What Is a Cultural Myth?

Alan Rankin

A cultural myth is a traditional story that holds special significance for the people of a given culture. It is often the tale of a god or heroic figure, and it sometimes offers a moral or a fanciful explanation of a true phenomenon. A cultural myth often includes details of the life or philosophy of the culture that originated it, making it invaluable to anthropologists and other social scientists. The study of cultural myths has become a scholastic field of its own, pioneered by writers such as Joseph Campbell, who found common elements in many world myths. Modern storytellers often borrow elements from these myths to give their own tales a wider appeal.

The works of Joseph Campbell inspired George Lucas to model the town of Mos Eisley, where Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, after towns from the bible and the American Old West.
The works of Joseph Campbell inspired George Lucas to model the town of Mos Eisley, where Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, after towns from the bible and the American Old West.

It is likely that myths were the earliest kinds of stories, exchanged orally by bards and ordinary people long before the advent of the written word. When literacy began to spread, such myths were among the first tales to be written down, which preserved them long after their societies had perished. Numerous myths survived in this way, offering insights into the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, India and China, among others. Prominent literary works based on myth include The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Beowulf.

Constellations, such as the one that depicts Orion the Hunter, inspired many ancient myths.
Constellations, such as the one that depicts Orion the Hunter, inspired many ancient myths.

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A classic example of a cultural myth is the Greek legend of Icarus, son of the mythical inventor Daedalus. Held captive by an evil king, Daedalus and Icarus escaped when Daedalus created wings of wax and feathers. Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting his wings and falling to his death. Like many cultural myths, this tale originally was told as a historical event, supposedly from the ancient past. It also contains a statement on the human condition that could be interpreted several ways — the dangers of technology, perhaps, or a warning against pride.

In 1949, scholar Joseph Campbell published a landmark study on the cultural myth, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell noted that myths from diverse cultures around the globe shared certain common elements. These included a heroic central figure, a quest or task of some kind and aid by supernatural agents against a great enemy. This cross-cultural trait suggests that some part of human psychology naturally derives satisfaction from hearing this kind of story. Campbell dubbed this basic myth-plot the monomyth, or “hero’s journey.”

Campbell’s work on the cultural myth gained wide exposure in the 1980s, when filmmaker George Lucas acknowledged Campbell's influence on the Star Wars saga. The Matrix film trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series also employed elements of the monomyth, proving their effectiveness in the cultural myths of the present day. The great writers of the past acknowledged the importance of cultural myth in their own ways. For example, when Mary Shelley wrote her classic novel Frankenstein, she subtitled it “the Modern Prometheus,” referring to a mythical Greek figure who was punished for sharing forbidden knowledge.

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