Quotes from Scholars of Myth, Folktales and the Hero

On Heroism and Myth Throughout History and in Today's World

Note all are quotations -- bibliographical information can be found at the end of each quote.

They are presented in alphabetical order

BRUNVAND ~ On the universality of myth as a world-forming, value-shaping media

As the folklorist Dell Hymes wrote, after years of studying Northwestern Indian myths and their counterparts elsewhere, “The shaping of deeply felt values into meaningful, apposite form, is present in all communities, and will find some means of expressions among all.” In other words, with regard to contemplating their relationship to a larger reality and expressing their beliefs in narrative “mythical” form, the world’s people, however advanced their cultures, are all “folk.”

Another aspect of modern folk thought that resembles mythmaking is what might be called “mythic traditions” in American history. Archetypal images found in our culture, such as the country bumpkin (Brother Jonathan in colonial times), the city slicker (for example, in “The Arkansas Traveler”), and our national symbols (like Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, and even the flag) have become metaphors for concepts about our past. The same is true for the “myths” surrounding events, like the fall of the Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand, and the assassinations of presidents. Also mythic in this sense are the stereotyped plots of romance and legend—“from rags to riches” or “virtue is rewarded.” To a large extent, myth- and image-making of this kind underlie our sense of national identity, and even influence our social and political decisions.


Hero Patterns and History of Scholarship on the Hero

In story after story, whether myth or tale, heroes are set difficult tasks to perform—they slay monsters, and they receive royal gifts as rewards; humans sometimes marry animals that often turn out themselves to be transformed humans; food or other necessities are magically provided; and characters go on long voyages and sometimes return unrecognized. Basically, only two explanations are possible for such parallels: they may be the result of polygenesis, the independent invention of the same materials in different place, or of diffusion, the single invention at one place of an item that was then transmitted to other regions.

{Summary of scholarship (paraphrased)}

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (19th c) folktales = “broken-down myths” from prehistoric Indo-European tribes disseminated during migrations in Europe.

Max Müller (19th c), philologist studied languages to conclude all principal gods’ names originally stood for solar phenomena = “solar mythology” saw myths as accounts of day and night (all other tales descended from these and carried same symbolism). Many followers or offshoots (lunar, zoological explanations) compared texts around world; some traced all myths back to India; often over-simplified or read into myths. Idea that myths decay over time – from idealized “mythopoeic period”

English Anthropological School (19th c) of comparative mythologists (vs. previous group) founded on idea of cultural evolution (E.B. Tylor, Andrew Lang, James Frazer) from stages of primitive à civilized. Earlier stages might leave “survivals” from previous (=superstitions, customs, tales, etc.). Assumes 19th c England to be apex of civilized potential of man (biased)

Psychoanalytic approach to myths - German scholars (19th c). Esp Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Carl Jung. Assumed polygenesis explained widespread myth parallels. Freud drew on dreams, neuroses, and complexes to unravel the workings of the unconscious or subconscious mind and their Oedipal, phallic, and other symbolism. Jung created “collective unconscious” to account for generalized cultural patterns or “archetypes.”

Euhermerism (4th c bc) believed myths are actually based on historical traditions and that mythic heroes = real people (humanity made god(s) in own image). New euhermerism (early 20th c) H.M. & N.K. Chadwick set forth heroic-age theory & asserts mythical heroes (Beowulf, Siegfried, Roland, Cuchulain) based on actual chieftains of prehistory passed down as legends. Dorson applied this theory to Davy Crockett.

Opposite assumption (basis of myth is never history) à Myth-ritual theory (Lord Raglan, Rank, Hyman) schematized large # heroes’ journeys to show they can’t preserve history. Believes religious ritual is source of all myths, and myths precede all genuine folklore.

Most of these theories have been seriously questioned / disproved though all have some remaining influence. (Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore, 1998/1968, 186-191)


~  DORSON ~  On the typical heroes in early American history

~ The young republic chose for its folk heroes, not a general, a president, a justice, a poet, an explorer, but a backwoods hunter [Davy Crocket], a Western boatman (Mike Fink], a hillside farmer [Sam Patch], a cotton spinner [Mose the Bowery b’hoy], and a volunteer fireman [Yankee Jonathan] . . .. [Even though most are not remembered today, these] humorists, buffoons, and clowns also inspired admiration and awe at their daredevilry and cocksureness . . .. All breathed the spirit of American destiny, in the name of demos . . .. These characters received a good deal of criticism, scorn, and ridicule in their day as ruffians, fools, and windy show-offs . . .. [Yet] each embodied a generic class that had evolved in the young republic . . . hitherto unrecognized American types, anonymous democrats who had developed their own peculiar ways and talk.”. [Dorson later characterizes these heroes as 19th century “ringtailed roarers.” He also discusses John Henry, Casey Jones, and Johnny Appleseed as representative “noble toiler” American heroes and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Sam Bass as “outlaw” American heroes – “American Robin Hoods,” as well as storytelling heroes or “münchausens” and “20th century comic demigods” like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, etc.]  (Richard M. Dorson, America in Legend, 60-63, & Richard M. Dorson American Folklore, 1959, 199-243)  


