Perspectives: Mythic Stories and Inner Growth

by Jonathan Young

When King Odysseus was about to leave for Troy, he was worried about his son Telamachus. The war would mean Odysseus would be gone for years. His son would be growing up without a father. As a loving parent, Odysseus wanted to be sure his son got the attention he would need to mature into a future leader. So, the king asked an old family friend, named Mentor, to keep an eye on his son. The old man visited often and looked after Telamachus for many years.

It is from this Greek myth that we get the word Mentor, which has grown to refer to all the special help we receive from people who are not our parents. The ancients realized that even the most devoted parents have limits to what they know. To become what we can be, additional sources of wisdom are very useful.

Teachers and coaches are particularly important mentors. Sometimes a neighbor or the parent of a friend can serve in this role. Usually a mentor is an older person who can explain what lies ahead or how to handle a new problem. In addition to various older guides, we all find powerful stories that provide guidance and encouragement to help us develop our potentials. Characters from such stories can serve as mentors. In The Wizard of OZ, one of the mentors is Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. As she helps Dorothy learn from the mysteries of the Yellow Brick Road, everyone following the adventure also receives the lessons.

We all get to be Dorothy while we are in the story. We learn how to travel on new paths, how to get help, and how important it is to find our way back home. The drama gets intense early on when Dorothy is hit in the head as the tornado reaches the house. After that, the whole story happens in a dream. In general, mythic stories are very dream-like. As we learn how to figure out what the pictures in old stories mean, we are also learning what the pictures in our dreams might mean.

When we finally return to Kansas, Aunt Em thinks dreams are silly. Dorothy insists the adventure was real. This idea is worth taking seriously. The things we learn from stories and dreams are very real in the sense that we find important knowledge about ourselves, and how to get along with other people, and how to make our lives meaningful.

In this way, mythic stories provide mentoring, just like real-life elders. They pass on ideas and advice that will help us on the road ahead. Some of the most valuable learning comes from stories. Our choice of stories says a lot about us. We get to choose the teachers we find in stories. Wise elders from long ago can show us secrets that have been overlooked.

Reading ancient tales is a form of time travel. You take a voyage in the imagination to another place. When you spend time with Merlin, you visit early Britain for a while. You see what life is like in the time of knights and noble ladies. When you return, you hold an invisible key that will help you understand how life works.

Mythology is a specific kind of wisdom literature. Great myths came from all over the world. The Greek, Egyptian, and Roman myths are well known. The tales of the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus are familiar. You have probably also heard of mighty Hercules. The tales from India, Africa, China, Japan, and Latin America are also full of amazing adventures.

Mythic clues are all around us. Some of the names of the week come from myths. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday come from the Norse gods Tyr, Wotan and Thor. Friday is from the Norse goddess Freya. Saturday, is named after the Roman god Saturn.

The mythic imagination, taken more broadly, can include fairytales, legends, parables, and even some more recently written novels and movies. There are basic themes of discovery and development in mythic tales that make them last over time. Cinderella learns to trust her mentor, the fairy godmother. Hansel and Gretel learn to take care of themselves and trick a dangerous witch. When similar ideas come up in recent movies, we can feel the old stories lurking in the background.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell called the familiar story type The Hero's Journey. The structure of such mythic adventures involves leaving home, going on risky travels that are full of obstacles we learn from, and finally returning, changed forever. When we tumble back through the wardrobe after a long visit to Narnia, we are not the kids who were playing hide and seek earlier. We are wiser and stronger now. We know we can survive frightening challenges. We would not have found this new confidence without going on the difficult trip.

Dorothy back from OZ: It was real.

Campbell spelled out the many challenges within the stages of leaving, learning, and returning. The result of the journey is a stronger sense of who we are and what we can do in life. What we gain is ours forever. We may never travel to a place quite like Narnia or ever meet a cruel Queen, but there are troubles in every life and people we should not be quick to trust. We are a little more prepared for the tough parts of our stories because we went through the wardrobe to a strange land.

There are many variations on the journey tale. It is particularly clear in heroic movies. Usually, the central character is pulled into a hard spot. In dealing with danger, knowledge is gained. Even bedtime stories have valuable ideas. For example, Little Red Riding Hood learns not to talk to strangers.

In the long run, we are shaped by the stories we love. If you like the Harry Potter adventures, maybe you will be able to do magical things with your creativity. The magician character is like an inner professor of the imagination. If stories about wizards appeal to you, there is probably something about you that will be good at creativity.

So, when you identify with a character, it strengthens that part of you. If you spend time with stories about courage, you will be in touch with your strength. If you focus on kind tales of generosity, you will deepen your ability to love.

You can use mythic stories in very practical ways. If you want to have friends, read about characters who are good at friendship. They will teach you how to do it. In mythology, companions and allies are important. Frodo would never have made it to Mount Doom without Sam. Dorothy would never have returned to Kansas without her three pals.

Many of these examples come from recent stories that follow mythic patterns. The need for wisdom from stories is as strong as ever. Today's artists and writers are trying to answer the same questions as the ancients. So the mythic imagination continues to give us profound tales to guide us through the confusion of everyday life.

An important image in European mythology is the Holy Grail, a magical chalice that many hopeful seekers searched for their entire lives. The grail stands for meaning, so the stories of looking for the mysterious treasure are about trying to find meaning in our lives. Some of the brave souls who searched for the grail finally found it. Many more never quite reached what they were looking for. In the end, it seems like going on the adventure was as important as how it ended.

The search for meaning in mythic stories is endlessly fascinating. Noticing how the characters are like us or not like us is an important part of getting the treasure that waits in the tales. Following the adventure closely to see what the pictures mean is how we can get the most out of the old fables.

Taking time to write down how we felt about each section of the story can help us get the special knowledge that the story has for each person. If a friend has a very different idea about what the story means, there is no need to argue with them. It will mean something different to each person.

You might even go back and revisit a story you loved years ago and see how it seems different. The difference is a reflection of how you have changed. The favorite myths, fairytales, and memorable movies may well be guides throughout the years ahead. They might even help us live happily every after. KidSpirit Magazine, Winter 2009-2010,