What makes fictional story mythology? What differentiates myths from other literary mediums? In this blog post, we’re going to outline the framework to create mythology, folklore, and legends. If you ever wanted to understand the process of Homer or the underlying principles behind children’s tales, keep reading.
I started writing at a young age. Scribbles and notes here and there. Whenever I had an idea, I’d pen down a few pages that resembled a short story.
Usually, it was epic fantasy fiction and mythopoeic sagas that inspired me to write. In my mind, I considered these amateurish first steps the prodrome of something bigger. When I was exposed to classical mythology, the first question that popped into my mind was “What’s the difference?”.
The second question was “Can I write like this?”.
Scholars provide two answers. Some say that mythology reveals the sacred traditions of civilizations. Others, like Joseph Campbell, insist some primordial archetypes and narratives remain constant.
I tend to agree with the latter. Mythology is a layered expression of human nature. The form is atemporal but the expression is culturally relative. With that in mind, everyone can create mythopoeic sagas.
In this blog post, I tried to explain what a mythopoeic saga is, providing a few excellent examples of modern myth-making.
Now, I want to give you some practical tools and a step-by-step process that might come in handy if you want to try it yourself.
(Or if you simply want to deconstruct these stories and gain insight into the nature of reality…)
I believe that the moment we start viewing mythology as something “old”, we automatically assume it’s also “dead” – completely missing the point. We must never forgo the Art of Mythmaking!
The Most Important Ingredients of your Mythical Soup
You might wonder why I use the term “Mythical Soup”.
Well, it’s a soup because you can throw in everything you have laying around, in whatever order you wish!
But it might not be very tasty and maybe you need to remove some ingredients or add more.
You realize that the base is always the same but you can play around with herbs and veggies.
It’s also a soup because everyone can taste it and start experimenting with your recipe! Add more pepper or use kale instead of potatoes.
The same way mythology was an oral tradition; stories were slightly altered every time they were told, depending on the orator or the local culture.
#1. The Pantheon
Whether it’s Greco-Roman mythology, Celtic folklore or Egyptian legends the Gods are always involved.
The divine order, the Pantheon, is seemingly unique but we can always trace a common thread amongst all traditions.
Ancient civilizations were heavily influenced by animism; everything has a soul. The genius loci, the local spirit, is a good example. It infuses everything with its consciousness.
Even abstract concepts like the Echo of a sound have a deep backstory connected to a larger web of myths.
Establishing a cosmogony is the first step to world-build and create a myth. But how do you even summon new Gods?
- To Carve a God
If you consider how the proto-religions emerge, it might give you a good idea of what you’re looking for.
Imagine the prehistoric man seeing an eclipse or witnessing a catastrophic storm. Surely, it must be the working of a God!
You’ll also notice that depending on the environment and geography, different qualities emerge. Islanders naturally gravitate towards Poseidon or Proteus and mountain dwellers worship Thor who’ll protect them from the Giants
In the same manner, the moment we went from hunter-gatherers to farmers, our pantheons changed. Instead of gifting bucks to a bow-wielding God, we made sure to dance around the fields and pray for rain.
And you can always learn from the master of genesis; Tolkien.
Instead of spawning a random set of deities, he carefully weaved their stories around unique and powerful entities that influence the world in significant ways.
#2. The Monomyth
What do two mythological stories have in common? Well, everything!
According to Joseph Campbell, the monomyth, the Hero’s Journey is the main narrative present in all traditions and cultures.
Indeed, if we break down each myth, we find that the same patterns emerge. Sure, the details are different but the archetypes, plotline, and form of the story are constant.
- The Hero’s Journey
This is merely a template to give you loose directions in terms of how a mythological story unfolds.
There are three main points:
- Departure from ordinary life – and arrival in the plane of supernatural wonder
- Overcoming obstacles – decisive win
- Returning home – psychological transformation
There are plenty of little steps in-between. I should highlight that the myth progresses alongside character development.
The protagonist seeks to fulfil his personal subplot. In fact, you can quickly find out that to have that decisive win, he must have an internal transformation.
This is something that we constantly see in many famous myths and modern sagas. Take the mythological backstory in the God of War video game, for example. The anger and need for revenge of Kratos are what drives the plotline.
Yet, only when he comes to terms with his fate he manages to find peace. Which concludes the Hero’s Journey!
The myths we tell around the campfire. The tales of woe we whisper during rainy nights so the kids go to sleep. The local legends of a genius loci your grandfather used to talk about after a couple of drinks.
The backbone of mythology is the folkloric traditions.
If you take a look at the Aarne-Thompson Index, you see that the categorization doesn’t include cultural colored language.
The vast catalogue of folktale types contains the firm outlines of common myths. We’ve recognized that the same stories emerge, even though the details change each time.
- Child-like Wonder
That’s all it takes to see the magic in the world. In my blog post about the mythology behind “The Witcher”, I share a personal anecdote from my childhood. How I’d step away from the mundane, ordinary life and into the region of supernatural wonder every time something interesting happened.
That’s the key here; observation. Not from the perspective of an adult but through the eyes of the child in you.
Each mythopoeic saga is enriched with a tapestry of local cultures that underline the mythology.
Maybe there’s a reason this house is haunted. Or, the sightings of an ogre-like creature near the river is, in fact, Baba Yaga!
To create a mythology, you need to create a living and breathing world with completely independent sub-stories.
Mythology deals with inner turmoil and struggle. And naturally, humans have two sides; good and bad.
This eternal battle is externalized in the form of evil entities, monsters, and whole armies. While you don’t have to adopt a black and white approach, it’s important to create the main antagonist. After all, they’ll be the catalysts that’ll drive the myth forward and inspire your protagonist to embark on his journey.
- The Nature of Evil
What’s the reason the world needs a hero?
All religions and mythological stories deal with a malevolent, often chthonic God(s) trying to corrupt and take over the world.
Lucifer comes to mind, the Giants in Norse Mythology, etc.
There are exceptions of course. In the case of the Iliad, human nature was the antagonist and we see Homer cleverly playing around with this premise.
But perhaps the most straightforward and practical representation of evil is found in the work of H.P Lovecraft. The eccentric writer created an unfriendly universe where powerful, alien Gods roam freely.
There’s no question about the intentions of these creatures. The usual ethical questions are out of the window.
You can always take the middle road, of course. Your anti-hero might be the result of a corrupted environment, their redemption being part of the Hero’s Journey.
While mythology deals with complex characters, it does glean a lot of information from pre-established archetypes.
It’s not a coincidence that you can almost always spot them in different myths across cultures.
There are plenty of ways to categorize these archetypes. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the Jungian paradigm.
No hero is only one of them. But they usually possess an identity that shares a lot of characteristics with a couple.
The Art of Mythmaking
Your mythical soup is now complete. The building blocks are stacked together, creating a rough outline where legends and stories can spawn.
But if you want to turn a piece of fiction into a mythological story, you need one more ingredient. The X factor; drawing inspiration from the philosophical questions and ethical struggles our generation is facing.
Mythology doesn’t always give straight answers. It simply nudges us to think and ponder about the nature of the world and the best ways to navigate reality.
To turn story into myth is to extract insights from the deepest corners of our collective psyche, and lay them on top of current traditions and culture.
P.S – Let us know if you’re working on an epic mythopoeic sage. We’ll gladly take a look!
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.