Archive for July, 2012

Mythic Heroes

31 Jul

Anonymous super hero pose

What follows is a copy of one of my first exposures to the idea of the universal hero story a few years ago. The web page is now offline, but I found a copy through the Wayback machine. Here’s the unedited text of the page. The content is not my own, but is content that I find interesting.

Mythic Heroes

It has been known for over a century that many biographies of legendary heroes have remarkably similar overall plot lines. One of the scholars who has discussed this in detail is a certain Lord Raglan, who wrote a book, The Hero, back in 1936. The more important parts of this book are reprinted in Robert Segal’s collection, In Quest of the Hero, which includes Otto Rank’s discussion of the birth stories of numerous heroes and Alan Dundes’s discussion of Jesus Christ as a mythic hero. Lord Raglan had prepared a composite hero biography; I will check on how well other heroes fit, after making certain clarifications and changes.

Here is Lord Raglan’s original list:

  1. The hero’s mother is a royal virgin, while
  2. his father is a king, and
  3. the father is related to the mother.
  4. The hero’s conception is unusual or miraculous; hence
  5. he is reputed to be a son of a god.
  6. Evil forces attempt to kill the infant or boy hero, but
  7. he is spirited away to safety and
  8. reared by foster parents in a foreign land. Besides this,
  9. we learn no details of his childhood until
  10. he journeys to his future kingdom, where
  11. he triumphs over the reigning king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast, and
  12. marries a princess, often his predecessor’s daughter, and
  13. becomes king himself.
  14. For a while he reigns uneventfully,
  15. promulgating laws. But
  16. he later loses favor with his subjects or with the gods and
  17. is driven from the throne and the city and
  18. meets with a mysterious death,
  19. often atop a hill.
  20. If he has children, they do not succeed him.
  21. His body is not buried, yet
  22. he has one or more holy sepulchers.

Several problems are apparent immediately, especially when one considers Lord Raglan’s examples:

  • Oedipus
  • Theseus
  • Romulus
  • Hercules (Heracles)
  • Perseus
  • Jason
  • Bellerophon
  • Pelops
  • Asklepios (Asclepius, Aesculapius)
  • Dionysus
  • Apollo
  • Zeus
  • Joseph (from the Book of Genesis)
  • Moses
  • Elijah
  • Watu Gunung (from Java)
  • Nyikang (from the Shiluk of the upper Nile)
  • Sigurd (Siegfried)
  • Llew Llaw Gyffes (Llew Llawgyffes)
  • King Arthur
  • Robin Hood

In several of these examples, the hero’s mother was not quite virginal when she had the hero, though many of these heroes are first or only children. This suggests splitting the first criterion into two: The hero’s mother is a queen who has had no previous children. Likewise, “royalty” ought to be interpreted somewhat broadly as “having a high status”, which includes anything from rich people to deities. And in some cases, a human father or seeming human father is hard to identify, so I will list that as optional. Lack of mention of details of a hero’s childhood (9) may seem to be a very normal thing, but it is signficant when the hero’s infancy is described in detail, as is the case in many hero stories. Furthermore, some hero stories feature stories of unusual precocity; I believe that that ought to be added to Lord Raglan’s criteria. Likewise, having an uneventful reign (14) may be only relative. Criterion (11) may be interpreted generally as triumph over some great enemy, and criterion (18) may be interpreted as an unusual or unexpected death. One problem I have with some of Lord Raglan’s examples is that he includes temples in (22), even if they are generalized temples rather than tombs. Also, Lord Raglan often uses the most “mythical” variant to construct a score, which may make his scores upper limits.

So here’s my modified list:

  1. The hero’s mother is a queen,
  2. who has had no previous children, while
  3. his father, if human, is a king, and
  4. he is related to the hero’s mother.
  5. The hero’s conception is unusual or miraculous; hence
  6. he is reputed to be a son of a god.
  7. Evil forces attempt to kill the infant or boy hero, but
  8. he is spirited away to safety and
  9. reared by foster parents in a foreign land. Relative to this,
  10. we learn no details of his childhood, aside from unusual precocity, until
  11. he journeys to his future kingdom, where
  12. he triumphs over some great enemy — the reigning king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast — and
  13. marries a princess, often his predecessor’s daughter, and
  14. becomes king himself.
  15. For a while he reigns relatively uneventfully,
  16. promulgating laws. But
  17. he later loses favor with his subjects or with the gods and
  18. is driven from the throne and the city and
  19. meets with a mysterious, unusual, or unexpected death,
  20. often atop a hill.
  21. If he has children, they do not succeed him.
  22. His body is not buried, yet
  23. he has one or more holy sepulchers.

