Mythology in a Modern Setting by Shannon Donnelly
Let’s start with what is a myth? The Greek word mythos gives us the word myth—and much of Western culture has been shaped by the Greek myths, which came to us after Europe reacquired ancient knowledge and decided that Greek and Latin were the learned languages.
Every culture has its myths—creation myths and destruction myths, stories of the gods and of mythic characters. We often know more of these myths because they are handed down by due to our family backgrounds. But myths are not so much about plausible truth—they seek to give us a deeper meaning, which is why they resonate so strongly with us.
For any writer, myths can be useful as inspiration—to spark an idea, to take an old myth and give it new life and new twists. Myths can be used to help provide a stronger story structure, and to bring a deeper meaning to a fantasy world, even if that world is also set in modern times.
Today, Norse myths and mythic characters show up in comics and manga. Thor and the Asguard pantheon take part in the Marvel Universe, and in Neil Gaiman’s world of Sandman. Greek mythology influenced the Battlestar Galactica series, Lost, and the series for Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules.
What does all this mean for writers of fantasy works or paranormal novels? It means we’re not just using myths, we’re also inventing new ones. But the resonance of the past should not be overlooked.
Mythology in a modern setting means the writer needs to both look back at what has been done—at stories that may apply to your fiction. Ancient mythology can give deeper meaning to any story. Perhaps you are drawn to Irish mythology, or to Japanese myths, or to South American myths. Native American mythology has influenced Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, as well as others. Some writers prefer to look for obscure mythology, such as Tolkien who taught himself Finnish so he could read stories from The Kalevala of Finnish myths in their original tongue.
This looking back at myths can be useful not just for inspiration, but to ground a story with its own mythology—to give the story weight and resonance.
Mythology is shaped by culture, just as the culture is in turned shaped by its enduring myths.
And this brings us to modern mythology—for we are always shaping and reshaping our myths. Loki was reshaped in the movie The Mask—but Loki could also have been the shapeshifting/trickster coyote from Native American myths in that story.
Shows such as X-Files and Supernatural lean on not just older myths, but the myths of modern urban legends with their own twists. They create a mythology for the show that leans on current culture, much as did Buffy and other shows before them.
These modern myths update the stories that are in our bones—stories that have been with us for perhaps as long as language has been with us.
As noted, mythology can do more than inspire—it can provide structure and shape to a story, even one with a modern setting. From Joseph Campbell, we have the Hero’s Journey structure (explained here—http://www.nownovel.com/blog/structure-story-tips-joseph-cambells-mythology/) which has influenced writers and screenwriters and provides a structure that entertains over and over again.
We need our myths just as much as our ancestors needed them—not to explain the world, but to show the deeper truths of this modern era. To help us look past the flash of technology to the mythic world that still lies inside our hearts and souls.