Hero's Journey
Forget Horse Girls, Embrace the Mythology Freak

We live in a world ruled by the compulsion to taxonomize oneself. Are you a Virgo or a Leo? An introvert or extrovert? Type A or type B? A gifted kid or a... non-gifted one? But there is one classification that I feel has not received its fair share of attention in the rush to publicly identify as different “types”: the people who were obsessed with myths, legends, and other kinds of traditional lore as children and young adults.

Whether you know this type as “myth kid” or “lore freak” or “that girl who is way too into Anubis,” some likeness probably pops into your head when you think of this kind of person. Maybe they were the sort of 11-year-old who was always reading fantasy books, or who kept making ancient Egyptian evil eyes out of pipe cleaners in art class, or who watched too much Xena: Warrior Princess alongside their parents as a child. They studied classics in college, or perhaps they majored in comparative literature. They love talking about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, despite never having gotten around to finishing The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Probably one of their favorite contemporary novels is Circe by Madeline Miller. Now they write copy or press releases or little news blogs for a living but would love to throw everything away and work on a book someday. That’s right, I more or less just described myself.

But how much of this type as I imagine it actually exists, outside the boundaries of my own self-image and the caricatures sketched by strangers on the internet? What traits do we share? Were we captivated by the same heroes and deities? During our most impressionable years, what were we searching for in those primordial stories of creation and transformation and the preternatural?

In order to find out more, I made a survey on Google Forms and posted it on Twitter, where I know many myth kids hang out. I received 34 responses, of which only 33 were pertinent (the 34th was from someone claiming to be a 63-year-old man from Indiana who “never really got into that stuff to be honest” but wished me good luck). I processed the data and came up with these salient takeaways based on the extremely statistically significant sample size:

  • Among the relevant responders, they share a median age of 28, and they first became interested in myths and lore and the like at the age of 8, on average.
  • Most are from the U.S.
  • The “gateway” lore for the vast majority was Greek mythology; five mentioned ancient Egyptian, two Arthurian, two Roman, one Hindu, one First Nation.
  • From there, they tended to move on to other lineages of lore: Norse, Mayan, Aztec, Mesopotamian, Japanese, Chinese, Celtic, Welsh, Slavic, etc.
  • Several cited D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Rick Riordan’s novels.
  • For some, a passion for lore persists to this day; for others, the interest faded past childhood.

But numbers could only tell me so much; I needed to learn more about these kindred spirits and the ties that may or may not arbitrarily bind us. I spoke to a handful of the survey respondents in more depth, posing to them the question: Is there such a thing as a “myth kid” or “lore head,” and if so, what defines this figure?

Perhaps the baseline of the type is bookish, but not all bookish kids are myth kids. Just the ones who were into Lord of the Rings and young-adult novels “about girl knights and stuff like that,” according to magazine staffer Nawal Arjini, 26.

Or the kind of person who is drawn to fandom culture, posited college student Sophia Lo, 21, who loved Greek and Roman myths in part because of their ties to the Percy Jackson series, which has spawned a sprawling online fandom full of fanfiction, fan art, roleplaying, and TikToks about which deity would have been your parent. “It was really cool to be able to take part in a fantasy world that a lot of other people were also engaged in and excited about,” she said. (Lo said she has mostly moved on from Percy Jackson by now; her current fandom of choice is Marvel, with a favorite character being, fittingly, Loki.)

Or very gay, suggested Nick Augustine, 26, who works in public relations. The fact that “Greek stories are super gay” meant a lot to him growing up, as he figured out his own identity and sexuality. He joked, “I think the myth kids and the lore kids all ended up queer and working in media.”

Or perhaps neurodivergent? “I’m ADHD, and I feel like that’s the kind of thing that is really easy to hyperfocus on and get lost in — that sort of escapist world,” said writer Jennifer Barton, 39. “It’s an endless obsession: you can keep unraveling more and more layers, no matter which sort of folklore you’re diving into. There’s something about it that is able to capture my constantly moving, chaotic mind.”