I’ve used the male pronoun here, because most of the examples I know of are male; it would be interesting to see some female examples.

Here is some of my scoring. I will use some of the better-known examples, both from Lord Raglan and from elsewhere; I will also include some real people who have experienced some mythification.

Jesus Christ

  1. Mary is a commoner, but according to some apologists, the Luke genealogy applies to her instead of to Joseph. (0 – 0.5)
  2. She’s not called the Virgin Mary for nothing. (1)
  3. Joseph, though a commoner, is descended from King David (Matthew and Luke). (0.5)
  4. Only very distantly. (0)
  5. A conception which resulted in the Virgin Birth. (1)
  6. Yes, he’s the Son of God, God, and 1/3 of God, depending on which interpretation one prefers. (1)
  7. King Herod orders a massacre of all the baby boys of Bethlehem (Matthew). (1)
  8. His parents flee with him (1)
  9. to Egypt, where he spends his early childhood. (0.5)
  10. We only hear stories of unusual precocity (learning at the Temple, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Arabic Infancy Gospel). (1)
  11. He goes into the wilderness and then to Galilee (synoptics) or to Jerusalem (John). (1)
  12. He successfully resists the Devil’s temptations, which include rule of “all the kingdoms of the world”. (0.5)
  13. He is described as single, but the Gospel of Philip describes him as kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth, and there has been abundant speculation about a JC-MM relationship, but she had been a commoner without any special ancestry. (0)
  14. He becomes a famous religious prophet. (1)
  15. Although he worked many miracles, these were relatively small-scale. (1)
  16. His teachings are often considered laws. (1)
  17. After his famous Temple temper tantrum, he is arrested and his followers desert him (mainly Matthew). (1)
  18. He is put on trial by the Jewish and Roman authorities, and a lynch mob wants him dead. (1)
  19. He “dies” on that cross, despite his ability to jump off of it. (1)
  20. Yes. (1)
  21. He is childless; if (say) Mary Magdalene had had his children, we do not learn of them. (1)
  22. His body was only temporarily buried; he woke up three days later, appeared to his followers, and then rose up into Heaven. (1)
  23. Yes. (1)

Score: 18.5 – 19

Assessing Jesus Christ as a myth is bound to be controversial; Lord Raglan had avoided doing so for that reason. However, the difficulty of distinguishing the historical Jesus, if any, from the abundance of mythology about him has caused some to conclude that he had been a myth, notably Richard Price and Earl Doherty.

The Virgin Birth, for example, is rather obviously mythological, with numerous legendary pagan heroes having gods as their biological fathers. This includes some historical people supposedly having such fathers, such as Pythagoras (Apollo), Plato (also Apollo), and Alexander the Great (Zeus). Which implies that their human “fathers”, like Joseph, had been cuckolded by gods!

One counterargument may be phrased as follows:

The Christian God did not have sexual relations with that woman, Mary!

This phrasing is in analogy with former President Clinton’s evasive and hairsplitting defenses of his sexual conduct. I believe that “defense” to be equally evasive and hairsplitting, because the divine impregnation is the important thing about such a story. Interestingly, Mormonism teaches that God had indeed had sex with Mary to produce JC.

The reference to Jesus Christ being the Son of God, God, and 1/3 of God is an attempt to be uncommittal about the Trinity, which in my opinion is a hopelessly tangled theological knot.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Arabic Infancy Gospel are noncanonical Gospels that describes Jesus Christ as having performed several miracles during his childhood. Thomas includes miracles like bring to life statues of small birds that he had made, raising some dead people, and zapping a boy who bumped into his shoulder.

And the comment about jumping off of the Cross was imspired by the miracles that Jesus Christ had allegedly worked: walking on water, conjuring up bread and fish, turning water into wine, healing sick people, driving out demons, raising the dead, and zapping a certain fig tree. Yet he was either unable or unwilling to jump off that cross.

