The Polymyth : a few problems of the Monomyth

As we predicted last time we talked about them (at 33’44) Crash Course finally reached the part of the manuals they relied on that treated Campbell (a priori it was Thury and Devinney) and joined the millions of TED Talks already blabbering about the hidden virtues of the Monomyth, asserting them rather than discussing them. They were a bit critical, pointing out for example the obviousest of facts that the Monomyth is a bit heteronormative and that they only mentioned it as a broad outline, and the example they bring up in their second half has female protagonists, instead of the usual male hero.

This was the last straw for some of their viewers, tired of this unabashed leftism, spewing their mighty ire in response:

So much tip-toing around sjw’s. I stopped watching when they brought up the phrase « hetero- normative. » Joseph Campbell was brilliant – and far above this ridiculous « women are so sensitive that we have to bubble-wrap all intellectualism. » I strongly recommend reading Joseph Campbell’s works. They’re not as « hetero-normative » as your Gender Studies teacher told you.

(Of course it’s from a Jordan Peterson fan, when you’re gullible, why limit yourself to one self-help guru?)

Also, this reveals a poor reading of Campbell. That he was heteronormative is undeniable: the woman is the image the male hero pursues, the hero is the only real psychological actor of the story, and presumably male, although he used female heroes as examples, like Innanna. The male protagonist is active, the female image is passive, and there only as a symbol of bountiful enlightenment. It is made very clear :

Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life,the form of the fodess undergoes for him a series of transfiguration : she can nevers be greater than himself though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. (2004:106)

On a base level the text theoretically agrees that female heroes are possible, but seldom expresses what the consequences might be in such a polarized view of gender. And when it does, oh boy :

And when the adventurer, in this context, is not a youth but a maid she is the one who by her qualities her beauty or her yearning is fit to become the consort of an immortal. Then the heavenly husband descend to her and conducts her to his bed –  whether she will or not. And if she had shunned him, the scales fall from her eyes ; if she has sought him, her desire finds its peace. (HTF 2004:110)

You might disagree or agree as to wether this is a good thing or even a worthwhile analysis (it’s neither), but it is embedded in the very fabric of the monomyth.

Some people might try to make a new monomyth, free from these problems. But it comes with another conandrum conendrum conundrum, if you allow me to quote one of my comments :

Campbell’s model is not the only one who proposed a pattern of hero stories. Broad similarities would as well validate the patterns of Johann Georg von Hahn (c. 1869) on Indo-European « expulsion and return » tales, Frobenius’ solar journey of the hero (Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes, 1904, where Campbell took the « Belly of the Whale » through Jung) Otto Rank’s « Myth of the Birth of the Hero » (1909), Vladimir Propp on the russian folk tale (1928) or the 22-step ritualist pattern of Lord Raglan (1936). And what about a pattern that claims universality but from a male perspective ? Freudian and Jungian thought on which he drew were pretty polarizing on the gender side of things, and in the HTF Campbell only makes a few passing remarks on what happens to the pattern when the gender is shifted. Some people tried to provide a Heroin’s Journey, a female-centered perspective such as Coline Covington (« In Search of the Heroine », Journal of Analytical Psychology 34, 1989:243-54) Maureen Murdock (The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, 1990), Victoria L. Schmidt (45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, 2007) or Valerie E. Frankel (From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, 2010). Of course all of their models are different and emphasize different things. All of these have huge differences and were meant to apply to different things, but Campbell’s method « proves » them as well. The HTF doesn’t have much more to offer than any of these other attempts at boiling down stories. If they’re all right, we cannot really talk about a « Monomyth », but if they’re all wrong, it should tell us something about the HTF’s validity.

To put it simply, if you can write dozens of Monomyth with no real way to say one is better than the other, because it will always emphasize and dismiss different things, then it’s more a polymyth than a monomyth. Personnally, I find the Heroin’s Journey to be as baseless as the Hero’s Journey but they are a logical follow-up after a school of psychology for whom half of humankind is an afterthought.

As Campbell himself said :

“There is no final system for the interpretation of myths and there will never be any such thing.” (HTF 2004:353)

And Campbell’s heteronormativity even threatens the coherence of his pattern, to quote myself again :

sometimes it’s really easy to see that Campbell’s bias towards women deprives him of some good examples : he classifies Brynhild trapped in her circle of fire until she is delivered by Sigurðr as an example of « Refusal of the Call ». Why ? Well, because you know, women not doing stuff is a symbol of not growing up so it must be that Daphne refusing to be raped by Appolo is a refusal of the call, Sleeping Beauty is a refusal of the call (and also refusal of growing up) so Brynhing plunged into mortality, a circle of fire and a forced slumber because she refused Odin’s orders… Well, it must be a refusal of the adventure-enlightenment-growing-up. (HTF 1968:61-2, 2004:58) Because how can you be a cool quasi-jungian if you’re not weirdly condescending towards women, right? In this « picture language of mythology » that boils down every story to a quest and every quest to a spiritual inner quest, well you’re doomed to make this kind of weird connections.

But if I had to fit this motif in Campbell’s pattern, it would definitely be the Belly of the Whale : she is powerless and her liberation marks the start of a road of trials for her, that is her ultimately fatal relationship with Sigurðr. Disobeying Odin was the real call/refusal of the call. I’m not saying that’s the best or more useful reading of this story, but it seems a more genuine reading that Campbell did.