But perhaps my attempt to parcel lovers of lore into one established “type” based on a few characteristics is a doomed exercise. “You love those stories, I love those stories, so we would like to say that to love those stories when you were a child is a marker of being sensitive and creative,” said Carolyne Larrington, a professor of medieval European literature at the University of Oxford’s St John’s College. But she wasn’t quite convinced that there is just one specific type of person who is enthusiastic about myths, legends, and the like (what she refers to, helpfully, as “traditional tales”). “They come in all shapes and sizes,” she said.

The more interesting questions might be: What draws young people to traditional tales? What do they get out of peering towards a mythic, fantastical past?

Escape, I guess? I spent nearly the entirety of my childhood in the suburbs, where it felt like nothing ever happened. A placidity permeated the miles of cookie-cutter houses, trimmed lawns, and unwalkable roads around me. Wishing myself a princess — or a time traveler, a witch, a ninja — I led my friends in games of pretend and disappeared into stories of intrigue and enchantment, always reading, always imagining, always dreaming of a different life than the one that I had. I would trace the contours of an alternate reality in my mind and envision where I could fit in, the new roles and selves I could inhabit.

“There’s something about that age when these new lands open to you,” Larrington concurred. The appeal is in the drama of those unknown realms, so wholly unlike the mundanities of the reality in which we actually live.

But even as those new worlds might not be familiar, their inhabitants’ behavior and outcomes are, said Larrington: “You know what you’re getting with a prince or a peasant, or with Thor or Heracles. You have an idea of how they’re going to behave … You have a kind of reassurance of knowing how the story is going to go.” Children are comforted watching those mythic patterns play out, secure in the knowledge that whatever twists and turns that arise along the way will be resolved by the end of the tale. For more mature readers, there is intrigue in seeing how those patterns can, on occasion, be derailed, or, as in many modern retellings, complicated or subverted.

Nevertheless, although Larrington hesitated to buy into my “type” theory, she did contribute a possible trait for fans of traditional tales: “I think it may be the kind of person who is necessarily particularly spiritual, but who is really interested in expanding imaginative possibilities and thinking symbolically, as well.” Take, for example, a story about a hero who comes across a hungry hedgehog and has to decide whether or not to share his last piece of bread with the creature. As a reader, Larrington said, it’s obvious that, if you help the hedgehog, you will receive its help in return later on. The message to take away from a tale like this — without it having to be spelled out by some kind of moralistic preacher at the end — is not just that one should be kind to hedgehogs (basic, literal, obvious), but that being open and friendly can be its own reward (based, deeper, allegorical).

It’s those elements of metaphor, symbolism, and thematic resonance that keep lore heads like set designer and classics-inspired pin purveyor Julia Carusillo (who, disclaimer, is the sister of my colleague Claire) gravitating toward traditional tales, even now. “They can be done so poetically,” said Carusillo, 33, reminiscing about the “tender time” in her young adulthood when she felt her world open up with Virgil’s Aeneid and its themes of family, honor, duty, and virtue.

Others speculate that what drew them to tales of divine beings and enchantment are the inherent threads of power and metamorphosis — “gods and things that can change at the snap of your fingers,” in Arjini’s words — that are so out of reach beyond the pages of a story.

“There’s that central theme of transformation: transformation as escapism, or transformation as different facets of personalities,” said Barton, pointing to examples like Charybdis and Scylla in Greek mythology, or Baba Yaga in Russian and Slavic folklore. There could be a type of person who is attracted to that transformative power, she suggested: people who long to shed their skin and slip into a new identity, or outsiders on the periphery who wish they could turn into something awesome or terrifying.

In a way, isn’t that what pubescent angst is all about? Undergoing immense amounts of change, longing for the steady comfort of childhood while simultaneously peering out into the fog of the unknown — trembling with fear and excitement, both suspicious and hopeful about which self emerges on the other side?

But often there is no existence-altering transformation, no magical shifting of skin and bone, spirit and soul; you discover that it’s merely yourself staring back at you from the fold. To go from a lore child to a lore adult is a crushing, drawn-out process of realizing the mundanity of most existences. But still, I’d rather remain a huge fucking nerd about this than to completely lose any taste for the fantastical. There are moments yet — in the pages of a book, in the dark of a cinema, in the cicada-thronged stillness of ruins at dusk — when the spark of myth and legend reignites and I feel like a child searching for heroes and gods again. Small comfort, but enough to help make the rest of the life we’re stuck with worth living.