The Four Functions of Mythology

Brother Patch
5 min readMay 31, 2020

Joseph Campbell believed mythology served four functions. This is the first time I’m referencing Joseph Campbell in this book but it will certainly not be the last. Campbell was a comparative religion professor and a mythologist. You may be familiar with his work. If you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, the Star Wars guy!” you may consider yourself unfamiliar with his work.

Campbell believed the first function of mythology was the mystical function. This function was just to kind of remind us that the universe is big and weird and we don’t fully understand it. Think Zeus throwing lightning bolts. The early Greeks didn’t have a natural explanation for how and why lightning occurred so they imagined Zeus throwing it around when he was pissed.

Next is the Cosmological function which implied myths existed to give us a framework for the universe. A good example is the creation myth of Genesis. The Hebrews didn’t understand how the world came into being any more than the Greeks understood where lightning came from. But rather than write it off as god being mysterious, they created a narrative and structure around it that told us something about the hierarchy of creation and the nature of the creator.

Third is the sociological function. Myths, Campbell told us, were meant, in part, to uphold and reinforce the values of a culture. Think again of the Jewish creation story. Women in early Jewish culture were subordinate to men, so, in the creation story, man is created first and woman, when she finally enters the scene, is made from man’s rib and meant to be a helper for him.

Finally, is the pedagogical function. This function kind of holds all the other functions up and is the function we’re most concerned with. The pedagogical function tells us that myths are meant to tell us how to live; that myths, at their heart, aren’t about gods, or monsters, or whatever, but about human beings; and that if we observe a myth closely we’ll discover clues on how we can live.

The story in the previous chapter was titled the Myth of Er and it was written by the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. It can be found at the end of his famous dialogue, The Republic.

It’s unlikely that Plato recounted this myth to his students as a lesson on the afterlife and what to expect after you die. Rather, it was told to give insight into life.

Reading the story in its original text will provide you with several potential lessons that Plato might have been trying to get across. But, the lesson that we’re concerned about here, the lesson we retold the myth to specifically focus on, was the idea that each of us comes into this life with a purpose and innate story that we’re meant to live out.

It is that story we are concerned about. And it is with the mention of story that we are brought back to Joseph Campbell.

One of the works that Campbell is most famous for is a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces. In this book, Campbell describes how many myths and religious stories, throughout differing cultures, seem to follow a particular pattern. He calls this pattern The Monomyth. The pattern of the monomyth loosely goes like this: A hero is called on an adventure, descends into unfamiliar territory, battles mysterious forces to win a magical boon, then takes that boon back to his tribe or people

Campbell, getting all pedagogical, believed the Monomyth, besides being a pattern that recurred in various religions, was a pattern that each of us was meant to live out. We are called to be the hero. The dark territories we are must enter are the dark parts of us — our subconscious. And the magical boon we bring back to our tribes is us gifting the world with our passions and talents.

If this is true, and I believe it is, then the monomyth, as described by Campbell, in detail, in The Hero With One Thousand Faces, becomes a roadmap for discovering your passion and purpose in life.

If the pattern of the monomyth seems familiar to you, it may be because it’s visible in nearly every fiction book, television show, and movie that western culture has churned out. It is taught to aspiring filmmakers and authors everywhere. As a matter of fact, I have taught it, in classroom settings, on multiple occasions.

And, I want to teach it to you.

Not so that you can write a compelling book or a summer blockbuster, though. I want to teach it to you so that you can discover your own story — so that you can recognize the pattern in your own life and, in so doing, bring forth the treasure that lies inside you. I want to teach you to discover your passion and purpose in life by first discovering how to be the hero of your own story. I believe each of us has a magical boon inside of us — a talent or skill that the world needs. Not just needs but is literally dying for.

My favorite Joseph Campbell quote is, “The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” It paints a powerful picture, I think of the ripple effect of sharing your gift. To find your purpose in life is to become vitalized. When you become vitalized, those you come into contact with, can’t help but be vitalized as well. It’s like a contact high.

The quote came to us from conversations Campbell had with Bill Moyers in a PBS program called, The Power of Myth. It’s worth looking at the larger paragraph of words the quote was taken from:

The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and whos on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.

We are often fooled into thinking the way to change the world is to elect somebody different to a political office; by reshuffling the deck. But, what Campbell tells us here is that it literally doesn’t matter who the President is. If we are a country of vitalized people, the President is inconsequential. If we find the thing that brings us life, then WE CAN LITERALLY SAVE THE WORLD.

Can you imagine? The key to saving the world, all this time, wasn’t through political action, or economic reform, or activism? At least not directly. The key has always been following your bliss! It’s so simple!

So, I guess then, we should dive into finding your bliss! Discovering your passion! Uncovering your story!

Good news. We’ve got a roadmap.