Use this post from Writers Write, your one-stop writing resource, to explore the 3 incredibly powerful ways myths inform storytelling.
The word and concept of myth has so many meanings, it’s sometimes confusing to know what it means. It could be a false belief — ‘the myth that evening primrose oil can cure eczema’ — or even something imaginary — ‘We’re beginning to think Sue’s new boyfriend is a myth because nobody’s seen him’ — but in literary terms, there are three basic ways of looking at myth.
3 Incredibly Powerful Ways Myths Inform Storytelling
- From Zeus to Superman. In classical Greek storytelling, myth — or mythos — signified any traditional story that explains the forces of nature or the signs, rituals, and customs of society. It usually involves supernatural beings, but if the hero is human and mortal, it’s often called a legend instead.
- Inherited or invented. Through the ages, writers borrowed heavily from Greek and Roman mythology — often using Greek heroes or tragedies as allusions or metaphors to shape their stories or poems. Other writers integrated the myths into their own myth-building works, whether it’s an invented world, being or, in some cases, language. It is usually experimental, exaggerated, or highly idealised.
- Archetypal storytelling. Most modern stories are in some way based on mythical archetypes — some echo the plot and characters of ancient myth, others use the imagery, themes, and symbolism of these enduring myths. James N. Frey, in his great how-to book The Key, says that myth can provide not only stimulation for novelists but also concepts and patterns that readers can relate to when interpreting the story.
Reasons to believe
Literary scholar M.H. Abrams writes, ‘A mythology, we can say, is a religion is which we no longer believe.’ This is a powerful statement, but I would add: people want to believe — and that’s what makes myth such a powerful tool for the writer.
As Frey writes: ‘The myth-making faculty is inherent in the thinking process and its products satisfy a basic human need.’ People have been creating myths to make sense of life since the beginning of time. As writers, we continue that tradition.
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