Whenever I see a movie critic praise Ridley Scott's Prometheus, they seem to be drooling over all the mythological references, although most don't necessarily complement gaps in the story or enrich itself.

I see the same pattern repeated over and over in Hollywood. Take The Matrix for one, where mythological and religious references are regarded significant and are valuable additions to the storytelling. I am at the brink of coming to the conclusion that any screenplay can be improved a lot by adding sufficient amount of mythology.

I don't understand how mythological references make a story better. Because:

  1. Mythology is the oldest form of storytelling, so it's been around the longest, hence it's the most common and the most primitive. It even predates philosophical texts so the most intricate theme you can bump into is "self-sacrifice".

  2. It's been referenced so many times. Every new pantheon, new mythology and new religion, inherited complete volumes of previous mythology. It didn't stop there either, non-religious storytelling was also influenced by mythology for a very long time.

So referencing mythology today feels like referencing a dictionary, or lyrics to Old McDonald's Farm. I cannot simply grasp how people feel awe when faced with a mythological reference in a movie called "Prometheus" in the first place. Since everybody seems to be ok with those I probably don't know something?

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    Most of the reviewers never heard the name "Prometheus" before this movie. And to be not identified as the savages they are, they drool over the references. Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 22:06
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    Is this a writing question? It seems to me that this is more of a literary criticism question. Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 0:31
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    @JSBձոգչ: "Explain to me the benefit/use of Literary Technique X" seems on-topic, IMHO - criticism is the consideration of writing.
    – Standback
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 3:31
  • @JSBձոգչ I've given this much thought before asking and I thought I might be missing a "literary universal", a widely accepted and almost classic way of paying homage, a pragmatic component of literature that I could be missing. It seems like it's not the case. Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 9:41
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    In films specifically, Joseph Campbell's monomyth may also have something to do with it. I took a film class once in which the professor claimed that EVERY film (other than a few very avant garde exceptions) follows the monomyth, dismissing all of our counter-examples. My personal theory is that it's more of an indirect influence on Hollywood, since Star Wars was so heavily influenced by Campbell. I think the studios' urge to copy Star Wars' success and Lucas' influence on filmmakers combine to make the mythological influence more clearly felt than in other media. Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 18:55

6 Answers 6


Myths and religions are "stories we already know." Adding references to known mythology in a contemporary story both grounds it to reality and connects it to our larger culture.

Think about modern myths. If you have an ensemble action piece in a movie or a TV episode, for example, there's often a moment just before the climactic battle where five or six heroes walk towards the camera grimly, in slow motion. That's been picked up from a hundred Westerns, which in turn was probably taken from Seven Samurai. Does that make the SloMo Charge of the Light Brigade any less moving? As a watcher, doesn't your heart swell to see the heroes march towards their potential doom?

It's the same thing with referencing ancient mythology. These are tropes. They're well-honed narrative devices. The stories have been told before and told well, and by calling back to them or repeating them, we are trying to borrow some of the emotional impact the original had and echo it in our own work. And if the fictional characters in your story reference myths from an actual culture, it makes them more realistic (in the sense that the story is happening in "the real world" or "our timeline").

Additionally, when do you something as blunt as call your movie Prometheus, you are by definition inviting your audience to make the comparison between your story and the myth. If the movie had been called Ripley Believes It or Not or Float Like a Butterfly or ...On Little Cat Feet, you'd be invited to compare it to something else.

ETA Writer L.B. Gale just posted a discussion of this on her blog this morning.

  • I'm accepting this as the answer not because I agree with the described reasoning but I'm convinced that that's the primary modus operandi for writers. Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 12:33

I noticed you said "movie critics" enjoy mythological references in a film, but do audiences? So you've asked, kind of a two-part question. For clarity, there are films that are based on mythology, like "Star Wars" and there are films that reference mythology like "Prometheus." It can be a fine line, but I believe the difference lies with whether the filmmakers want to draw attention to the myth or not.

