PASTS IMPERFECT IS a new column that explores the impact of ancient pasts on the present. Begun by Sarah E. Bond, Joel Christensen, and Nandini Pandey, Pasts Imperfect is a space for addressing forgotten, manipulated, or misunderstood histories of the ancient world from South America to the Indus Valley and the ancient Mediterranean. We will also highlight how narratives about the past influence the world we live in today, from books and movies to executive orders.
In an interview with The New Yorker in 1965, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke discussed a working title for a screenplay that would eventually become 2001: A Space Odyssey. Called “Journey Beyond the Stars,” this screenplay about the future had deep roots in mythologies of the past. Kubrick had given Clarke a copy of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 analysis of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The “journey” in their working title was a reference to Campbell’s book, one which proposed the existence of a singular “hero’s journey” (also known as the Monomyth), as experienced by ancient heroes such as Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.
Campbell’s synthetic, undeniably alluring model presented a hero who reluctantly accepts the call to adventure, using the tribulations of his odyssey to reshape himself into the savior humanity needs before returning home. Campbell claimed his theory, which has gone on to influence everything from Star Wars to Disney’s Aladdin, arose from a universal structure inherent in the global myths of antiquity. The problem is, that’s a lie. Campbell’s theory is as mythological as the stories from which it borrows.
Let’s go back to 1949 to trace Campbell’s own origin story.
In the wake of World War II, Campbell’s Monomyth, a theory about myth and folktales, presented an attractive, simplified narrative pattern as a prescriptive tool to the public — with a global spin born in part from Campbell’s early interest in Native American mythology. Unlike many of his predecessors, he engaged with numerous non-Western sources, shifting some focus from Greece and Rome. Patrice Rankine, a Classicist at the University of Chicago, tells us that Campbell’s book emerged “in the context of the American and British Great Books movement. So, it’s right in the sweet spot of a ‘Western canon.’ In this context I actually like Campbell because he elevated non-Western myth. Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and others gained an entry point or foothold through such flattening.”
Rankine recognizes that the Monomyth created a more inclusive model, but one which came at the cost of complexity. Most myths with monomythic patterns can be analyzed in different ways for many different functions. To create his hero, Campbell had to depend upon the fallacy of incomplete evidence — otherwise known as cherry-picking.
These sins of contextual omission allowed Campbell to weave an attractive narrative that found particular favor with his white midcentury audience. Echoing the “ethical egoism” of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, published only a few years earlier, Campbell sold the public on a vision of the individual hero, unfettered from community or history. He gave a postwar readership a seemingly timeless archetype for America’s unique brand of “rugged individualism.” He also helped to create a niche for the intersection of pop culture and pop psychology, paving the way for less savory exploitations of narrative by people like Jordan Peterson. Peterson has latched onto Campbell’s use of archetypes and gender roles and interprets them as the means for saving humanity from political polarization.
To demonstrate the ubiquity of the hero’s journey, Campbell plucked what was useful — be it from the myths of the East African Chagga or the tales of the ancient Near East — then fit the elements into a prefabricated frame, often, as Kent Huffman notes, without giving the elements proper consideration:
Campbell passingly cites the stories of Buddhism, Aztec myth, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses as examples of virgin birth, then goes on to recount in detail a Tongan folk tale he calls “queer” about a mother giving birth to a clam, which in tum becomes pregnant from eating a coconut husk and gives birth to a human boy. Campbell never specifically explains exactly how the image of virgin birth fits into the heroic cycle as he sets it up.
East Asian, South Asian, African, and Native American myths were often reduced to archetypes or misunderstood in service of Campbell’s thesis. Even his embrace of the Sanskrit word ānanda as an inspiration for his famed “follow your bliss” message was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its meaning in Hindu philosophy.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces was light on bibliography. But Campbell wasn’t actually telling a new story. Less than a century before his book, writers and scholars like Lord Raglan and Otto Rank published observations on the core details common to heroic myths. Indeed, the beginning of the 20th century was a time for typologies of storytelling: Vladimir Propp followed the work of Raglan and Rank with his morphologies of the folktale, ranging wider and farther than his predecessors. Campbell also integrated Sigmund Freud’s “family drama” and Carl Jung’s “archetypes” to wed folktales with psychology. Like a midcentury Malcolm Gladwell, Campbell aggregated these theories and presented a compelling story to new audiences.
Monomythic elements do appear ancient and widespread. We find them in several overlapping cultural narratives, from Gilgamesh in ancient Babylon through Moses, Jesus, and the Homeric Achilles. The fatal flaw in Campbell’s blueprint is his failure to recognize that the hero’s journey does not exist in a vacuum. Campbell took little interest in theory or context and was particularly averse to growing fields like sociology or anthropology, and certainly to doing fieldwork. The Hero with a Thousand Faces may have not been wholly Eurocentric, but it plucked at will from global traditions and was definitely crafted for Western consumption.
Campbell’s theory made the leap from influential thought to universally accepted fact in part thanks to the wild success of George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise and, later, the PBS series The Power of Myth (1988), filmed in part at Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. As Classicist Brett M. Rogers has observed, such cultural validation has inclined storytellers and audiences alike to see this pattern everywhere.
Like many tales of compulsion, Campbell’s Hero brings dangers to those who put their faith in it. The first is a serious misunderstanding of how myth works. Myths and traditional stories function in specific environments for reasons bounded by time and place. Common traits are interesting, but the differences — what we might call variations or multiforms — cannot be ignored.
