The Monomyth: So Incorrect It’s Dangerous

11 minute read

Joseph Campbell’s writings about mythology are incredibly popular with the public. In particular, his writings are responsible for the popularity of the concept of the “monomyth”–the belief that all stories, in all human cultures, follow a specific unchanging structure–that of a Hero’s quest into the unknown. This theory is immensely popular: so much so that Campbell’s writings are usually the only writings about folklore and myth that are read by the general public (Dundes). The monomyth is discussed with alarming frequency in popular journalism, in scholarly articles (although thankfully this is becoming less and less true), and in classrooms.

This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. One of these is that Campbell’s monomyth theory has been shown to be inaccurate by reputable scholars. As I will show in this blog post, there is not a single instance of a story that is present across every human culture and society. Campbell’s monomyth should be, and is, no exception.

More unfortunate are the political implications theories like the monomyth have. Whenever someone claims that something is universal, they marginalize all of the other cultures that do not conform to that thing. Furthermore, the monomyth is directly related to western ideas about gender. When people claim that the monomyth is universal, they are also making a political statement–that western conceptions of gender are normal and foundation to human nature.

The Monomyth Is Not Universal

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell sets out to “present in the form of one composite adventure the tale of a number of the world’s symbolic carriers of the destiny of Everyman” (Campbell Hero). This pattern is a “universal theme” that is “distributed across the world” (Campbell Hero 107–108). In his more recent book Creative Mythology, Campbell explains what this entails:

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces I have shown that myths and wonder tales of this kind belong to a general type, which I have called “The Adventure of the Hero,” that has not changed in essential form throughout the documented history of mankind: 1. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder (in the present instances, regions under enchantment); 2. fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won (the enchantments are dispelled); 3. the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Campbell’s belief in universal motifs does not end with his monomyth theory. In his paper “The Historical Development of Mythology,” Campbell claims that “such themes as the Fire-theft, Deluge, Land of the Dead, Virgin Birth, and Resurrected Hero have a world-wide distribution, appearing everywhere in new combinations, while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same.” The belief in the universality of select motifs is a theme that runs through most of Campbell’s work.

There is just one problem. There is not a single documented instance of a motif that appears universally in the global corpus of folklore (Dundes). By “not universal” I don’t mean that there is a single culture that is the exception to the norm, but that there are entire geographic regions that do not contain an instance of a so-called universal motif (Dundes). To quote from Alan Dundes, an esteemed professor of folklore at the University of California:

It has long been a popular fantasy among amateur students of myth that all peoples share the same stories. This is clearly an example of wishful thinking.

Just to drive the point home, I’m going to provide examples of so-called universal motifs that, in fact, aren’t very universal.

  1. The Deluge motif–which Campbell claims is universal (Campbell Historical)–is “essentially absent from sub-Saharan Africa” (Dundes).
  2. The Virgin Birth motif–which Campbell again claims is universal (Campbell Historical)–is absent from “Africa… Siberia, Polynesia,… Melanesia,… Australia and New Guinea” (Dundes).

Why are scholars like Dundes so sure that motifs aren’t universal? Because tools called Motif Indexes exist. Motif indexes list every culture that a motif has been documented in. If you are interested, the Thompson Motif Index is available for free online as a difficult to use plain-text tool and a database version, titled MOMFER, that is easy and convenient to use.

(Unfortunately, the reason that the Thompson Motif Index is available for free online is that it’s old and in many cases inaccurate. Newer, more accurate motif indexes exist, but they aren’t freely available online.)

MOMFER (database version of the Thompson Motif Index) screenshot

On the basis of this evidence–or rather, the lack of evidence–the academic world has largely turned their back to Campbell’s writings (Northup). It would be wonderful is the public could do the same.

The Concept of the Monomyth Is a Form of Cultural Hegemony

As I noted earlier, a constant theme in Campbell’s work is his belief in universal motifs. I’ve established that such beliefs are incorrect, but what I haven’t yet discussed is that these beliefs are harmful. Such claims have political implications that tend to be ignored by those making and evaluating such claims.

The first reason why a claim such as “all cultures share a virgin birth motif” is harmful is that it is disrespectful to the cultures who do not share a “virgin birth motif.” To claim that “all cultures share [motif x]” is to claim that cultures that don’t share [motif x] do not exist.

The second reason why such claims are harmful is that they can be used as justification for political beliefs. For example, in the following quote Campbell argues that western gender roles are universal:

MOYERS: What about the female? Most of the figures in the temple caves are male. Was this a kind of secret society for males?

CAMPBELL: It wasn’t a secret society, it was that the boys had to go through it. Now of course we don’t know exactly what happened to the female in this period because there is very little evidence to tell us. But in primary cultures today the girl becomes a woman with her first menstruation. It happens to her. Nature does it to her. And so she has undergone the transformation, and what is her initiation? Typically it is to sit in a little hut for a certain number of days and realize what she is.

MOYERS: How does she do that?

CAMPBELL: She sits there. She is now a woman. And what is a woman? A woman is a vehicle of life. Life has overtaken her. Woman is what it is all about — the giving of birth and the giving of nourishment. She is identical with the earth goddess in her powers, and she has got to realize that about herself. The boy does not have a happening of this kind, so he has to be turned into a man and voluntarily become a servant of something greater than himself.

