When you were a small child, your parents probably read you fairy tales. Many of us were raised on stories from the famous Grimm’s Fairy Tales collection, or modifications to it. Some of us cannot imagine our childhood without Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales or Jan Werich’s Fimfarum collection. Whether you read one or the other, do you remember how you felt when you were listening to those stories?
Bettleheim (2010) argues that the plots and characters of fairy tales can address children’s anxieties and fears. Children tend to identify with archetypal characters in fairy tales, which help them confront their fears and work through them in a symbolic way. One example of this is the story ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf, a stranger, who addresses her on a path. She feels uncomfortable and cautious when talking to him in the forest and later in the house of her grandmother. Children can learn how to cope with strangers and how to be cautious in potentially dangerous situations (pp. 9-10).
As can be seen from the example above, fairy tales often have a moral or lesson at their core. According to Zipes (2006), they are designed to entertain and instruct. Moreover, they feature human protagonists and supernatural elements. Old and passed on orally, these stories were initially written down and collected for the European nobility in the 17th century, and as such they remain intact to this day (pp. 8-9).
As you got older, you probably became familiar with stories from the Bible, Greek myths or Viking legends from the Edda. If you were a reader of ancient myths, the great stories of Ulysses, the city of Troy or Old Norse sagas featuring Asgard and Jotunheim, you would be used to vivid descriptions and lively and intriguing plots. What were and are the purposes of myths and legends?
Unlike fairy tales, myths and legends were created to explain the world and its creation (Bane, 2009). They are rooted in religious or cultural beliefs and often feature gods or supernatural beings. Myths typically aim to provide a comprehensive explanation for the origin of the universe, natural phenomena, and human behaviour. They often serve as a way to express the core beliefs and values of a society (pp. 23-26).
Now we know what myths are, let us discuss what myths and legends we still believe in. The question is meant also for you, the reader. Do we still believe in old legends and myths? Do we even live them?
Joseph Campbell’s book The Power of Myth (1991) tries to answer these questions. In the first chapter, “Myth and the Modern World”, he deals with the relevance of myth in modern society. He argues that ancient legends are living symbols that continue to influence our lives today (p. 11).
According to Campbell, this has resulted in part from the introduction of Greek and Latin biblical literature in educational systems in Europe and later elsewhere. For a European, the Ten Commandments are well known. Nowadays, the Western world tends to be more secularised and scientific, so detaching us from the eternal values of the culture we live in (p. 17).
Therefore, Campbell adds, myths and legends offer us a way to connect with deeper aspects of the human universal experience across all human cultures. Myths, he claims, help us cope with the reality of ordinary days and offer a way not just to survive but to live your own unique experience (p. 12). Campbell says: “Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols” (p. 13).
In other words, Campbell explains that one of the most important aspects of myths is the help they give with the experience of being alive, by showing us what the experience is in symbolic terms. His example is marriage. In spiritualistic rather than symbolic terms, he describes it as the union of two separate units that becomes a unity when you recognise yourself in your other self, i.e. your partner (p. 14).
To put it simply, Campbell (1991) differs from other scholars in his understanding of myth’s purpose, by claiming that all myths and legends are universal, so helping us understand the rituals and experiences of our own lives (p. 10).
Gorman (2014), in his article “Revisiting Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth”, says that Campbell’s view of myth as a universal and timeless phenomenon is problematic, as it ignores the diversity of cultural experience and ways in which myths can reflect and reinforce social inequality and power structures (pp. 77-78).
While criticising how Campbell worked with his sources, Gorman also mentions where Campbell’s negative opinion of secularisation and demythologization comes from, claiming that these ideas were not his own but those of his favourite contemporary, namely Peter L. Berger and his predecessor William James (pp. 78-79).
Regarding the personal experience stressed by Campbell, Gorman claims that “his personal philosophical views…lack a direct correlation with the theories of religion outlined… as he tries to establish universal principles found in mythology” (p. 81).
Gorman concludes that Campbell’s belief in universal principles to create a monomyth structure was based more on his determination to prove his theory of experience in a universal myth by means of comparative mythology than prudent academic research on the given topic (pp. 81-82).
Whether or not you take Campbell’s internal experience in accepting the purpose of myth, his is a thought-provoking new way to interpret the myths that are told and with us still.
Bettelheim, B. (2010). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage
Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1991). The Power of Myth. Anchor Books
Zipes, J. (2006). Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Routledge
Gorman, D. (2014). Revisiting Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Intermountain West
Journal of Religious Studies 5 (1), 73-88. doi: 10.3138/jrpc.30.2.05
Bane, T. (Ed.). (2009). UXL Encyclopaedia of World Mythology (Vols. 1-5). UXL