The Vital Purpose of Mythology and Heroic Stories

Tap into the power of personal and communal storytelling to create purpose and meaning.

We are made of stories.

We may have bodies of flesh and blood, but our lives are built from the stories we tell about ourselves. Our personal stories describe our interests, loves, hates, careers, hopes, dreams, and even our fears. Something similar happens when human beings come together in a society: we create communal stories. When these communal stories become shared beliefs and values, they form mythology.

To be clear, mythology is not just a description of the beliefs of ancient civilizations. Nor is it accurate to use the term “myth” to mean “lie.” We may no longer believe in the religions or superstitions of our ancestors. But make no mistake: we still create myths. Modern mythologies may be based on more rational, scientific foundations, but they still serve the same deeply rooted human need: to teach us the values and skills to successfully navigate the challenges of life.

When it comes to mythic stories that inspire us to overcome obstacles, serve others, and ultimately find fulfillment, few are as inspirational as heroic myths.

The Lessons of Heroic Myths

The ancient Greeks may have had Hercules and other demigods, but we’ve got superheroes like Captain America. One was the son of a god, the other was born from a scientific serum. Despite the fact that these fictional heroes were created millennia apart, the reason for their creation is the same: we crave heroes. We have always sought to personify the best qualities of the human race. When those among us display traits like strength of will and character, bravery, persistence, and service to the greater good, we elevate them to the status of real-life heroes.

As I mentioned before, Joseph Campbell thought heroic myth was so important he formulated the monomyth. The monomyth is effectively “one myth to rule them all,” because Campbell saw the same human traits being venerated by different cultures from around the world and across history. He wanted to emphasize and preserve the universal importance of heroic myth, and pass that knowledge on to a modern world that has forgotten the deeper meaning of such stories.

We live in a time when we unconsciously consume heroic tales with a mere focus on the entertainment aspect of mythology. We may feel something stir in our hearts when we watch a superhero movie, but how often do we take time to wonder why we feel that way? Yes, mythology is meant to entertain us in order to keep our attention, but that’s just half of the equation. We are also meant to consciously reaffirm heroism’s vital importance as a force for both self-improvement and social cohesion.

It can be argued that we’re oversaturating ourselves with superheroes in our media these days. But perhaps we’re creating so many of these stories because we’re in desperate need of them. We are desperate for rescue. The world seems to be overflowing with uncertainty and division. It’s at time like these when we need heroes most.

The greatest lesson of heroic stories is that heroes don’t simply exist to rescue us. They are here to teach us to be heroes ourselves. Because heroism isn’t just a fleeting moment that comes once in a lifetime. It is a way of life. It doesn’t always have to be grandiose. It is a state of mind we must work to maintain.

Heroic stories are a way to reaffirm the ideal that other human beings are worthy of the same dignity and safety as ourselves. They remind us we must hone our own capabilities to keep ourselves mentally and physically fit, so we can be ready for the challenges that circumstance throws at us on a daily basis.

This ancient tradition prioritizes the worthiness and well-being of people. Heroic stories are constantly recruiting us to join the ranks of the heroic.

The Mythic Hero Versus the Rugged Individual

A side effect of modern prosperity in the developed world is the illusion we are totally self-sufficient. The conveniences of our technology allow us to believe we don’t need other people. We sit in front of our screens while waiting for our products to be delivered to our doors. Meanwhile we look down on others in judgement, while giving no thought to what we would do if the screens went dark and the delivery drivers stopped coming.

In the United States, we have the particularly toxic mythology of the “Rugged Individual,” a virulent form of extreme individualism. It teaches its followers that other people are objects of ridicule and suspicion, only worthy of being mocked or dominated in cut-throat competition. The Rugged Individual has put a stranglehold on the concept of community in favor of the lone wolf.

In opposition to this stands the Mythic Hero, a mythology that balances the strong self with the thriving, interconnected community. The Mythic Hero promotes self-motivation, not self-isolation. It draws strength from a positive view of humanity. It is a mythology that teaches one to be an individual without being individualistic. Strong individuals go boldly out into the world with an eye toward altruism, and view other people with hope. On the other hand, the Rugged Individual stalks a treacherous world, ever watchful and paranoid because everyone else is a potential adversary.

The Birth of the Global Hero

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell said that “the community today is the planet, not the bounded nation.” Before modern communication technology, we were limited to our “tribes.” We knew only those within safe traveling distance of our homes. Our mythologies were similarly limited, with our heroes being focused on the well-being of our limited groups.

But in the modern age, the world has become the “village.” Campbell stressed the fact that now is the time for a new type of hero, one not bound by geography or the old tribal loyalties of nations. Today, the world needs the global hero. We need individuals who consistently seek healthy self-improvement without the cynicism of self-isolation. We need those willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt.

We need more people willing to go boldly into the world with the spirit of adventure, bravery, open-mindedness, and a solution-focused mindset. We need more people to follow the path of the Mythic Hero. I’m hoping to recruit you, dear reader!

A version of this post appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo by Roy Reyna from Pexels

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Author: Anthony Simeone

I'm a writer, speaker, and an advocate for everyday heroism. I have over two decades of experience in the practical application of literature, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. The culmination of my work is the Live the Hero program, a life philosophy that promotes personal development combined with service to others. Live the Hero combines the wisdom found in the arts and humanities with the latest discoveries related to research in heroism science and positive psychology. You can learn more at livethehero.com.

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