Enhanced World Building Thru Mythology by Veronica Scott
One of the key challenges facing a writer in our Futuristic, Fantasy & Paranormal genres is worldbuilding. Possibilities include building your own from scratch, living in someone else’s if you’re writing fan fiction, using an altered version of our current reality, or basing your world on mythology from bygone civilizations.
“A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives a story of the shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the shadows.” Annie Besant
Myths offer tales of gods and supernatural heroes and heroines, explain natural phenomenon, reframe actual events, or just serve as terrific fiction in their own right! One of the most attractive aspects of pulling an existing set of myths into your worldbuilding is that these ancient tales are already “best sellers”, in the sense that they’ve endured over centuries, usually address universal themes – life, death, war, love, jealousy, nature etcetera – and can be a rich taking-off point for the unique story that you, as a modern writer, want to tell.
Examples of using mythology abound in fiction, from Celtic lore to Norse gods (hello Thor and Loki!) to the Greek pantheon. Laura Kaye has done an interesting twist on the latter, taking some relatively minor Greek gods – the spirits of the winds – and bringing them into modern times for her Anemoi series, as one example. J.R.R. Tolkien drew from a number of sources, Nordic among them, for creating a Middle Earth that feels somehow familiar to us, even as we acknowledge it isn’t.
Less commonly utilitized are the Etruscan, Roman, Aztec, Mayan, Asian, African, Native American source material…and then there’s Egypt. That’s my creative headspace for one of the series I write. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egypt but had no desire to write straightforward historical novels. I love the paranormal! After I realized one day that Sobek the Crocodile God was actually a shifter, as the Egyptians portrayed him as half man/half crocodile or fully crocodile, I was off and running. In my mind, if Sobek could do those things, he could also be fully human sometimes too and was probably pretty hot in that form!
Egyptian mythology is beautifully complicated, containing many variations on the same gods, as their worship morphed over time, or as different cities or areas had their own interpretation of things. Additionally, there were many different, strictly local gods or goddesses. With 3000 years of history, the Egyptians developed an amazing set of myths and legends to draw from, which gives me as a writer a great deal of flexibility for the stories I want to tell.
I usually start with a Google search (what else?) just to see what the top level results will be for a given Egyptian deity. Let’s take the goddess Nephthys for example, who was the sister of Isis. A search for her yields any number of pages, most of which report basically the same aspects of her worship, her affiliations, etc. Then I delve into my mountain of research books to read more in-depth on the topics. Of course the Egyptian Book of the Dead is an excellent source but there are also guides on how a modern person should read this ancient text, explaining what the many references might have meant to someone living in 1550 BCE, which is the era I’ve chosen. For example, you’re probably aware that during the mummification process, the ancients placed certain internal organs into canopic jars? Did you know a different organ went into each jar and was then under the protection of a specific god, which is why the jar lids were carved in those shapes? So Hapy the baboon was in charge of the lungs. But then each of these gods was himself under the protection of a different goddess. Hapy was protected by Nepththys, so a further layer of spells and beliefs becomes involved.
Will I use all these details about Nephthys in a future novel? Maybe. Probably not. I will use the concepts in my overall worldbuilding, as part of the rich fabric I hope will make my readers feel they’ve been transported to ancient Egypt, albeit my version, where the gods and goddesses get directly involved in events, and magic is very real.
I keep an ever expanding list on my blog of the many research books I’ve added to my library. Sometimes I just browse through these and something will catch my eye, suggesting a new story or a fresh element that can be included. Like the wonderful items a set dresser for a big budget movie provides, a period-appropriate knickknack (or in my case, a nifty detail) adds to the Reader’s suspension of disbelief. Hey I was there while I was watching that movie! Or reading the book.
Lady Tiya is bound to the service of the goddess Nephthys, who plans to sacrifice Tiya’s body to protect Egypt from an ancient terror. She embarks to meet her grim fate alone but for the hardened warrior Khenet, who is fated to die at her side. Tiya’s dreams of love and family now seem impossible, and Khenet, who is the last of his line, knows his culture will die with him. Struggling with the high cost of Nephthys’s demands, both resolve to remain loyal.
Neither expects the passion that flowers when Tiya’s quiet courage and ethereal beauty meet Khenet’s firm strength and resolve. On a boat down the Nile, their two lonely souls find in each other a reason to live. But time is short and trust elusive.
Without the willing sacrifice of Tiya and Khenet, a great evil will return to Egypt. How could the gods demand their deaths when they’ve only just begun to live?
What’s your favorite mythology to draw upon?