[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week on The SF Signal Mind Meld, the Melders got mythical:
Here’s what they said:
Because they’re the original stories.
Right? We’re going to take as accepted the idea that stories have the power to change the world. That stories are how we communicate and share ideas – in that sense, storytelling is a powerful memetics delivery system by which we push enlightenment (and increasingly, entertainment) onto one another.
The original stories were the stories of us trying to explain our world. It’s mythology to us, now, but to the people telling those stories, the tales delivered a kind of enlightenment (and I’m sure given some of the hilariously sordid melodrama of mythology, they were also entertainment). Mythology explained everything from why the sun rose and fell to why mankind did all the curious and seemingly inexplicable things that it did.
All we’re really trying to do as storytellers is explain ourselves and say things about the world. (This is, of course, an expression of the literary theme – the theme being the argument we’re trying to make with our narrative.) That’s what connects us to the myths of the past and more importantly, the myth-tellers. It’s no surprise then that sometimes our fiction – say, Gaiman’s American Gods – re-explores those ideas and those characters in fresh, fascinating ways.
Though it’s also no surprise that we seek to make our own mythologies, either — mythologies either cobbled together from what has already come (repurposing the myths and divinities of the past is by no means unique to this age!) or pulled fresh out of the ether. Though there you’ll find a troubling idea – future humans digging up a copy of our fantasy fiction (the best or the worst of it) and thinking, This must be the mythology of the 21st century barbarians. A religion based on Tolkien or Rowling? Or a religion based on Twilight? Hmm…
I’ve always enjoyed mythology and all of the stories about all of the gods, goddesses, warriors, and creatures battling each other and going on these epic quests and adventures. My Mythos Academy young adult urban fantasy series features a lot of Greek and Norse mythology, including figures like Nike and Loki. For me, one of the most appealing things about writing a mythology series has been taking some of the gods, goddesses, warriors, and creatures, putting my own spin on them, and using them to tell the stories that I want to tell.
Many folks are familiar with Greek, Norse, and other mythologies; the universal ideals that the gods and goddesses represent (like wisdom, love, etc.); and the adventures that they’ve had. I think that writing about mythological figures can provide a sort of framework for readers and writers. Readers can go into a story knowing that it will probably feature gods, goddesses, and more. But then, it’s up to the individual writer to take that mythology, along with all of that knowledge and all of those expectations, to create something new and hopefully entertaining, interesting, and appealing to readers all at the same time. So I think it’s a fun challenge to try to balance all of that.
For thousands of years, creative storytelling existed in the form of myths and legends. We’re hardwired to be fascinated by beings vastly more powerful than ourselves, so it’s only natural that they have now become (and will likely forever remain) fixtures in genre books. In fact, “God” is one of the most common nouns in science fiction story and novel titles, according to SF Encyclopedia.
There’s also the added benefit of familiarity — introducing Neptune or Odin as characters comes bundled with a certain set of expectations. The author can choose to live up to those expectations, or delight the reader by breaking the tropes in interesting and creative ways.
Pagan deities are popular in SF/F to be sure, but the source material genre writers love coming back to again and again is the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whether or not you are a religious person, the Bible provides a nearly limitless volume of ideas and story lines that inspire books, movies, and short fiction. The number of end-of-times tales inspired by the Book of Revelation alone is likely greater than the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. And yet I never get tired of such stories — as a reader and as a writer both.
When writers borrow from the legends and lore of old, they stand on the shoulders of giants. Generations of storytellers perfected the epic plots and characters upon which much of the modern storytelling relies. But the tropes they created aren’t static. An image of an elf in popular culture today is inspired by Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, and is very different from the one found in Germanic mythology. As writers we aspire to shape and change myths and legends, to reinterpret them for the modern psyche. Which happens to be a great deal of fun.
It started for me with comic books. I learned about the concept of gods and goddesses from Jack Kirby and the New Gods in DC Comics. I can say for almost certain I knew far more about the New Gods than I did about anything related to traditional mythologies until at least college. And then I figured out that the Norse Gods were almost exactly as interesting, and that largely happened because of Thor. It was comics that have used the God/Goddess concept the most interestingly. The evolution of superheroes in general takes a lot from Greek/Roman/Norse mythology. Looking at things like The New Gods or Thor or even DC’s Hercules, you can discover how flexible and entertaining these kids of characters can be. Those are where I came across mythology for the first time and where I began to understand the draw of such.