I think that referencing a myth resembles the use of symbolism in storytelling. Both are fairly easy to do, but the audience (who know nothing of writing, filmmaking, or storytelling) tend to like them because both make them feel smart. Like they discovered some hidden detail no one else was clever enough to see. This despite the fact that, for example, the movie is titled "Prometheus."

As for movie critics, most seem to believe (based upon the many movie reviews I've read) that they are somehow 'fellow filmmakers.' In fact, they know little more than the audience. Thus critics cleave to any subtlety or detail of a film that makes them feel smarter than the audience and thus involved in the filmmaking process. Critics love symbolism, literary references, and mythological references, but as Adam Sandler might ask, "do you need the critics to like your film?"

  • Awesome, I haven't thought the problem could be narrowed down to critics, because I assumed good criticism would require good comprehension of literature in the first place. It may not be the case of course. Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 9:49
  • +1 for critics seem to think they are smarter than viewers. I've stopped reading critic reviews for the same reason. I use critics reviews as a negative factor, ie, if a critic says a movie sucked, I'm pretty sure it'll be good Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 9:12
  • It depends on the critic. Some take pains to explain why they felt the way they did, and I can agree or not but the logic behind the opinion is clearly laid out. That's no different than a conversation with a friend who saw the movie. Not all of them are "smarter-than-thou" snots. Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 9:37
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    Critics are shown a movie for free and asked to critique it. There's a difference. The critics I read will tell you straight up "This is a very fun movie if you like explosions and fart jokes." Also, if your definition of "being entertained" is not dependent on "complex characters and plot development," then you have no reason to read film critics, and what they write should be irrelevant to you. The OP was asking about literary symbology, which is in fact important to some audience members, and movie critics will pick up on it and discuss it in their reviews. That's not "wrong." Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 16:48
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    I see that my post has ruffled some feathers, so I'll clarify. I'm not saying that movie critics are "bad people" for having a different take than the general audience or filmmakers. I'm simply noticing that they do have a different take. The reason is simple; film critics must watch EVERY film made. As an audience member, I see only a small portion of the films that are made, the ones that I suspect I would like. Since I don't care for Adam Sandler films, I don't watch them, but if I were a critic I'd have to. After a few years of that, I'd be applauding mythology as well.
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 0:13

Because mythology is the oldest form of storytelling, it resonates with our deepest selves, allowing us to explore the inner archetypal landscape of being human and our connection to divinity. It is our common language.


One thing you seem to be forgetting regarding myths, is they are extremely prevalent stories. I prefer to avoid the word "good" because, honestly, some of them are rather crap as stories, but they are definitely memorable.

Proof? They survived.

Think about Shakespeare. He certainly wasn't the only writer of 16th century. More likely there were thousands of writers contemporary to him. Still, how many of them can you mention off top of your head? How many are still played on scenes all around the world, or published with new reprints every year? Shakespeare was extremely memorable and prevalent, and so motives of his sceneplays are included all over the popculture - for the simple reason, they are memorable.

Now Shakespeare's sceneplays are - what - 400 years old? Compare that with myths from ancient Greece. Norse gods are at least 2000 years old. Hercules/Heracles is roughly 3000 years old and still fresh. Egyptian gods survived good 5000 years. It pretty much means they appealed to the audience all that time. Now this is some good marketing sample of a successful franchise!

Essentially, by choosing mythology you choose "tested and true", something that continuously kept being successful long before your medium was born. People kept retelling the myths for centuries and they always found willing audience. You'd need to screw up really bad to retell it and not be successful.

I'll refrain from stating my opinions on influence of including mythology on actual quality of the final work. I can just state it's a safe marketing move.


Maybe you are seeing it from the wrong point of view. More than mythology, movies like Matrix and Prometheus deal with our current social values and believes.