To stay on the topic of the Belly of the Whale, Crash Course puts the spotlight on another problem (Ibid.) :

Let’s take an example : The Belly of the Whale is supposed to be a moment of powerlessness, the hero is cut off from the life-giving powers of the Universe or whatnot, right? But the example Crash Course takes from Campbell (at 4:35) is… Well, let’s quote Campbell !

« The Greek hero Herakles, pausing at Troy on his way homeward with the belt of the queen of the Amazons, found that the city was being harassed by a monster sent against it by the seagod Poseidon. The beast would come ashore and devour people as they moved about on the plain. Beautiful Hesione, the daughter of the king, had just been bound by her father to the sea rocks as a propitiatory sacrifice, and the great visiting hero agreed to rescue her for a price. The monster, in due time, broke to the surface of the water and opened its enormous maw. Herakles took a dive into the throat, cut his way out through the belly, and left the monster dead. » (HTF 1968:91, 2004:84)

This doesn’t seem like a powerless moment, at least not related like that! Campbell also cites the Greek pantheon swallowed by Cronos, but in this story the Hero, Zeus, is precisely the one that is not swallowed ! (Ibid.)

Those are only on the top of my head, wait for our five part series on Why The Monomyth Doesn’t Work (When It Doesn’t Work).

Of course an intellectual powerhouse like the Monomyth could only lead an audience to ask intelligent questions like « Is the roasted Kangaroo the « Woman as Temptress » in the story? » but I want to adress the example chosen by Crash Course Mythology. Instead of a lone male, the protagonists are seven teenage girls.

Some commentators pointed that they were barely heroes and didn’t leave their common world for an extraordinary world, and that superficial similarities to Campbell’s formula weren’t really enlightening.

Of course this could be said of pretty much 95% of the examples used by Campbell but I indeed think that there is something wrong. Campbell arguably brought two things to the table in the realm of analysis of the « hero pattern » after Von Hahn, Rank, Raglan, etc.

  1. A freudo-jungian mishmash analyzing things in terms of manifestation of the psyche. Rank’s approach was already psychological in nature, but he was an orthodox freudian at the time so his attempt is entirely focused on the Oedipian Complex, without very much concern for symbolism not relating directly to the parents.
  2. An initiatic pattern, after the works of Arnold Van Gennep on Les Rites de Passage (1909) who identified a phase of separation, initiation and reintegration among rites of passage accross the world, that is when an individual passes from a given social category to another one. It might be initiation but pretty much any new stage of life — and death.

This second part means that, of course, any story that looks « initiatic » or that relates an actual initiatic ritual will bear a resemblance to the Monomyth. In this case, this australian tale clearly corresponds — this is a guess — to what I imagine to be an actual initiation ritual. Of course, since Campbell’s pattern is initiatic, you find similarities : trials supervised by your elders. Ritualistic interpretation can go astray real quick, like in the frazerian case of Raglan but here the story seems to be modelled after an actual ritual. (it would require checking, but again, who cares about those petty things like accuracy?)

As such I think you’re not really looking at a Hero Myth but at what inspired Arnold Van Gennep which in turn Campbell applied to story (this is a really broad summary). But freudo-jungian mishmash is certainly not the way to analyze it, I would rather look towards Van Gennep.

And that’s ultimately the problem. Not all initiations are spiritual, nor are all quests initiatic or all stories quests, and even when it’s one of these things, forcing it into Campbell’s model will only give the illusion that all other dimensions are present — of course they can be present but I see more false positive than actual help from this formula.


Crash Course concludes by saying :

In the next weeks we’re gonna mesure a few of the most well-known mythological heroes against Campbell’s framework.

Which is sad in my opinion. Fortunately, one of the most liked comments, by JenxRodwell, is wary of this arguably undeserved attention :

I mean, I love me some Campbell, but teaching him as any authority on mythology is kind of odd. Why not also discuss the Golden Bough and other works of Frazer? Because those, like Campbell’s theories, have long been abandoned by folklorists and people who study and document mythologies. Campbell today lives on in Hollywood and in modern storytelling. While his work was not really useful in studying the old stories, it certainly has created a robust framework on which to tell new ones

Some people defended the choice :

he was never an authority, just one of the people who put together a thing that we can now use as a guide to figure out how stories work it’s not even perfect that it also led to others giving their own thoughts, tweaks, and criticisms over the whole thing… what’s important is he made a guide that we can base our stuff on

But this is the exact definition of an authority. Or others said :

I don’t think think there is an intent to present Joseph Campbell as THE authority on mythological studies. It’s more like understanding his theory provides a basic framework which teaches that meta-analysis of myth is even possible in the first place. Similar to how studies of psychology generally start with Freud, despite the immense problems with his actual theories. The important part is recognizing that the topic can even be examined, not what Campbell and Freud’s interpretations actually were.

But they will now consecrate several episodes to Campbell’s theory « applied » to multiple myths. We’ll see if Campbell’s model really deserves this sustained attention while Lévi-Strauss had to share his episode with other theoricians.


But I honestly think it will speak for itself.





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