I really think the reason that they are still present in so many novels, films, and comics is that they’re both an excellent short-hand and an area where writers can play with known entities and wrinkle the brains of the readers. I loved Oh My Goddess! and to this day it’s one of the very few Manga series I can at all tolerate, because I loved the way they played with the ideas and the way that the gods play with one another in an impressive sort of world. This is EXACTLY what using a recognizable mythology can give you. if I ever see a character named Loki, I know what I’m in for, and that shorthand is so very useful for drawing me in, which can be a tough thing.
When a gifted writer takes hold of established mythological concepts, whether in books or films or television, it gives a great depth that they can build on. I mean, in their original form, the gods were sexy and hilarious. Give that sort of thing to Neil Gaiman or Diana Wynne Jones or David Drake and they’ll take the concepts and play with them in exciting, and sometimes beautifully silly, ways. In my dreams, I’d love to see Gail Carriger play with Zeus, or Ian McDonald play with the ideas of Odin and such in a near-future setting. The possibilities are extra-shiny!
Still, to this day, it’s the gods and goddesses playing on the pages of comics that move me the most. It’s a realm that is open and fun, and the way that we’ve seen the various companies treat their deities has made me more and more interested in seeing their stories play out. I love that so many of the superpowers in comics map very precisely to the powers of various gods and goddesses, and how so often they play at stories that feel so similar to the ones we can read about in those thick books of mythology I never bothered to read as a kid. Heroes, and villains, no matter what setting they’re put in, are always gonna draw, and that only helps writers who work with the ones of old.
What I find appealing about both religion and mythology is the interface that it provides for mystery. There are things that we simply don’t understand, and never will, and mythology is this kind of evolved mechanism that we’ve created to try to get traction on the ineffable. And it’s one of those cases where the tools that we create and how we deploy them say so much about their creators. When it comes to writing, especially genre writing, we have so many different windows that we can use to examine our created and imagined worlds. For me, the most evocative is religion and mythology. The gods that we evolve, the theologies that we construct and deploy to wrap around the mysterious world, that’s what I find interesting. That’s the window I love.
I initially thought to label mythology as humanity’s first stab at speculative fiction, but in the end, I thought it was kind of flippant. That would minimize the fact that, at one point, people focused genuine, religious belief around the figures handed down to us through time.
Speculative explorations and interpretations of reality, perhaps, would be a better, more respectful term for what ancient peoples were trying to do. For example, people long ago saw lightning and heard thunder, and drew upon their knowledge of the universe to interpret what was going on. Given the lack of said knowledge, they could only extrapolate based on what they knew.
Thus the sound of a hammer, perhaps the mightiest hammer ever conceived of, was a possible explanation for the thunder. And there was such power in the lightning – power to set fire, destroy entire forests, strike a man dead in less than a second! Surely, this power came from something – or someone – truly wondrous.
Such speculation grew into the gods and monsters we know so well, and legends were created featuring them to explain how the universe worked…and how it might end. Can there be any doubt that these ancient myths and legends, gods and monsters – while very real to people of the time – are the spiritual ancestors of today’s genre fiction?
Among many other things, SF/F is about extrapolating and speculating about the nature of the humanity and its place in the universe. It’s about creating answers for what might be, rather than what we know to be true. And it explores how we as people might react. Mythologies did pretty much the same thing when they were created.
In modern fiction, we’re comfortable with using mythological beings in our works. They remain very primal representations of the world, and without getting too Jungian (as I’m woefully unqualified), there’s certainly a connection between our natures and those attributed to the gods. We know who these gods and monsters are, and what they represent, even if those representations now come from The Avengers rather than the Eddas. Knowing them as we do, we as writers can use or subvert them as we please, and the readers know where we’re coming from.
The same goes for the legends, which were designed in part to show how the world worked. That’s kind of what we do as genre writers – explore how worlds could work. Again, how could we not avail ourselves? Even when we’re not adapting mythologies wholesale, we’ve become quite good at creating stories with a mythical framework, suffusing them with the ideas and lessons of old. Yes, I’m looking at you, Joseph Campbell.
Finally, let’s face it…mythology is cool, and it’s fun to use. We can exploit myths’ connections to our common culture to create new stories that resonate deeply with readers. We can give our writing its own sense of legendary and myth.
