Joseph Campbell taught us to look beyond the particulars of any given mythology or religious tradition, and to instead consider the universality they might contain. He demonstrated that there is a basic skeletal structure of most mythologies, particularly those that that he designated as "hero myths." In his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949 (!) and still available in print today, he examines the hero's journey, and establishes his theory of the monomyth. The monomyth is the skeleton upon which hangs the flesh of any given hero myth.
Campbell differentiated two types of heroes: the physical hero (e.g., Hercules), and the spiritual hero (e.g., Jesus, Buddha, Abraham, Mohammed). His monomyth model applies more evidently in tales of physical heros, like Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Luke Skywalker. Campbell asserts that regardless of the hero and the details of his or her tale, the basic elements of the story have a universality that stretches across time and culture. There is a sameness to the story line, regardless of the specifics of that story line.
1.) There is often an auspicious birth. The child is born of a virgin (Jesus), for example; or immediately takes three steps and proclaims that this is his last incarnation (Buddha); or his mother is impregnated by seeing a falling star (Laozi); or often, a god impregnates a human female (Hercules). The auspicious birth presages that this person is different, and that their life story has weight and meaning.
2.) At some point in their lives, the hero is called out of normal society, and makes a decision to follow a calling, or is otherwise lured into an adventure. Jesus, went into the desert; Bilbo Baggins went on an adventure. 3.) At this point of the journey, the hero often encounters a helper of some kind, a sage or sprite who initiates them into a higher understanding, a broader vision of reality (e.g., Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi; or the little goat guy, Philoctetes, and Hercules). 4.) The hero is then faced with some kind of ordeal that marks their passage into the adventure, a discovery, or a turn from normal reality into an epic purpose. Campbell calls this "crossing the threshold." The important thing is that the hero makes a choice to pursue the adventure.
5.) Afterward, the hero is faced with a variety of tests or trials, against which she must prove her worthiness. Again, the hero is often assisted by other figures or things. They may find, or be given, magical items that help them successfully overcome the tests. For example, Perseus is given winged sandals and a helmet that renders him invisible. So, too, Bilbo Baggins finds a ring that makes him invisible, and gets him out of several scrapes. 6.) As in any good story or movie, there is ultimately a climax, a final battle, struggle or revelation, a moment when the hero's life -- and often the fate of their people or the world -- is at stake. Of course, the hero will prevail.
7.) After killing the dragon, defeating the monster, or tricking the lesser god(s), the hero's adventure comes to a close. It is at this point that he has a crucial decision to make. He can persist in the place of adventure, and find more adventure, or he can decide to return home, bringing with him the magic, knowledge, or insight that he has gathered on his journey. Campbell uses the tale of Jonah in the belly of the whale. After being vomited back onto shore, Jonah immediately returns to human society with his incredible tale of events and understandings. 8.) It is at this point that the knowledge acquired by the hero becomes the province of normal human beings; the magic, the knowledge; the expanded perspective is shared with the rest of human kind.
What fascinated Campbell, and what I too find intriguing, is the manner in which these same elements, this same kind of journey, occurrs repeatedly in human mythologies, regardless of the culture or time from which it arose. Campbell's thought was influenced by a German scholar named Adolf Bastian, who is credited for helping develop the discipline of anthropology. He was also the first proponent of the "psychic unity of mankind," the idea that all humans share the same basic mental structure and framework.
Bastian's own study of mythologies led him to theorize that they contained what he called "elementary" and "folk" components. The "folk" components are comprised of the local, culturally-relevant elements of the story. They are the parts of the myth that its hearers can recognize and understand, and relate to their own social and cultural environment. The "elementary" part of the myth represents the basic underlying structure of mythology, the "monomyth" that Campbell theorizes in his famous work The Hero of the Thousand Faces.
Campbell was also influenced by German scholar Otto Rank, and in particular his book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. In this book Rank compares the birth and early life story of Moses with the birth mythologies of other well-known heroes from different cultures, like Sargon and Oedipus. In this work, Rank equates the hero myths with human dreams, arguing that they represent repressed human desires, and are therefore informative of the human mind and psyche. Rank was an early disciple of Sigmund Freud, although he later split with Freud's method of psychoanalysis. As an early psychologist, Rank was interested in the way mythologies represent, or provide evidence for, larger, basic human psychological needs and desires. It is probably Rank's work that inspired Campbell to famously say, "... a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society's dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn't, you've got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you."
Throughout his life and studies, Campbell remained fascinated by what mythology and literature can teach us about human psychic nature. His work established that, in mythologies, there are common (elementary) traits that cross cultural and time boundaries. He believed that fact was significant, that it indicated areas where further scholarship and exploration was needed. Why, for instance, do the same elemental mythological structures crop up again and again? What does that tell us about human nature? Is there something larger, something deeper, something more universal in this fact that we should be paying attention to in our own considerations and studies?
I think the answer to all of those questions is yes. The basis of many forms of communication is a repeating pattern.