Universal Mythical Themes: A Plea for the Humanities

In myths and fiction there are about a dozen themes literature has wrestled with for thousands of years, transcending time, and stimulating our imaginations to challenge the fundamental issues we human beings struggle with.  We search for meaning and values that define us, sustain us, and give our lives meaning, direction, purpose, and fulfillment.  Hopefully, you and your students will ask –  “What in my life is reflected here?”


    In my thinking critically and creatively and introduction to ethics courses, the students are challenged to connect these perennial truths with their own existential issues in the 21st century – hopefully these universal themes will inspire them and strengthen their resolve to be enlightened citizens of the world.  May these humanitarian themes, ever ancient and ever new, broaden their perspectives to learn as much as possible about the many diverse cultures and traditions in our diversified world = employability skills, specifically “to demonstrate community and global accountability.”


Here are the themes; and how can you incorporate them into your courses?


  1. In the beginning, people are created by gods, or by the mating of giants, or the clash of titans; these special beings are at the center of the universe; In “Earth’s Children/Clan of the Bear novel stories – humans were created by Mother Earth who morphed them into Homo Sapiens. Creation stories abound in the major world religions and also in the Native American Indian tribal traditions.


  1. The tribe immigrates to a promised land. In Peter Pan the kids migrate to Never Land where they will not grow old. Moses leads his people into the Promised Land, and in the Veggie Tales, the Veggies go to the Promised Land.


  1. The tribe meets the forces of evil in a desperate battle for survival; it triumphs against heavy odds. In “War of the Worlds” earth is invaded by alien Tripod fighting machines, and one family strives to survive. In Armageddon an asteroid is hurling towards the earth while amateur astronauts go into space, and one of them sacrifices his life by blowing up the asteroid.


  1. The hero descends to hell, or is exiled to the wilderness, or experiences an iliad in a distant land; he returns in an odyssey against all odds past fearsome obstacles along the way to complete his destiny. In “Zoological Mythological Legends of Animals,” the solar hero journeys through hell. In the Divine Comedy by Dante, the hero begins his descent into hell.


  1. The world ends in an apocalypse, or by flood, fire, alien conquerors, or avenging gods; the world is saved and restored by a band of heroic survivors. In “I Am Legend,” Will Smith defends the earth from zombies. In the “Dawn of the Dead” there is the threat of a zombie apocalyptic destruction.


  1. A source of great power is found in the tree of life, the river of life, sacred incantation, forbidden ritual, or secret formula. In the legend of King Arthur, the Excalibur is the source of power to fight for goodness and justice as well as in “The Sword in the Stone.” Harry Potter has possession of the “philosopher’s stone.”  In Avatar – there is refuge and safety in the Sacred Tree of life.


  1. The nurturing woman is exemplified by the great goddess, the great mother, holy woman, divine queen, or mother earth. In “The Chalice and The Blade,” Neolithic societies worshiped the supreme deity as female where people were not engaged in warfare, looting, and rape.


  1. The seer has special knowledge and powers of the mind, and is available to those worthy to receive it; these powers belong to the wise old man or woman, the holy man, the magician, or the great shaman. In the “Karate Kid,” Daniel finds Mr. Meyagi – martial arts master who helps him prepare for an encounter with the evil Cobra Kai.


  1. The virgin has the power of purity; she is the vessel of sacred strength, and must be protected at all costs; and perhaps she is surrendered up to appease the gods or demonic forces. Aphrodite, ruler of love and eros, governs the domain of sexuality, intimacy, and personal relationships. Mary conceives a child by the power of the Holy Spirit.


10. Female sexual awakening is bestowed by the unicorn, the gentle beasts, the powerful stranger, or the magical kiss. Disney’s Classic stories embrace these themes in “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” In the popular romance novels, such as “Twilight – a vampire falls in love with a young woman and reawakens her sexuality and womanhood.


11. The Trickster disturbs the established order and liberates passion as the god of wine, king of the carnival, eternal youth, clown, jester, or clever fool. The Joker is the trickster in “The Dark Night,” and in “Batman.”


12. A monster threatens humans, appearing as the serpent demon (Satan writhing at the bottom of hell), as a dragon, or a vampire. In the “First Avengers – Captain America” Steve Rogers is transformed into a super hero to fight against the Red Skull. In the Vampire Diaries, Damon has an inclination to commit evil acts at the expense of others.


Finally, as quoted from The Art of Being Human, page 4, it is written: “In a world that has become a global village, a world with all its hovering threats and violence, a world of rapid technological changes and growing environmental hazards, a world in which cynics wonder about the value of living, the humanities are always present to lift our spirits.  Art, music, and literature and all other marvels of the human mind continually affirm what American novelist William Faulkner said when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 –  that humanity will not only survive, ‘it will prevail.’” (Richard Janaro and Thelma Altshuler – Pearson, 2006, 8th edition).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s