Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in the modernisation of the classical myths. The largest single force driving this movement is obviously the enormous success currently being enjoyed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the crossover between that material and classical mythology. However, around the periphery of this there are a number of far more interesting ‘goings on’. We are seeing a far more proliferated movement to recapture, retell and update the ancient myths to suit our modern needs and sensibilities. It is this phenomenon of updating these texts that interests me most – certainly from the perspective of myths as living stories that evolve with each retelling and further through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s work in the space between psychology and mythology.
The classical myths have always seemed to fascinate us. From almost endless republication in one compendium or another to the more modern ‘Hollywood reboot cycle’ popular culture has never seemed to lose touch with the Greek, Norse or Arthurian mythologies. It does seem however, that as time marches endlessly onwards that we grow more open as a society to slight alterations and changes to the classic works. The initial spate of mythological films in Hollywood was far more interested in straight adaptation and imitation, rather than interpretation of the source material. Think of things like the Biblical Classics or even Ben Hur, Cleopatra or Clash of the Titans. Now clearly these films were wildly successful at the time of their initial release and for a plethora of reasons are remembered as classic films. But we simply do not see these types of straight adaptations appear in our media anymore. Instead of wishing solely to bring the old stories to life as they were written it seems we have begun to fully engage in the process by which these myths were created and add to and reinterpret them.
Myths have never been a single fixed quantity in the way we understand a movie or a novel to be. This is widely attributed to the majority of myths initially finding their ‘homes’ in the oral tradition, rather than being committed to the ages in the form of words. By the time the populace was advanced enough to bother writing down stories and myths there were already far too many variations of any one myth or character to claim any type of totality and completeness over one version. Each individual author or collector of stories could choose which previous tales were cannon and which of the characters traits were going to be accentuated in their own version of the narrative and as such held a radical power to re-imagine each induvial player in mythology. This then created a feedback loop – informing future tellings of the story. It is this very same process that we find ourselves currently engaged in. The MCUs Thor is not somehow separated from the Thor of the Poetic or Prose Edda, but rather the exact same being as the ancient Thor. More disturbingly the Thor in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is the eventual fate of the Thor in his Norse Mythology compendium. The truly fascinating part of this phenomenon is the rate at which we can see iterations on our characters. When there is a major Hollywood instalment into the MCU multiple times a year, many featuring these mythological beings. We get to see many directors make changes to our public ‘cannon’ of these figures in real time over only a few short years, rather than the decades or centuries it took ancient storytellers to recast characters in their times.
Bearing all of this in mind I am drawn inexorably towards the works of Joseph Campbell – Both ‘The Hero of a Thousand Faces’ and ‘The Power of Myth’.
Campbell talks about the requirement for myths to supplement and support religion in order to stabilise the Psyche of the collective and individual consciousness. To replace lost understandings of rituals that the modern age has forgotten or left behind. Perhaps this resurgence of myths and myth telling after nearly 60 years is due to the increase in religious and philosophical turmoil. People retreating into fundamental needs for community, safety and love. Certainly, there is no small degree of appeal in this reading of the current political and cultural zeitgeist for me. To think that in a deep seated fashion our entire cultural machine ‘knows’ that we need this return to the origin of storytelling. It is the seemingly unconscious and disparate nature of this movement that lends this reading veracity in my mind. Over the last two decades independent authors and studios have seemingly without collusion or correspondence independently turned the cultural production engines to reworking, updating and reinvigorating the classic myths just as Campbell has argued was and is necessary.
In my last blog I talked extensively in terms of Apollonian and Dionysian models of masculinity these frames of reference themselves are drawn from a classicist reading of mythological personae. Initially outlined in the works of Nietzsche these archetypes have been used throughout modern philosophy as a short hand for entire swathes of human being and experience. These terms have also been used in artistic analysis; and in that capacity they were almost completely divorced from their parent deities. However, the innate and irreducible nature of their mythological fathers abided deep within them and has now begun to seep out and assert itself once more. If there was ever an argument for the continued importance and relevance of mythology to our lives this certainly is it.
I continue to be fascinated by the realisation that we have never truly abandoned mythology – it has moved, shifted and grown with us as a species being reimagined and reinvented to suit out needs. It feels as if we are witnessing the early phases of the next change in our conceptualisation and use of mythology as a culture and I simply cannot overstate how awestruck I am at the raw humanistic power of these stories to abide and morph to fit our sociological and psychological needs as we advance as a species.