“The truth is one, but the sages speak of it by many names.” (Rigveda)
The mythic quest is one of the defining elements of mythic narrative. While the theoretical framework of mythology and mythography can be readily understood without even touching upon the heroic quest (among other for me key notions like the trickster factor), this notion is rather crucial for understanding the intricacy of interrelations within the mythic narrative.
The key term connected with the heroic journey is monomyth, which essentially refers to the interconnectedness of mythic narrative, especially the narrative about the hero and his or her life journey. The term heroic journey was taken by the great Joseph Campbell from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He expanded it into a unifying transcultural theory that has now essentially become the mainstream guide for storytelling. Monomythic research tries to find similarities among culturally unrelated myths from different eras, determining common roots of cultures and human development. While common ground can indeed be found, making the application of monomyth (and common human heritage in general) extremely useful, the differences should not be overlooked. Culturally-bound elements mark the temporal and conventional distinctions among various traditions: such as for example the prominence of corn in the myths of Americas as opposed to olives in the Greek tradition.
Although Otto Rank and James George Frazer have for example prior to Campbell theorized on this subject matter, I think it’s still best to (approximately) follow the Campbellian model as the more elaborate and detailed account. His model observed in the diagram will be simplified for the sake of clarity, since both the path in general is manifold and the heroic models (faces) are based on the widest possible variety of world myths. While, I’m generally interested in a more global mythic perspective, you are in some ways “relegated” to the larger tradition you live in (in this case the Western tradition that has been most influenced by the Greek mythic legacy).
The mythic cycle, therefore, reflects the heroic life which follows an essentially simple tripart structure of separation, initiation and return. The journey itself is meant as a challenge par excellence for the person who chooses to undertake it; emphasizing the volition in the acceptance of the task. While the heroes and heroines are bound to their narrative, which kind of negates the notion of free will and free choice, this model is actually a beautiful representation of the trials and tribulations of the common (wo)man.
Also, the cyclical nature of Being is not to be confused with a repetitious loop; whereas the first on the symbolic level reflects the ongoing destruction/creation cycle that represents life itself, the second implies negative fixation, out of which (the Buddhist especially) must break free. It’s the hermeneutic cycle that only has one take.
The hero is more often than not hesitant of the extreme choice of action, since it represents an extreme change from his current position in life and the world, and may in fact be spurred into action. The choice itself, however, is the first and most crucial step that opens the mysterious doors to the greater existence. The call to adventure may of course be refused, however, in doing so, the unlikely hero-to-be reverts back to his mundane existence that cannot impact the greater reality. On the other hand, the acceptance of this life-altering challenge is always met with a figure that nudges the hero in the right direction, crossing the threshold into the sacred sphere where the unknowns are abound. This follows a symbolic pre-death where the hero emerges “baptized” into the greater reality of the matrix world s/he was previously numb about.
(The use of male gender pronouns is not a chauvinistic choice, but it does reflect the notion that there are more heroes than heroines in myth, partly because of the patriarchic society in which the stories emerged. However, the path can be equally applied to both genders.)
Here, the actual mythic journey becomes a reality and the initiation into this supernatural, previously unfathomable world begins. The hero’s trials are apropos of mythic dimensions, since s/he is taken through the whirlwind of the gods and must deal with these (unconscious) dark aspects (of his own psyche) that touch upon every emotional range and trials: from fear to temptation. From the male perspective, the two greatest challenges and consequently accomplishments in this stage are meeting the mother goddess and atonement with the father god, representing the psychological growth and fulfillment of the dual nature of all beings. This reality and seriousness of the expedition is evident though the symbolic death of the now knowledgeable hero, who is reborn with the newly acquired wisdom that is most evident in the acquisition of the boon or the goal of his journey. Significantly, this gift is not meant for the hero per se, because his true reward is the realization of the greater reality and the fulfillment of the life journey, hence stressing the social function of the hero.
Whether or not this boon is accepted by the mundane world, this gift becomes the key issue in the conclusion of the journey. Prior to this, the hero has a choice whether to return to the profane world or not, facing one final challenge of choosing the ego over the archetype s/he is to otherwise become. The change has in fact been so profound, that the culture itself may reject the hero as an abnormality, an entity now too foreign for the people (or advanced for their own good). The ultimate achievement is the mastery of both worlds, where the hero has as the divine mediator managed to bridge the gap between the sacred and the profane. Yet, this kind of “perfection” is not the norm of the story. The Buddha and Heracles achieve divine status both in Heaven and on Earth, as they forgo the mundane world, leaving it on one hand much richer through their own suffering and making a profound transcultural footprint for all the future generations on the other. Further, perfection is not even the ultimate “moral” of the story, since the archetypes that become apparent through the heroic quest are nevertheless marked by the specifics of the culture and the needs of the times in which the story is being (re)told. Plus, myth is not rooted so much in the romantic notion of morality, as it is in an attempt to understand the reality each culture is in.
