07 March 2010

Modern Mythology: What is Mythology?

Today I am glad to announce my latest undertaking. Since back at Nekocon, where my panels were first held in earnest, people have been asking me to place my notes up on the website. I have been holding back from this for many assorted reasons, namely because my panels are, well, panels, and the notes lack a lot of the meat that goes into each presentation.

Well, in anticipation of the new website I am launching very soon, I have decided to throw away my concerns and just start posting the notes now. When the new site launches, they will all be condensed into a single area, so as to avoid having to scour through page after page of blog updates, but for now I am happy to finally presenting the notes for Modern Mythology: Mythic Elements in Anime and Video Games.

Note: All information contained within these notes have been presented at past conventions, including as of March 1 2010: Nekocon, Anime USA and Katsucon. In addition, they were also presented at the New York roundtable of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Information was compiled and presented by Study Of Anime founder Charles Dunbar. This presentation and the interpretations therein are of his own design and cannot be reposted on any sites aside from studyofanime.com without express written consent.

Disclaimer: The anime presented in this panel as examples are by no means a definitive or complete list. I am well aware that there are so many more series, manga and games than the examples I provide here, and to go over them all would take up far more time than this panel, or even this convention, allows. What I am presenting here is merely a few examples that illustrate how anime and games have become something of a “modern mythology,” taking traits found universally in myth and legend, and reinterpreting them or reinventing them for a different medium. There are plenty more examples out there, if one is willing to look.

Modern Mythology: Mythic Elements in Anime and Video Games

I: What is a myth?

Dictionary.com describes myth as: A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors and heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people. In short, a sacred story.

Mythology is a lot more than simple storytelling, however. Many written and spoken stories contain the same elements and themes as those found in mythology. And many stories also reflect popular or well known worldviews. For example, Harry Potter borrows many of the concepts found in sacred stories, has undertones that reflect current events and political ideals, and flirts with the ideas of the sacred/supernatural and how they impact the world the protagonists live in. Ancestors are met, heroes are made and good triumphs over adversity and evil. But while it shares many of the traits found in mythology, is Harry Potter a myth?

Noted mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote extensively on the functions of mythology and how they can be identified. He narrowed down all mythology and mythological concepts into serving four main functions:

-Mystical: All mythology contains aspects of the mystical world/experience, and it shows how people interact with this mystical dimension. The mystical is also a metaphor for unknown or magical aspects and encounters we have as part of our lives. Other than the cold rationality of science, mystical stories and knowledge allow us to think beyond what we see and wonder about things beyond what we know.

-Cosmological: Mythology of all types fits into the common knowledge of what is known of the world at the time the story is created. There is a common misconception that mythology is stagnant and rooted in a “primitive” past of the world, and that our current, modern experience disallows for any kind of mythological explanations or interpretations. This is, according to Campbell, untrue. Rather, mythology is a direct result of what we know about the world and what we do not know about the world. It is a function of knowledge and philosophy that mirrors what we see and what we have learned while still answering questions or posing questions about what we do not know.

-Social: Mythology is inherently a social construct created by a ethnic or filial group and serves the function of promoting group cohesiveness and maintenance. Mythology, and its subsequent rites, rituals, festivals, mores, folkways, traditions, stories, songs, narratives and everything else, is created by its culture, perpetuated by its participants and passed down through its generations and families. It is a societal construct that coordinates the sacred/social world of the participants and reminds them of shared ancestry and values while appealing to the imaginations of the future generations.

-Pedagogical: Mythology also helps the individual find ways of explaining or adding substance and wealth to the personal experience. Whether as a guide or as a companion, it possesses instructional and philosophical elements that teach, impart wisdom, necessitate action and demonstrate personal value to the individual participant. Like the parables of Jesus (which are in themselves an aspect of mythology), they are both stories and life lessons, to be understood and reflected upon, so the participant can make “proper” or “right” decisions, based on what the mythology tells him and means to him.

Based on this interpretation of mythology then, does a story like Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, deserve to be called mythology. Possibly. There are people who can find from them the same aspects found by Campbell (who in fact found them within George Lucas’ Star Wars films) and can use them as guidebooks for their lives and experiences. But do they fit all four of Campbell’s criteria? That is up for debate. It would be a misconception to view all mythology as “old fashioned” and “quaint,” despite what our world tends to believe of it, but it would also be a misconception to think that anything with fantastical elements in it is a new form of mythology.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will frame mythology and mythological concepts into five categories of my own analysis. These categories reflect my own biases as a cultural anthropologist, but also serve to frame the subject matter in a way they reveals how mythology has changed over the past millennia. As with many other things mentioned in my disclaimer, these are simply my own views and thoughts on what mythology is. Each reader should draw from it what they will.

