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The Wikipedia page on the Monomyth has these statements in the summary at the top:

Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages,

and

Campbell argues that classic myths from many cultures follow this basic pattern.

Unfortunately, the second one doesn't have a reference. However, I think there's a pretty good chance that this was Campbell's belief. Now, I'm wondering if he ever said anything about why so many myths follow this pattern. I'm not looking for anyone's opinion - I'm specifically looking for Campbell's opinion on this matter.

Why is it that so many myths from all sorts of cultures follow the mono-myth pattern?

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    Campbell was influenced by Frazer's Golden Bough, which took a similar reductionist approach. That might be a source worth checking. – Helmsman Of-Inepu Apr 29 '15 at 2:10
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For a story to be so universal, it must echo experiences that happen to all of us. What happens to all of us? The obvious candidate is: growing up. Glen C. Strathy explains it quite well here:

It's also the formula for a rite of initiation, which may be why the monomyth is so popular among young adults. It echoes the process all teenagers go through as as they transform from children into adults. Seen from this perspective, the three stages might be described as ...

  1. As the young teen leaves childhood, he/she moves towards greater independence from parents.
  2. Adolescence and the struggle to become an adult (to come to terms with adult power, shoulder adult responsibilities, become sexually active, achieve a new understanding of one's parents, find one's place in the world, etc.).
  3. Settling into adulthood (marriage, parenthood), so the cycle can continue.

Transitioning from dependence (Mom! Could you do my laundry for me today?!?!?) to independence is hard. And we can all relate to it.


But you asked for What Campbell himself said in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (emphasis mine):

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tent to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. **We remain fixated to the unexercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. ** ... The psychoanalyst has to come along, at last, to assert again the tried wisdom of the older, forward looking teachings of the masked medicine dances and the witch-doctor-circumcisers; whereupon we find, as in the dream of the serpent bite, that ageless initiation symbolism is produced spontaneously by the patient himself at the moment of the release. Apparently, there is something in these initiatory images so necessary to the psyche that if they are not supplied from without, through myth and ritual, they will have to be announced again, through dream, from within-lest our energies remain locked in a banal, long-outmoded toy-room, at the bottom of the sea.


As far as a citation for Campbell saying that classic myths from many cultures follow this pattern, he said, again in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

The wonder is that characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fair tale-as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea. For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, inveted, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.

What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach?

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This answer is a supplement to durron597's answer - which is completely correct and should be the accepted one. I'm writing this answer because there are several misconceptions floating around about the meaning and the implications of Campbell's monomyth, and I want to clarify them. This answer also gets at the original question -- why is the monomyth so common.

(I'm not going to cite sources in this answer because this is my own interpretation of Campbell, and the arguments I'm using are probably different from Campbell's own. However, I think my interpretation is useful and will help people understand Campbell.)

The monomyth is more interesting to people who study literature than it is to people who study religion. This is because it is fundamentally about how stories are composed and not directly about religion, though Campbell (successfully) argues that stories are a key component of religion.

Although most people describe the monomyth as having 12 steps, I think of it as a two step process:

  1. The hero is put into an unfamiliar situation or faces an obstacle.
  2. The hero learns to overcome that situation/obstacle (or just learns something)
    • The hero could be compared to a child/adolescent learning to navigate the world.

The reason why the monomyth is so common is that the two step formula I just described is one of the best ways to tell a story; some people would say it's the only way. If you are an author and you want to teach your readers a lesson (e.g. how to live their life), a great way to do that is to create a story where the hero faces a challenge (e.g. my life is not meaningful) and then overcomes it (e.g. the hero finds meaning in their life). Because people place themselves in the situation and see through the eyes of the characters they read about, the reader will then learn from the fictional characters and learn how to overcome similar obstacles in their own life.

As Campbell notes, the monomyth is frequently used in religion, but I think that has more to do with the fact that religions use stories than with religions using the monomyth.

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A third point that I feel should be mentioned in any discussion of Joseph Campbell: although Joseph Campbell is very popular with the general public, there are a number of significant flaws in his theory that haven't been addressed. To quote from Alan Dundes, a professor of Folklore and Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley:

My sole point in mentioning this disheartening incident is to suggest that for many members of the literate public, the study of folklore means precisely Campbell and his writings. Yet professional folklorists have said very little about the huge corpus of Campbelliana. I do not know if any of his many books were ever even reviewed in JAF. Is this a case of "silence gives assent"? Very likely more people were introduced to the subject matter of folklore by the writings of Campbell or the PBS television series of lectures by him than by any other source. And yet we folklorists have said little or nothing about him and his theories.

Dundes makes a number of criticisms of Joseph Campbell. One of these is of his assumption that myths are universal, which, as Dundes quickly proves, is not the case. To quote from Dundes:

It has long been a popular fantasy among amateur students of myth that all peoples share the same stories. This is clearly an example of wishful thinking.

Examples of myths that Joseph Campbell claims to be universal but which are not are include:

  1. The flood myth, which is "absent from sub-Saharan Africa" (Dundes).
  2. The "virgin-birth" motif, which is only present in three separate myths, and is absent from "Africa... Siberia, Polynesia, ... Melanesia, ... Australia and New Guinea" (Dundes).
  3. The "belly of the whale" motif: this "motif" is only present in the old testament (Dundes). The only other example Campbell cites of a "belly of the wale" motif -- the story of Red Riding Hood -- is a horrible example. Red Riding Hood is only swallowed by a wolf in the written version of the story; in the oral version of the story "the girl is not swallowed by the wolf at all... Instead she escapes through a clever ruse by pretending to need to go outside to defecate" (Dundes).

I think it would be safe to say that Joseph Campbell's arguments that the monomyth is "universal" aren't very sound. If you are interested in reading more, Dundes' article is available on JSTOR, which you can usually access for free from a public library. Dundes has other criticisms of of Campbell, but they aren't relevant to the question asked by the OP.

I also recently wrote a blog post about Joseph Campbell that might interest you. It elaborates on the points that I made in this post.

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