Holding Out For a Hero: Is Myth Just Spicy Ethnography?

The rise of Marvel’s domination over the box office doesn’t come as a particular surprise to me – we’ve always loved heroes. From Batman, to Indiana Jones, to Luke Skywalker, to Harry Potter, our history and literary canon is saturated with them.

But what is the enduring appeal of the heroic figure? Well, with a little bit of help from the ancient past, maybe anthropology can help answer that question.

The first heroes of the Western canon – Heracles, Odysseus, Achilles – they arguably aren’t so different from those that we know and love in fiction today.

That is, if you consider the ancient and mythic definition of the hero: exceptional humans who operate in a realm more closely connected with the divine than most mortals yet are still undeniably tethered to the human world (Posthumous, 2011).

They possess these god-like capacities and abilities, allowing them to achieve what we could only dream of, and yet they are ultimately always going to be hindered by their inherent humanity and all of the flaws and consequences that come alongside it. It’s not called an Achilles heel for nothing; but these characters are loveable because they’re so imperfect (Campbell 1988).

Operating within this arguably liminal space between the divine and mortals allows us to think beyond the limitations of mortality to ‘what if’ and ‘what could be’ with wide-eyed wonder, taking us out of the mundanity of our own lives and ascending to the realm of the gods. Yet these stories are still firmly rooted in questions of what it means to be human and flawed; to eternal struggles of good and evil, life and death, love and war. To me it is this interplay between the fantastical and the real that captures our attention and our love, and in the process better allows us to understand who we are.

Is this perspective ahistorical? Maybe, but why is so much tension devoted to which side, Light or Dark, people will fall in Star Wars? Why do superheroes always have flaws, whether they be physical (ie Kryptonite) or personal (ie Captain America: Civil War)? Why does Game of Thrones revolve around human politics instead of dragons?

More importantly however, what the hell does myth have to do with anthropology?

The meaning of hero myths is still widely debated. However, Joseph Campbell (1988) argues that “myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth” (p.4). It is the experience of life, and the adventure of the hero that is the adventure of being alive (Campbell 1988).

In the way that myths can help us better understand who we are in our culturally-specific context, such is also the role of the anthropologist, and to me it’s foolish to assume that anthropology is restricted to the realm of the objective, ‘real’ world (Sarah touches upon this in her article on future worlds). As Geertz (1973, p.16) writes, ethnographic pieces “can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned’”; anthropological writings are themselves interpretations (See: Julia’s art vs science article).

“…Reality is not other than the stories told about it” (Rapport 1994, cited in Craith and Kockel 2014) and it is part of the human condition to create these stories – both anthropology and hero myths serve as a medium to do so. As such, they both suffer under the same flaw that their truths are inherently partial and incomplete, composed of blurred lines between reality and imagination. However, this is not “an opposition between truth and falsehood” (Craith and Kockel 2014, p.695), rather, it is a recognition of the human reality of both ethnographic work and hero myths and their aim to tell stories that “ring true” from a human perspective (Craith and Kockel 2014).

So why do we love superheroes? Well… I think because, like anthropology, the best stories, the best myths, the best superhero films, serve to tell of the human condition as they are inherently grounded in it; they just takes you out of the mundanity of your own life and into the magic of the liminal world, allowing you to believe otherwise.

Image Source: Wired


Campbell, J 1988, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, New York.

Craith, M. N., and Kockel, U. 2014. ‘BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN LITERATURE AND ANTHROPOLOGY. A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE’, Ethnologie francaise, vol. 44, pp. 689-697.

Crespi, M 1990, ‘The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell’. American Anthropologist, vol. 92 , no. 4. pp. 1104

Geertz, C 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3–30.

Posthumus, L. 2011, ‘Agents of transformation: the function of hybrid monsters’, Hybrid monsters in the Classical World: the nature and function of hybrid monsters in Greek mythology, MPhil (Ancient Studies) Thesis, University of Stellenbosch.

Sarah’s article on Future Worlds

My article on Liminality

Julia’s article on Art vs Science?

And for those who want a bit more myth in their life:

If you want to dive straight in to the original texts themselves, then consider: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Euripides’ Medea, Hecuba and Trojan Women (my personal favourites); Aeschuylus’ Oresteia; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (for the myth of Cupid and Psyche).

For slightly more digestible myths: Stephen Fry’s, Mythos and Heroes; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

For a more fictionalised retelling: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe; and I know it’s middle grade, but The Percy Jackson series still has the best chaotic good demigod representation I’ve ever read (just don’t touch the films)

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