Back to the list of scores.


  1. His mother is from the priestly tribe of Levi. (0.5)
  2. The text suggests that Moses is her first child, (1)
  3. His father is also a Levite. (0.5)
  4. Only very distantly. (0)
  5. No sign of this. (0)
  6. No hint of this. (0)
  7. The Pharaoh tried to kill all the baby boys — which included him. (1)
  8. He is put in a basket which floats down the Nile, (1)
  9. and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter in the Egyptian royal court. (1)
  10. Correct. (1)
  11. He returns to his fellow Israelites — twice. (1)
  12. He kills an Egyptian who had been tormenting his fellow Israelites, and he later liberates his people from the Pharaoh. (1)
  13. He marries a daughter of a priest of Midian, (1)
  14. and eventually becomes the Israelites’ leader. (1)
  15. After liberation, the Israelites wander around in the Sinai. (1)
  16. and Moses issues lots and lots of laws. (1)
  17. God tells him that he will not be allowed in the Promised Land, (1)
  18. and he is stuck in the land of Moab. (1)
  19. He was in good health up until he died (1)
  20. on top of Mt. Pisgah. (1)
  21. He is succeeded by Joshua son of Nun — and not by any of his children. (1)
  22. His body was buried, (0)
  23. but nobody knows where. (0)

Score: 16

My score is lower than Lord Raglan’s, because I am using only the Biblical account of him, and not later Jewish legend, which may have additional details (can anyone fill me in on this?). Also, I’ve counted being raised in the Egyptian royal court as being raised in another country, becuase that was a place very different from where his parents had lived.

Back to the list of scores.


  1. Rhea Silvia, daughter of King Numitor.(1)
  2. Romulus and Remus were her only children. (1)
  3. In some versions, King Amulius, wearing his armor, had raped Rhea Silvia. (1)
  4. King Amulius was Rhea Silvia’s uncle. (1)
  5. Though the wicked King Amulius made Rhea Silvia a Vestal Virgin, sort of like a nun, to keep her from having children, (1)
  6. the god Mars made her pregnant with R and R. (1)
  7. King Amulius, upon discovering RS’s children, puts them in a wooden tub, which he puts in the Tiber, (1)
  8. but it floats down the river, (1)
  9. and R and R are reared first by a wolf, then by a (human) peasant family. (1)
  10. Correct. (1)
  11. Correct. (1)
  12. He helps Numitor defeat Amulius. (1)
  13. Nothing special about his wife Hersilia. (0)
  14. He founds Rome and becomes its first ruler, killing his twin brother along the way. (1)
  15. The kidnapping of the Sabine women, and the other wars he led, count against this. (0)
  16. He set up Rome’s laws and institutions, like the Senate. (1)
  17. According to some versions, Romulus turned into a tyrant. (1)
  18. In those versions, the Senate condemned him. (1)
  19. Romulus disappeared into a storm, with Mars taking him into heaven in a fiery chariot, with those alternate versions featuring the Senators executing and dismembering him. (1)
  20. His trip to heaven was from Capra Palus (Goat’s Marsh), which was likely very flat. (0)
  21. Correct. (0)
  22. He became worshipped as the god Quirinus. (1)
  23. Lapis Niger (Black Rock) in Rome’s Forum had supposedly marked his grave. (1)

Score: 19

The accounts of him are rather contradictory; I’ve followed Lord Raglan’s procedure, despite it producing some score inflation. But using only one of the variants, such as him being taken to heaven vs. him being executed by the Senate, would not lower his score very much.

Back to the list of scores.

Hercules (Heracles)

  1. Alcmene was daughter of King Electryon of Tiyrns. (1)
  2. Correct. (1)
  3. Her husband was King Amphitryon, (1)
  4. who was a first cousin. (1)
  5. Hard to tell. (1)
  6. Zeus was his real father, appearing to Alcmene in the form of Amphitryon and making her pregnant. (1)
  7. Hera tries to spite her husband Zeus by first trying to intefere with Hercules’s birth, and then by trying to kill the baby Hercules with some snakes. Which he strangles. (1)
  8. No. (0)
  9. No. (0)
  10. Yes. (1)
  11. Not sure. (0)
  12. He kills a lion, among other feats (1)
  13. He marries King Creon’s daughter Megara (1)
  14. Not sure. (0)
  15. Not sure. (0)
  16. Not sure. (0)
  17. King Eurystheus becomes displeased with him on account of some murders he had committed (1)
  18. and sentences him to performing his famous Twelve Labors. (1)
  19. He disappears from his funeral pyre (1)
  20. on top of Mt. Oeta. (1)
  21. His sons do not succeeded him. (1)
  22. His body is not found, (1)
  23. but he is worshipped in temples. (1)

Score: 16

Lord Raglan claims that he had become king of Calydon for a while, complete with uneventful rule; I was unable to find that in my sources.