First, let me just clarify that Campbell is incorrect when he claims that all “primary cultures” share the same gender roles. This is yet another example of Campbell claiming that something is universal when it isn’t, only this time there are political consequences to what he is saying. By claiming that western gender roles are universal, he is avoiding the possibility that there is another culture that has a world-view that would challenge his own. By claiming that western gender roles are universal, Campbell portrays such norms as “natural,” “normal,” and thus provides support for these norms’ continued existence in modern society.

The monomyth also encodes political ideas about gender. For example, a skeptical reader should be able to make a connection between the following two quotes: one of Campbell discussing the monomyth, and one of Campbell discussing male initiation rituals.

Here is Campbell discussing male initiation rituals in The Power of Myth:

CAMPBELL: And the rituals down there have to do with the generation of a situation that will be propitious for the hunt. And the boys were to learn not only to hunt, but how to respect the animals and what rituals to perform, and how in their own lives no longer to be little boys but to be men. Because those hunts were very, very dangerous hunts, believe me, and these are the Original men’s rile sanctuaries, when: the boys became no longer their mothers’ sons, but their fathers’ sons.

MOYERS: Don’t you wonder what effect this had on a boy?

CAMPBELL: Well, you can go through it today, actually, in cultures that arc still having the initiations with young boys. They give them an ordeal, a terrifying ordeal, that the youngster has to survive, makes a man of him, you know.

MOYERS: What would happen to me as a child, if I went through one of these rites, as far as we can…

CAMPBELL: Well, we know what they do in Australia. Now, when a boy gets to be, you know, a little bit ungovernable, one fine day the men come in, and they’re naked except for stripes of white down that has been stuck on their bodies, and stripes with their men’s blood. They used their own blood for gluing this on. And they’re swinging the bull-roarers, which are the voice of the spirits, and they come as spirits. The boy will try to take refuge with his mother; she’ll pretend to try to protect him. The men just take him away, a mother’s no good from then on, you see, he’s no longer a little boy. He’s in the men’s group, and then they put him really through an ordeal. These are the rites, you know, of circumcision, subincision, and so forth.

And here is Campbell discussing the monomyth in gendered terms in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

It is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope and assurance from the helpful female figure, by whose magic (pollen charms or power of intercession) he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation. For if it is impossible to trust the terrifying father-face, then one’s faith must be centered elsewhere (Spider Woman, Blessed Mother); and with that reliance for support, one endures the crisis — only to find, in the end, that the father and mother reflect each other, and are in essence the same.

Clearly, male initiation rituals and the monomyth are very similar, if not one and the same. Both involve a frightening father figure: the “terrifying father-face” in the monomyth, and the terrifying men who are “naked except for stripes of white down … and stripes with their men’s blood” who “come as spirits” in the male initiation ritual. Both involve a protective mother figure: the mother who will “pretend to try to protect him” in the male initiation ritual, and “the helpful female figure, by whose magic… he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation” in the monomyth. The final damning detail is that both relegate woman to mere helpers in male stories: the monomyth contains a “helpful female figure,” and in male initiation rituals the mother loses all influence over her son (“the boys became no longer their mothers’ sons, but their fathers’ sons”).

In sum, both the monomyth and male initiation rituals contain ideas about gender that are sexist. The women are peaceful and powerless helpers, while the men are powerful, terrifying and ultimately the main characters in stories that follow the pattern of the monomyth.

If the monomyth is universal, as Campbell claims, then that would mean that Campbell’s sexist world-view is shared by everyone, from “modern” western cultures to “primitive” non-western cultures. Fortunately, the monomyth isn’t universal. But what would it mean if Campbell was right? It would mean that Campbell’s gender roles were the only ones in existence. It would mean that anyone who tries to create a less sexist society would be creating something unnatural and deviant to human nature. In short, it would mean a much more comforting world for people with sexist beliefs.

This is why I am very skeptical of not just Campbell but anyone who makes arguments about human nature. Don’t get me wrong: there are examples of universal features of human societies. But people who make arguments about human nature tend to underestimate the amount of research it takes to reliably prove that something is universal. And because people like Campbell don’t use empirical research methods, they can let their biases dominate their research: hence the creation of theories like the monomyth that are political rather than accurate reflections of human nature.

Concluding Remarks

I think it’s fantastic that Campbell’s ideas have inspired the public to learn more about mythology and folklore. However, I wish that the public would also use skepticism when dealing with Campbell’s ideas. I also wish that the public would seek out texts about folklore and mythology that are more accurate. In particular, Alan Dundes’ book Folklore Matters is an excellent introduction suited to a public audience.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Historical Development of Mythology”. Daedalus 88.2 (1959): 232–254. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20026493>

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Viking, 1968. Print.

Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Print.

Dundes, Alan. “Folkloristics in the Twenty-first Century (AFS Invited Presidential Plenary Address, 2004).” The Journal of American Folklore 118.470 (2005): 385–408. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137664>.

Lawrence, John Shelton. “Joseph Campbell, George Lucas, and the Monomyth.” Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, and Critics. Ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and John Shelton Lawrence. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2006. 21–33.

Northup, Lesley A. “Myth-Placed Priorities: Religion and the Study of Myth.” Religious Studies Review 32.1 (2006): 5–10. Web.

Phillips, Steven R. “The Monomyth and Literary Criticism.” College Literature 2.1 (1975): 1–16. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111054>.

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