We can play with the gods.
And all of it is public domain, so that helps, too.
I’ve been reading Norse Mythology almost as long as I’ve been reading, although I did stumble upon the Greek Myths first (the names were more familiar to me then–thank you Mighty Hercules cartoon!). But after I devoured D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths I went back to the library for D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and never really looked back. The Norse gods seemed more real–more human–to me even then. Not only could they die, but most of them knew when, where and how it was going to happen. The inevitability of Ragnarök fascinated me, even from a young age. And as someone who played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, the Norse gods had the best magic items!
I also grew up reading comic books and I think mythology was helped in staying evergreen by its wholesale adoption in that media. DC’s Wonder Woman and Marvel’s Mighty Thor brought the characters and themes of Greek and Norse mythology into the present. Thor has faced Ragnarök several times since he first appeared in Journey into Mystery, which was one of the reasons I decided to set Thunder Road after The Fate of the Gods, because I found what the Thor writers did when they ended the myth cycle to be fresh and new—stories for which I didn’t know the ending. I chose to keep Loki alive in my work because of this. And let’s face facts, if anyone was going to escape their doom, it would be him.
Mythology was our ancestors’ way of trying to explain what they couldn’t understand and I don’t think it will ever stop being relevant. We’ll always be able to see something of ourselves in these stories from the past. If that wasn’t the case, the myths would have faded with their original tellers. Mythology allows writers to explore deep philosophical issues or the nature of humanity side by side with big, bold ideas and an action-packed read. That’s what genre fiction does best.
By bringing the myths out of their own time and into ours, we can keep renewing the tales, and adding new layers to them. Whether as a writer you pull an entire pantheon into your work or pick and choose between folklores, I don’t think we’d have fantasy fiction without our myths. Certainly not in any way we’d recognize. Even if your work isn’t about the gods and goddesses, dragons, giants, demons, shapeshifters, and faeries all come from these old stories and fill up new ones.
Well, since my second novel is titled The Woken Gods, out later this year, and is about just that, I have thought a great deal about what appeals to me in stories about the mythic (and what doesn’t). There were two big things that inspired The Woken Gods: my love for Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World and my desire for more stories where gods were threatening or dangerous. I wanted to explore a more ambiguous morality, with gods that were not anything like oversized humans. I also have a real soft spot for stories that feature more than one pantheon; though, having undertaken one, I now understand why it’s more usual to see people pick Greek or Norse or Egyptian and stick with it. It is hard to juggle a lot of gods–probably literally as well as figuratively, but definitely literally.
As to the allure of bringing mythology into genre fiction, for me there are three main things going on. One, these are stories and characters that bring an innate resonance with them–not exactly the same as, but definitely akin to, that of fairy tales. They are often filled with archetypes, and exploring how the world works. And just like original fairy tales, if you go back to early sources, you’ll find that justice and fairness is only sometimes in evidence. That lends them a dangerous edge that is very appealing in a story. It feels like a walk on the wilder side…of human nature. Which is the second thing that make them so powerful for me. Often, there is nothing better to explore what it means to be human in that (or this) world than a story that pits humans against the divine. Our own limitations are set in harsh relief, as is our capacity to overcome them. These are stories as much about humanity as divinity, in all its problematic glory. One of the reasons I loved Greek mythology as a kid is that no one thought twice about giving me the unedited versions, which included plenty of firmly adult issues (adultery by swan, anyone?). Mythology doesn’t talk down, it just is, making it a great fit for children’s literature and YA, where the audience has no interest in being coddled. And three, because I don’t want to go on and on: Mythology is just cool. This is why I love reading how writers incorporate and reinvent and riff on myth now. Gods and mythology are fascinating, because they feel both apart from us and an inextricable part of our history as people. There is little else that’s filled with as many oddity-laced rabbit holes as my encyclopedia of ancient deities. I was obsessed with Edith Hamilton as a kid, and not much has changed, really. Tell me a character has a bird or a jackal head or that someone pissed off someone’s divine father or mother and has to navigate a curse and I am in.
I think this is a fascinating question, but one that is really very easy to answer: human history is intimately woven with legend and mythology. In fact, this goes right back to the very essence of what storytelling actually is – ways of explaining how the world works, ways of explaining how we work. Archetypes are exactly that – the components of storytelling in their purest, perhaps almost mathematical, form, from which everything else springs. Human history is mythmaking. It’s what we do the best.