~  EDWARDS ~ on The Hero and the HEROINE: Myth and Women

All heroism, in fact, appeals to love, makes love its end, relies on faith where knowledge is impossible. Even The Iliad, memorialized by Simone Weil as a “poem of force,” concludes not with the spectacle of Hector’s bloody body being dragged around the fallen city but with Achilles and Priam joined in prayer, reconciled, if only for a moment. Love, in this sense, is neither romantic nor sexual. A social rather than a private impulse, it seeks expression in a public form and brings about a change from an old idea of community to a new ideal, on Victor Turner calls “communitas.” This term conveys a vision of community in its spiritual rather than its administrative or geographic sense. Communitas is “spontaneous, immediate, concrete . . . as opposed to the norm-governed, institutionalized abstract nature of social structure” (Ritual Process, p. 114). The participants in this relationship confront one another directly and create a “model of society as homogeneous and unstructured” (119) . . .. It is this connection between love and power, so often glossed over in narratives and interpretations of male heroism, that is the central structure of [many women-centered myths] . . .. Heroines typically have sons, hostages to patriarchy, signs that their marriages have been retreats and that they have been incorporated again into an unchanged world. But Pleasure—sensuous, unmanly, feminine—is love’s product, a vital expression of communitas. Where instinct and intellect are fused, Please is born. In a culture that sees love as expressive primarily of sexuality alone and as contained only in relationships that reinforce social and economic hierarchies, the need to liberate eros from this hidden bondage can best be perceived and represented by figures who are truly marginal to society, as women have been rendered marginal in patriarchal culture. Nonetheless, this quest is the prototype of all heroic action. (Lee R. Edwards, Psyche As Hero, 1984, 13-14)  


~  KLUCKHOHN ~ On Comparing Heroes from Various Cultures

~Literary scholars, psychiatrists, and behavioral scientists have, of course, long recognized that diverse geographical areas and historical epochs have exhibited striking parallels in the themes of myth and folklore. Father-seekers and father-slayers appear again and again. Mother-murder appears in explicit and in disguised form. Eliade has dealt with the myth of “the eternal return.” Marie Bonaparte has presented evidence that wars give rise to fantasies of patently similar content. Animal stories—at least in the Old World—show likenesses in many details of plot and embellishment: African tales and Reynard the Fox, the Aesop fables, the Panchatantra of India and the Jataka tales of China and India. The Orpheus story has a sizable distribution in the New World.

    In considering various parallels, some elementary cautions must perforce be observed. First, levels of abstraction must be kept distinct. It is true, and it is relevant, to say that creation myths are universals or near universals. But this is a far more abstract statement than are generalizations about the frequency of the creation of human beings by mother earth and father sky or by an androgynous deity or from vegetables. Second, mere comparisons on the basis of the presence or absence of a trait are tricky and may well be misleading. Although there are cases where I have as yet no positive evidence for the presence of the incest theme, there is no corpus of mythology that I have searched carefully where this motif does not turn up. Even if, however, incest could be demonstrated as a theme present in all mythologies, there would still be an important difference between mythologies preoccupied with incest and those where it occurs only incidentally and infrequently . . ..

    Most anthropologists today would agree with Lévi-Stauss that throughout the world myths resemble one another to an extraordinary degree; there is, indeed, an “astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions.” The differences are there too, of course, between cultures and culture areas, even between versions of “the same” myth collected on the same day from two or more individuals of a particular culture. Some myths appear to have a very limited geographical distribution are varyingly styled, weighted, and combined. These differences are very real and very massive, and there must be no tacit attempt to explain them away. Fro some purposes of inquiry the focus must be upon questions of emphasis, of inversion of plot, of selective omission and addition, of reinterpretation, of every form of variation. The similarities, however, are also genuine . . . presumably no two events in the universe are literally identical. But there are formal resemblances at varying levels of abstraction that are interesting and significant.

    {Kluckhohn notes Spencer’s analysis of Navaho mythology reveals these similarities with other world mythology}:

1.        These are also hero stories: adventures and achievements of extraordinary kind (e.g., slaying monsters, overcoming death, controlling the weather.).

