14 March 2010

Modern Mythology: Myths and Legends

I have previously discussed what mythology is and what aspects can be classified as mythology. These functions all serve as the base for what is fundamentally mythology, that which separates it in form and feel from popular storytelling. But these functions all leave out what might be the most central tenet of mythology, the very aspect that makes myth, myth and not simply statement of facts or knowledge. While all mythology serves the causes of morality, education, cultural diversity, personal guidance and the other aspects, it can be easy to forget what mythology comes down to in its most basic, underlying form.

Mythology is storytelling.

Consider the following. The theological concept of a certain god can be explained as a being of intense power, be it natural or supernatural, that exists beyond the realm of human experience and can influence the physical world in ways that humanity can only dream of. His power is represented by thunder and lightning, and he is known for bringing his anger down at his enemies. He owns a chariot which he rides across the sky, lives in a giant palace, and owns artifacts of great power that serve to increase his strength and potency. His deeds are of such a great number that simple overview could not list them all.

Now read it again, as it was written in the Prose Edda.

Thor is foremost among them. Called Asa-Tor (Thor of the Aesir) and Thor the Charioteer, he is the strongest of gods and men. He rules at the Plains of Strength. There are 540 living spaces in his hall, and it is the largest building ever constructed. He, too, has three choice possessions. One is the hammer Mjollnir. Frost giants and mountain giants recognize it when it is raised in the air, which is not surprising as it has cracked many a skull of their fathers and kinsmen. His second great treasure is his Belt of Strength, which double his divine might. No one is so wise that he can recall all of his important deeds. I myself can tell you so many significant tales about him that a great many hours would pass before I have said all that I know.

Both these passages read the same thing: they are a list of all the attributes ascribed to the god Thor of Norse mythology, listing his aspects, his home, his weapons and at least some of his deeds. But the former passage reads like a textbook entry, listing simple facts about Thor and how he is identified. The latter passage is a story shared by the skalds, the great poets and seers of the Astruar tradition. As it was an oral tradition, it was their goal to make the stories compelling and relatable so they would be easier to remember and easier to pass along.

Which in the end is the ultimate form of mythology itself- myths are stories. Regardless of what they contain or which aspects they choose to present and model themselves around, mythology must first and foremost have a story, the more compelling the better. It must be appealing, it must be relevant and it must, above all, call forth a sense of ultimacy or depth that will set it apart from folk tales and legends. It has to mean something to the teller and to the listener. Mythology, despite many similarities, is not the same thing as theology. Theology is the knowledge behind, and the reasons for, belief. Mythology is how belief is expressed, taught and experienced. It is that experience that sets it apart from the rest of the tradition.

So what, then, does mythology have to do with a medium like anime or video games? A great deal.

Since mythology itself was rooted in the arts and entertainment of cultures past, it is only natural that mythology influences and impacts the entertainment and visual arts of the modern world. The stories themselves resonate with compelling characters, symbols, lessons and developments that translate well from an oral/written tradition to a visual/interactive one. And this transition takes one of the major aspects present in mythology, that of personal experience, and adds a whole new aspect of interaction and participation to it.

Take a look at a certain series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example. It is an extremely entertaining story. It has philosophical depth, compelling characters and moral questions. It talks about the origins of humanity, about our hidden potential and our future on this world. It warns us against concepts like arrogance and hubris. It introduces us to a protagonist who is in many ways like us- we can easily relate to him, he is the classical “everyman.” While it is Japanese in setting and form, it instructs and refers to mankind as a whole. It is based in Judeo-Christian and Apocryphal Christian lore, with some forays into Buddhism, Shinto and Taoism mixed in for good measure. It co opts elements from a host of beliefs and systems, along with their symbology and theological dogma. There is a sense of the sacred in the lessons it teaches, the same as the stories it borrows from. It is modern, while still maintaining its old world flavor. Evangelion is an evolution of myth, updating it and bringing it into the modern day so as to reflect what we know about our world, and what we can speculate about a world “just around the corner.” How does one arrive at this conclusion? It all comes down to, once again, personal experience and impact.

Evangelion has been called the greatest anime of all time, for many of the reasons listed above. It clearly has a strong enough bond with its participants to continue to spawn debate and critique, some 14 years after it’s debut. It has influenced academic papers and discussions. It has introduced countless observers to sacred ideals like the Qabbalah, Ascension, noble action and enlightenment. It has spawned a massive, internet-based following that produces participant (ie, fan) content, stories and academic/theological/philosophical debates and articles. And it has been even used as an evangelical tool for explaining the more complicated aspects of the religions that created it, and as examples towards how religion and anime can coexist within one entity. Neon Genesis Evangelion might not appear to be what one would call a myth off the bat, but it shares every single one of the functions described by Campbell, and fits into every category mentioned earlier.


  1. Joseph Campbell often said that religion was misunderstood mythology, that is, poetic images and symbols that point beyond themselves, interpreted as "fact." Interesting post.

  2. One of the things I used to throw around a lot back in undergrad was: religion, once it has fulfilled its function and society has moved beyond what it can offer, becomes mythology for the next society. Look at what we know of the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, et al- all those myths were once the sacred truths that held the religions of their societies together. Once the society died out, the stories lost their "fact" and became myths and legends. It even happens in Judeochristian theology. The entire idea of Apocrypha, "lost texts" and "cult rituals" all speak to sacred practices that have "lost" what made them so important.

  3. "It has introduced countless observers to sacred ideals like the Qabbalah, Ascension, noble action and enlightenment. "

    ...what parts of the show could possibly be related to that? The creators said the religious symbols were just thrown in to look cool.

    "academic/theological/philosophical debates and articles."

    I can count on one hand the number of actual academic articles written on Evangelion. "long messageboard rants" are not academic essays. And of the few that do exist...most do not survive basic scrutiny, i.e. the garbage that Susan Napier wrote about it.

    " And it has been even used as an evangelical tool for explaining the more complicated aspects of the religions that created it, and as examples towards how religion and anime can coexist within one entity. "

    ...WHEN? When was there ever actual religion in this show?