#WBW – Myths and Legends

Welcome back fellow world builders, to another installment of #WBW!

This Wednesday we’re starting a three-part exploration of myths and legends, and looking at how developing these sort of concepts can enrich and colour your creations!

Our own world has a deep, diverse culture of myths and legends, and so no doubt the idea of creating your own mythology can seem a little daunting. That’s why this Wednesday we’re sticking to the basics and investigating the rich source of material human history has to offer – and unpacking the common themes we find!

What do we mean by myths?

Generally speaking, within human culture myths were created to explain why something exists, or why something happens. They function symbolically to help us make sense of the world around us.

Over time we’ve come to associate the word myth with “things which are not fact” but this isn’t exactly right. Myths are not literal, however the meaning they impart to us is valid and useful. That’s what makes them “true”, because they represent beliefs, concepts and ways of questioning we use to make sense of the world.

And legends? What like Hercules?

Yes, exactly like Hercules. Even the Kevin Sorbo TV versions.

When we’re talking about legends in world-building, we’re speaking about a narrative of human actions. These actions are supposed to be perceived as taking place within human history, and which demonstrate human values, both of which help give legends a feeling of authenticity.

As you can see, there is a very distinct way that myths and legends are bound up with history. Which means when it comes to mapping out the history of your world, they can be incredibly useful.

Comparative Mythology

Comparative mythology studies myths and legends from different human cultures and attempts to find any common themes or characteristics within them. Academically speaking, comparative mythology has helped scholars trace the developments of different religions throughout history, or as a way of supporting psychological theories.  There are a number of different approaches to comparative mythology, and when it comes to world building for your own settings, you don’t need a degree in anthropology or linguistics, but it is helpful to know what themes have been identified by researchers – so you can either follow them or break them as necessary.

So, let’s look at some of the parallel themes and plot elements which have been uncovered!

Flood Myths

Ok, so let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. We’re probably all aware of the biblical myth from Genesis with Noah and his Ark and collecting all those animals. But this is just one of many floods or deluges that deities have inflicted on mankind over our mythological history.

The myth of the flood goes all the way back to the Mesopotamian epics of Ziusudra, Artahasis and Gilgamesh. Just like in the Genesis floods, the epic of Ziusudra had a vessel which saved him from the flood waters. In the Gilgamesh version, a character, Utnapishtim, tells Gilgamesh the god Ea instructed him to build a huge vessel to save his friends, family and all the animals from an impending flood that would destroy the world.

And in Hindu mythology both the Satapatha Brahmana and Puranas contain the story of a great flood, where an avatar of Vishnu warns Manu – the first man – to build a giant boat to save himself from the destruction.

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The avatar of Vishnu pulling Manu’s boat during the great flood

Even in Greek Mythology, Zeus sent a flood to punish humans for their constant warring. In this myth, found in Plato’s Timaeus, the Titan Prometheus tells Deucalion to build an ark in order to be saved.

Humans have been blaming flood on deities for thousands of years, in fact an interesting point of note is that in the Mesopotamian epic of Artahasis, the great flood is a river flood. Because it is way easier to explain a natural disaster on some angry God/s than teaching every citizen about weather patterns and climate change.

We can see the way this theme is applied across countless genres and mediums today. You can even see examples of this theme enduring in cinema – from that subpar John Cusack movie, 2012, which dealt with elements from the Mayan flood mythology and their calendar system – to post-apocalyptic dramas like Waterworld.

The Dying/Disappearing God

Another commonly found theme across cultures is the Dying/Disappearing God. Although there is some debate about this category amongst scholars of comparative mythology, with more modern scholars dismissing it. The theme is most famously advocated by J.G. Frazer in his work, The Golden Bough. But whether or not the theme has any applicable merits for studying the history of human cultures and paralells between their myths, it definitely provides a rich source of stories and legends to draw from when they’re developing a mythos and history for your world.

In some of these myths, the God returns somehow, or is resurrected.

Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec myths, is tricked into over-drinking and then burns himself in shame. In some versions of the myth, his ashes transform into birds, while in others he sails out into the ocean, never to return.

Izanami, the Japanese goddess of creation, dies in childbirth and her husband. Izanagi-No-Mikoto journeys into the Japanese land of the dead (the Yomi) to find her again, however he becomes repulsed by her state of decomposition and he escapes the Yomi and traps her there forever.

IzanamiIzanagi
Izanami and Izanagi

Persephone from Greek mythology exemplifies the dying god as well, her journey to the underworld represents the cyclical death and rebirth of vegetation, and her return heralds the beginning of the spring seasons.

Axis Mundi

The Axis Mundi is the general term for a group of myths and is probably most recognizable in Yggdrasil from North Mythology, however the idea of a world tree or some other form of world axis or pillar is a common reoccurring theme throughout centuries of human history, in countless different cultures.

Plants or trees often serve as a representation of the axis mundi. The idea that the cosmic tree represents the connection of three planes can easily be communicated – the heavens (branches), the earth (trunk) and the underworld (roots). This planar connection to trees is not only found in old Scandanavian cultures, but also in the cultures of the pacific island chains, where the banyan tree serves as the abode of the spirits of ancestors. Even sometimes in traditional Chinese cosmography the center of the world is represented by a Jian Tree.

Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heine
The Ash Yggdrasil Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

Of course, another Genesis myth, the Tree of Life, which imparts the knowledge of good (heaven) and evil (sin) onto man (earth).

Mountains and rock formations can also be used to represent the axis mundi, for examples the The Pitjantjatjara people an Aboriginal tribe from central Australia consider the rock formation Uluru to be central to both their world and culture, they see it as the crossroads of their ancestor Gods, who came their and created the world around us today.

But it isn’t only in religious myths that we can find the Axis Mundi either. Jack and the Beanstalk involves the symbolic traversing of an Axis Mundi to bring a treasure from another realm back to earth. Even Dante’s Divine Comedy is based around the idea, as he ascends and descends through a series of spiral structures that take him through the core of the earth, to hell and then finally to heaven.

Of all the common themes encountered in the myths of human culture, the Axis Mundi is perhaps one of the most versatile and flexible, and it’s been used to great effect in different types of narratives and settings across a range of genres.

Interestingly, the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci is also an Axis Mundi, instead using mathematics and the human form to symbolically explore the idea of a world axis.

 

Comparative Mythology is a wide area of study and while you don’t need to go and read The Golden Bough, exploring the patterns, themes and plot devices which occur across myths from around the world can serve as a starting point and springboard for developing your own set of myths and legends. Which will help give your world a cohesive and connected feel.

Now that we have a bit of a background on myths and legends, we’re going to start getting into the juicy stuff! Over the next two fortnights, we’ll be joined by some familiar faces and new guests for a pair of special podcast editions, where we will delve even deeper into the wonderful world of mythology, and creating our own!

Until then, happy world building!