That’s the bones of it. Gods and goddesses, and their less pleasant opposites, are deeply ingrained, so even though it’s a couple of thousand years since, say, Osiris was worshiped by the Ancient Egyptians, we still recognize what he represents and the kind of power he wields. Only now we get a little extra thrill when he shows up in a spaceship as a member of a powerful alien race who once assisted mankind. In fact, gods and goddesses as ancient astronauts is a popular trope – hello, Doctor Who, Stargate SG-1, and no doubt dozens of other TV shows, films, novels, stories, etc.
Personally, I think interpretation of ancient stories in a modern context can be a heck of a lot of fun. Thor is one of my favourite comic book characters, and it turns out that the old Norse gods are (once again) powerful aliens. That old Arthur C. Clarke quote about magic and technology is never more appropriate then when talking about old gods and science fiction. Superheroes as a whole can be seen as a modern incarnations of characters that are as old as humanity itself.
Taking old gods and trying to get them to fit into our modern world is a subgenre of fiction almost of its own – American Gods by Neil Gaiman is an interesting example, mainly because of the way it deals with the power of belief (I don’t want to spoil anything here). The Knights of Breton Court trilogy by Maurice Broaddus takes the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table and recasts them in the context of modern-day gang crime in Indianapolis, with remarkable results.
Myths, and legends, and gods and goddess and monsters are all just part of our storytelling toolbox. As are heroes and heroines, villains, love and war; the basic building blocks of plot and character. Despite being hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years old, characters from myth still feel fresh to us now because there are unlimited possibilities for how they can be used in modern storytelling, and this itself is part of the appeal – how will a writer use them? How will a writer shape and redefine their character? The interpretation is as interesting as the story itself, which is for me why they still work so well now.
Some of the appeal of Greco-Roman and Norse mythology is that we (Americans) usually learn them quite thoroughly in school. We might have a section on Anansi and Coyote, but I had to seek out other culture’s myths on my own. If I draw a woman with snakes for hair, or just write the word Medusa, half my work is done for me. I’ve activated the story tucked away in your brain that you learned in middle school of a hero turning her own gaze against her. I don’t have to explain why the snakes or even mention the turning-to-stone thing. You do that for me, and so I can move on to the new part of the story, the part that’s mine. The dressmaker’s dummy is all set up for me to drape it in fancy new clothes, without having to stop and construct the framework from scratch.
It has its downsides too. Elf. Did you just picture a beautiful blonde with a bow? Or a red and green clad munchkin with pointed shoes working under an obese taskmaster (please tell me you didn’t). But what if I meant a small, wrinkled creature that lives to help around the house? Or maybe I meant the Icelandic version, and then is it the light or dark elves? The unwashed children of Eve or fallen angels or just those that lived here before humans?
These are powerful touchstones for artists to tap into. They help us tell our stories, but sometimes we take advantage of this shorthand and don’t push ourselves, as writers and consumers, to look deeper. Gods and goddesses are shorthand, code for broader concerns like the corruption of power and love writ large. They are the original characters. The heroes have power, or when they’re subject to destiny, at least it’s cooler than our lives. They battle for the fate of the world. I try to remember to clean the cat’s litterbox.
Long answer: Gods are intriguing for the same reason we are enamored by Highlanders, Princes of Amber, and superheroes. (In Marvel, some gods are superheroes. The best of both!) They are the ultimate, larger-than-life, archetypical figures who stand out in bright contrast to our ordinary lives. They bring a sense of something greater than ourselves. Or, perhaps, they bring a sense of that greater part of ourselves that we all secretly know exists but which is not yet visible to those around us.
(After all, who among us, when reading stories of gods and heroes assumes that we, the reader, are the powerless mortals?)
The gods have a number of appeals to both writers and readers. The first is that they come from the shared culture. We all have them in common. Anyone can go read the old myths and learn about them for themselves. This means that the author does not need to spend a great deal of time setting up how impressive the characters are. They merely need to evoke the names of the gods and thousands of years of shared storytelling will do the work for them.
This is not to say that gods cannot be written badly. Or that the author does not need to properly convey the scope of the gods power and majesty within their particular work. But a great deal of the work is already done. All the author has to do is invoke it properly.
