Two Mythological Narrative Schemas

There are two archetypal journeys that everyone may make at least once in life:  the Hero’s Journey and the Generative Journey.

The Hero’s Journey:






Return and Second Death

(thank you, Joseph Campbell)

The Generative Journey:










Examining their experiences, many folks may find they have made some version of these journeys again and again, because the two paths are not mutually exclusive; in fact, each of the paths implies and presupposes the other.  Neither path would be possible without the other; each of the two paths partakes of some aspect of the other path, though they are distinct in theory and sometimes contradictory in practice.

(For instance, the hero who renounces romance and family for the sake of some greater good may never have the opportunity to complete the generative cycle in the traditional way of marriage and childbirth; yet her journey will still likely include fertility, commitment, and community in alternate forms.  Likewise, one who stays close to the hearth and sticks to the longer path of generation may never gain fame, but she will inevitably know heroic seasons of sacrifice and self-surrender, or else she will find the path unsustainable, her heart cynical and her relational bonds brittle.)

These journeys are archetypal but not inevitable; every stage of both journeys is subject to choice and to chance. They represent two ideals, but needless to say they do not represent everyone’s ideal.  Philosophers and psychologists would call them narrative constructs; and truly some narratives we choose and flourish within, while others are imposed upon us and may make no sense of or within our experience.  Still, I want to argue that these two narratives have special power and are essential to us, in some sense, though I must make my case without citing sources or studies.

The Hero’s Journey tells the story of the person who departs from tradition and society, undergoes a great struggle, and finally returns transformed to offer something new to the community.  In same cases the person is cut off in her prime but her legacy lives on in those she protected and inspired.  It is a story defined by an early and unmerited “death” – either figurative or literal – and an unforeseen transformation or resurrection into an entirely different kind of life.  One archetypal example, of course, is Jesus Christ; the mainstream traditions of his life (as told in the Four canonical Gospels) attest that Christ’s resurrection simultaneously marked both a definitive ending point and a mysterious beginning.

The Generative Journey is embodied in the annual cycle of the seasons and in the progression of a long and familial-oriented life. The four seasons contain the essence of the narrative, from the birth and fertility of spring to the swelling of summer, the harvest of autumn, and the decay and death of winter, then back to the sprouting of spring.  This narrative  is marked by the same early stages as the hero’s journey – birth and development – but instead of the disruption of external struggle and literal exile, its drama focuses on the trials and rewards around the communal hearth — struggles of love, parenthood, couplehood, kinship, routine, and aging. These are the ordinary outlets of human passion and dreams, but to call them ordinary is not to deride them.  Birth, love and sex, parenthood, hard work, and death in old age may be ordinary, but they contain much of the substance and meaning that life affords.

The Generative Path is not the “easy” way. It contains much hard work and no small struggle. In fact, the Generative Path is notable in that it contains a period of “crisis” relatively late in its narrative. In some contemporary narratives of human life this is called the “mid-life” crisis, but it can really occur any time or many times. It marks the moment when the individual begins to reckon with mortality, and it lasts until a resolution or detente is reached.  The result of the crisis may be temporary or permanent depression, aggression, cynicism, desperation, sensuality, or repression.  The person who reckons with the crisis successfully to the point of resolution will find profound new ways of expressing care and creativity – evidence of what psychologists call generativity.

Although I am no expert in mythology or pagan religion (or psychology, for that matter), I am confident these two schemas are universal archetypes. Modern paganism draws heavily upon imagery from these two cycles.  The modern pagan schema, if I understand it, fuses these two cycles together by assigning one to the God principle (hero’s journey) and another to the Goddess principle (cycle of generation).  I do not find the gendered representation of divinity particularly useful for myself.  Rather than attempting to integrate the two paths symbolically by making the God both the lover and the son of the Goddess, as modern pagans do, I have preferred to approach the two paths as overlapping explanatory schemas that relate to human experience.

Finally, along both of these paths there is the repeating cycle of our breath:  breathing in, breathing out, stillness, and then breathing in again.  Those short moments in-between breaths are moments of suspension – unsustainable but absolutely necessary times in which non-narrative experience resides and action is suspended.  Both the Heroic and the Generative journeys contain moments and even periods such as these, when the hidden peculiarity of each life can gestate.

By now the natural question “so what?” has matured into a very good question, indeed.

We are awash in information but parched of meaning. With the decline of durable meaning-markers (the stable meaning structures provided through religion and traditional culture), it is difficult to resist the alluring prefabricated meaning frameworks offered by marketers who define success and fulfillment in terms of consumption, status, and power.

Mythopoetic narratives can provide a structure that affirms our unique journeys while placing them in the context of the broader human experience, which is the same role that religion can play for the devoutly religious.  But atheists, agnostics, and post-Christians (and post-Jews, post-Muslims, post-pagans) need meaning as much as the devout.  Mythology is not optional. Some folks have convinced themselves that they do not need mythology, perhaps because they have conflated their own worldview with truth and labeled it “Reality.” But whenever the big questions of life and death go without answers, or with answers so superficial that only a stimulation-addled adolescent could find them adequate, even the best intentions can have devastating consequences.

The Machine Paradigm reigns supreme as the Enlightenment Project of Progress accelerates us ever upwards towards the precipice. It is small wonder we are destroying this planet, our home, when we unconsciously understand ourselves to be machines functioning within an even larger machine called “the Earth” within an even larger machine called “the Universe.”  We would be far, far better off to conceive of ourselves as Virgins, Heroes, Warriors, Lovers, Sages – to find the outlines of our stories in ancient narratives of purpose and consequence.

Whether such re-mythologizing (mythopoeia) can find practical expression and application in our lives is a question that will be answered in flesh before it can be answered in words.


Creative Commons License
“Two Mythological Narrative Schemas” by Joel Short is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.