According to Joseph Campbell myths typically have four functions. In this paper, we will examine two of the four functions by examining how these functions are emulated in three myths. The three myths that will be used for this examination are “Ages of the World”, “King Arthur” and “Gilgamesh” as they were related in World Mythology by Donna Rosenberg. All three of these stories are very popular and have been told for centuries, this is because they are stories that give us something we need.
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These stories address two of Joseph Campbell’s four functions of a myth; function two states that a myth addresses the human desire to explain how the cosmos came into being and how human life evolved, also they provide a sense of security that there is an order to our existence. Function four which we will also examine states that myths help the individual understand who he is by guiding him through life’s rites of passage birth, puberty, marriage, old age, and death. The three myths we will review contain aspects of at least one of these functions.
“Ages of the World” is a Celtic myth that describes Ireland from the beginning of time until humans came to inhabit the island. “According to Irish tradition, ancient history and mythology are the same real event – the settling of Ireland by successive races of divine and human peoples.” (Rosenberg 257). This myth tells of the different eras of Irish history and the people that were important to the founding of Ireland the two most important being the Formorians and the Tuatha de Danann. The Formorians were the enemy of the Irish and the Tuatha de Danann were the conquerors.
Since “Ages of the World” is a Celtic myth and the Irish believe so strongly in mythology it is no surprise that the Formorians are giants and the Tuatha de Danaan have three heroes with special powers. These heroes
“are Dagda the Good, Lug of the Long Arms and Nuada of the Silver Arm. Dagda earned his name because he was the god of fertility who possessed great skill in magic. Lug, the god of the sun, emitted a great brilliance. He and Dagda were the greatest of the Tuatha De warriors. Nuada was the great king.” (Rosenberg 261).
When reading “Ages of the World” it is clear that this myth fits with Joseph Campbell’s second function of addressing the human desire to explain how the cosmos came into being and how human life evolved. There is a definite sense of order to this myth that is divided into six different ages with the final being the one in which humans come to inhabit Ireland.
“Gilgamesh” is a myth that does an excellent job of showing how Joseph Campbell’s fourth function of a myth works, this function helps individuals understand who they are by guiding them through life’s rites of passage beginning with birth and ending with death. This myth comes from the Middle East and is an epic that chronicles the life of one of the ancient kings of Sumeria. “The Sumerian view of the gods as unpredictable and frightening reflects the unpredictable and disturbing nature of the world in which they lived.” (Rosenberg 173).
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Gilgamesh who is partly a God and partly human fears death as do all humans but learns throughout his travels and his talks with Gods that because he is human he cannot live forever.
“Let your heart not despair, Gilgamesh. It is true that the heavenly gods have decreed that you, like all other human beings, cannot live for days without end. They have not granted you life everlasting. But Anu, Enlil and Eau have granted you other gifts.” (Rosenberg 201).
This myth not only talked about death but it showed how Gilgamesh learned how to love and live as a better man through his relationship with his friend Enkidu who’s the life we heard told from beginning to end.
Like Gilgamesh, Arthur was a King in his time but he lived in England. “King Arthur,” tells of the life and adventures of King Arthur. This is another myth that fulfills the fourth function of a myth as we get to know and see the complete cycle of Arthur’s life. “That was my lord, King Arthur, whom you buried in this chapel. We have lost the best king who eve ruled Britain!” (Rosenberg 322). This story is well known and told in many different ways depending on which character is telling the tale. The version that we read does, however, encompass the entire life of King Arthur.
The tale of King Arthur is one that will last throughout time because it is essentially a love story and its hero has qualities that most of us would like to believe we have. Also, “the theme of the conflict between one’s personal desires and one’s responsibility to others is common to many ancient epics and as contemporary as the decisions we must make in our own lives.” (Rosenberg 290).
