Investigating the innate human ability to recognizes (and create) patterns has drawn me into the large social and anthropological patterns of magic and religion, and particularly the study of comparative mythology.
Written in 1890 by anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (Frazer, 1996) investigates folklore, mythology and comparative religion. Frazer analyses the similarities between mythologies and religions across the globe and posits that they all follow the same well-worn patterns. He theorizes that humans, as individuals and societies, all follow the same path, moving from a belief in magic (as a way to control their environment) towards a belief in religion (in which they appealed to higher powers to control their environment) and finally a belief in science (as a way of understanding their environment).
This development in belief from the magical to the religious to the scientific is built on the premise that humans desire control over their environment, they wish to order it in a way that makes sense to them. And to do it they seek patterns that link their actions and the actions of others to the natural and societal phenomena that they wish to understand and control. This pattern seeking behaviour may happen consciously or subconsciously, but it’s common to all people and all cultures, only the way it manifests itself changes.
Frazer’s work is a forerunner of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 1988). Campbell was also a student of comparative mythology and he identifies an archetypal hero that appears in the stories of countless global mythologies. He seeks to reduce these independently developed narratives to their fundamental form: the ‘monomyth’. In doing so he identifies a pattern, one which is repeated again and again in the mythologies of many disparate cultures and belief systems, this pattern is The Hero’s Journey:
The question that I return to, again and again, is what are our modern mythologies? A rejection of religion, magic and spiritualism (in their traditional forms) hasn’t negated the human needs that they fulfilled. So what have replaced we them with? What are the new religions? Where are our new manifestations of the monomyth?
Frazer, J., (1996) The Illustrated Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Cammeray: Simon & Schuster Australia
Sir James George Frazer, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Available from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/217662/Sir-James-George-Frazer [Accessed on 4 January 2016]
Campbell, J., (1988) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, London: Paladin