Myths exist in every culture. Although myths may have different characters and plotlines, common themes (e.g., creation, marriage and betrayal) and common motifs (e.g., special weapons, helpful guides and barren lands) are seen. This commonality is explained by the concept of archetypes.
Archetypes are characters, items and situations in myth, art, literature, fairy tales, legends and religion that people universally identify with. As author June Singer suggests, archetypes are “images which help us to organize our life experiences” and “share a common core with all of humanity.”
Mythological events and images are created using metaphoric language and are not to be taken literally. Rather, like poetry and art, they are symbolic with deeper psychological meaning. In a very practical way, myths are there to provide us with information about life’s experiences.
Dorothy was not actually carried away to the Land of Oz, but ventured on an inner journey to recover elements of herself (e.g., courage) symbolically represented by characters and objects (e.g., the lion, ruby shoes). Her task was to feel more whole in her ‘home.’
Similarly, Jonah was not swallowed by a big fish; rather, he experienced a transformation or rebirth in faith after a three days and three nights (again, symbolic) descent into his own darkness or unknowingness.
Myths present guidelines for living and their moral tone sets expectations for our own behaviors and standards. In myths, we see archetypal situations such as being alone, facing dragons and having lost our way, and are shown some of the options that may aid us in these situations.
Myths give continuity and stability to a culture. They establish a culture’s customs, rituals, religious tenets, laws, social structures, arts and crafts, holidays and other recurring events. They foster a shared set of perspectives and values.
Myths have the ability to guide us through transitions and situations. Joseph Campbell, of the PBS series, “The Power of Myth,” believed that when we identify with myth (and its archetypal essence) our lives could inwardly open up to reveal richer experiences. When we are in harmony with myth we are following a deeper level of existence.
Although most myths are fictional, it does not mean that myths are false. Campbell wrote, “Mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.” The captivation and resonance we feel when experiencing myths such as Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Fisher King or The Wrestler, is due to their ability to help us see more clearly parts of our very human journey.
At times, we may find ourselves in the archetypal sacrifice-death-rebirth cycle learning the lessons of letting go, trusting, and living with uncertainly. At other times, we may find ourselves on the hero’s journey facing trial after trial. In these difficult times, it is helpful to feel that our own struggle might have a similar archetypal pattern and significance, though on a smaller scale.