How easy this is to accomplish depends in part on which god one chooses to invoke. Some mythologies have been preserved better than others. We have full stories about the Greek and Norse gods. With many of the others, we merely have a summery of the main points, a kind of a Cliff Notes of what the people who worshipped them might have believed. The Japanese gods, for instance, only seem to have one or two stories recorded about them. (But that does not stop those few stories from showing up in Japanese anime over and over and over.)
Both types have advantages. The advantage of the Greek and Norse gods is that they were better drawn, more colorful. The reader is more likely to recognize them quickly. But, they are also more likely to be annoyed if the author travels too far from the accepted version.
The advantage of the Egyptian or Celtic gods or other groups less is preserved is that the author has more room to create their own version. If an author has a new take on The Morrigan or Epona or the African god, Chameleon, no one is going to be offended because this new version violates some established idea about the character.
Another part of the appeal of gods is that each one stands for something: strength, reason, cleverness, earth, fire. This means that each author can offer their own twist on the subject, fitting them into their particular background, or perhaps into our modern world. When it is done well, it brings a great deal of charm to the story.
Thus when Rick Riordan has Poseidon wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Hermes in a track suit talking on his cell phone, we are instantly amused by his modern take on the sea god and the swift god of communication.
Gods can be misused. Each author does have to bring to their story a sense of the wonder and majesty of gods. When they do not do this, the gods end up seeming tawdry or, worse, dull. It is a bit like trading on a famous name and then delivering a bad product. But when it is done well, it lights up the story and brings a sense of depth and glory that is hard to get elsewhere.
I think this is a great deal of we are looking for when we add gods to our stories and when, as readers, we seek stories that include these ancient, archetypical figures.
Myths of all kinds bring a storytelling template to fiction, not unlike the chord changes of a jazz standard over which a musician improvises. Within that structure, a skilled artist (musician, writer, whatever) has a nigh-infinite amount of ways to tell whatever story she cares to tell. She can improvise along the myth’s melody (read: major themes) or along tonal areas (read: story arc), or just focus on key chord changes (read: story beats) in certain sections to retell the myth in a new way, or co-opt it entirely the way Charlie Parker turned Hamilton’s and Lewis’s “How High the Moon” into “Ornithology” or how countless other jazz composers transformed George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” into their own contributions to the jazz repertoire.
In this context, the appeal and power of myths stems from how they’ve become such a versatile part of the storytelling vernacular. The figures in these myths are utilized the same way; it’s just another layer of myth from which a writer can operate. Thus, the storied lives of beings who eat their children, walk on water, perform “A Dozen Tough Jobs” (apologies to Mr. Waldrop), who created the earth from corpses or with a Word can themselves be used as themes to be explored or deconstructed, or riffs to be quoted, paraphrased, dissected, or mashed up in ways limited only by the writer’s imagination and skill.
Ever read a romance novel? Even if you haven’t you’ve probably heard the cliché, “He was built like a Greek god.” [i] The appeal of throwing a mythological figure into the romantic mix just might be the ability to use that phrase and keep a straight face.
A little over a decade ago I began devouring paranormal romances. I wanted to read something fresh and different in the genre.[ii] Every romance—or at least one an author doesn’t want a reader to throw against that dreaded wall—has to end with a romantic happily ever after. Perhaps because romance readers have stringent expectations for how romance novels play out, popular authors are especially skilled in making old stories new again. And what better weave from which to pull your threads than mythology’s rich tapestry?
Sherrilyn Kenyon was the first paranormal romance author whose work I read. She constructed her Dark Hunter series based on a modified Greek mythology and launched her career into the stratosphere.[iii] I’m not sure there are many romance readers who could resist her tag line, “Mad, Bad, and Immortal.” If romance heroes are supposed to be bigger than life (get your mind out of the gutter) then Kenyon broke the mold.
P.C. Cast, too, was a ground-breaker in using Greek mythology as the backdrop for romance. Her Goddess Summoning series takes one ordinary mortal (usually the heroine) and drops her into a world populated with Greek gods and goddesses where she must solve the external plot. Before reading Cast, I’d seen other authors retell fairy tales (think The Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley) to great effect, but Cast is the first I’d seen pair a modern day lover with a mythological hero.[iv]
One of the more recent additions to the mythology party is Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series. Her angels are not gods, nor do they behave in the Christian angelic tradition, but they are treated as deities in the Olympian style. Petty competitions and power struggles among Singh’s Cadre of Seven inform the basis for most of Singh’s plots in the series. In effect, Singh blends the biblical power of archangels with a cross-cultural pantheon to create an entirely new mythology.[v]
Romance readers are, as a group, diverse, intelligent, and well-read. I’m not sure we’re the bravest creatures in the world (see aforementioned happy ending requirement), but unlike Hobbits we do enjoy going on an adventure.[vi] Like Hobbits, however, we prefer that adventure occur somewhere in the vicinity of a well-stocked pantry. Novels, romance novels in particular, seem therefore our safest bet. You can throw a god or goddess my way any day. Just make sure the thunderbolt stays on the page.
