POP MYTHOLOGY: COLLECTED ESSAYS by Laura A. Shamas, Ph.D., is a collection of twenty-three essays about mythology and modern life; seventeen were previously published, plus six new ones and an introduction. From casual to scholarly, the essays vary in tone and topic: from profiles of gods and goddesses; to thoughts on myth in branding; archetypes in film; myth and social media; and more. The author’s expertise as a mythology speaker and as a longtime myth consultant is represented in this collection. The book is divided into two sections: “Pantheon Pieces” and “Myth Miscellany.” Essay titles in Part One, “Pantheon Pieces,” include: “Aphrodite and Ecology,” “Apollo Updated,” “Pieces of Athena (and Her Head),” “The Hera Factor in Hillary’s Run,” “The Holiness of Health [Asclepius & Hygieia],” and “Martha Hearts Hestia.” Topics covered in Part Two, “Myth Miscellany,” include games shows and romance, courtly love, the end times, the Occupy Movement, the Oscars, creation myth and outer space, a meditation on “Revolution” in the I Ching, and Twitter. This second section also includes a “how-to” approach to myth adaptation that Shamas has taught, for over a decade, to writers of all genres at universities and workshops. The book as a whole represents various ways in which the author has advocated for myth’s value in modern life. There are aspects of memoir/biography in certain essays, too.
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In this collection of essays, some previously published, others appearing for the first time, Dr. Shamas draws our attention to the intersection of pop culture and myth. The author is a mythologist – a writer and a teacher whose work explores the relevance of myth as a way of understanding how certain narrative structures shape our perceptions of reality. Shamas builds upon the tradition established by the late Joseph Campbell, whose Hero With a Thousand Faces established, among other things, how the unconscious mind apprehends reality through symbol, myth, and enduring archetypes. Why do certain narrative structures or personality types, whether drawn from the latest political scandal or embedded in a current Hollywood blockbuster, often contain such potent psychological power? What draws us to them emotionally, why do they obsess us, enthrall us? Shamas’s essays, thankfully written for the non-specialist and thus free of academic jargon, demonstrate how the power of myth lies at the heart of much of what in our modern culture ends up as “pop”, whether it be the Academy Awards (hero worship) or the popularity of Martha Stewart (the Greek hearth goddess, Hestia). She explores why ancient fascination with stories about gods and goddesses can be likened to our modern fascination with personalities in the news, as in Hillary Clinton’s attempt to establish a political presence independent of her husband’s (Hera). Shamas’s analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey is among the most insightful summaries of that film I have ever read. We learn how at every turn of the plot, mythological elements are present whose function is to guide the audience towards realizing that “human experience is one of eternal struggle, with the brain at war with the heart.” Her parsing of George W. Bush’s 2000 nomination acceptance speech should be read by every speech writer in the country for how it recasts Bush’s life as analogous to the trajectory of an ancient combat myth. Overall, a very interesting and enjoyable book.