Myths are one of the most important parts of worldbuilding. Cultures use myths to explain the causes of natural phenomena, ascribe the meaning of words, or just to entertain.
I almost always start writing myths early in my worldbuilding, because I find them the perfect way to explore what my cultures think about. A creation myth in particular is one of the first things I write. These are my tips for writing better mythology.
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1. Research myths from the real world
Reading myths from a diverse set of cultures and time periods will help you understand what makes up a good myth. There are public domain translations of most famous myths available online, but it can be hard to find a copy that suits you.
Some of the language can be very archaic, so consider checking out more modern versions. But I heavily recommend reading actual translations and not summarised versions. Many books of mythology provide only paraphrased, greatly shortened retellings, and these won’t show you how to actually write a myth.
One of my favourite resources for greek mythology is Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (affiliate link), while Sioned Davies translation of the Mabinogion (affiliate link) is without a doubt the best translation available
2. Make your myths entertaining
Myths should thrill. Along side and often overlapping with theater, mythology was one of the major forms of entertainment in the ancient world. Many early myths are poems, and were recited by traveling entertainers.
As a result, writing a myth is rather like writing any other short story – there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need a plot, characters, and a motivation to move all the pieces along. And it should be exciting, full of romance, mystery, suspense and action.
3. Decide on a point
Myths usually have a message to impart. Though they don’t necessarily focus heavily on it, in some capacity they serve to explain the world or teach lessons. The purpose of a myth is not always lofty – the story of Apollo and Hyacinthus exists mostly to explain the origin of the name of the Hyacinth flower. In fact, Greek mythology has a dozen or so myths that just serve to explain the names of plants.
Some myths are more ambitious in their purpose, such as the story of Promtheus, which tells us about how fire was created. Pandora’s Jar explains where women come from, and why disease exists. The story of Athena and Arachne simultaneously serves two purposes – to explain spiders, and to warn against hubris and challenging the gods.
4. Give your myths context
Consider the culture you’re writing for. If your mythology is real (high fantasy), this will change the stories. They may be more accurate, as they might have come directly from a god’s mouth or an oracle. Authors who speak ill of the gods may find themselves struck by lightning. And the portrayals of good and evil may be affected by the politics of the pantheon.
- Related post: What is Black Magic?
If the culture never developed written language, the myth would be handed down by oral historians. This is why many ancient myths were poetry, which was easier to remember and recite.
The climate and geography also play a part in mythology. Regions with notable mountains often make them important to their myths (for example, Mount Fuji or Mount Olympus). Cultures that rely on the sea would have many sea gods, and cultures that live in an environment with no snow would never conceive of a god of ice. Meanwhile, a culture where winter is a dangerous, harsh time of year might have many, often vengeful, winter deities.
5. Consider how history changes myths
One of the fundamental differences between a myth and any other story is how embedded they are in the cultural psych. Myths are retold over time. No single version that is entirely correct, because over the centuries characters, events and places have changed in both subtle and dramatic ways.
Information is lost as things are misheard, records are destroyed or retellings contradict each other. For example, Ancient Egyptian script did not record vowels, which means the names of Egyptian gods are partially guesswork.
In a similar manner, the mythology of Europe was fundamentally changed by Christianity, and early missionaries rewrote many myths to fit within their religion. Beings that were formerly gods (The Morrigan, Lugh, the Dagda) were rewritten as mortal heroes, Faeries, or demons. Creatures that fit the narrative the authors wanted to tell.
Political influence can also modify myths. Many notable houses claimed descent from ancient Greek mythological heroes, and adopted and promoted those myths for their own benefit.
Written a myth? Remember to tell me about it in the comments.
- How to create Myth and Legend in your World by How To Be A Great GM
- Overly Sarcastic Productions has great simplified retellings of mythology.
- Myths & Legends is an interesting documentary on Netflix that discusses the tropes of mythology.
- The Nine Types of Creation Myth
- Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system of folk stories