In May of 1977 we were introduced to the Star Wars universe and its ragtag group of nobodies whose combined talents (and a bit of luck) would save their universe from the ravages of the Galactic Empire. Within this group was the hero Luke Skywalker, who within the scope of the original three films, would go about destroying the Empire. Luke had conquered the Empire, restored his ruthless father, defeated the chaos of the evil emperor, and brought harmony to the universe. Like so many stories, that is how this one ended or at least that is how we thought the it ended. The hero’s journey is not an unknown quantity. Most western cultures have multiple instances of it. We grow up believing in the hero and expecting him (and not often enough her) to save the day, to bring harmony back to the world by defeating chaos and fury.
In his book Maps of Meaning Jordan Peterson has taken this commonly known western trope and assigned it universal value in defining how morality is established within cultures. There is the known, which is the father and represents culture that both supports and oppresses. There is the unknown, which is the mother and represents chaosi. Then there is the knower, which is the son or hero who mediates between the known and the unknown. It is the hero who brings balance and by extension the sense or idea of morality to the world. Peterson leans heavily upon Judeo-Christian symbolism to make his point, which is kind of where things fall apart.
Thirty six years after we were presented with the idea that Luke and his friends had saved the universe we were presented with a new ending. Our hero had hidden himself away on a remote world to escape the chaos of the universe and given up on trying to stop the great evil that was seeping through the galaxy. A new hero arises who saves the day, not by the strength of her lightsaber, but instead by the sacrifice of herself and the cumulative power of the “great cloud of witnesses” or in Star Wars lingo, the force.
The myth that Peterson is hanging his hat on is not as universally accepted as he would like us to believe. There are many cultures in the world that do not have creation myths and many that do not have a hero’s journey at the center of their understanding of morality. His attempt to make the Judeo-Christian myth into a universal story for explaining morality falls apart when we acknowledge that that shape of myth is not present in most eastern cultures and many indigenous cultures around the world. This leads to the question of what structure of myth is commonly found in most cultures? Self sacrifice for a culture or people group is found in many places. It is the story that is most compelling, because the hero does not end up victorious in life while his people group does.What if the hero of our story is not the hero because he arises victorious after wrangling the powers of culture and chaos, but instead sacrifices himself in order to remove the power culture and chaos hold over the world?
Perhaps the meaning we find in the world is in the shape of the myth that is presented to us. Making a universal myth is a preposterous idea, because cultures are so varied. As students of culture we need to be willing to ask what the dominant myth of a culture is and understand the range of emphases present in the telling of that myth. We would be better suited to accept a world with a multiplicity of myths that have a multiplicity of emphases than trying to force a one size fits all myth on to every culture.
I once heard an entertainment pundit discussing the Star Wars trilogies. He suggested that how each generation understands Star Wars is based upon which trilogy was in the theaters when they were growing up. In essence he was arguing that there are three different ways of seeing the same story based upon when you came into it. What matters is not the myth you were told, but rather the emphasis you take from it.
i A side note, why is it that the feminine that represents chaos? I know he insists that it is both nurturing and fruitful and as such takes on feminine characteristics. But it feels like he is saying something without saying something by assigning the role of the chaotic to the feminine.