Back to the list of scores.


  1. His mother Devaki is a sister of the wicked King Kamsa; her father Devaka was rich enough to afford a dowry of 400 elephants fully decorated with golden garlands, 15,000 decorated horses, 1800 chariots, and the hiring of 200 pretty young ladies to follow her. (1)
  2. She had seven sons before having Krishna. (0)
  3. His father Vasudeva was the son of sort-of-king Surasena. (1)
  4. No hint of that. (0)
  5. Devaki learned that she was pregnant with someone special when she became pregnant with Krishna. (1)
  6. Krishna is considered an avatar of the great Hindu god Vishnu. (1)
  7. King Kamsa had imprisoned Vasudeva and Devaki, and had killed their previous offspring. (1)
  8. When he was born, he was switched with Yogamaya, daughter of Yasoda and Nanda (mother and father), thus frustrating Kamsa. (1)
  9. Yasoda and Nanda return to their home and raise Krishna there. (1)
  10. There are some childhood details, such as his learning to dance, his destroying some wicked demons, and his cavortings with some gopis. (0)
  11. King Kamsa invites Krishna and a friend to a wrestling match, hoping that Krishna will be defeated. (1)
  12. But Krishna wins, prompting Kamsa to order Krishna’s foster father and several others murdered. Whereupon Krishna kills Kamsa. (1)
  13. Krishna marries some beautiful princesses. (1)
  14. He becomes a king. (1)
  15. The Kurukshetra War counts against this; Krishna also fights more demons and plays his flute, Krishna’s fun loving is a rarity among religious prophets; only Jesus Christ comes anywhere close with his turning of water into wine for a wedding party. (0)
  16. Krishna delivers the Bhagavad-Gita to Arjuna at the beginning of that war. (1)
  17. His family misbehaves, leading to their destruction. (1)
  18. With his family destroyed and his kingdom torn apart by civil war, Krishna leaves the place to wander about by himself. He saw the destruction of his clan and kingdom. (1)
  19. He was shot in the foot by an archer named “Jara” (“Old Age”). (0.5)
  20. In a forest by the seashore. (0)
  21. He has no successors. (1)
  22. He rose up into heaven. (1)
  23. Several places are supposedly his last resting place. (1)

Score: 17.5

Other Hindu religious figures are known to have Mythic-Hero-like biographies.

Back to the list of scores.

Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)

  1. Not sure about the royal origins or the virginity of his mother Maya (0.5),
  2. Yes. (1)
  3. His father Suddhodhana was a king, or at least a noble. (1)
  4. No hint of this. (0)
  5. He was conceived when Maya dreamed that a white elephant had entered her body through her side. (1)
  6. He was an enlightened being on his last reincarnation before achieving Nirvana. (1)
  7. King Suddhodhana tries to keep him from his future career by pampering him, keeping him from an awareness of suffering and death, instead of by trying to kill him. (0.5)
  8. A pampering which continues through his childhood. (0)
  9. Maya dies and he is raised by her sister Mahaprajaprati. (0)
  10. Apparently so. (1)
  11. He sees an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic, and he deserts his wife and son in search of enlightenment as to what he saw. (1)
  12. He goes on a long quest, mortifying the flesh, and experiencing Mara the Tempter trying to lead him astray, until he achieves enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. (1)
  13. He effectively stays single the rest of his life. (0)
  14. He becomes the leader of his new religious movement. (1)
  15. He decides to spread the word about what he has learned. (1)
  16. Correct. (1)
  17. He issues his teachings, which contain laws of a sort. (1)
  18. Does not seem to happen. (0)
  19. Does not seem to happen. (0)
  20. He dies from eating a meal of tainted pork, an oddity because Buddhism has the ideal of vegetarianism. (1)
  21. Nothing special about where he died. (0)
  22. His son does not succeed him. (1)
  23. He is cremated. (1)
  24. He has no tomb, but there are temples containing his relics, like the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. (1)

Score: 15

Though at first sight, being pampered is very different from someone trying to kill him, that pampering had the same intended effect: keeping Siddhartha Gautama from becoming a religious prophet. So that is why I include it in the “evil forces try to kill him” criterion.

