When I taught a World Literature course at San Antonio College before I retired several years ago, I came across a fascinating book by David A. Leeming titled “Mythology: the Voyage of the Hero” (3rd ed., 1998, Oxford U. Press). I realize that conservative Christians usually consider “myth” a “four-letter word.” We have heard too many agnostic/atheistic dismissals of the Bible as collection of myths that have no basis in reality.
On the other hand, there exists among even secular, non-believing scholars an interpretation of mythology that doesn’t necessarily reject the validity of religious texts such as the Bible, and Leeming belongs in this group. His thesis is that certain universal experiences are “hard-wired” into the human mind, similar to a common belief among primitive cultures in a creating divinity and a devastating world-wide flood.
Leeming classified these commonly shared experiences into eight specific groups and identified them collectively as “the Voyage of the Hero.” The eight groups include the following: “Miraculous Conception, Birth, and Hiding of the Child” (22 examples discussed), “Childhood, Initiation, and Divine Signs” (15), “Preparation, Meditation, Withdrawal, and Refusal” (13), “Trial and Quest” (15), “Death and the Scapegoat” (14), “Descent into the Underworld” (15), “Resurrection and Rebirth” (17), “Ascension, Apotheosis [Deification], and Atonement” (11).
The lack of space prevents discussion of these eight categories in any detail, but what stands out is that Jesus appears in every category of experience and is the only individual to do so. He is also one of the few included characters whose historical existence has been well established. Even skeptics and atheists agree that Jesus actually lived, in contrast to the “mythological” characters.
Sampling some of the more important categories will provide an idea of how Leeming developed his thesis. The opening section, “Miraculous Conception, Birth, and Hiding of the Child,” includes the miraculous conception of Jesus revealed in the Gospels, as well as his being hidden away in Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. The other examples, with the exceptions of Moses and Buddha, whose birth stories are similar, include world-wide mythological characters such as Zeus, Dionysus, and Persephone, who belong to Greek mythology.
Jesus, as well as Moses, Buddha, and Mohammad appear as historical figures in the third category, “Preparation, Meditation, Withdrawal, and Refusal,” in addition to mythical heroes such as Odysseus (Ulysses) and Achilles from the epic poems of Homer. The narrative details on Jesus focus on his 40-day withdrawal into the wilderness where he refuses the temptations of Satan.
Parts five, six, and seven, which concern sacrificial death, descent into the underworld (or burial), and resurrection or rebirth, have the most relevance from the Christian perspective. Of course, it is easy for Christians to identify these details in the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ cruel death as a sacrificial scapegoat, his three-day burial in the tomb, and his resurrection on the third day. Yet it is also interesting to discover that several mythological “heroes” supposedly experienced one or more of these events. These include among others Hercules and Adonis (Greek), Isis and Osiris (Egypt), Buddha (India), Bear Man and Quetzalcoatl (Native American).
Predictably, the last of the eight categories deals with ascension of the hero into “heaven” or acquisition of divine status (“apotheosis”). The fullest examples in the life of Jesus appear in Luke 24 and Acts 1, but Leeman also included Abraham and Moses, along with the mythological Hercules, Quetzalcoatl, and King Arthur. The inclusion of Mary is based more on Catholic tradition than biblical revelation.
But what is the significance of all this diverse, theoretical discussion in Leeming’s book of the “hero’s” journey through life and beyond? In my opinion, it validates the conviction that these stages of human experience, which are so clearly laid out in the story of Jesus and other characters, historical and mythological, aren’t coincidental. They reveal the universal longing found deep in the human heart for ultimate meaning in life. For Christians (though not for Leeming) this meaning can be found only in the divinely inspired account of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.