Using Mythology to Improve Your Writing

 

by Doug Lewars

Mythology is a goldmine for authors–particularly those who write fantasy–although some of the plots within the myths can be adapted to other genres as well. Myths are a feature of every culture and they’re generally used to explain natural phenomena or the establishment of cultural norms. They are deemed to be of sufficient importance that courses on the subject are offered at the university level.

For example, a quick search of the University of Toronto website for ‘course on mythology’ yielded three unique results. Covered topics relate to Greek and Roman mythology, Egyptian mythology and a general introductory course.  Of course there are quite a few additional courses listed in the Classical Studies program; however, I noted three having ‘mythology’ in the title.

The go-to reference material for Greek and Roman mythology is Ovid’s Metamorphoses which you probably don’t want to read, Sir James George Frazer’s, The Golden Bough which you might – although it is in twelve volumes so you might prefer one of the one-volume abridgements-and Thomas Bullfinch’s, Bullfinch’s Mythology which was aimed at a general reader and is quite accessible. There is also Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.

In addition to Greek and Roman Mythology there are Norse, Indian, Chinese, African and North American Indigenous myths and others. Japan has a particularly rich mythological heritage so clearly there is no dearth of material on which to draw. In addition, some Japanese writers have combined mythology from a number of cultures. For example, I remember one anime that made use of both Norse and Greek mythological characters that were woven into a modern tale.

Some mythologies spread and morph over time. Both Norse and North American Indigenous cultures contain a trickster god–Loki in Norse mythology and Raven or Coyote in North America. A quick search of Wikipedia displayed 49 different cultures having a trickster of some sort. This might be of some interest to the writer who can see how the basic idea has morphed over time in some unusual ways.

For example, the trickster concept moved from classic myth to folk-tale with the creation of Brer Rabbit and from there to the modern cartoon in the form of Bugs Bunny. The latter is interesting because it is so accessible. Warner Brothers cartoons are all over the internet and may be studied at will.

One of the more common tropes is the innocent individual (little guy) being imposed upon by the state and turning the tables on his tormentor. In the case of the WB cartoons, Bugs, wanting merely to do as rabbits are wont to do and eat a few carrots, is pursued by Elmer Fudd determined to put an end, not only to carrot filching but to Bugs’s life and from there to dine upon the rabbit.

The symbolism is pretty obvious and the jokes fairly simple but the basic idea of adopting the trickster god to modern sociological issues is interesting because it suggests that while the trickster god may be the most flexible and, by extension, easiest for the writer to work with, there are plenty of other deities whose archetypes may provide some useful guidelines for the modern author.

For example, consider Hermes. Now he is a messenger god and in these days of mass computer communications might be treated as a god of the internet. He is also a bit of a trickster god himself although he usually plays his tricks on other gods. So what do we have? Here we have a god focused on rapid communications at a time when the internet is under threat from both political and economic forces.

Does that offer a suggestion as to how mythology might be adapted into a modern context? The possibilities for combining classic mythology, modern technology and contemporary urban fantasy seem endless.

 

 

 

Alternately titled Lost in the Myths.

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on Smashwords.com.

 

 

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25 thoughts on “Using Mythology to Improve Your Writing”

  1. Reblogged this on The Kingdom of the Woodland Realm Trilogy and commented:
    Truer words were never written, I dare say. It wasn’t until I started a “high fantasy “ story did I get a second wind on my writing. My first book (which is a trilogy, but one is done) not only did I get over my fear of writing narrative, I have readers that can tell me about my book and characters and what they like or have questions. It’s like I created my own little slice of Hogwarts complete with countdowns to the next installment. Mythology/ Sci-Fi is liberating. 😌b

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  2. I love comparing mythical archetypes. I think it’s fascinating how certain patterns keep emerging in independent cultures. I think understanding those universal patterns is an invaluable tool for any writer.

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  3. This is a very interesting and helpful post
    I finally forged my own fantasy work into something readable (long story in the getting there) having let my brain absorb as much mythology and science as it could take, then let the words flow.
    So many folk lores, myths and religions have cross over accounts it does make one think . At least one native American tribe has a Flood tale.
    This has to be reblogged.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this post. I use myth a lot in my writing because of the common stories we’ve all heard, and as you say, the adaptability to modern times. The stories stay fresh, but they’re also comfortable, like your favorite blanket. Surprised not to see Joseph Campbell on this list. Have a good day!🤗

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  5. Edith Hamilton’s book on Greek myths is a must. I also highly recommend “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell. It’s a good compact and concise book, showing how mythology around the world is similar, following a formula. In fact, the original Star Wars movies were very inspired by Campbell’s book. Tolkien himself was inspired by the Norse myths. Lloyd Alexander was inspired more by the Celtic and Welsh myths. One can also find Japanese myths, as well as western myths for that matter, being used in anime and manga. The Japanese seem to love myths. Also, I would recommend reading Slavic myths if you want nightmare fuel. Not only is that the huge mythology for vampires, but Disney’s Fantasia had Chernabog as a villain, a god of darkness from Slavic mythology during Mussorgsky’s sequence Night on Bald Mountain.

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