Back to the list of scores.

Mohammed, Founder of Islam

  1. Nothing special. (0)
  2. Not sure. (0)
  3. Nothing special. (0)
  4. Nothing beyond their both being Quraysh. (0)
  5. No sign of that. (0)
  6. No sign of that. (0)
  7. Does not happen. (0)
  8. Does not happen. (0)
  9. Does not happen. (0)
  10. No infancy details makes this irrelevant. (0)
  11. He goes to a cave in the mountains, where he starts receiving revelations. (0.5)
  12. He brings his new religion back to Mecca, defeating pagans. (1)
  13. He marries Khadija, a rich businesswoman. (0.5)
  14. He becomes a leader as well as a founder. (1)
  15. He has to flee to Medina, and later triumphantly reconquers Mecca. (0)
  16. He keeps on receiving revelations. (1)
  17. Never happens. (0)
  18. Does not really happen, unless one counts having to flee to Medina. (0)
  19. He gets sick and dies in a normal sort of fashion. (0)
  20. He dies in Medina. (0)
  21. Correct, though Shiites believe that the descendants of Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, are Islam’s legitimate leaders. (1)
  22. He was buried in Medina. (0)
  23. Only relevant if his body had mysteriously disappeared. (0)

Score: 5

I have omitted the part about him riding a flying horse to heaven, because I am not sure how that fits in with the rest of his biography. If he did not really die, but instead rode such a horse to heaven, then that raises his score by 2.

Back to the list of scores.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

  1. His mother Rose Fitzgerald was the daughter of a notable Boston politician, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. (0.5)
  2. She had Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. before having JFK, though he died in WWII. (0.5)
  3. his father Joseph P. Kennedy was a successful businessman who was involved in politics. (0.5)
  4. No evidence of this. (0).
  5. No evidence of this. (0).
  6. Even the biggest JFK groupies don’t claim this. (0).
  7. Does not happen. (0)
  8. No need to. (0)
  9. He was raised by his biological parents. (0)
  10. No infancy details makes this irrelevant. (0)
  11. He enters politics in his home state, Massachusetts. (0)
  12. Defeating Richard Nixon in 1960 is hardly a very great triumph. (0)
  13. He married Jacqueline Bouvier, who had come from a rich family. (0.5)
  14. He became President. (1)
  15. His Presidency was rather tempestuous, with the Bay of Pigs would-be invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. (0)
  16. His record was rather mixed; he was slow to support civil rights, and he proposed landing on the Moon only late in his Presidency. (0.5)
  17. Does not happen. (0)
  18. Does not happen. (0)
  19. He was assassinated by a lone lunatic who got a good shot at him. (0)
  20. He is killed in his parade car. (0)
  21. His son JFK Jr. was a lawyer, journalist, publisher, and sex symbol; his daughter Caroline has not been as notable. (1)
  22. His body resides in Arlington National Cemetery. (0)
  23. Not sure what would qualify as one. (0)

Score: 4.5

The death of JFK has been the subject of much speculation and conspiracy theorizing, but calling it a mystery would raise his score only by 1.

Back to the list of scores.