We have seen that myths do indeed fulfill the four functions that Joseph Campbell has purposed. “Ages of the World” is a story that gives the Irish people an explanation of how Ireland came to be and shows how the Gods lived before the humans began to inhabit Ireland. “Gilgamesh” took us through the lives of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu and showed how death is a necessary part of the life cycle. “King Arthur” took us through all of the battles that Arthur faced from his family and his enemies and how he overcame them all. Arthur lived through all of lives struggles with an attitude that we all can admire and hope to emulate.
Mystical experiences and social sensibilities are two reasons that myths are written and conveyed throughout time. The stories of a culture’s past are told over and over again because they teach traditions that are important to that culture. Joseph Campbell listed four functions of myths; this paper will examine two of those functions. The first is that myths convey a mystical experience in which the sacred is manifested and somehow recognized.
The second is that myths give us social responsibility and help us construct social identity and help us govern our behavior. We will look at three myths that embody the two functions of a myth that this paper will look at; these are “Kotan Ufannai”, “The Ramayana” and “Mwindo”. These myths are all from different parts of the world but for their cultures, they provide messages that the people of their countries would like to preserve and pass on so that those to come to know what is important.
“Kotan Ufanni” comes from the Anui people who lived in Japan, they did not write down their stories but told them orally from one generation to the next. “The blending of the divine with the human throughout the story provides a magical setting.” (Rosenberg 377). This is the reason that “Kotan Ufanni” fulfills one of the functions of Joseph Campbell, it is a story that relays a mystical experience and something sacred is shown. While going to avenge his brother the hero of the story challenges Shipish-Un-Kur and finds he is enthralled with Shipish-Un-Mat the sister of his enemy, “As he sat by the hearth, the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen sat next to him.”(Rosenberg 383). The narrator goes on to kill Shipish-Un-Kur and more adventure ends up with Shipish-Un-Mat.
Social responsibility is an important part of any culture and myths embody the parts of a culture that gives each country its own set of rules. Joseph Campbell says that myths give us social sensibility and help us construct social identity and help us govern our behavior. The African myth “Mwindo” which was recorded in 1956 in Zaire is a good example of this. Mwindo is born with special powers which he uses to avoid being killed by his father who is afraid that a male heir will try to take his place. When Mwindo does become Chief he has a message for his people that is very wise;
“Grow many crops of many foods. Live in good houses, and make your village beautiful. Agree with one another, for argument is the path to anger and hatred. Do not pursue another’s spouse, for the man who seduces another man’s wife will be killed. Onfo, the god of creation, gives only what is good to you. Accept all of your children, whether they are male or female, tall or short, healthy or disabled. Be considerate of the sick person who walks along your village paths. Accept, fear and protect your chief as he should accept, fear, and protect you.” (Rosenberg 463).
“The Ramayana” also does an excellent job of giving people a sense of social sensibility;
“The characters in The Ramayana have long served as models of proper behavior among the Hindus. The person who based his or her actions under stress on what Rama or Sita would do in that situation could be sure of doing the right thing.” (Rosenberg 335).
“The Ramayana” is a story about Rama the son of a King, Rama should be the next line for the throne but right before he takes his place on the throne it turns out the King is beholden to a promise he made one of his wives and has to send Rama away for 14 years. Rama goes because he realizes it is what dharma dictates. Dharma is an important tenet of the Hindu religion. At one point in the story, Rama’s wife Sita is separated from him because she is kidnapped when he saves her he tells her he cannot keep her because she has been with another man even though it was not in her power to change. To prove her faithfulness she offers to die by fire because she had not been unfaithful she is given back to Rama. They go on to rule their kingdom together in the end. Their behavior is what the Hindus try to emulate to this day.
Through the myths we examined we see that the hero of “Kotan Ufanni” used magical powers to fight those that would oppose his rule and he received a wife while doing so. In “Mwindo” we find a son who has a better social sensibility than his father had and went on to rule his people in a manner that is both fair and wise. “The Ramayana” has given the Hindu’s values that they still adhere to this day. These are the reasons why myths still hold such a fascination for people and why even modern stories are based on versions of myths of old.
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