Neo, the technological messiah, is ready to die to save humanity but under a very actual agnostic - almost atheistic - point of view since he is more than human but not divine. He is machine made flesh. A lot of people can't see the Christianity here, and even more won't notice the detail of the agnostic point of view but it's all there. It's all very actual. We are an agnostic and new age society.

In the same proportion it's agnostic, Matrix has a great deal of New Age "spirituality," mixing everything in a way that, in the end, all is possible if somebody chooses to believe in it. That's too actual and everybody will recognize their daily lives concepts in that movie.

I'm not counting all the other small details - from occultism to role-playing games - the Wachowskis use to link the "mythology" in the movie to our current days and lives.

Prometheus was the titan that gave fire to the mortals, what also can be understood as the secret knowledge. The myth is related also to bible since, fire and the forbidden fruit symbolize knowledge that human kind should not have and divorced men from god.

That is esoteric and occult doctrines. Concepts known by everyone, and felt in the everyday, but not immediately recognized.

It's not the use of mythology that makes the difference, but the ability to use mythology to tweak with the subconscious creating recognizable concepts and images in the movies. The ability to make them believable.

Just, as example, I'll use the Vikings TV Series and Clash of Titans. Both are mythological and historical but they can't achieve the same effect because they stay in the mythological real and can't connect to our modern day reality. On the other hand, in a somewhat different perspective and degree, A Knight's Tale reaches that mythology that connects to us.

  • What is "esotericism"? I've never heard the term. I know what "esoteric" means, and I can't connect it to your word. Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 0:12
  • Esotericism is the esoteric practices, at least according to the webster. Basically, it's the using of various ways of thinking in a mix. Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 6:53
  • I think we're talking past each other. "Esoteric" means "bizarre, out there, uncommon, not well-known." Jut because one is "using of various ways of thinking in a mix" does not mean any of those various ways are uncommon. So I still don't understand what you mean by "esotericism" in this context. Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 10:15
  • Uhn... Not sure I agree but since I'm not a native English speaker, I can follow your lead and change to exotericism if you think it's worth. In fact I'm talking about New Age beliefs, quite common nowadays. Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 10:34
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    Okey. I changed the text Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 12:30

The other answers are good, but there's a whole dimension that hasn't been addressed (except by @FBRogers who got his darn post in before I had a chance to write this ;) ).

Myths were (and, to a large extent, still are) mankind's way of coming to terms with the nature of reality - especially the parts that deal with emotions, our inner nature, and things that aren't always amenable to the rational mind. Without going all C.G. Jung on you, archetypes and myths resonate deeply and powerfully with us on many levels. They are usually what gives a story juice. It's what the readers or watchers identify with - often unconsciously. It's almost impossible to write anything good without them.

So, the myths and archetypes will (almost) always be there. The only issue is whether making the connections explicit makes a difference. In some cases this is a genre thing with comics (graphic novels, to be politically correct) about demigods and superheros.

In other cases, maybe the target audience can be assumed to be lacking in a classical education (getting more rare by the day, from what I hear about the current state of education) and may need a push in the intended direction so as to have a clue as to what the story is really about.

Barring these (and undoubtedly, more legitimate uses I haven't thought of), such references may just be blatant grabs for association with memes that sell. That's where to draw the line. Don't use them to disingenuously trick your reader or to insult their intelligence.

But, don't be afraid to use them appropriately. Joseph Campbell (the demigod of mythology and archetypes) did a lot of consulting for George Lucas when he was developing Star Wars and (without knowing any of the specifics) I'm sure that made a very positive contribution to the work (at least to the first three movies, Episodes 4, 5, and 6 ;( ).

As for critics, they can point out how well (or poorly) a myth/archetype was employed. I know I don't always analyse everything I see/read and sometimes having things like this pointed out to me is very helpful.

As an aside, I remember seeing Zabriskey Point (an unremarkable movie) in an art theater (back when that didn't mean x rated). At the end as we were getting up to go, someone in the theater called out, "Boy meets girl in dessert." and got everybody in the theater laughing. That pretty much summarized the whole movie.

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