Charles Darwin

  1. His mother, Susannah Wedgwood, came from an aristocratic family. (0.5)
  2. She had four previous ones before having him. (0)
  3. his father, Robert Darwin, came from an aristocratic family; his father was the noted biologist Erasmus Darwin. (0.5)
  4. No evidence of this. (0).
  5. No evidence of this. (0).
  6. Even his most fervent admirers consider him 100% human. (0)
  7. Does not happen. (0)
  8. No need to. (0)
  9. He was raised by his biological parents. (0)
  10. No infancy details makes this irrelevant. (0)
  11. His voyage aboard the Beagle might possibly be interpreted as that, but he becomes convinced of evolution only well after that voyage. (0)
  12. He publishes the Origin of Speciesand other important writings. (0.5)
  13. He marries Emma Wedgwood, from his mother’s family. (0.5)
  14. He gets hailed as a great scientist. (1)
  15. He continues to be productive, though it is hard for him to compete with his magnum opus. (0)
  16. His discoveries may or may not qualify as “laws”; they are descriptions, not decrees. (0.5)
  17. Does not happen. (0)
  18. Does not happen. (0)
  19. He dies a normal sort of death. (0)
  20. in his house. (0)
  21. Some of his children become notable scientists, though in different fields. (0.5)
  22. His body is buried in Westminster Abbey. (0)
  23. Not sure what would qualify as one. (0)

Score: 4

If Charles Darwin had lost favor with his scientist colleagues, they would have dismissed him as a crackpot. But they did the exact opposite, and he got buried in the most honorable place in Britain.

Back to the list of scores.

Source: Originally found at


Monomyth in NBC’s Community

27 Jul

The universal story, the monomyth, that exists in every human psyche, is Dan Harmon’s tool for mapping out nearly every aspect of the NBC TV show Community. Harmon has distilled the monomyth into a handy guide for tv writers.

I wonder – is it because of our cultural lack of mythology and/or because of our secularism (a denial of every claim of a real myth), that we have to deconstruct and bullet-point what a story is?

Here’s an excerpt of a very interesting article about Harmon, creator of Community, with multiple charts displaying the Monomyth in various levels of detail.

The circles are everywhere, if you know to look for them. They’re on the whiteboards around Dan Harmon’s office, on sheets tacked to his walls, on a notepad on the floor of his car. Each one is hand-drawn and divided into quadrants with scribbled notes and numbers sprouting along the edges. They look like little targets.

Harmon, 38, is the creator of Community, a sitcom about a group of community-college study buddies and the most giddily experimental show on network TV. He began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process—to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort

2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. Adapt to it

5. Get what they wanted
6. Pay a heavy price for it
7. Then return to their familiar situation
8. Having changed

Harmon calls his circles embryos—they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story—and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”


Is Discussing Masculinity Anti-Woman?

26 Jul
Finger faces: angry woman, sad man

Umm… women can be brave too?

Due to a story I’ll type sometime, related to the category “Pink Sweater Jesus,” I’ve been looking into masculinity in our culture and in my faith. I came across an Christianity Today blog post criticizing John Piper for saying to an audience of men that Jesus and Christianity were masculine.

In addition to a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the feminine “feel” of Christianity (here’s a hint: the church doesn’t feel feminine because there’s more women in the church, there’s more women in the church because it feels feminine, but more on the history of this later), the post and many comments are very strongly reactive. If Piper was telling men about being masculine, he must be insulting women!

Two commenters responded to a statement by Piper about masculinity being associated with bravery. A man responded that being told he had to be brave felt like being forced into a straight jacket. A woman commented that this must mean Piper doesn’t think women can be brave.

I haven’t read or listened to what Piper said here, but stating that masculinity is associated with something:

  • does not mean every man is characterized by it and
  • does not mean women or even femininity isn’t characterized by it.

For example,

“Manly men are considerate and respectful”

is not a statement to emasculate inconsiderate men, nor a statement that women are inconsiderate and disrespectful.

Much of what I’ve been reading is talk/instruction/advice to men, not to draw a contrast or even touch the subject of what women are like or ought to be like. It’s just talking to men about being men.

Yet, it seems like unsafe territory in a world when people are eager to take offense.


Hero With a Thousand Faces: Tragedy and Comedy (The Monomyth, chapter 2)

25 Jul

Book cover of The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved.  p 25-26

Again Campbell’s worldview provides the driving source behind and the limitations of his research into the Monomyth. His religion (a term which G. K. Chesterton defined as one’s basic understanding of everything) leads inevitably to hopelessness. To Campbell, every story with a happy ending is a deception.

Campbell reasons that since even “the envied of the world” “know what bitterness of failure, loss,” etc. (p 27-28), we value tragedy higher than comedy, unlike the Greeks. It’s more true to life.

But was comedy – a life of happy endings – more true to life for the Greeks? We’ve got advancements in science, medicine, philosophy, and more. We don’t tend toward tragedy because it’s true to our lives, but the Greek life was somehow characterized by happy endings. We tend toward tragedy because of our worldview.