The second is the existence of an ideal form in myth. How we talk about and choose to accept differences is important. Calling one version of a story a “variant” implies, wrongly, that there is an authoritative and original form. This is a top-down version of storytelling that often misses the significance of the differences themselves. Famous things we think we know about ancient myths are mere possibilities contingent on their time and place. In many stories, Medea did not kill her children. In a majority of tales, Oedipus had children with someone other than his mother.
The Monomyth is the ultimate example of this simplifying of narrative patterns. It reminds us in a way of the Greek myth of Procrustes, the criminal hotelier who cut guests up or stretched them out to fit the bed of his choosing. Campbell started with a thesis and a fictive metric and then cut global myths to fit his Odyssean bed.
Another challenge comes from what audiences know and expect. As defenders of Campbell will argue, much of what he suggests is meant to be allegorical. The hero’s journey is not supposed to be a simple narrative pattern; it is instead a psychological, even mystical, exploration of the self. But his language, which is derived from myth, is slippery — and due to its outsize influence it affects how people understand ancient traditions. Modern notions of the word “hero,” for example, assume essential goodness or imply selfless deeds on behalf of others. Ancient heroes and figures from myth are anything but essentially good. Within ancient myths, heroes are young people in their full strength; they are part of a generation before the “iron” age of modern humans, marking the transition from a time when gods and people shared the earth. They can also be exceptional figures who follow a pattern of withdrawal and return to their communities, suffering pain and inflicting suffering in turn.
One of the most troubling things about Campbell’s Monomyth is its omission of the truth of Greek heroic myth: heroes hurt people. They threaten families and cities. Herakles goes mad and kills his wife and children (even if Disney’s version of Hercules lived happily ever after with Megara), triggering his famous labors as punishment. Achilles prays for his own people to die to pay for a slight to his honor, and his beloved Patroclus gets caught up in this. Odysseus returns home after losing his entire army only to kill 108 of his people and hang the enslaved women of his household.
The Monomyth encourages audiences to see themselves as protagonists in a great struggle and all others as either helping or hindering their journey. The use of the Monomyth is in a way nearly perfectly narcissistic. It invites audiences to focus on just one character, to see the world as serving the interests of one singular point of view. In the stories themselves, all other characters are helpers, objects, or obstacles in a hero’s tale.
The hero with a thousand faces turns out to have a depressingly constant appearance. He projects a toxically masculine, heteronormative point of view that often marginalizes other voices and bodies. Despite some heroes of color in recent years, Campbell’s narrative offspring have generally been white and male. When we make heroes of women, we often sidestep or mute their sexuality and capacity to give birth (as in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and render them essentially masculine. When we cast Black stars as classic or new heroes, audience rage and rejection show that racism is a feature and not a bug of the heroic game.
It is not enough to put the heroic narrative through a diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop. Its structure itself assumes a particular worldview as dominant and casts socially derived personalities as “natural.” Campbell’s hero is ruggedly individual; it uses weaker people as instruments; and it has no room for collective action, for families, or for bodies that fail to conform: the aged, the disabled, the sick.
This is not to say there haven’t been challenges to Campbell’s universalism. There are plenty of examples of heroic narratives that run counter to the Monomyth: Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, presents Paul Atreides struggling against the force of fate and propaganda; Robert Jordan’s Rand al’Thor spends 14 books exploring the madness of being a hero; Philip Pullman’s Lyra in His Dark Materials tries to undermine gender roles and the marginalization of sexuality.
In recent years, entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have also looked hard at heroic personalities, just as the danger of heroes has been explored on shows like The Umbrella Academy, Amazon’s The Boys, and Netflix’s recent Jupiter’s Legacy, which dramatizes the psychological and parental trauma of being the child of a superhero. But we are only at the beginning of the reflective turn. The Randian and Campbellian model still holds sway, both in art and in life. Perhaps the most disturbing recent example of the latter is the way critics went after gymnast Simone Biles for thinking about her health rather than following the dangerous template of the hero they wanted her to be.
Myth does indeed provide a framework for thinking about life, for engaging with it and learning how to live. Heroic myth actually functions to highlight the dangers of violence and war; to outline the importance of families and cities; and to help us think about that most ineffable of mysteries, death. The Monomyth leaves little room for growing old, for having families, for learning to live once the fight is over.
We won’t side with Plato and ban stories we think are dangerous to the republic, but we need to acknowledge that stories can do damage. The Monomyth sets up unrealistic expectations. It harms people who don’t see themselves represented and it traps people in roles based on the bodies they inhabit, on skin color, race, sex, gender, and ability.
The virus central to the Monomyth is who and what it centers. It is predicated on a view of life that validates using and profiting from other people. Campbellian simplification is a natural complement to American capitalism and the pursuit of individual bliss: it emphasizes the individual and personal over community. The Monomyth is about privileging one kind of story and profiting from it.
In the newly unveiled MCU offshoot Loki, the plot centers on an institution called the Time Variance Authority (TVA). The TVA is tasked with protecting peace within the multiverse by hunting down renegade time variants that may cause chaos and disrupt the Sacred Timeline — the primary timeline of the past, present, and future dictated by the mysterious triumvirate known as the Time Keepers. TVA agents think they are helping humanity by preserving, pruning, and policing the singular Sacred Timeline, but the peace offered by maintaining it comes at the cost of the true unifying feature of humanity: the freedom of choice.
Moving out of the MCU and back into reality, there are gains to be made from deconstructing the Monomyth. The idea of an individual but universal path that can lead to redemption, unity, and heroization is undeniably magnetic, but even in Campbell’s cosmos, it is not available to all. Critiques of the hero’s journey can show us how to embrace the messiness of myth and accept the inevitable variances in our personal and collective journeys.