-Mythology is sacred. The term sacred is a very loaded word. To some it implies a connection to either the supernatural or the divine, while to others it has different connotations. Here, I will use the idea of the sacred as proposed by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade and refined a bit by the theologian Paul Tillich. The sacred is any aspect of life that is separate from the everyday. Whether by personal choice or by cultural significance, the sacred contains an aspect that keeps it apart from the “profane,” or ordinary, world. Whether this is something of religious or divine cause, or whether it is simply because it adds personal/philosophical depth to the life of the participant, the sacred is something that sets apart one aspect, or many related aspects, from the rest of the experiences and places of the individual. Mythology serves as a sacred story, and grants a sense of ultimacy or depth to the life of the adherent. Whether this be as a guide or as a “blueprint” for right action, or whether it adds to the richness and fulfillment of the practitioner is, of course, up to them. What is sacred to one need not be sacred to another.

-Mythology is cultural. Historically, mythology was created and tied to one microgroup, or to a related macrogroup with shared ancestry and values (a good example being the Scandinavians and the Mediterraneans with their shared gods and rituals). One of its main functions at the time of creation was to instruct the people of the micro/macrogroup of their origins, histories and cultural differences from other groups in the same vicinity or across vast regions. It explained why they were different, and sometimes could be used as justification for why other groups should be persecuted. But it was still created, sustained, and invariably tied to a single cultural group who identified with it. In the modern world, mythology is still tied to a culture group, only this time it is less of a kin-by-birth or filial group, and more of a shared-experience type group. But the core elements of cultural significance and perpetuation remain, whether it was shared by fireside or computer screen.

-Mythology is educational. Whether it’s telling you that Thor sends the rains or Bob rules the world, mythology served to explain why things were and how they came to be. They warned against sins and vices, and explained right action, heroism and nobility. They recorded the histories of a personal/filial group and sometimes prophesied coming calamities. While they were stories, they taught lessons and imparted wisdom for those who listened and took them to heart. Stories without this idea of knowledge and education might be called myths, but this status must be called into serious question. Stripping the wisdom from a myth is denying the very sacred nature that the myth embodies.

Interestingly, fables and fairy tales possess this same morality and educational aspect, and yet are often not counted as mythology. It could be argued that because they lack many of the cultural and cosmological aspects found in other mythologies, or lack the ideas of the sacred and the divine found in religions, that they are not true myths, but entertaining stories told to ensure safety and discretion. This, like many other things, is up in the air. Many fairy tales were inspired by old world myths, and some (like Godfather Death) do possess the same aspects found in classical mythology. As with anything, this is open for debate, and should be studied before any final decisions are made.

-Mythology is generational. I think Lucasfilm said it best when they wrote “Every generation has a hero, every journey has it’s first steps,” at the beginning of the trailers for “The Phantom Menace.” Mythology is a generational system, that is modified by each subsequent new group of adherents. While in classical times, before the advent of writing, this was a result of errors and the generally selective nature of the oral tradition, this has become less and less of an “accident” and more of a communal growth of knowledge and personal experience. Collective knowledge and collective experience, both concepts stressed by Jung, impact the stories and connotations of each generation. And like Campbell says, mythology is linked to the knowledge level of the time in which it is created. Subsequent generations, especially in the last 500 years, have witnessed explosions in the collective knowledge of mankind, and they have applied this expansion into their own stories. Much as science fiction inevitably becomes science fact, so has mythology taken strides on the world around it and added it to the stories, transforming them from those told by parents and grandparents into stories that satisfy the relevance and hungers of the modern generation. Mythology adapts to is audience, so to better serve them.

-Mythology is evolving. Hand in hand with the idea that mythology is generational, it also is subject to the same stresses posited by Darwin on living beings, and by Marx, Engels and Weber on social and political constructs. Mythology needs to adapt if it wishes to survive. Stories that lack flexibility eventually pass into legend and become either relics of antiquity or pleasant tales from ancestors and civilizations past. While current knowledge eventually strips myths of their literal explanations, the philosophical, educational and cultural significance, all crucial to their relevance and experience, remain intact and must find ways to adapt to the changing times. This double counts when the stories themselves move from one tradition to another (ie oral to written, written to visual, visual to digital, digital to interactive, and so forth). Stories that survive, and thrive, which have the most impact on later generations, discover how to adapt early on and maintain relevance to it. Those that do not are often shelved, or merely forgotten.

There is a lovely point in the novel “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman where the protagonist is shown the halls where gods go to die. In the first hall are the gods of old that have found their way into the modern world. They include the gods of technology and those of the recent past that still have pockets of believers scattered across the world. The second hall contains gods that are remembered only as hard fact and information: names, sacred dates, rituals and ethnic groups, but who lack followers and are only remembered by intellectuals who take a liking to them. The final hall contains the forgotten ones, who existed and had their day, but whose names have been forgotten as they drifted out of memory and society, lost to the ravages of time and their dead populations. Mythology falls under this stress as well, because myths and legends that no longer have appeal or purpose will not be told, and one can ask if after that point did they ever exist, if they no longer matter.

So what is mythology? And what bearing does it have on the modern mediums of anime and vide games? That is what this journey will discover.


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