Campbell says that we shouldn’t read comedies – stories with happy endings – as contradictions to reality, but “as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man…because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, [the objective world] is beheld as though transformed.”

That is – don’t let this challenge your hopeless worldview, your instructions are to pretend. To behold the world as though it is transformed, knowing all the while that it isn’t, and all is damned. His proof? Myths that have happy endings are dream-like:

Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds of victory are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and-such was done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. – p 29

It’s true, myths are primarily about conveying truths, rather than true stories. It’s brilliant that values have been conveyed through human history through story.

A brief example of truth through untrue stories: One can learn about bravery from Spiderman or sacrifice from Superman much more than you can learn about bravery from the dictionary definition of those terms.

My questions:

  1. Tolkien’s comment to Lewis about the story of Jesus being the ultimate myth because it was the best, but also was actually true. The “deeds of victory” in the story of Jesus would primarily be the passion – his death, crucifixion and resurrection. These are recorded by multiple gospel writers in very earthy, lifelike, gory detail. It’s not make believe language, and the details that are there don’t fit in a fairy tale story. Is Jesus’ story an outlier the his rule? Are there others?
  2. How much of Campbell’s views of mythology are driven by his religion/worldview? In both chapters so far we’ve seen his worldview limit the discussion. Alternatively, Ecclesiastes sets a similar tone about all being meaningless/hopeless.
  3. With Campbell’s direction in the last chapter to take up the hero story as a necessary tool for human psychological health and now in this chapter as a way to pretend things are different (beholding the world as though transformed), it’s feeling like this book is largely a mental health manual for atheists, how to use stories when they have no stories to believe in.
  4. In the lack of a story to believe in, where do people turn? Is this why politicians become larger than life? (I’m reminded of how Obama promised the sea levels would lower just because he was nominated instead of Clinton.)

Rules of a Gentleman

17 Jul

In addition to the semi-annual concern about the plight of men refusing to be men (preferring to remain boys instead) as well as Dennis Prager, Emily Post, and other influential voices, and finally watching my 3 boys slowly grow up, all have me considering the definition of masculinity. This is a multifaceted question with biblical, fallen, and cultural dimensions.

But isn’t it strange that the question remains unanswered in our culture?

I happened upon this graphic listing 20 “Rules of a Gentleman” over the weekend. I was unable to verify the source, and the lack of parallel grammar indicates that these Gentleman prioritized proof-reading.

A copy of 20 Rules of a Gentleman

I recognize that C. S. Lewis wrote about those who use the word Gentleman this way:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose. – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

This list (and the input I’m seeking) is a middle-ground definition of “Gentleman,” or simply asking about an American cultural outplay of mature masculinity.

What do you think of this list?


Money out of (Conservative) Politics

16 Jul

I’ve been approached by petitioners for Planned Parenthood and Green Peace near the REI Flagship store or on the street near The House of Commons (a great place to buy Lapsang Souchong tea) in the 15th and Platte area of Denver. Today I was approached with a new one:

Petitionista: Would you like to sign a petition to help get money out of politics?

Me: I don’t know.

Petitionista: Are you familiar withCitizens United? That’s when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people!! and they can give unlimited amounts of money, anonymously, into politics. I’m trying to help get this on the ballot for the 2012 election.

Me: So, does this work on getting all money from all groups out of politics, like corporations, unions, and so on, out of politics? Or just corporations?

Petitionista: Right now we’re just focusing on corporations.

Me: So, unions seem fairly one-sided on which end of the political spectrum they give money to, so your petition is to block unlimited campaign contributions by corporations, but leave unlimited contributions to unions that give to only one side?

Petitionista: Yes. We’re only focusing on blocking corporations, not unions.

Me: I’m not signing your petition. It seems like a very dangerous thing to try to allow unlimited funding from only those who are on one side of political issues.


The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Chapter 1

10 Jul

This is the first in a series of notes about research into The Hero Story. I’m taking these notes as I seek to explore connections between Joseph Campbell, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Jesus and Batman.


Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. – page 3

So begins Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell ( 1904-1987 ) believed in the Monomyth as part of what he saw as  “the unity of human consciousness and its poetic expression through mythology.”