- [i] I might’ve used it myself once or twice, but please don’t tell.
- [ii] It wasn’t all about the sex because I think the same positions have been around since before Cronos’ time. Since we’re on the topic though, I would have to imagine Hades delivers on the missionary position in a way a rancher or New York tycoon could never dream.
- [iii] Ms. Kenyon was not reachable at the time of this blog’s publication. She now writes from one of the outer rings of Saturn, where Verizon has amazingly not yet constructed a cell tower.
- [iv] In the 1980s time travel novels such as Jude Devereaux’s A Knight in Shining Armor often paired a character from the past with a modern day heroine. I personally wouldn’t have wanted to live without DVR or Tampax and prefer the stories such as this one where the hero at least gives me fair warning I’m about to be whisked away from modern conveniences.
- [v] Archangel Raphael trumps most Olympians. If you don’t believe me, read Singh’s Angels’ Blood. If you don’t read romance, you’ll probably prefer to stick with conventional hotties like Hades. For me the jury is still out on those two.
- [vi] Tolkien did not make The Lord of the Rings trilogy into a romance because, as my editor informs me, there can be no hairy feet, morning breath, or men under four feet (sorry Frodo) in a rosy world.
The enduring popularity of myth is explained by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. The stories we’ve told — those old tales coded into the fabric of our DNA — continue to serve as the templates into which we insert modern narrative. So any story, however removed from classic mythology, is an echo of the ancient stories, an act of pattern recognition. I don’t believe it’s the Norse Pantheon [though admittedly very cool] or the Greek God’s daily dramas which we want now, so much as iterations of those ideas. Archetypal father figures like Odin and Zeus populate our modern mythology in the form of Dumbledore, Darth Vader and Homer Simpson.
Every act of narrative creation is an act of re-creation. We’re pulling down the stick-figure bison and horses from the caves of Lascaux and setting them loose at 1080 DPI. We’re taking the struggle of Theseus and the minotaur and turning it into a session of Skyrim. The Avengers, complete with their dramatic masks, are stand ins for old Greek heroes. what is Iron Man but a modern Achilles with vanity and alcoholism instead of a weakened heel?
For my work personally, Campbell’s monomyth and Jung’s collective unconscious play a huge role. In my most recently completed novel, a trio of characters in a near future navigate a collective unconscious city accessed by lucid dreaming technology. They quite literally peel back the layers of human memory, descending through the strata of history in the form of Roman, Greek and Babylonian sewers. They meet archetypes trapped in our psyches since the birth of human thought. They are exploring that inner frontier of the larger human story, the Bayeux Tapestry of the collective unconscious. While there’s no doubt an infinite way to combine stories, I’m not convinced any truly new tales remain to be told.
Douglas Rushkoff recently suggested in his book Present Shock that narrative had finally been unwound. Our interminable now, Rushkoff argues, has obviated the idea of narrative as linear story. I disagree. No matter how we dice and splice the linear narrative, there is still that older code, deeper than any substrate of digital instantaneity we’ve overlaid atop it, which always reverts to type. We are programmed to see a beginning, middle and end in all things, and all our acts of artistic expression are in some way dilutions of archetypes.
One day, perhaps, we’ll have finally scrubbed clean the old cave walls and forgotten the stories told around primeval fires. The glowing iPad screens stand in for them now, dissociated from linear oder by the whim of touch, but no matter how far we venture into the sea of cyberspace the old patterns, like digital icebergs, emerge. We haven’t melted them yet. I wonder what we’ll look like when we do.
