Wikipedia defines “mythology” as “the study of myths or a body or collection of myths.” It goes on further to define “myth” as “a sacred narrative… although, in a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story.” This short, broad definition is suitable enough.
It is my fervent belief that the collective body of ancient world mythology expresses all of the deepest longings, hopes, desires and fears of humanity. Moreover, it not only cathartically expresses those things but offers the solutions to them. Before the semantic labels of religion, literature, psychology and philosophy even existed, myth existed to simultaneously fulfill the purpose of all of them.
In our modern day, myth, in the traditional sense of the word, has lost most of its original power. For children, books about Greek, Roman or Egyptian mythology can be an interesting diversion to complement the more seductive experiences of video games and movies. For a small percentage of adults, mythology may be briefly studied in a college class. An even smaller percentage may even go on to do academic research on it. But this is about the extent of it, which does not nearly approach the widespread, pervasive influence that myths once had on our ancestors.
But like the sly Trickster archetype, myth has evolved and shape-shifted into another form to command our attention and speak to us. That form is pop culture.
Though not usually consciously recognized as such by the majority of the media-consuming community, pop culture is myth in modern guise. Therefore, if ancient myth was literature, religion and psychology all rolled into one, so, too, is pop culture (or, at least, it can be). It is, by no means, just mere entertainment, though often that may appear to be the case.
This recognition alone, however, is not enough for myth speaks in code and riddles. It does not say “this and this is the problem and you should do this and this about it.” It gives you encrypted clues and leaves you to do the work of solving the puzzle.
In point of fact, our subconscious is always at work trying the solve the puzzle as the stories we watch and reed seep into our primordial microprocessors. But despite the dizzying array of stories available to us now (a vastness of which our ancestors probably could not conceive), the results are less than remarkable.
First of all, there is an obvious disparity in quality. Not all works of pop culture command a scope, depth and richness for which the term “mythical” would be appropriate. Second, even with a work of superior quality – let us say, for example, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – it is still mostly consumed and enjoyed at the level of just entertainment or, at best, art.
I do not believe in art for art’s sake because, for me, the concept of art is inseparable from the drive to understand, learn, evolve and grow. Although I do not condemn enjoying pop culture simply as entertainment, the silver thread linking it to ancient mythology is clearly there and it seems like a waste to not mine it for the jewels of wisdom buried within it.
It is exciting to see the reach of certain media and genres, like comic books and the fantasy genre, previously relegated to the ranks of nerds and geeks reach critical mass. But, for me, there came a point when I could not stop asking myself: Is this it? More than ever in the history of our species, here we had a wealth of powerful modern myths to inform and guide our lives, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, and yet nothing essentially seemed to be changing. The world was still increasingly beset with problems verging on the point of crisis, people still seemed as confused as ever and their behavior had not evolved to the point of critical mass.
Partly, this has to do with who is producing the myths and what for. Ancient myth was collectively and anonymously created and revised, then transmitted orally by elders to succeeding generations. For the most part, the myths existed primarily to teach and make sense of existence. As time went on, and new forms – like the fairy tale and folk tale – emerged, stories became increasingly used to instill and maintain political power structures and social mores. And then, with the rise of the printing press and gradually other new media like advertising, profit became an increasingly central motive.
Stories became increasingly complex on the surface. Deep down, they still contained the same themes and motifs, but they came with a bewildering array of mixed messages and conflicting imagery. A movie about rebelling against the fallacy of the System is delivered with images of luxury cars, clothes and designer sunglasses.
Pop culture commands the appeal that it does because it does not wear its lofty aspirations on its sleeve. The once-sacred institutions of religion, government and education (which do wear their aspirations on their sleeve) increasingly abdicate their moral authority as one public figure after another is revealed to be a bigot, liar, hypocrite, conman or pervert.
It is only natural, then, that people instinctively turn elsewhere for their moral and spiritual education. Pop culture has increasingly become the refuge for exhausted and disappointed seekers. For those simply seeking an opiate, they find it. For those seeking answers, they’re looking in the right place but unless they know how to look and what to look for, they can become lost.
This is why there is the need to approach pop culture with an elevated awareness, to know what to look for and extract and what to ignore and discard. Few (and fewer by the day) are the wisened elders who, like Ariadne’s thread, once guided our ancestors through the interpretive maze of myth onto a path of clear understanding. And so it behooves us to educate ourselves.
The writings in this column, Hero Worship, will help you to see and recognize pop culture as modern mythology and to be able to use it – as all original myth intended – to awaken the hero within.