Taking a sharp postmodern turn, the meaning of a particular story is never straightforward, since the holistic approach alone drives the observer into considering as many layers of it as possible (with the absolution of the perfect understanding forever slightly beyond your reach). The Campbellian mythic model is neither complete nor pervasive, plus it tends to be rooted mostly in Jungian psychology (despite the rich analysis of its subject matter). Reception will forever remain the elusive component in analyzing any work; a fluid constant that emerges as the bastard child of the times and the cultural changes in the tradition from which a particular story emerges. Even so, as much as this heir to the hermeneutic throne of ultimate comprehension tries to incorporate the mesocosmic theoretical facts into its pool of meaning in order to uncover the macrocosmic truths of the greater reality, it is still essentially rooted in the psyche of a particular microcosmos that only one particular researcher can either embody or extrapolate. Because of this, the nature and meaning of a story are more complex than anyone can individually envision. We can compare this with the Buddhist story of the blind men, each touching a particular part of the elephant in trying to determine the nature of what stands in front of them. Correspondingly, everyone provides a different answer, since the trunk feels completely dissociated from the tusks or the tail for example. What seemed universal in their mind was in fact a mere individual, partial truth. In that sense, only God can know the truth, since God is Truth. (Now, what you call “god” and “truth” is a different matter.) Corresponding to storytelling in myth and comics, the authors hold the truth towards which the readers are striving; yet, the difference is in the correspondence, since reception becomes integral for the authors themselves, as they relate their further storytelling (creation) directly through the reception of their readers. If the author is the ultimate reality, the reader is the future Buddha, whose awakening becomes associated with the reality of the work itself, even to the point of transcending it (akin to the Buddha’s philosophy of life becoming a Buddhist doctrinal religion through the followers … whether or not that was his intention).
In accordance with the above discussion, we need to expand the already mentioned archetypal model, particularly as it was postulated by Carl Jung. In this context we are essentially placing reception as a personal position in sharp contrast with the heroic quest (and archetypal patterns) that is despite its many masks centered in universal human forms. However, this dualism is not paradoxical per se but actually enhancive and merely reflects a different methodological position.
Jungian archetypes represent a formalistic backbone upon which we can gaze into the human psyche and consequently understand storytelling (among other things). Jung defines these archaic remnants as an inherently human, albeit unconscious feature:
“‘Myth-forming’ structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche. These products are never […] myths with a definite form, but rather mythological components which, because of their typical nature, we can call ‘motifs,’ ‘primordial images,’ types or […] archetypes.” (Jung and Kerenyi: Essays on a Science of Mythology (1985): 85-6)
Archetypes function on the unconscious level because they reflect a deeper sense of self and are not a personal feature per se, but a reflection of the human condition; hence the appearance and repetition of them in myths and dreams (in different forms) in dissimilar human cultures across time and space – which is the central claim of the monomyth theory. Jung distinguishes archetypes from instincts; while the latter are psychological urges perceived by the senses, the first manifest themselves in fantasies, dreams, symbolic images and metaphors (cf. Jung: Man and his Symbols). This symbolism presents itself as a kind of primordial language whose personal imagery composes cultural norms; in Campbell’s words: dreams become private myths, while myths serve as public dreams. The process is less evident, since the archetypes are “stored” in the collective unconscious, a shared human trait and a gateway to our past, present and future (beliefs).
Simplified, the similarity of mythic symbolism implies shared, transcultural human knowledge. Its memory is held in the collective unconscious as archetypes through which we try to understand the world (on our personal quest in the shared world). The most influential archetypes are: the Shadow (unconscious part of the psyche), Anima (female psychological tendencies in male psyche)/Animus (male psychological tendencies in female psyche) and the Self (personal essence that needs to be fulfilled). Further, the emergence and realization of the archetypes coincides with the mythic path; namely, through the elements of family, natural forces, helpers and detractors. Despite their universal nature, archetypes appear quite personal to each individual, since they reflect his or her personal nature. Consequently, myth is also a universal tale told from a quite personal position, stressing both the psychological nature rooted in human storytelling and the religious doctrine of a personal god that is also the non-created universal entity. If the Self is the essential part of our psyche, it is also divine; and since Atman equals Brahman, we have come full circle (yet again).
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …