The natural first step is to look at the most famous analysis of the topic, Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”. This was the first and best attempt to identify the universal structure that underlies all storytelling. Campbell believed that the purpose of all stories was to lay out a roadmap for problem-solving. He studied the heroic myths of several different cultures and found that each journey had certain common elements. Here’s a simplified version of Campbell’s journey:
- The hero is in the ordinary world.
- He receives a call to adventure.
- He refuses the call.
- He meets with his mentor.
- He crosses the threshold to adventure.
- He deals with tests, allies, and enemies.
- He approaches the darkness.
- He goes through an ordeal.
- He gets a special weapon.
- He sacrifices all.
- He is resurrected.
- He returns with the elixir.
So far so good. After reading Campbell, I wanted to devour a lot of actual heroic myths, so I read “Don’t Know Much About Mythology”. Then I read “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, “The Book of Genesis”, and “The Iliad”.
But as I soaked up these stories, I started to disagree with Campbell. Most heroic myths don’t actually lay out a roadmap the reader can follow to solve his own problems. In fact, many myths imply the opposite. The message is: “Don’t try this at home.” Most mythological heroes are not average people who rise to do extraordinary things. Instead they’re jerks who get special dispensation from the gods. When you read a lot of different mythologies side by side, a certain message starts to become clear: These guys were anointed by the gods to do this stuff, and you weren’t, so don’t get any ideas.
I decided that there were at least two very contrasting types of heroes in these myths: the Annointed vs. the Everyman, or, put another way: Ben-Hur vs. Spartacus. Call them the two heroes with 500 faces each. Let's look at that split tomorrow...