Four Functions of Myth Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

functions of myth, as defined by Joseph Campbell. Specifically, it will explain Campbell's four functions of myth, and show how they are demonstrated in Native American Hopi culture. The Hopis of Northern Arizona epitomize the four functions of myth in their culture and society. Their society is based on myth, religion, and spiritual celebration, and they have held on to these myths when many other tribes have turned away from their spiritual and mythical past. The Hopis myths relate to the earth, the natural world surrounding them, and their dependence on this natural world for their survival. They understand the importance of myth in a healthy society, and because of this, they have one of the longest-lived Native societies in the desert Southwest.


Joseph Campbell wrote heavily about myth, reality, and how important myth is in our culture and society. Myths and stories have long been the way Native American cultures preserve their history and pass it down from generation to generation, and the Hopis of Northern Arizona are no exception. Their myths nearly all relate to what is most important in their lives - the land around them, and their dependence on it for their sustenance and well being. Joseph Campbell's four functions of myth are demonstrated in their stories of creation, hope, and life.

Campbell defines his four functions of myth this way:

The first is the mystical function...realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery. The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned -- showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through. The third function is the sociological one -- supporting and validating a certain social order. And here's where the myths vary enormously from place to place. It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world -- and it is out of date. But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to -- and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that (Campbell 31).

What does Campbell's definition really mean? Campbell's four functions of myth bring the reader right into the reality of myth, and how it really does apply to our day-to-day lives. Do discover myth every day, we simply must open ourselves up to the wonder in each of us, and the absolute wonder of our world. You cannot help but be awed when you begin to see the wonder around you. The shape of the universe is ever changing, but it created all of us, and that is wondrous and mythical at the same time. Some people believe myths are outdated, but as Campbell shows in the fourth function, they can allow us to live a more meaningful and authentic life every day if we recognize the importance they play in life, in survival, and in hope for the future. The Hopis recognize these four functions of myth, which is why their oral history is so important to them. To understand the Hopi myths, and their importance in their lives, is to understand just how myth can sustain and nurture every one of us. As Campbell wrote in an anthology on myth, "Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range, not of his rational thought, but of his local mythology" (Murray 20). As such, myth has always existed, myths tend to take on certain commonalities, and this is directly related to Campbell's four functions. Certain myths, such as that of creation, tend to show up again and again, despite cultural and geographical differences, and there are many similarities between these myths. Not only does this relate to the wonder of the universe, and the need to explain its creation, it relates to the sociological need to hand down stories from generation to generation, and the need we have to understand our lives, and give them more meaning by understanding our world. Campbell notes,

People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive (Campbell 1).

The Hopis understand this need to feel alive at all times, and that is one reason they perpetuate their myths. Myth has existed for thousands of years in just about every culture, so it is nothing new to the Hopis. As one Hopi chronicler notes, "To Hopi audiences, the events portrayed in these narratives once constituted true, factual history, regardless of whether they were perceived as rational-possible or irrational-impossible. They served the Hopis to reinforce the bonds of ethnic and cultural identity and to create a sense of continuity" (Lomatuway'Ma, Lomatuway'Ma and Namingha x). Clearly, these myths and narratives demonstrate the four functions of myth - they create wonderment, allow the culture to continue, are tied to the sociological beliefs and perpetuation of the tribe, and they allow the tribe to be continually aware of the authentic meaning of their history in their day-to-day lives. According to the Hopi author, these myths:

tend to anchor the present generations in a meaningful, significant past, functioning as eternal and ideal models for human behavior and goals. They can teach moral lessons to children and adults alike, communicating cultural messages and representing the community's philosophical positions to its own members through a revered vehicle of tradition (Lomatuway'Ma, Lomatuway'Ma and Namingha x).

The Hopi Indians live in the high desert of Northern Arizona on a series of mesas they call simply, First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa. Many of their towns have been continually inhabited longer than any other Native American society, and many of those towns still exist on the mesas today. The Hopis live by growing crops that are totally dependent on summertime desert rains, and so much of their mythology revolves around the agricultural season and its nuances. They are also artisans, and much of their most notable art is directly related to their myths. They carve kachina dolls out of cottonwood, and dress and paint them elaborately to match the descriptions of the gods and goddesses in their myths. The kachinas also participate in many Hopi dances, which are held throughout the summer and winter to appease the gods and bring rain to the crops. The dancers portraying the kachinas dress in elaborate costumes with headdresses, and match the clothing and painting of the dolls. "Fundamentally the Kachinas are happy and helpful spirits from the beneficent underworld. In ceremonies they are represented by masked human figures, but as spirits they play an important unseen part in the life of the Hopis" (O'Kane 185).

As another author who studied the Hopis extensively noted,

The rituals are intricate. They have been handed down from generation to generation, each detail memorized by those who take part. They are accompanied by erection of appropriate altars in the kivas, by sand paintings, by pageants, and by chants sung in a traditional sequence of notes and phrases. Although the appropriate priests and members of societies perform a ceremony, the people are expected to participate in spirit and to share in the experiences and the benefits (O'Kane 181).

Thus, the Hopis have translated their myths into celebrations and ceremonies that sustain the community and give it hope and a cause for celebrating the wonderment of the natural world around them. One ceremony that is incredibly important to the Hopi mythology is the Snake Dance, which is a prayer for rain to the gods. Many preliminary ceremonies take place before the major dance, and during this time, snakes are gathered for use during the dance. The dance is open to visitors, but no cameras are allowed, as the Hopis view the ceremony as exceedingly personal.

The reason for the use of snakes throughout this prayer for rain is to be found in Hopi mythology and beliefs. The Hopis believe that the prayers for rain must have a sure and unfailing way to reach the underworld, where the spirits dwell who can send rain. They must be carried by messengers who live beneath the earth and who are familiar with that region. Snakes live in the ground and therefore are chosen to serve as the messengers

O'Kane 196).

The priests in the ceremony carry the snakes in their mouths as they circle a central plaza in the village where the ceremony is performed. After several…

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