A work of comparative mythology examines humanity’s universal hero myth.
Human cultures—and maybe even a few nonhuman ones—across history and geography possess the myth of the hero. Readers all know the archetype: A hero leaves home, performs courageous feats, and returns having won fame and glory. This archetypal story has been made famous through thorough studies by Joseph Campbell and others, but Ladewig (Odysseus: The Epic Myth of the Hero, 2015) attempts to dig one layer deeper. “Why is this particular story pattern the same, everywhere, always, pole to pole across the globe?” wonders the author. “What are the essential features of this sameness? Who made up these stories and what are they really about?” The author argues that the myth of the hero is the oral/literary manifestation of what he terms the Orion Complex, named for the constellation visible around the globe. The complex is a condition from humanity’s prehistoric past, when a person’s primary identity was that of the hunter-forager. Examining evidence from astronomy, archaeology, literature, anthropology, biology, and genetics, Ladewig attempts to discern the origins of humans’ myths, their reasons for telling them, and the underlying truth that their most ancient ancestors wished to impart to succeeding generations. The author’s prose is more literary than academic, which makes him an accessible tour guide as he takes readers through various disciplines: “A version of euhemerism was advanced by the Italian Renaissance historian Giambattista Vico. It has a taste of evolution and modern psychology to it. He held that mythology represented the infancy and adolescence of historical thinking.” Ladewig is an amateur scholar, though he argues his layman’s perspective is necessary for bringing fresh ideas to the field. In this case, he may be correct: The book is an idiosyncratic but intriguing amalgamation of data points, hunches, themes, and coincidences that fit into the fine tradition of the intuition-led scholarship of James George Frazer and Robert Graves. As is always the case with works like this, its persuasiveness will vary from reader to reader. But all fans of comparative mythology should enjoy the author’s take on an eons-old mystery.
An entertaining, if not completely convincing, exploration of the purpose of the hero myth.