2.        There is often something special about the birth of the hero (occasionally heroin).

3.        Help from animals is a frequent motif.

4.       A separation from one or both parents at an early age is involved.

5.       There is antagonism and violence toward near kin, though mainly toward siblings or father-in-law. This hostility may be channeled in one or both directions. It may be masked but is more often expressed in violent acts.

6.        There is eventual return and recognition with honor. The hero’s achievements are realized by his immediate family and redound in some way to their benefit and that of the larger group to which the family belongs.

    Contrasts between the Old World and New World forms are clearly reflected in content and emphasis. The themes of social hierarchy and of triumph over (specifically) the father are absent in the American Indian version, and the Navaho theme of anxiety over subsistence is absent from the Euro-Asian plot. Yet at the broad psychological level the similarities are also impressive. In both cases we have a form of “family romance”: the hero is separated but in the end returns in a high status; prohibitions and portents and animals play a role; there are two features of the Oedipus myth as Lévi-Strauss has “translated” it—“underestimation and overestimation of near kin.”

    Of constant tendencies in mythmaking, I shall merely remind you of four that are so well documented as to be unarguable, then mention two others:

1.        Duplication, triplication, and quadruplication of elements. (Lévi-Strauss) suggests that the function of this repetition is to make the structure of the myth apparent.)

2.        Reinterpretation of borrowed myths to fit pre-existing cultural emphases.

3.        Endless variations upon central themes.

4.       Involution-elaboration.

    The psychoanalysts have maintained that mythmaking exemplifies a large number of the mechanisms of ego defense. I agree, and have provided examples from Navaho culture. Lévi-Strauss suggests that mythical thought always works from awareness of binary oppositions toward their progressive mediation. That is, the contribution of mythology is that of providing a logical model capable of overcoming contradictions in a people’s view of the world and what they have deduced from their experience. This is an engaging idea, but much further empirical work is required to test it. (Clyde Kluckhohn, “Recurrent Themes in Myths and Mythmaking” in Dundes’ The Study of Folklore, 1965, orig. pub. 1959, pp. 159-160, 167-168).

  ~ SAMUEL & THOMPSON ~ On The Vitality of Myth and Heroes in Today’s World

~ Such figures [heroes] transcend the conventional categories of the historian. There is no body of records where they can be systematically studied, no statistics against which they can be measured, no prior reality to which they can be conferred . . .. Ideologically they are chameleon, being appropriated now by the Right, now by the Left, and also often by folk radicalism – the politics of the unpolitical. . . .  Yet myth is a fundamental component of human thought. One has only to consider the magical feelings attaching to authority, or the glamour attributed to celebrities, or the power of divided historical origins and cultural traditions to set modern communities – in Ireland or Israel, Sri Lanka or the Lebanon – tearing themselves apart, to see that myth has lost neither its imaginative purchase nor its living power as a historical force today. (Ralph Samuel & Paul Thompson, The Myths We Live By, 1990, 3-5)  


~  ZIPES ~ On the connection between myth and fairy tale and their persistence and function today

 ~  Over the centuries we have transformed the ancient myths and folk tales and made them into the fabric of our lives. Consciously and unconsciously we weave the narratives of myth and folk tale into our daily existence. During one period in our history, the Enlightenment, it seemed that we people of reason were about to disenchant the world and get rid of all the old myths and religions that enfeebled our minds so that we could see clearly and act rationally to create a world of equality and liberty. But, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer noted in their most significant contribution to critical theory, Dialectic of Enlightenment, we simply replaced archaic myths with a new myth of our own based on the conviction that our own civilized reason had the true power to improve the living and working conditions of all human beings; it was not the power of the gods that would help humankind. It was the rising bourgeoisie that spoke out in the name of all human beings while really speaking its own interests, and these interests are the myths that pervade our lives today . . ..

    The fairy tale is myth. That is, the classical fairy tale had undergone a process of mythicization. Any fairy tale in our society, if it seeks to become natural and eternal, must become myth. Only innovative fairy tales are antimythical . . ..  Since the conditions of life change so rapidly, we need to hold on to what we know and like quickly before it vanishes. So we copy. We duplicate. We live in an age of mechanical reproduction where there are more copies of original art works than there are originals. We copy others in the way we dress, buy, and desire. We desire through the constant repetition of commercials that we copy whenever we shape ourselves and consume. To copy somebody else or something is to become a look-alike and make a coded statement.

