Mythology as we know it has a couple of different components. Primarily, mythology conjures scenes gods and goddesses in resplendent elegance or fierce battle. Every society to have ever existed has acknowledged powers greater than themselves: things like light and dark, flood and drought and the changing of the seasons. It’s easy for us today to see how placing these things within spirits that resembled human beings was a way to make sense of a chaotic and often dangerous world and to make someone or something other than ourselves accountable for life’s difficulties and blessings.
The second part of mythology is the stories of human or semi-divine heroes: men and women who went to the extremes of human existence and thereby highlighted the peaks of what we are likely to experience in our own lives. Things such as sadness at illness, grief in the face of death, love and all of its many strings and the need to fight for our own space in the larger world are all taken to almost super-human ends to demonstrate hope and courage.
When we write our own fantasy mythologies, these are both arcing concepts we need to be aware of. Even brief mentions of cultural mythology can create a more vivid and changeable world for your characters to move through, and give you another tool in creating the environment.
Consider the following:
Mythology is geographical – Stories about how human beings came into existence and why the sun and moon walk the same path in the sky, but never at the same time, are things every group of people is going to consider, but they’re likely to have different takes. Consider how a mountain range indigenous people would understand water from melting ice caps vs a riverclan. Especially where neighboring nations have similar but vitally different mythological stories, you’re going to have room to create some tension between characters of different beliefs.
Mythology should address greater senses of good and evil – At least to some extent. Positive and negative are ever-present weights for your everyday character, and if we look at mythology as an exaggeration of the mundane, then these concepts should be present. Consider some of our modern day mythology; almost all of our pantheons have some kind of social order, and someone or several someone’s guarding that order and standing for justice. There’s also always troublemakers who represent everything from greed and selfishness to ultimate destruction.
Mythology should tie directly in with the natural world – In the same way gods are created in the human image, so too is nature. We have mythology for why the seasons change, why there are rainbows, where rivers come from, why some animal species benefit from each other’s existence, and countless more. Especially if your world is going to be pre-any kind of industrial revolution, your characters are going to be hyper-aware of the natural world and the likely oral stories that have been passed down through the generations.
Mythology should have a touch of reality – Anyone here who watched Xena or Hercules as a kid? *raises hand* These two characters are a perfect example of mythology being ancient but also having a modern day component. When you as the author are determining how much influence you want these concepts to have, creating a fabled character who is/could be a living, breathing person can act as a catalyst not only for plot events but also masses believing in some tradition, belief system, teaching, etc.
Mythology can be a manipulation of the population – Now for a darker note. In the same way that our own religions today seek to influence its practitioners (i.e. “Be a better person” “Give to the needy”) so too did any system of religion or belief that has come before. Chances are, there’s a character out there who’s aiming to profit off some aspect of your mythology, whether it’s a self-named priest setting up faith healings for a fee or a king using a god’s name to change his nation’s laws. For the common people, religion might be a way to touch the divine, but it’s always someone’s tool as well.
Chances are that you knew going into fantasy writing that creating an elaborate mythology was more than just picking fantasy sounding names for deities and passing out random attributes. Hopefully now though you’ll be better prepared to work through the creation of fascinating, powerful and flawed deities and dramatic stories. But if you’re still unsure of where to start, here are a few ideas:
Write a myth…
- To explain why the sun rises and sets
- To explain why leaves change colors
- To explain why we are born and why we die
- To explain where human beings came from
- To explain why birds fly and fish swim
- To explain thunder
- To explain why flowers lose their leaves
- To explain where we go when we die
- To explain why the moon changes shape
- To explain how bees got their stings
- To explain why droughts happen
- To explain why people are different colors
- To explain the tides