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Myths and legends

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

Contributions from Psychology, Anthropology and Literature

Why are we drawn to some stories?

Why do we identify with characters, adventures and dreams?

Sometimes when reading a book, watching a movie or simply witnessing a story, we feel strangely attracted. Sometimes a connection is created between the external -the story- and something within us - longings, fears, dreams, experiences, etc. In this article we will to talk about this connection through three central ideas: the archetypes and the collective unconscious (Carl Gustav Jung), the path of the hero (Joseph Campbell), and the narrative structure (Christopher Vogler).

An archetype is essentially a symbol shared by generations around the world, it is an image, an emotionally charged idea. Examples of archetypes are the mother, the father, the sage, death, birth, hero, god, eternal youth, jester, mandala, etc. For the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) the sum of the archetypes constitutes the collective unconscious, that is, the wisdom emanating from ancestral memories that is present in all.

This idea is in itself very interesting because Jung identifies these symbols in diverse cultures, so there is a common pattern that transcends time and distance: these are shared themes that appear today and always throughout the world. This thesis is not very far-fetched if we keep in mind that every human being faces similar problems in his life, adventures that almost always appears such things as family, life, death, love, the teacher, the antagonist, The archetypes are always present.

By facing them we have generated knowledge, myths, rites, stories and legends. As the human being tends to project himself in time, we have captured all this through the arts; and since there is a multiplier effect in which art inspires the human being and the human being inspires the art, finally we face to countless stories with common features across time and distance.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), American writer and scholar, took ideas from Jung and he studied myths in various cultures from anthropology. What is interesting about the contribution of Campbell is that he not only corroborates Jung's ideas but also identifies a narrative structure. In other words, along with confirming the existence of archetypes in different cultures, he places them within a development, a context, an "adventure" that he called The Hero's Journey.

Using a musical analogy, Jung discovers notes and chords; Campbell discovers the shapes and structures. The Hero's Journey is the basic structure used by epic stories all over the world, in all times. You can identify this structure in Homer's The Odyssey (8th century BC) and in Star Wars by George Lucas (1977). In some ways, this concept is the most persistent theme in the oral tradition and in the written literature of humanity. Reading the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Christ, Moses, Marie Curie, Buddha, Neo, Teresa of Calcutta, Frodo, Steve Jobs, John Lennon and

a long etcetera, in which even we will inevitably be present, is possible to identify the Hero’s Journey and many of its stages. It is not surprising that in this short list real and fictional people appear since art is a projection of us themselves.

Campbell identifies 17 stages on this path that are grouped into 3 parts. Please note that not all the stages appear in the path of a hero and there are few adventures that contain all 17.

Departure, separation

1. The call to adventure

2. Refusal of the call

3. Supernatural aid

4. The crossing of the first threshold

5. The belly of the whale

The Initiation

1. The road of trials

1. The meeting with the goddess

2. Woman as the temptress

3. The atonement with the father

4. Apotheosis

5. The ultimate boon


1. The refusal to return

1. The magical flight

2. Rescue from without

3. The crossing of the return threshold

4. Master of the two worlds

5. Freedom to live

As a side note so no-one is offended, Campbell follows the same tradition that he is studying and uses metaphors found in his anthropological studies to name the stages. When he calls a stage “The Woman As Temptress”, he uses that name because he finds it in the myths he studied. The explanation, however, is much broader because it refers to the temptation -in a general way- that the hero (or heroine) encounters and that can lead to abandoning his/her mission.

Some stages are easier to understand by name alone, but there are others that need some explanation. “The Belly of the Whale” refers to the final departing of the hero from his known world, being prepared for its metamorphosis, for its rebirth. The belly of the whale, the inner temple, the heavenly land are the same according to Campbell. In the “Apotheosis”, the hero has already been transformed and has reached a higher plane, acquiring knowledge, love, compassion and happiness; he now he enjoys a brief period of peace preparing to final climax.

Christopher Vogler (1949) is an American writer and teacher who adapted the work of Campbell to the art of storytelling. In his book The Writer's Journey he makes a very good transition from the Hero’s Journey to a kind of mythical structure manual for writers. His contribution is certainly not at the level of Jung or Campbell but he manages to build a practical guide full of examples, good practices and analysis.

Vogler simplifies the Hero’s Journey to 12 stages, contained in the same three parts, which he calls acts. It has a clearly pedagogical meaning and makes us think through of good questions: What is the call to adventure in Citizen Kane? Who is the mentor in The Silence of the Lambs? What is the threshold in Dances with Wolves? How is the hero in the belly of the whale at the beginning of Unforgiven?

Perhaps Vogler's greatest contribution is an idea that he touches tangentially: we are all heroes and we are facing our own path.

At many stages of our lives we will feel the call, we are going to reject it initially, we are going to meet mentors who are going to guide us, antagonists who will face us, we will undergo tests that will make us grow, we will experience various metamorphoses, we will be tempted, and finally we will grow.

Answering the initial questions, we are attracted by some stories and we identify with characters, adventures and dreams because we see ourselves in those adventures. We consciously or unconsciously identify the same archetypes, we have hopes and fears in common with all history through the collective consciousness, we see our own dramatic arc reflected in what we see or read and, in doing so, we are part of the adventure.

There is a quote attributed to Bob Dylan that appears at the end of the book La Voz de Pirincho, by Carlos Costs. Dylan comments talking about his grandmother: she also taught me to treat all people with kindness, because everyone fights a hard struggle in life.

That battle that each of us give in life is our own Hero’s Journey.


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