Friday, August 24, 2012

Why I Love Mythology by Seth Friedman

Why do people make such a big deal about stories?

Why do we wait on line to watch the newest blockbuster in droves as soon as it’s released? Why do we all buy the same book, sending sales numbers into the stratosphere simply because it’s what everyone else seems to be reading? Why do some stories but not others catch on and grab the hearts and minds of a majority of people at the same time? Everyone wants to be entertained, but there has to be more to it.

As an American I grew up surrounded by mythology, both in the ever-present pop culture as well as in the culture of holidays, both secular and religious; from the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers; from the Old West to the heroes of World War 2; from the European-derived Christmas symbols to the Jewish Passover holiday about the Exodus from Egypt; from watching Saturday morning cartoons to seeing Indiana Jones at a Saturday matinee. Stories and mythology were everywhere in my world, and I became more intrigued by their role in society as I learned that many of my favorite stories followed similar patterns of the three-act structure and the archetypal journey of a hero to face evil. Later I began to dig deeper and discovered that this wasn’t a coincidence.

Through the works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell I learned that these same storytelling patterns had existed since virtually the first stories told (and remembered) by humans.

Jung examined the repeating symbols that myths and stories contain and rooted out their origins as manifestations of our subconscious emotions and drives. Campbell dissected and compared all of the mythology of the world’s cultures and found that there were numerous, non-coincidental commonalties. Taken together, these men were putting a microscope to a similar aspect of human culture, and the essence of what they discovered is that the stories that we create serve as a mirror of sorts to help us to understand who we are as individuals, avoid the pratfalls that lead to suffering and find a meaningful life.

Many of the chaotic forces going on both inside of each of us and out in the world cannot be easily explained, and so our symbols, stories and mythology are way of trying to make sense of these things, both as producers of them and consumers. All stories by definition say something about the collective human condition as well as the times in which they were created, whether they mean to or not. Through our stories we come to better understand our purpose in the world, if such a thing exists, and come closer to comprehending some “scratch-the-surface” answers to the impossible question: what is the meaning of life?

I will admit, in my own nerdy way, that to this day I still draw life lessons from the original Star Wars trilogy. It was the first movie that I saw at around four years old and it was incredibly inspirational to me at that formative age. I discovered later that George Lucas, when writing it, had turned to the mythology research of Jung and Campbell and their ideas about the universal human experience.

I know that many people may not feel the same way about fictional creations, but I’m sure that there are an equal amount of people that get some similar inspiration from Sense and Sensibility or the works of Shakespeare, or that little book about a man that may have been crucified by the Romans 2000 years ago. Say what you want about these items with regard to their worthiness as art or their critical success, they are part of our mythology and they all contain wisdom about the commonalities of the human experience through the ages that can help us in very tangible ways.

Storytelling is myth making, and mythology remains a powerful force to enact great change and inspire other great works; both at societal level as ideas that catch on and spread, and on a personal level, in the same way that it inspired me to become a writer and tell my own stories. It’s why I believe in the power of good storytelling. It’s why I love mythology.

Seth I. Friedman is the author of The Pilgrim, a novel of historical fiction about the Third Crusade, Richard the Lion heart and a mythological journey through the medieval world at its height. Find out more at

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