To copy a fairy tale is to duplicate its message and images, to produce a look-alike. To duplicate a classical fairy tale is to reproduce a set pattern of ideas and images that reinforce a traditional way of seeing, believing, and behaving. It does not take much imagination or skill to duplicate a classical fairy tale. Nor is it expensive for publishers to print duplicates . . .. The consumers/viewers want comfort and pleasure: they are not threatened, challenged, excited, or shocked by the duplications. A traditional and socially conservative worldview is confirmed.

Revisions of classical fairy tales are different . . .. Fairy tales were first told by gifted tellers and were based on rituals intended to endow meaning to the daily lives of members of a tribe. As oral folk tales, they were intended to explain natural occurrences such as the change of the seasons and shifts in the weather or to celebrate the rites of harvesting, hunting, marriage, and conquest. The emphasis in most folk tales was on communal harmony . . .. The tale came directly from common experiences and beliefs. Told in person, directly, fact to face, they were altered as the beliefs and behaviors of the members of a particular group changed. [The printing press changed this pattern dramatically.] . . . This establishment through the violation of the oral practices was the great revolution and transformation of the fairy tale, and led to mythicization of key classical fairy tales. It is the fairy tale as myth that has extraordinary power in our daily lives, and its guises are manifold, its transformations astonishing. We often forget or are unaware of how “mythic” and “changeable” fairy tales are. . . .

In the fairy-tale books there is hope for a world distinctly more exciting and rewarding than the everyday world in the here and now . . .. But is there any basis for such hope? . . . What socio-cultural function do fairy tales have in an American society, in which the most extreme fantasies and nightmares have been coolly and brutally realized so that little is left for the imagination?

The quandary of the fairy tale was most evident during the Reagan/Bush years of the 1980’s which brought a destruction of social welfare services and projects, increased pauperization of women and minority groups, and support for the individual self-absorption of the middle classes, often equated with the so-called Yuppies. It would appear that the fairy tale in the 1980’s became nothing more than a decorative ornament, designed to titillate and distract readers and viewers, no matter how it was transformed as novel, poem, short story, Broadway play, film, cassette, or TV series. . . .

Clearly, one cannot speak about the fairy tale in America today, or even the American fairy tale. The most crucial question, however, for the genre as a whole, including all the different media types, is whether it can truly recapture its credible utopian function. And, of course, the answer to this question depends on whether we can realistically conceive of utopias in a world where chaos, poverty, war, and exploitation take precedence over our dreams, and when there is a danger that we will now conceive of false utopias after the momentous changes that have occurred . . .. [in our world today where it is] apparent that the American concept of the “free world” cannot be easily exported, and peace and harmony cannot be easily attained. [Yet these problems] compel us to rethink the meaning of utopia and freedom in reality and in the realm of the fairy tale as well. . . .  (Jack Zipes, Fairy Tale as Myth: Myth as Fairy Tale, 1994, 1-16 & 139-161).


~ ZUMWALT on the Myth-Ritual Debate

The Myth-Ritual Debate gained steam in the 1960’s (especially important in literature departments). Joseph Fontenrose, 1971, says all agree, “myths are derived from rituals and that they were in origin the spoken part of a ritual performance.” The myth-ritual theory was given impetus in 1912 by the publication of Jane Harrison’s Themis. She presented myth as the legomena or the spoken part of dromena, the rites. The true myth for Harrison was the sequence of words which accompanied the rites.


History of those who study the HERO PATTERN:

[For The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama 1936] Lord Raglan studied the lives of Robin Hood, the heroes of the Norse Sagas, King Arthur, Cuchulainn, and the Greek heroes. He found that the accounts of the heroes’ lives conformed to a pattern composed of twenty-two features . . . that he suggests emerge from rituals associated with the rites of passage, specifically those concerned with birth, accession to the throne, and death . . .. Von Hahn [in his work of 1876] used the biographies of fourteen heroes and arrived at sixteen incidents. In 1909, Otto Rank, after a study of fifteen biographies, published The Myth of the Birth of the Hero . . .. Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which appeared in 1928 in Russian, was also part of the pattern approach to the study of narrative.

Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) was certainly the most popular of those who studied pattern. Campbell divides the hero’s adventures into the formula of separation, initiation, and return. He truncates the heroes’ biographies, never examining the life of one person in its entirety. His major conclusion, in keeping with the tenor of the myth-ritual school, denies historicity to the heroes of tradition. As Dundes notes, Campbell was, like Raglan, unaware of the body of scholarship. While he included one footnote on Otto Rank, he did not make any reference to von Hahn, Propp, or Raglan.

{Many of these theorists have been far removed from experience or direct knowledge of the cultures whose stories they use to prove their theories} (Rosemary Levy Zumwalt, American Folklore Scholarship, 1988, 124-129)


Hero Patterns


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