Campbell begins his work by delving into the human psyche.

For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.

What is the secret of the timeless vision? Fro what profundity of the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath is varieties of costume? And what does it teach?

Most remarkable of all, however, are the revelations that have emerged from the mental clinic… In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. – page 4

He speaks much of Freud, Jung and their followers who record dreams. Many of these dreams are remarkably accurate depictions of mythologies of other cultures to which the dreamer has never been exposed. He gives many examples of such dreams and the parallel mythological stories.

He also writes something that connects with what I thought was a completely unrelated topic: the apparent inability for most young men in America to grow up:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effectual spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the unexorcised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhood shrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love–which can come to them only from the centaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the rout of Pan, either as in the second of the above recited dreams, or as in our popular, vanilla-frosted temples of the venereal goddess, under the make-up of the latest heroes of the screen. – pages 11-12

He writes about the universal villain:

Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then–more miserably–within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero… The hero is the man of self-achieved submission. But submission to what?

Only birth can conquer death–the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. – page 16

He writes about the power of the reality within our subconscious with this story within us:

If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life. We should tower in stature. Moreover, if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day–a personage of not only local but world historical moment. In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C.G. Jung has called “the archetypal images” – page 17-18

He quotes

  • Jung’s Psychology and Religion from Collected Works, Vol 11
  • Ethnische Elementargedankenin der Lehre vom Menchen, Berlin 1895
  • Sir James G Frazer’s The Golden Bough :

We need not, with some enquirers in ancient and modern times, suppose that the Western peoples borrowed from the older civilization of the Orient the conception of the Dying and Reviving God, together with the solemn ritual, in which the conception was dramatically set forth before the eyes of the worshippers. More probably the resemblance which may be traced in this respect between the religions of the East and West is no more than what we commonly, though incorrectly, call a fortuitous coincidence, the effect of similar causes acting alike on the similar constitution of the human mind in different countries and under different skies

He writes:

Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream.

The archetype idea is associated with the Stoic concept of the Logoi spermatikoi. (John 1?)

He says he disagrees with a Professor Toynbee, as Toynbee draws the myth back to the Catholic church. No doubt, as Campbell is an atheist. And yet largely because of the atheism of himself and others, he writes that his plight is truly desperate:

It is only those who know neither an inner cal nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and with-in the heart. – page 23

But there’s a solution! Campbell is here to deliver to the secularist a solution to this truly desperate plight:

… we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

My Response

This book (in this chapter and others) makes a well documented case for the theory that The Hero Story is embedded within the soul of humans near and far, modern and ancient. Campbell says that the universal story is just the outplaying an epic story embedded in the  psyche of every human. Now that we have Freud and Jung, we know that’s all it is.

That’s all it is?!

How can one be satisfied with that? It’s a huge answer begging even larger questions. Where did it come from? How did a full and complete hero story get into every human psyche? Who put it there? Does he believe the process of matter and energy through the predestined laws of cause-and-effect put together the human psyche in random order and suddenly the full and complete hero story jumped out?

Campbell’s atheism may have limited his freedom to pursue this, as the presence of a story begs the question of an author.Perhaps Campbell deals with this later or in other writings.

There is one story within every human.

  • Does this correspond with Ecclesiastes 3:11 which includes “…He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
    • In a parallel to Campbell’s point about the psyche-engrained myth helping us through stages of life, this line in Ecclesiastes follows the lines that inspired the Byrds “Turn, Turn, Turn” about there being a season for everything.
    • Clarke’s commentary says the best translation would read: “Also that eternity hath he placed in their heart, without which man could not find out the work which God hath made from the commencement to the end.” God has deeply rooted the idea of eternity in every human heart; and every considerate man sees, that all the operations of God refer to that endless duration. (my thought: what if he not only placed the idea of eternity in our hearts, but the entire story of eternity?)
  • How does this compare with what is proposed by Don Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts?
  • Is the church doing a disservice by not focusing on story, putting Christians in the same truly desperate plight he speaks of for secularists?
  • Given that the understanding and living out of the story is, per Campbell, essential to healthy life transitions, what should I do differently for myself, my children, and others I lead?
  • Tolkien’s point about Jesus’ story being the best myth – is that true according to the monomyth taught by Campbell?
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