Look after your mind – December 2022

Myth Takes

If you look up the word ‘myth’ one definition you’ll almost certainly come across is, ‘widely held but false belief or idea’. Another common definition is that myths offer explanations of otherwise mysterious natural events, often ascribed to supernatural beings. Many feel that in our modern rational and technological age such stories are obsolete and of no relevance, belonging as they do to traditional cultures of the past.

A great many mythologists would disagree with that. One of the foremost was Professor of Literature Joseph Campbell. His expertise lay in the field of comparative mythology and religion. Campbell felt that myths offered sound moral guidance. They explored possible consequences for not following that guidance, and ways of dealing with moral dilemmas. He felt very strongly that Western and westernised cultures especially had become ‘demythologised’. That we lacked the great and enduring stories that help to bind societies and deliver wisdom for individual behaviour.

Star Wars – a modern myth

Star Wars - a modern myth
Star Wars – a modern myth

When film director George Lucas was planning the globally popular Star Wars sagas he approached Campbell. He told him that he wanted a ‘myth for the twentieth century’. If Campbell’s insights are correct, then it’s no surprise that the Star Wars films and spin-offs are still appearing nearly half a century later.

You might wonder what this has to do with looking after your mind. Apart from myths being moral templates, they explore other themes that form an essential part of human existence. These could be fate, pride, justice, vengeance, loyalty or beauty. Although these themes can be explored philosophically and, to some extent, through the ‘soft’ sciences of psychology and sociology, they carry more emotional impact being in story form.

Myths also contain the basic elements of story, which can help us make sense of life today. Recall a novel, film or TV series that has made a powerful impression on you. Or one that has helped you in some way to overcome a problem. How many of these so-called ‘narrative elements’ does the story contain? Hero, villain, problem, journey, partner, help, important object or objective? These are the building blocks of narrative (from the Latin ‘coming to know’) that crop up again and again both in fiction and in real-life events.

Basic elements in a news story

Pick a major story in the news and see how many of these elements can be ‘mapped’ onto it. More generally, there will always be villains causing chaos and the problems they bring. So there will always be a need for heroes – however you want to define that term – to resolve (re-solve) those problems. This has always been so and probably always will be.

I think that if children were taught the great myths and their significance to their lives, this would bring great benefit. When I work with children in schools I try and make these points, together with my strongly held belief that even if stories are fictional, they can tell us something true.

Steve Bowkett