Norse myths and legends, Odin, Thor

Myths and Legends: Origins and Traditions

I’m opening up a new front in These fantastic Worlds: mythology, ancient civilization and their connections to modern gothic, and fantastic fiction, art and music.

William Blake, Urizen, these fantastic worlds, Jake Jackson

Ancient of Days, 1794

Obvious examples include William Blake’s prophetic works and paintings with their biblical and Chaldaen inspirations, H. P. Lovecraft‘s Babylonian-leaning weird tales, and the crafty teen fiction of the Percy Jackson series based on Greek Myths. It’s also easy to see the rolling myth-making of the modern comic book and the all-powerful superhero movies (Avengers, Thor, Man of Steel and the rest), with their archetypal story lines: good vs evil, quests, Gods (the powerful) vs the humans, all originating in the myths of ancient civilisations, from  the Sumerians, to the Egyptians, the Greeks, to the multifaceted Indian Vedas.

I’ve recently finished collecting together the stories of the Celts, Greeks, Native American and Norse mythologies for some paperback books which will shortly be published in print and ebook editions. Here’s the foreword to the series.

Myths and Legends: An Introduction

Stretching back to the oral traditions of thousands of years ago, tales of heroes and disaster, creation and conquest have been told by many different civilizations in many different ways. Their impact sits deep within our culture even though the detail in the tales themselves are a loose mix of historical record, transformed narrative and the distortions of hundreds of storytellers.

TZeus, myths and legendsoday the language of mythology lives with us: our mood is jovial, our countenance is saturnine, we are narcissistic and our modern life is hermetically sealed from others. The nuances of myths and legends form part of our daily routines and help us navigate the world around us, with its half truths and biased, reported facts.

The nature of a myth is that its story is already known by most of those who hear it, or read it. Every generation brings a new emphasis, but the fundamentals remain the same: a desire to understand and describe the events and relationships of the world. Many of the great stories are archetypes that help us find our own place, equipping us with tools for self-understanding, both individually and as part of a broader culture.

Greek and Roman Sources

For Western societies it is Greek mythology that speaks to us most clearly. It greatly influenced the mythological heritage of the ancient Roman civilisation and is the lens through which we still see the Celts, the Norse and many of the other great peoples and religions. The Greeks themselves learned much from their neighbours, the Egyptians, an older culture that became weak with age and incestuous leadership.

It is important to understand that what we perceive now as mythology had its own origins in the intimations of the divine and the rituals of the sacred. The earliest civilisations, in the crucible of the Middle East, in the Sumer of the third millennium BC, are the source to which many of the mythic archetypes can be traced. As humankind collected together in cities for the first time, developed writing and industrial scale agriculture, started to irrigate the rivers and attempted to control rather than be at the mercy of its environment, humanity began to write down its tentative explanations of natural events, of floods and plagues, of disease.

Native American myths and legendsEarly stories tell of Gods (or god-like animals in the case of tribal societies such as African, Native American or Aboriginal cultures) who are crafty and use their wits to survive, and it is reasonable to suggest that these were the first rulers of the gathering peoples of the earth, later elevated to god-like status with the distance of time. Such tales became more political as cities vied with each other for supremacy, creating new Gods, new hierarchies for their pantheons. The older Gods took on primordial roles and became the preserve of creation and destruction, leaving the new gods to deal with more current, everyday affairs. Empires rose and fell, with Babylon assuming the mantle from Sumeria in the 1800s BC, then in turn to be swept away by the Assyrians of the 1200s BC; then the Assyrians and the Egyptians were subjugated by the Greeks, the Greeks by the Romans and so on, leading to the spread and assimilation of common themes, ideas and stories throughout the world.

Only Connect

The survival of history is dependent on the telling of good tales, but each one must have the ‘feeling’ of truth, otherwise it will be ignored. Around the firesides, or embedded in a book or a computer, the myths and legends of the past are still the living materials of retold myth, not restricted to an exploration of origins. Now we have devices and global communications that give us unparalleled access to a diversity of traditions. We can find out about Native American, Indian, Chinese and tribal African mythology in a way that was denied to our ancestors, we can find connections, match the archaeology, religion and the mythologies of the world to build a comprehensive image of the human experience that is endlessly fascinating.

The stories in these new books provide an introduction to the themes and concerns of the myths of each respective cultures, with a short introduction to provide a linguistic, geographic and political context. This is where the myths have arrived today, but undoubtedly over the next millennia, they will transform again whilst retaining their essential truths and signs.

Books in the Myths and Legends series are available from all good bookshops (!). Here’s the Amazon link.

Myths and Legends, folklore, mythology

 Other links

The Paintings in this Post

In order of appearance

Odin’s Wild Hunt, painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872
Ancient of Days, William Blake, Europe of Prophesy, 1794
Jupiter and Thetis, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1811
In the Crystal Depths, N.C. Wyeth 1906
Book covers for the Myths and Legends series, Flame Tree 2014