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January 2007 Worlds Apart

January 2007 Issue

Myths, Legends and Stories

Part One


The world abounds with stories. They are everywhere, all around us, but not necessarily written down. Myths, legends, folk tales, nursery rhymes: they’re all stories, and traditionally were not recorded because, with some notable exceptions, they were not thought to be important enough.


It would seem that we humans have been telling stories since our earliest ancestors acquired articulate speech just over a million years ago, and when writing was invented in the Early Bronze Age, sometime during the late fourth millennium BCE, certain stories began to be written down. Ancient Egypt and Babylonia boast some of the earliest writers known by name, and poems and stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, found preserved on eleven clay tablets in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language, are still read today. China, Japan, India and other ancient civilizations contributed early works of literature which have withstood the test of time.


These ancient writings cover a vast range of subjects, but in general, the stories that came to be written down have one thing in common: they explain things. They explain where people came from, why they live where and how they do, where the laws came from and why they must be obeyed, and many more things besides. These works of literature are, in fact, written versions of tales that had been told orally for centuries, if not millennia, and such stories can be found in all societies, even today.


If you’ve been following this column over the past months, you’ll know what we’re leading up to here: the explanation of behavior.


As a writer, the building blocks of your stories are the characters you create. Those characters don’t live in isolation (usually), but exist with other people in a social group of some kind, be it large or small. This being the case, you must give your characters a social and cultural context, a task made even more important if you happen to be writing historical fiction. The provision of that context is what we call world building, and as well as giving your characters a world to inhabit, you must relate their behavior to the realities of that world. If you don’t, the story just won’t ring true for your readers. Myths, legends and stories can be used to explain behavior, because the stories themselves often provide the explanations for the social and cultural limits within which your characters live and act.


A word about the term myth is useful at this point. The term, as used today, implies something that isn’t true, but in many societies the myths are entirely true. We call all such stories myths because in the early days of anthropology in the mid to late nineteenth century, early researchers collected stories from technologically simple societies—societies they called primitive—and wrote them down. These collectors were all of European background, and were firmly rooted in a Western tradition. They were, therefore, convinced that the explanatory stories of their own societies, Judeo-Christian in origin, were true, and that all other stories were not true. They were, therefore, myths. Today, in anthropology, the word myth implies a story from an oral tradition and in no way comments or speculates upon its legitimacy or truth.


But don’t make the same mistake those early thinkers made. In many societies myths represent historical, theological or philosophical reality. For example, traditional Christianity holds that the earth was created by God in six days, an explanation of how the world came into being, found in the Old Testament. The story is, in fact, an ancient Hebrew creation story, whose origins are most likely rooted in nomadic tribal cultures far older than the Old Testament. Some native North American peoples say that the earth cam into being when the Great Spirit threw rocks and dirt down from the sky until all the land was piled up so that men could live on it. A century-and-a-half ago, the latter story would have been called a myth, while the former was a truth. In fact, for the people concerned who believe in them, both stories are entirely true.


In many societies a young person growing up had to learn the folk tales and stories, because knowing them made one wise. The stories explained the world, life and everything else. It follows from this that such stories are often closely allied to religion and the supernatural. And just as religion can explain behavior, so can myths, stories and folk tales, and therein lies the heart of the matter when it comes to writing.


Let’s look at an example from Greek mythology. How did evil and all the bad things get into the world? Pandora let them out of the box, that’s how. There was no evil in the world until Prometheus stole the secret of fire (another story that explains where fire came from), and angered the gods. Zeus made Pandora (“all gifted”), the first woman, and gave her a box. She was told never to open the box, but, overcome by curiosity, she did open it, and let out all the evil, suffering and sorrow experienced in this world. The Judeo-Christian myth has it that Eve ate the forbidden apple and persuaded Adam to do the same, and they were driven out of the Garden of Eden and thereafter experienced both good and evil.


So, what has all that to do with writing historical fiction? You can make reference to myths and stories to help build a picture of the world your characters live in, and in particular, you can use them to explain and illustrate the way people think. It’s also undeniably true that many readers of historical fiction become fascinated by myths and folk tales, and thus you can also use them to entertain and interest your readers.


Myths and stories do not have a universal application, however. They do not have a place in every piece of historical fiction. As a writer, you need to know as much as you possibly can about the time and society in which your story is set, and make use of the cultural elements that best enable you to build the required world and show it to your readers. If myths and stories help you to do that, then use them by all means, but try not to just plant them into a story without reason or context. If they help explain the world and influence the behavior of your characters, then they will have great value in your story and in your world building.


In February, we’ll look at ways in which to use myths, legends and folk tales as sources of inspiration for stories, and consider some of the best examples from ancient and more modern times.


Write on,



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