The New Heroes
Technology's Active Role in Modern Mythology
Dedicated to Joseph Campbell, 1904-1987
Mythology. To many, it's just a word, bringing to mind the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Greece that we were all introduced to as kids, but to others, the word is like a precious gem, rich and beautiful, with enough loaded facets to keep us redefining the term practically every time we look at it. Mythology is an integral part of the human experience, it lives and breathes within us, within every aspect of society and culture irregardless of place or time, and despite the fact that we often associate the word with the dead and their ancient, dusty tombs, those who know where to look realize that even in the information age, mythology as a concept is not only both alive and well, but growing in size and influence with every new technological leap we make.
So just what is mythology then? Well, for starters, it's a story, the kind of stories that get handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, from friend to friend- stories that teach us values like perseverance, courage, and honesty, stories that reaffirm our sense of justice, our sense of right and wrong, and give us a hero or a god to look up to and hold as an example of everything we could hope to be and strive for. It's nothing new, and it's nothing dead- Greek and Roman kids grew up with Hercules and Aeneas, our kids grow up with Mario and Spongebob. Sound incredulous? Think about it- it's all the same hero myth in the end. Whether you go into battle with a shield and spear or an M-16 and kevlar vest depends on the time and culture you belong to- and it's no different in Mythology, with little boys who grow up wanting to be like Odysseus in the past and G.I. Joe in the present, it quickly becomes clear that mythology is an ever present and ever changing influence on culture that's been with us since the beginning and isn't likely to separate from culture any time soon.
You see, people need heroes to look up to, especially when they are young. Kids naturally seek out a mold to pour themselves into, someone besides mommy and daddy that can do extraordinary things to model themselves after. Whether that's a legendary warrior in the age-old tales of a village shaman, a big sister, a laser-firing robot or the ideal of a firefighter, cop or princess is irrelevant- what matters is the accessability of the character, how easily he or she can be understood, how easily and how much he or she can be respected, and for what qualities or actions.
So how does this play out in today's world? Anyone can tell that we've transcended the single hero mentality by a long ways, that we've left the days of three-or-four "great heroes" behind in favor of endless hoards of protagonists (and antagonists) vying for our affections- and it's all thanks to the information age and the steady climb that we've made toward it. Think about it- growing up in a small village in the ancient past, you wouldn't have had much to go on. You'd look up to your father or your mother, maybe a grandparent or an uncle as your "hero". The mythology would be his or her exploits, harrowing adventures, and near misses- sound familiar? The kind of things we share around the table today are the same kinds of things we shared around the fire in the distant past, inspiring the young to go out and try new things, to assert themselves and change the world around them. As time went on, the number of available heroes and the number of stories expanded- larger communities and contact with other cultures brought divinity and great heroes and other peoples' relatives into the picture, and then the heroes spun and spread by poets, bards, and storytellers alike blossomed and tantalized in ever-increasing droves until a whole plethora of heroes became available for the common man or woman -or most importantly, the common child- to look up to. In the not-so-distant past, the heroes of books, radio, and much later, movies, followed this example as they popped up and began to snare our attentions. The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, and even Captain Kirk inspired countless children to push forward and attain their own superhuman heights- and new heroes were thus born, more men and women that could be looked up to and idolized, used as a benchmark for progress and a guide whenever the flying got hard. And with each new decade, with each new technological mark we surpass that brings humanity just a little closer together, the number of available heroes to inspire us continues to grow, hundreds pouring out of the stories that come to us through books, television, movies, even anime and interactive media like videogames and "action books." It's all the same- from Lancelot, Indra, and Jason to Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, and Cloud Strife, the hero myth proves itself eternal and continues unabated, rising up and griping us, giving us men and women with superhuman qualities that we can look up to and emulate consciously or unconsciously throughout the rigors of our everyday lives and the not-so-everyday circumstances we all-too-often find ourselves face-to-face with. Every second, new heroes are born and new people are exposed to them- it's an endless cycle. Just ask anyone the simple question of who their hero is and you'll get an incredible array of answers, from relatives and friends to characters that have never existed outside the imagination, with many people not content to pick or stick to just one in any given circumstance.
Mythology is a pervasive and inextricable part of the human condition, tied and rooted firmly in the fabric of society and the meat of culture that clings therein, alive and growing with incredible speed as the minds of the masses meet and merge irrespective of distance or upbringing. Myth is a tradition, the element of story itself. It is the tale and the adventures of heroes both male and female, meek and strong, just and misguided, and it is the underlying current of imagination and uncommon character that gives us the hope and power to succeed in the face of incredible odds, to pull luck out of our hats at the drop of a dime and land on our feet when it matters most of all. In this sense, there is no difference between the old guard and the new guard, the heroes of today and yesteryear save perhaps age itself, putting heroes like Aeneas of Virgil's Aeneid, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Hayao Miyazaki's Naussicaa, the crew of Joss Whedon's Firefly, the characters of Storm Constantine's Wraeththu series, the scores of X-men and super heroes to come out of the comic book industry over the years, and even the Bible's own David, the well-known, legendary boy who singlehandedly fell Goliath in typical heroic fashion using only a tiny stone in an equally tiny sling on an equal footing, each just a dot in an infinitesimally small smattering of faces that represent the very best, as well as the very worst, that every human being has to offer, and everything in between.