Mythology is part of a long conversation humans have been having with each other for centuries. We’ve been telling stories to each other about gods and their monsters as long as we’ve existed. Writing about these stories is a way of jumping into an already dynamic, on-going conversation about who we are as a species and how we relate to the universe. I like being able to take an idea that’s familiar to the world and twist it, manipulate it to reveal new sides of itself. Mythological figures, like fairy tales, bring all kinds of entertaining AND problematic baggage with them where ever they go, and finding an entertaining way to unpack the symbols and problems of our past and our universal human stories is one of the reasons I think genre fiction exists.
I was enchanted by myths and legends since I was a kid, and I’ve never really recovered. I loved them so much that I designed my own major (Creative Mythology) in undergrad so that I could study mythology and combine it with fiction writing.
If we think of science fiction and fantasy as genres that exist within a tension between the familiar and the strange (or cognition and estrangement ala SF scholar Darko Suvin), then mythological stories and creatures are familiar and strange at the same time. Mythology gives us creatures and stories already known to most, but not of our immediate world. Where some fantasies and science fictions seek to make entirely distinct worlds, with their own creatures, histories, etc., other F&SF brings the familiarly strange into our world, finding new ways to make it familiar, strange, or both at the same time.
By using creatures drawn from existing mythology, a writer gains instant access to big hunks of emotional resonance, as any time you put a Minotaur into a story, they get instant associations with the story of Theseus and a ton of narrative and thematic elements that come with it (child sacrifice, greed, the labyrinth, Ariadne’s thread, the hybridity of the minotaur, Minos’s shame, etc.). Sometimes, you want the resonance, and sometimes, you want the assumption so you can turn it on its head. Very similarly to using folk tales/fairy tales, incorporating mythology into your genre gives an extra arsenal of cultural references to play with, to update for a new generation (which Rick Riordan has done brilliantly with his books), challenge from a new positionality (what would the story of Beowulf be like from Grendel’s POV? – ala John Gardner) and more.
Myths and legends are the oldest bones of story we have, and they’ve survived because they were held with great reverence by civilizations whose influences endure millennia later, forming the basis of science, law, and cultural norms. And in an era of endless remakes and adaptations, if you’re going to use old bones, you can’t hope for many better sources than the myths and legends which form the cornerstones of contemporary cultures around the world.
One of the key factors I find with mythology is the deep understanding most readers have with the stories. As you study mythology you find that the same stories are told over and over, across cultures and times, with a few details and names changed, but the actual story remains intact. These myths appeal to us on a gut level, down in our crocodile brains. They are about the basic fears and joys we as humans all share at a core level.
Even the resurrection myth is propagated across nearly every culture, according to John Campbell’s writings. Isolated cultures in the south pacific tell tales of heroes who’s heads are cut off who were reborn. This is symbolized by the coconut falling from the trees in their geographical locale. We are all afraid of the unknown, the dark, death, love. We all dream and wish for someone to make our lot better, remove the doubt and assure us of a bright and wonderful future. Tales of monsters and gods, sneaky tricksters who teach the bad guys a lesson, or the divine mother who succors the weak make the dreary days of our day-to-day existence more palatable.
We need story to fill in the gaps, to explain the unknown and to entertain us as we slog through our lives.
And as a writer, what better fodder could we use for our tales? They have a built in recognition pattern that readers immediately align with, easing them into the fantastical world we create to entertain and perhaps educate. Mythology is a gateway drug, that which eases us into the next level of story. And I love it.
Instead I will answer what the appeal and power is to the fit audience, those for whom such works are meant. The audience, after all, is boss. They ultimately determine what gets sold and written.
At the risk of sounding heretical, I humbly suggest that certain literary forms and ideals are actually and objectively better than others, independent the individual skill of the artist portraying them, in the same way that certain scenes or faces are more beautiful for the landscape or portrait painter to portray. Were this not the case, we would not see artists of every age and every medium returning to the same archetypes again and again. A bad writer can still ruin good material, but here we are considering why the material in question is good.
The fitness of the material is only half the equation. The other half is the fitness of the audience. I submit the audience is fit when it has enough education to catch the references to these classical figures and tastes well trained enough to appreciate them.
An audience whose tastes have been stunted to admire only childish things, or coarsened to admire ugly things, or jaded by overexposure, will not react to even a skillful presentation of sublime material.
Again, an audience whose tastes are finely honed, but who simply are unfamiliar with the material, will not catch the nuances. A Western man is much more likely, for example, to catch the nuances of the portrayal of Ares or Thor than he is of Susan-no-O merely because he is more likely to have read the Iliad (or the latest issue of Avengers) than he is to have read the Kojiki.
