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Sunday, September 23, 2012


Every culture has crafted myths. The more ancient the civilization, the more myths played a role in the lives of its people. The Greeks and Romans, East Asians and Indians, Native Americans, and the British all had hundreds of myths. Some were about creation, the seasons, discovering fire, the afterlife, and strange beasts. Today, some people believe that, because of our spiritually empty lives, we are living in a new era of myth creation?

At the forefront of this new “mythological resurgence” are the numerous films that present us with new superheroes on quests to fight society’s evils. We have Star Trek, Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, the Matrix, the Dark Knight, Avatar, and many others. Now the “Avengers,” with a whole group of mythic characters, has emerged - refueling the idea that a new modern mythology is being created.  

Is modern cinema creating myths for our own time?

In order to evaluate whether contemporary story telling is modern myth building, one has to appreciate the subtle difference between a “myth” and a “parable.” Both are stories and both are created by man. But a myth explains, while a parable instructs.

A MYTH is a story, usually of a vague origin, which tries to explain or rationalize some aspect of the world or a culture. All myths are, at some point, believed to be true by the people in the culture that originated or used the myth as an explanation.  It’s true that some myths might refer to an actual event, but embellishment over time makes it impossible to determine what really happened.

Author Ann Druyan wrote, “For most of the history of our species, we were helpless to understand how nature works. We took every storm, drought, and illness personally. We created myths in an attempt to explain the patterns of nature.”

A PARABLE is another similar, but distinct, type of story. Parables (and allegories) are purposely created stories that illustrate morals and instruct us in the standards of behavior, but were never assumed to be true by anyone.

Some stories are a combination of both myths and parables. The Bible is an example. The Old Testament tends to be more mythic; the New Testament tends to be more parable-oriented. This is not a judgment about truthfulness, but the drawing of a distinction between the purposes of each type of story.
Before getting back to the issue of whether modern cinema is producing new myths, we have to refer to the ideologies of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Joseph Campbell, a mythological scholar, released a book called “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” in 1949. He proposed the idea that myths from all over the world seemed to be built around the same elementary ideas. Psychiatrist Carl Jung called these elementary ideas “archetypes.” Jung believed that they are innately created in the unconscious human mind and that every person uses the same basic archetypes. Campbell and Jung agreed that even people from different cultures, and who speak different languages, can understand and enjoy the same stories. Campbell took the idea of the archetype and used it to define the structure of myth; any myth, including Egyptian, Greek, Roman, or Japanese. He wrote that all stories are expressions of the same story pattern, which he named the “Hero’s Journey.”
George Lucas used Campbell’s work extensively to unify and focus the narrative of his Star Wars films. The hero’s journey included the call to adventure, leaving of the mundane world, a road with many trials, the temptation away from the true path, and final reconciliation with the father. All of the archetypal characters were there - the mentor, the oracle, the prophecy, and the failed hero.
Lucas said that he studied myth and deliberately attempted to construct one in Star Wars. He said that it was part science fiction, part old movies, and part American values all held together by the standard pattern of the mythic hero’s journey. Star Wars was released during a period of Vietnam and Watergate when the line between good and evil was unclear. In the absence of any shared contemporary myths, George Lucas may have created a satisfactory new mythology for modern society. 

There is no question that Star Wars and other contemporary films used mythic elements: heroes, journeys, conflicts, and reconciliation. But are they new myths? Or even myths at all?

We keep thinking back to our more conservative definition of a myth and a parable. A myth is a story that explains or rationalizes some aspect of a culture. They are, at some point in time, believed to be true by the people in the culture that use the myth as an explanation. A parable, on the other hand, is a story or journey that illustrates morals and standards of behavior, but is never assumed to be true by anyone.

Using these definitions, it appears that most films that use mythic elements are probably closer to being parables. The pioneering spirit of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the determination of Luke Skywalker to be different than his father, and the revenge of the humans against the machines in “The Matrix” all offer valuable moral principles, but they instruct not explain.

In the end, both myths and parables can serve many purposes. Their fantastic and unreal nature, ancient or modern, should not prevent us from enjoying them.

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