the monomyth do feature in various mythic narratives often enough for them to be considered archetypal, so we should view the monomyth as merely a collection of archetypes that can occur in myths, sometimes together, sometimes not. We can, for example, see the appearance of “Supernatural Aid” in the Odyssey whenever Athena shows up, but don’t have to give ourselves headaches trying to make the rest of Homer’s epic conform to Campbell’s pattern. Similarly, we can confidently say that the Perseus myth features the Meeting with the Goddess but not the Refusal to Return. While it is quite ridiculous to say that the monomyth applies to all mythic narratives, it is quite reasonable to say that it applies to some of them some of the time.

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