The power of classical pagan gods and goddesses springs from three roots. The first is the timelessness of the figures. The second is their eternal youth. The third is their relevance both to the modern day, and to all parts of the culture they have influenced.
Unlike historical figures, pagan divinities have a meaning outside their particular time and place where they were worshiped. It is difficult to write a story about a Cowboy set outside the Old West (unless of course the awkwardness of the character out of his native element is the point of the story). But it is not difficult to write a story about Mars or Venus, because everyone in the audience instinctively knows what a war-god or a love-goddess is like. We have met mercurial and jovial and saturnine characters in real life, and so will recognize Mercury and Jupiter and Saturn. These figures have their roots in the human soul, in human ubiquitous human experience. Hence, the imagination has less trouble putting Loki in the Twentieth Century than John Wilkes Booth, despite that the Norse villain comes from a more distant era than the assassin.
When I speak of their eternal youth, I mean that the figures are complex enough, have a rich and varied enough history passing through the hands of other poets from Homer to Jack Kirby, that even an author of limited skill can find a new coign of vantage from which to portray the pagan gods in their three-dimensional complexity. Area can be the bold soldier Gene Wolfe portrays him to be in Soldier In The Mist, or the bullying coward Homer does in the Iliad, without any in-authenticity to the archetypal concept Ares represents. They have eternal youth because under any poet’s hand any of them can be a new figure.
Of those infinite coigns of vantage, one or many can be found which fascinates the modern imagination. Hence, the gods and goddesses are still relevant, and still speak as symbols to our modern concerns. For whomever has ever loved and lost knows the story of Orpheus and Eurydice even if he never heard it before, and the tragedy will grip his inner heart or even if it is cast into medieval garb with “Sir Orfeo” or modern garb with Orphée.
The gods in their terror and splendor bring to genre fiction what they bring to any fiction they enter: a sense of eternity, a sense of scope, and an immediate familiarity in the hearts of the audience.
Gods are spiritual beings, and, try as we might in this silly materialistic modern era, we all secretly know that things of the spirit are more profound and more real than our daily concerns. Even if you put a god in a modern comedy, dress Hades in a leather biker’s jacket, or make Hercules an athletic star, the eternal nature of the archetypal being nonetheless comes across.
As for a sense of scope, there is a natural marriage between science fiction and fantasy and the grandeur of mythology. When the crew of the starship Enterprise meets the cruel yet glorious great god Apollo on a distant world, the story automatically has a grandeur to it that meeting, say, an evil computer worshipped as a god simply lacks. Likewise, making Thor a superhero in the same background universe as Iron Man and Ant Man was a stroke of genius on the part of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—superhero stories, as the name implies, are about nothing but grandeur, larger-than-life action, magnificent deeds, inhuman feats of strength and so on. What is as bigger than a superman aside from a god?
There is something about gods that makes them more vivid and real in the imagination than other figures. In order to be a god, the figure had to be grand or lovely or terrible enough to compel the worship of tribes and town and empires. No idea can achieve the loyalty and love and fear of so many for so long if the idea does not have a bright and central place in the souls of most men or all. And whatever else gods and goddesses may be, they are living ideas.
Part of the appeal of the classical gods is purely a fortunate historical accident. When the Christian Church took over the Roman Empire, she made it her business to preserve rather than abolish the literature of their fathers. The figures were baptized, as it were, in the Christian imagination, so much so that no one thinks it unseemly to set decorations of the feast day of the martyr Saint Valentine with the pagan god Cupid. Certainly no one until the Protestant Reformation thought it unseemly for Dante, for example, to people his majestic poem with Classical as well as Biblical figures, or Milton.
Compare this with the utter indifference, for example, that the Romans of Caesar’s time treated the myth and literature of the Egyptian gods. When the written language of hieroglyphics was still in use, the literate historians and scholars of the Augustinian Age did not bestir themselves to ask the natives what the solemn picture writing meant, nor to write the stories of their conquered peoples down.
Part of the appeal comes from more recent history. The West is recovering from a desperate fit of realistic and socially relevant literature which darkened the imagination of the literati since the last decades of the Nineteenth Century. This feverish episode of realism has largely passed, and the world of literature is waking again to the old, strong, sublime and terrible songs ancient poets sang.