When you hear the word mythology, you might think of ancient stories like Homer’s Odyssey, the Scandinavian Voluspa, or the British epic Beowulf. Yet, mythology isn’t dead. It’s a living and breathing form of literary expression, one that is thriving today. In this blog post, we’re going to explore modern mythopoeic sagas that continue to carry the torch and provide timeless lessons about human nature.
I was surprised when a highly esteemed professor opened his lecture about mythological stories with The Avengers.
What about Greek or Norse mythology, I thought. He quickly answered my silent question by explaining that mythology is atemporal, eternal, and unbound from the confinements of our localized culture.
If you think of these stories as a product of a specific time and place, then their meaning is diminished right then and there. It’s imperative to adopt a symbolic interpretation of the syllogistic schemata and archetypes that emerge, that way; you’ll carry their wisdom for the rest of your life.
Modern mythology continues to develop, taking on a fractal form that engulfs our culture, whether we acknowledge it or not. Of course, the expression of these mythological stories changes depending on the aesthetics of our culture or, if we dig a little deeper, on the psychological needs of our collective unconscious.
(It’s no coincidence that cinema is dominated by films about heroes, space, and selfless sacrifice. These are elements of our reality we’re desperately trying to wake up from their slumber)
So, looking through that prism, I realized that many mythopoeic sagas were written during the 20th century or even today.
But before we take a closer look, let’s see what constitutes a modern mythopoeic saga.
What is a Mythopoeic Sage?
The term mythopoeia is used sparingly to define “artificial mythology” that delivers a fictional story. In Greek, it means “myth-making.” It was used by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien as a title for a poem. Consequently, it was adopted by other writers and literary critics.
But you might think, why the adjective artificial? What makes one set of stories real mythology and another one fake or artificial?
Some people argue that mythology encapsulates the historical narrative, the sacred traditions that shaped the civilization that produces these stories to codify them.
I have three objections:
- Comparative mythology highlights that, even though cultural intricacies are present, parallel narratives and common archetypes link different mythological stories with each other. For example, the mythos of Prometheus exists in Greek, Sumerian, and Hindu mythology with different names and locations.
- According to Joseph Campbell, all cultures are rapidly shifting, especially with the help of technology, so much so that they “have now outlived much of the mythology of the past.”
- A mythos is a symbolic iteration of the primordial part of ourselves. Sure, you can argue that modern mythology might lack some of the older mythologies’ historical continuation, but how much has human nature changed? Can we claim that we have changed so much that the stories we tell aren’t part of the same collective psyche that produced the Iliad or the Bhagavad Gita?
We have to keep in mind that modern mythology is still malleable. In the same way, folklore tales were constantly changing depending on location and the storyteller; modern mythopoeic sagas can be interpreted and reconstructed in many ways.
Yet, the common themes are ever-present.
The Timeless Ingredients of a Mythological Story
In the same way, humans of all nations share similar qualities and character traits; our stories follow the common thread of humanity. The specific formula has rules and self-organizes using specific patterns.
Now, mythopoeic sagas are no different. They’ve inherited the literary prima materia of traditional mythology. In this list, albeit not exhaustive, you can see a few elements that appear in modern mythology.
Whether it’s a completely novel cosmogony or simply a reconstruction of our theology, gods, deities, spirits, and the unseen part of our reality serves as the background (or even the catalyst) for many mythopoeic sagas.
The Hero’s Journey
A common trope that has been used for thousands of years – for a good reason.
It’s a way to write the plot of your story arc. Whether your hero possesses the stereotypical heroic qualities or not, you’ll recognize a similar pattern in the way he develops his character.
A lot of our knowledge about the pre-classical Greek era comes from Homer’s two epic poems. Rituals, daily routines, traditions, ethics, etc., stem from, otherwise, fictional tales.
Similarly, the mythologist will try to carve out his world with unique cultures and lore.
Good vs. Evil
A cosmic battle, an ethical discourse, a struggle between good and evil. This is usually the main plotline; it might be at the forefront or exist as a background for a specific event within this context.
But you’ll soon find out that, like in real life, not everything is black and white. Many authors respect this and even capitalize on it, twisting the narrative even more.
The Top 5 Most Influential Mythopoeic Sagas
I’ve collected these modern mythological stories based on social impact and their influence on movies and writing.
Indeed, they’ve transcended mere entertainment. In many cases, they’ve created new traditions and subcultures that keep growing, spawning a collective egregore that informs pop culture!
#1. Tolkien’s Legendarium
Arguably, the most well-known mythopoeic saga. In many ways, Tolkien created this subgenre. He was the first one to establish the unspoken rules of myth-making.
From a unique pantheon and religion to new languages and lore, he managed to outline a new world with its own cultures, history, and future.
His work has achieved legendary status, with all of his books becoming movies – and a show is underway!
