If you take an introductory anthropology or religion class, chances are that your professor will at some point bring up Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, boiling it down to “every culture shares these aspects of myth and all stories in mythology share archetypes that are common across time and space”.
And since the person telling you this is supposed to be an expert of course, you don’t/can’t question them.
However, the idea of the monomyth as it applies to myth (and the mythological creatures we see in urban fantasy series) tends to be incredibly Western-centric and therefore, the monomyth as Campbell developed it and as authors have adapted it, doesn’t apply to every single myth out there.
Case in point? The supposed universality of the vampire.
We (and by we, I mean Western vampire nerds) have all heard the spiel: every single culture has a vampire myth.
That’s not quite true.
When I first started my Urban Fantasy 101 series, one of my earliest topics tackled was about how the genre pushes the idea of a single white vampire that tends to be white, male, and French.
Much of the genre enjoys following in Anne Rice’s footsteps when it comes to putting forward the idea of the vampire as this continuously convenient white French guy who looks like a L’Oréal model and who sounds like Pepe le Pew.
This is partially because of the way that we’re constantly told that there’s one specific way that you can write vampires. Because they’re supposedly monomythical in nature, they then take on this weight where readers and writers associate common but unrelated identity aspects of mythological/cultural bloodsuckers as belonging to vampires.
However, the vampire isn’t monomythical and Joseph Campbell’s theories aren’t exactly waterproof.
The problem with the monomyth, especially as its used when it comes to the urban fantasy genre, is that don’t tend to put things in their context. Yes, if you squint, everything that drinks blood could technically be a vampire, but I think we need to stop squinting and put on our glasses.
Things like The Vampire Book or the 2006 History Channel documentary Vampire Secrets hold beings like the chupacabra and the aswang as similar supernatural figures, but it’s not that simple.
All blood drinkers aren’t pulled from this goopy mythology soup, and insisting that they are does the individual supernatural figures and their respective cultures of origin such a huge disservice.
The chupacabra drinks blood, yes, but it’s an animal that goes after the blood of farm animals in the Americas. The aswang, in contrast, takes the form of a woman and drinks human blood in mythology from the Philippines. The chupacabra as we know it gained notoriety within my lifetime. The aswang can be traced back to sixteenth-century Spanish colonialism in the Philippines.
When you squint, trying to make these two very different supernatural figures squish together underneath the umbrella of what we call a “vampire”, you ignore the nuance of these cultures.
Campbell’s work centers on the idea that there’s a single story running through all of the mythology around the world – and all stories, truth be told, where there is a heroic figure. But again, that requires a shit ton of squinting. It requires dumping diverse mythologies into a giant cauldron to turn it into the aforementioned goopy soup.
Mythology soup doesn’t look at nuance. It doesn’t look at the infinite infinitesimal aspects of a culture that we see in its mythologies or in the stories that its authors and artists tell.
It just assumes that everything comes from the same soup pot and there aren’t any separate mythological soup pots – and of course, that main contributor to this cauldron is a western lens.
Now, in Professor Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures on Classical Mythology for The Great Courses, she pokes some serious holes in the idea that Campbell’s monomyth was anything more than his own specific theory. In her fourth lecture, Professor Vandiver points out that:
He claims to be discussing narratives (“monomyths”) that occur worldwide, but, in fact, he takes elements from many narratives to make a composite that does not actually occur anywhere. He assumes that the multiplication of examples amounts to proof of his interpretation. He assumes that similar narrative elements must have the same meanings in different cultures. But Amazons or snakes, for example, have different functions in different times and places.
Campbell wasn’t providing any evidence that these composites ever existed. What he was doing, was telling us that because there were similar narratives or narrative aspects in different countries and cultures, they had to be saying the same stuff. It’s the dragon conversation all over again where every culture that has giant lizards in their culture supposedly believes in dragons.
What Vandiver is challenging, is Campbell’s idea that all of these similar elements confirm his theory of a single story.
As she should.
Mythology soup isn’t tasty.
It’s also kind of… boring.
I’m not entirely knocking Campbell’s work on the monomyth or the way it’s been kind of complicated and convoluted in this context. It’s been useful to me throughout my academic career and has inspired avenues in my writing. However, the way that it’s been used to basically do a majorly Western overlay across mythologies in order to excuse things like whitewashing is just… uncool.