Orion's Guiding Stars: The Myth of the Hero and the Human Instinct for Story

By Marc Ladewig. 2017. New York: Algora Press. 258 pages. ISBN: 978-1628942767 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Ana R. Chelariu

[Review length: 900 words • Review posted on October 21, 2021]


[Cover ofOrion's Guiding Stars: The Myth of the Hero and the Human Instinct for Story]

The quest into the origin of the myth of the hero and the human ability for storytelling leads Marc Ladewig on an ambitious tour de force, taking him through studies pertaining to comparative mythology, folklore, anthropology, and more. His essayistic exploration of various fields, ranging from ethnology, folklore, and mythology to psychology and human biology, is guided by the “light of evolutionary theory” on homo sapiens, member of the animal kingdom. Ladewig’s search attempts to decipher in the flow of information what he names the Orion complex “and its verbal manifestation as the myth of the hero” (10). As a layman asking for indulgence from the specialists, the author discusses the studies in his enterprise in short paragraphs and commentaries, which sometimes seem like notes made from his readings. In comparing how animals communicate with the way people tell stories, the author is aware that his approach could be controversial.

The book is divided into three major parts, the first one called Bones, a metaphorical title presenting traditional scholarship dealing with the myth of the hero. In the second part, Flesh, the author explores the myth of the hero through the lenses of genetics, epigenetics, ethnology, and evolutionary theory. In the last section, Spirit, Ladewig “offers us the logic and ironic implications of the structural, functional, empirical, materialist point of view as applied to the myth of the hero” (12).

We follow the author’s brief approach to rendering the works he cites, comprising a slightly outdated bibliography on comparative mythology, as he invites the reader into his explorations of human development. Starting with hunters and gatherers from Africa and Australia and from South and North America, the author draws in relevant studies retelling stories depicting hunting practices and rituals. This incursion makes him wonder how a mythological motif has settled in the mind of primate man (in the chapter “Theories of Mind”), and he reaches the conclusion that the myth of the hero can be traced ultimately to the brain, offering in support of this thesis this well-accepted idea: “The brain and all behavior are products of the interplay of the environment, the Earth and the individual” (37). In another chapter, “Lord Raglan and Van Gennep,” Ladewig discusses these researchers’ theory on the myth-ritual connection and the three steps of initiation of the hero—puberty, adulthood, marriage—and he states that the myth of the hero pattern “is fully universal and therefore, natural to humankind” (95). He concludes that this three-step pattern reflects the daily activity that hunter-gatherers pursued in hunting animals for food: leaving the house, killing the animal, and returning home. Ladewig argues that the hunter-forager societies were egalitarian in their social structure, as men did not try to get others to hunt for them, a system that stands in opposition to the Indo-European kingship contests. This view presents a rather partial reading of archaic culture, since, from Indra to Hercules, heroes were hunters and also fighters. To support his point, Ladewig relates, in a chapter titled “Hunter-Forager Myths of the Hero,” stories of hunters from southwest Africa, of the Semang of Malaysia, of Aborigines of Australia, of Eskimo of Greenland, and of Amerindian tribes. In the end, Ladewig agrees with Joseph Campbell’s arguments, expressed in Primitive Myth (1959), to the effect that the images of enemies are imbedded within the Animalian neurologic system, and that the myth of the hero is created in the human nervous system as instinctual reactions to the environment. The author’s decision to go deep into the roots of the hero myth leads him to see the basic instincts of the primates and the cruelty of hunters as traits embedded in the human DNA structure.

Thus, if one is looking for a discussion limited to the mythic motif of the hero or the Orion myth as revealed in previous studies of comparative mythology, it will not be found here. If one is searching for the myth wherein the hero kills the dragon, as the hero’s main trial, resulting, for example, in freeing the fertilizing waters for the benefit of the community, one will find the following: “The dragon of folklore has been reinforced by our day to day experience of bones and fossils” (199) of dinosaurs, for which the author cites the study by Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters (2000).

In concluding his work, the author offers his definition of the hero’s myth as follows: “The myth of the hero, as a complex of instincts, is a vast cascade of protein synthesis in response to environmental pressure to get out into the world and hunt…. The myth of the hero as a story teaches us to transform hunger into spirit. Our fundamental hunting nature reveals that our deepest happiness is in the search.” These arguments lead the author to state that this myth “teaches us that Earthly existence will inexorably lead each individual to bend his or her knee in prayer” (227).

Marc Ladewig’s approach to his subject directs him on a path that leads away from the more familiar studies that address the metaphorical aspects of the hero’s myth, and away from its social-ethical functions, particularly regarding the youth-initiation rites that express the human relation to the community. His approach has the merit of rewarding readers who are interested in instinctual human behavior as the main source of a myth that has had an instrumental role in forming social and ethical traditions.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.