Buffy v. Athena: Mythology Onscreen

18 07 2012

A couple of articles on the “mythology” of Prometheus, and the suggestion of a friend, have made me think maybe it’s time to consider the idea of mythology as it pertains to TV and movies.  Does such a thing exist?  Critics, bloggers, and fans talk about the mythologies of Lost, or Battlestar Galactica, or what have you.  The “artificial mythologies” section of Wikipedia lists detailed mythologies for the X-Files, Heroes, Carnivale, Lost, Babylon 5, Stargate, and Fringe.

The first thing you notice when looking into this subject is that there seems to be a focus on sci-fi in those entries; I suspect that’s because sci-fi tends to deal with the issues mythology does: where do we come from, where are we going, what makes us human, etc.  Shows like Law and Order, when they deal with larger social issues, are usually ones of more day-to-day politics, sex, or crime, as opposed to the meaning-of-life subjects of (some) sci-fi.  Because of this, it seems even shows that have a significant backstory and deal with larger elements of the human condition – The Wire, or even The Simpsons, are not, generally, referred to as having a mythology.  Keep in mind I don’t necessarily agree with that division, but it seems to exist nonetheless.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Should the cast of Lost be on this vase, rather than Poseidon, Athena, and Ares?

Anthropologically, none of these programs are a true mythology in the strictest sense.  Classical mythologies are not created by a team of talented writers sitting around a table; they evolve over centuries from bits and pieces of folklore, and emerge from the collective cultural imagination of a society.  Mythologies that are created by a single person or a group are more properly called “mythopoeia” (a term created by J.R.R. Tolkien, actually, who created a very extensive one).  When considering how real these mythologies are, however, it’s interesting to consider that many of these shows have an internal mythology that is authentic – that is, to the characters living in that world, the mythology of Prometheus or Star Wars is authentic (if perhaps a bit convoluted); but they don’t serve that function in the outside world.

Mythologies perform two functions in a society: 1)they explain how and why things are the way they are (why the sky is blue, where humans came from, etc.), and 2)they give us “culture heroes” – individuals or beings whose deeds and stories we can use for inspiration or to learn lessons.  The mythologies of TV and movies don’t generally fulfill the first function (unless you’re one of those people who puts down “Jedi” on forms asking for your religion), but they definitely fulfill the second.

It’s often argued that today’s comic book heroes are the equivalent of gods in modern society – super-powerful beings with who have abilities regular human beings don’t.  Generally speaking, however, most don’t have the same cultural ubiquity that gods did in ancient societies.  There are a few who do – Superman and Batman are probably the closest, maybe Wonder Woman or Spiderman.  But I’d suggest that many of the cultural heroes we get from TV and films aren’t superpowered at all: James Bond seems a good example; Ripley from the Aliens movies, Jack Bauer of 24.

Anthropology of Hollywood

Meet your modern culture heroes.
Indy, Ripley – say hi to the nice people.

They don’t even have to be necessarily heroic to be culture heroes; I’d argue that you could add Gregory House (of House) and Roseanne Conner (of Roseanne) to the list.  These are all characters who have embedded themselves in the public consciousness by faithfully appearing for years on our television and movie screens; they can bring excitement, entertainment, and maybe even hope into people’s lives.  It’s certainly reasonable to suggest that people today cheer for Indiana Jones or Buffy the Vampire Slayer the way people in ancient Greece thrilled to the stories of Herakles.  And that’s what really makes for a TV or movie mythology.

— Scott Frank

  • By the way, the ancient vase pictured above features Poseidon killing a giant by dropping the island of Nisyros on his head.  That’s right, he threw an island at a guy.
  • Another thing to consider when asking why the term “mythology” is applied to so many sci-fi productions is because some – like Stargate or Prometheus – genuinely deal with classical gods, or the creation of humanity; it’s no surprise that the word mythology gets used.
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