The “hero’s journey” isn’t as universal as you think: Joseph Campbell argued that nearly every myth can be boiled down to a hero’s journey. Was he right? (Tim Brinkhof, 3/25/24, Big Think)

Although the study of comparative mythology is certainly worthwhile — especially in terms of coming up with explanations for common themes like apocalyptic floods, fratricidal brothers, and virgin mothers, among others — scholars who engage in this field invariably run the risk of misinterpreting or misrepresenting the narrative traditions of cultures not their own. Bond and Christensen say this frequently happened to Campbell in his studies of Asian, African, and Native American folklore, which he either generalized until they fit into his philosophical framework or, in the case of his writing on the Sanskrit concept of ānanda, accidentally mistranslated.

As story consultant Steve Seager explains on his blog, the monomyth is only one type of ancient myth. While narratives like the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus and the battle between Marduk and Tiamat in Mesopotamian mythology can be summarized as hero’s journeys, many other tales of old — from tragedies like Oedipus Rex to folktales like Rumpelstiltskin, not to mention most creation myths — cannot.

Cultures from the ancient world not only had unique gods and monsters, but unique narrative traditions also. “Indian narrative forms are radically different from Western forms,” Seager writes. “Watch a Bollywood movie. One moment the film is a romance, then a thriller, then a musical, then a martial arts movie — confusing for a Western audience but totally natural for an Indian audience.” He defines these narrative forms as “eminently comfortable with complexity, non-linearity and the non-binary nature of being.” Where hero’s journeys deal in dualities, with the protagonist abandoning one worldview in favor of another, defeating the dragon or being defeated by it, Indian stories — shaped by Hinduism and Buddhism — do not typically present their conflicts in the framework of a choice.