What makes the Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion, the Hobbit so unique is the complexity, and purposeful detail of the world the events are happening in. Every tree, every stone, every road has a deep backstory, connected to the mythohistorical past of Arda, the Earth.
He mixed elements from older, traditional myths and legends, including the epic Beowulf, Greek, and Norse mythology. This creates a sense of consistency between our world and his.
It took Tolkien all of his life to finish Legendarium. And yet, there are many more pages to be written to explain the vastness of his Universe.
If you wish to dive deeper into the myth and legends of Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, click the links!
#2. Harry Potter
What started as a children’s book became a worldwide phenomenon that raised readers at least two generations.
I still remember the excitement of waiting outside of the bookstore to grab a copy of the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s not that I hadn’t read other books. But there was something special about HP.
Now, I understand that Rowling’s world-building allowed children and young adults to enter a new reality. A reality with magic, castles, wands, dragons, and mysteries.
The mythology of Harry Potter borrowed aspects of English folklore, children’s tales, and personal accounts of witches. You can actually trace a lot of the historical figures and locations that are mentioned in the books.
Even though this isn’t an epic mythological story, it has all the required ingredients for a mythopoeic saga.
Check out this blog post for a detailed breakdown of all 7 books. I talk about real alchemy, Celtic and Arthurian mythology, Malleus Maleficarum, and more!
#3. Lovecraftian Mythology
We associate mythology with heroes, deeds of courage and self-sacrifice, overcoming challenges, etc.
But there’s an eccentric mythologist who managed to escape this narrow paradigm and created a rather dark and twisted world.
When you and I look at the stars, we feel insignificant yet inspired! H.P Lovecraft carefully planted a dystopian alternate reality into the heart of space. When he looked up at the sky, he saw an uninviting and indifferent universe where humanity is at the mercy of greater forces.
Lovecraft’s cosmogony remains terrifying and unapologetically weird. At the center of it, all sit the Outer Gods. Gigantic creatures, existing outside of space and time, affecting reality with their every movement.
And then, we have the Great Old Ones. They are infinitely less powerful than the Gods mentioned above, yet they can wipe out our world on a whim. Corpulent abominations are amoral beings that roam space and cause collective anxiety to humanity.
Most of Lovecraft’s stories follow a specific pattern. The hero slowly unearths the mysteries that have been hiding in the darkest corners of Earth. Cults, ancient civilizations, paranormal phenomena, and forbidden books create modern mythology with its lore and history.
The influence of Lovecraftian mythology to pop culture is undeniable. The concept of cosmic horror alone has spawned multiple TV shows, books, music, and art!
If you aren’t afraid to dive deep and explore the Cthulhu Mythos, read Necronomicon, and walk the dimly lit alleys of the Nameless City, read this blog post.
#4. The Chronicles of Narnia
What is hiding in your wardrobe? Most kids are afraid that a big scary monster will suddenly jump out and attack them.
But four kids were (un)lucky enough to find the door to the world of Narnia, behind a few coat hangers and ties! They stepped into a frozen kingdom, ruled by an evil Queen. At the same time, they met Satyrs from Greco-Roman mythology, talking animals inspired by Animism. Most importantly, they embarked on a great adventure – the key to all mythological stories!
C.S Lewis wrote a fantastical mythopoeic saga that borrows heavily from Christian theology. For example, the lion Aslan represents Jesus Christ.
The author slowly expanded his Universe, outlining a divine plan that contained moral lessons and his ethics.
Inspired by his good friend Tolkien, in the backdrop of fairy tales and magic and fantasy, he distilled his philosophy and private mythology into seven widely popular books.
#5. A Song of Fire and Ice
If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve heard or watched, fanatically, the Game of Thrones. The series raised the bar for all TV shows. It became a global phenomenon, attracting viewers who were never interested in fantasy or science fiction before.
One of the biggest reasons for its success is the complexity of the world of George R.R Martin. In many cases, what you see on your screen is merely the tip of the iceberg compared to the original mythopoeic saga.
The story rested firmly on the foundations of the mythopoeic saga that surrounded the characters, locations, history, even foods!
From the very first lines of the first book, you know you’re stepping into a world with unique mythological underpinnings.
I believe that “A Song of Fire and Ice” is the perfect example of a story that could’ve happened at any time during history because of the archetypical narratives that are employed.
Modern Mythological Stories
Myths confess the structure of our psyche. They can perfectly outline what we don’t consciously understand. Given how rapidly our civilization is changing, it’s only natural that our stories expand.
Mythology isn’t a relic of the past, a literary footprint. It remains a tool to alchemize our perception of reality and transform mere observations into useful insights about the world and ourselves.
We’ll keep adding to these modern mythopoeic sagas. Make sure to sign up here, so you don’t miss them!
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.