When tackling the idea of the “universal myth,” perhaps it’s best to consider the idea of whether or not there are actually universal myths. Sure, many cultures share overlapping deities — the shape-shifting monkey god in both Indian and Chinese buddhist tradition, the virtual copy/paste between ancient Greek and Roman societies, the trickster gods of Norse and Native American and many more mythologies — but the idea that there is any one unifying mythology seems a contentious one, and based upon a desire for easy understanding and structuring rather than upon actual evidence.
But then, what are the differences between mythological ideologies? The question came up when I was researching the Chinese legend-turned-novel “Xi You Ji” (colloquially known as “Journey to the West”), the story of the Buddhist monk Tang Seng, who along with three magical companions, sets out to what is probably Tibet in order to retrieve sacred manuscripts.
The story, as it has evolved, still has some of its religious overtones, but the focus is generally upon Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and though his origin story does kick off the original novel, the single-minded focus upon his character in modern iterations of the story, such as two state-produced Chinese TV series and Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s opera adaptation (which has, of course, both an excellent score and beautiful design), has effectively turned what was a sacred missive into a spirited, but religion-light, voyage.
Perhaps it’s the story’s journey (no pun intended) from ancient Chinese society to epochs that are politically different (such as the supposedly religion-free modern China) or constitutionally different (from traditionally “Eastern” to majority Western society) that spurred on the story’s change, but think of it this way — isn’t there something to be said when even the same myth changes so drastically over time? So add in geographical variation and then every other time-based variation in the history of everything, and there can’t be universality. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t real chances for similarity, but that’s not quite the same thing… not that that’s a bad thing.
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