Building Religions 8: Myth
I've been reluctant to cover myth so far. It's such a massive category, and there are as many arguments about definitions of myth as there are about approaches to studying (or writing) it, so it's a little daunting to try to tackle. Still, let me try to give a quick overview, along with some of my more common complaints about how it's handled in fiction.
William Doty, in Mythography, offers what is perhaps the most thorough definition of myth:
A mythological corpus consists of (1) a usually complex network of myths that are (2) culturally important (3) imaginal (4) stories, conveying by means of (5) metaphoric and symbolic diction, (6) graphic imagery, and (7) emotional conviction and participation, (8) the primal, foundational accounts of (9) aspects of the real, experienced world and (10) humankind’s roles and relative statuses in it.
Mythologies may (11) convey the political and moral values of a culture and (12) provide systems of interpreting (13) individual experience within a universal perspective, which may include (14) the intervention of suprahuman entities as well as (15) elements of the natural and cultural orders. Myths may be enacted or reflected in (16) rituals, ceremonies, and dramas, and (17) they may provide materials for secondary elaboration, the constituent mythemes having become merely images or reference points for a subsequent story, such as a folktale, historical legend, novella, or prophecy.
It's a little unwieldy and, the more you look at it, not entirely helpful. The first seven points can be summarized as "myths are important stories." There's really not much there to distinguish them from other kinds of stories, except for a few details.
Doty's very first point, that myths are part of a network that he calls the mythological corpus, is one that's both useful and easy to forget. Take, for example, the myth of Sisyphus. The end of his story is common knowledge, but if you read it all, you find it crossing with myths of Zeus, Ares, Persephone, the Pleiades (Sisyphus' wife being one of them), and even the Pegasus (his son, Glaucus, was the father of Bellerophon). From there, you could branch out further, following one figure or another across stories, until you find yourself somewhere entirely unconnected to the original myth.
This is one aspect of artificial myths that's rarely done well. So many of them give the impression of being self-contained, brought into fiction in order to make a point and ignoring the complexity of most real-world mythologies. Unless you've got the time to write up a full and extensive body of myths, though, it's not practical to try to duplicate this feature. So what do you do?
Reread some myths and pay attention to how little background is provided for most of the characters. When Sisyphus gets in trouble for interfering in one of Zeus's affairs, there's no pause to explain the god's personality or motivations: it's already assumed that the audience of the story knows them. You can provide the links to other stories without having to write them all, just by including hints and allusions to them. It may make those stand-alone myths more opaque to a reader, but that's a closer approximation of how it would be for someone exposed only to one part of a mythology.
Remember, too, that a society will often have multiple forms of any given myth, with different retellings emphasizing different aspects of the story. They can exist side by side, or the variants can come into conflict with each other if they're expressions of social, political, or religious tensions. One telling's god can become another's demon, as in the case of the portrayal of Ravana outside of the Ramayana. This feature connects to Doty's points 8-13, the relationship between myths and the cultures that preserve them.
(To be continued)