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Author Topic: Mythology for non-epic fantasy  (Read 1222 times)

Offline Yora

Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« on: February 08, 2016, 06:08:46 PM »
One thing I've long been completely undecided about is how to deal with mythology in fantasy worldbuilding when your story is not linked to the order or the cosmic cycles of the universe being threatened by some disruption. If you have a story about some ancient evil good breaking out of his prison or some immortal super monster waking up and starting to devour the world, then the role of mythology in the book is clear.

But what if it isn't? If the world is not about to be destroyed or remade, in what ways can you include mythology in the story without making it unnedded exposition that doesn't lead to anything? Is there some elegant way to include this pretty important element of the way people see the world and themselves, or is that just something to be better ignored completely?

Offline Rostum

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2016, 06:24:40 PM »
Everything has a backstory and a history, but you dont have to use it.Maybe just leave room for it if it becomes relevent at a later date.

Offline Blackthorn

Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2016, 06:34:24 PM »
Maybe it is just as you said, the mythology is present in the way people go about their daily lives. The way they wear their clothes, their ceremonies. If it does something to round out the story it doesn't seem useless just my opinion.

Offline JMack

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Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2016, 07:43:04 PM »
One thing I've long been completely undecided about is how to deal with mythology in fantasy worldbuilding when your story is not linked to the order or the cosmic cycles of the universe being threatened by some disruption. If you have a story about some ancient evil good breaking out of his prison or some immortal super monster waking up and starting to devour the world, then the role of mythology in the book is clear.

But what if it isn't? If the world is not about to be destroyed or remade, in what ways can you include mythology in the story without making it unnedded exposition that doesn't lead to anything? Is there some elegant way to include this pretty important element of the way people see the world and themselves, or is that just something to be better ignored completely?

I think of it as the stories people tell each other to understand an incomprehensible world. So mythologoy can be present in any story of people.
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Offline Yora

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2016, 10:00:56 PM »
Currently I am leaning very much towards ignoring that subject completely. Even though it's one of the things lots of people use as the starting point for their entire worldbuilding. And I want to do something about people living in a world full of spirits and monsters were early civilizations are just evolving.

All my instincts tell me that mythology, particularly creation myths and pantheons, are absolutely necessary and vital for this. But every rational consideration leads me to conclude that it's pointless.

Maybe part of why mythology is always treated as such a big deal by antropologists is because it's the only stories from societies about which we don't have any historic accounts at all. But we are going through daily life without giving any thought to the formation of the solar system and the evolution of early fish almost every day. Maybe medieval farmers and stone age hunters didn't either, except for some assumptions of their environment that were so basic that they didn't even make any conscious connections between them.
If alien antroplogists would land in Berlin now and ask the locals to tell them their creation myths, we would be able to give them the answer they want to hear, but that wouldn't mean that we take any of it even remotely literal.

Offline ArhiX

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #5 on: February 09, 2016, 02:30:33 AM »
Most of the mythology deals with creation myth and some "superheroes". As far as I remember, you have quite a lot of it - 'Faes' invading "real" world and enslaving most of intelligent races, until they are bored of everything and they just leave without a word. But why? Why have they left? That's a good question for an epic mythological story.

Lots of myths are created, because humans wanted to justify why something happened, when there was something big going on around. Why are there thunderstorms? Because Dzeus is mad at someone. Vulcano eruption? Hephaistos making stuff in his forge. etc. etc.

And many myths are just distorted stories about real things. The flood? Many scientists agree, that most likely something like that happened when Mediterranean Sea was just a droughted plains of salt. Then, land barrier broke, and water flooded it. It was epic enough to survive in memory of our ancestors for thousands of years.


So you can just have stories about Fae lords that were able to do some epic stuff, or fighting ancient (even for them) beasts. People like stories, and beside there is not much to do, when nights and evenings are long. People would just gather aound the fire, and tell stories.
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

Offline Yora

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #6 on: February 09, 2016, 10:49:21 AM »
Though I am wondering if it's worth trying to establish an overall mythology in advance? Quite often they are bodies of several stories and not really a single consistent system. (Even the bible contradicts itself all the time, and that was written down specifically for the purpose of keeping things straight without people making their own changes and additions all the time.)

So maybe it might really be entirely sufficient to come up with short abridged myths as they would show up in a story on case by case basis. When the protagonists plan to go to a volcano or prominent cave, some local briefly references a myth connected to that place. Something that gives a bit of context to understand the nature and disposition of the spirit of that place without putting it into the context of a larger narrative of the creation and ordering of the world. When we look at other people's mythologies, the names of places mentioned in them don't really mean much to us. But for the people at the time, they were places they knew, and knew people who have been there, perhaps even been there themselves.

Creation myths about the making of the world seem to be a rather special case as they are taking place everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But much of the rest that is thrown in the category of mythology seems to be mostly like local folklore. And once you do your worldbuilding on a continent scale, the religions and myths of any one culture become very local affairs. When you're talking about Greek Mythology, it's the mythology of one tiny group of islands. Egyptian Mythology is the mythology of one river. Of course the Egyptians had an empire much larger than just the shores of the Nile, but still not much bigger than the modern state Egypt. And Greek culture spread over an area considerably larger than the Aegean Sea. But not all people in the Hellenic world had the same culture as aristocrats in Athens or Corinth, and not everyone in the Egyptian empire shared the culture of Thebes or Memphis.
If you're making a continent with ancient or prehistoric cultures, any religion would be confined to a pretty small area and be a very local afair.
« Last Edit: February 09, 2016, 10:59:17 AM by Yora »

Offline ArhiX

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #7 on: February 09, 2016, 06:06:09 PM »
But still - many myths share some of their content. We have a flood, horned beast, evil snakes, dragons and phoenixes almost in every culture. They are just named differently. Same story can be told in many ways.

Imo - it's not realy worth to create full mythology just for lulz if you're not going to use it, or when it doesn't matter for the world. Especially when it comes to creation myths. You can come up with something as you go.
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

Offline Yora

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #8 on: March 11, 2016, 05:08:55 PM »
And here I find myself with a mythology without meaning to make one.

Having looked more deeper into the explanations of the role of mythology in societies (which is where 4 years of university pay off even without a degree), myth really exist to give meaning to things in nature and society that are ultimately meaningless when looking at them geologically, biologically, or sociologically. It's less an attempt at explaining how and why volcanoes errupt, but an attempt to formalize a way how we're going to react to an errupion when it happens. Which is generally done by assigning a mind or a will to a phenomenon, in form of either a god or a monster. And often we also get a hero whose tale shows us how we're supposed to feel about the phenomenon. Taking the tale as a lesson, we then can have the feeling that we're actually doing something effective to improve our situation in life, even when the rituals and customs don't really do anything. But doing something that we think helps a little, and thinking that it would be much worse if we didn't do it generally feels much better than accepting that bad things are going to happen to you and there's nothing you can do about it.

When I see people explaining their ideas for a mythology, it often start the classic way like "In the beginning was the word..." But this might be approaching the subject from the wrong side. Especially when it's done at the very beginning of worldbuilding. It's providing answers to questions that have not been asked yet, and explanations for problems that don't exist yet. As a result you end up with something that feels unnaturally precise and rounded where usually you would expect something confusing and inconsistent.
And also, these mythologies are usually treated as being objective facts. Instead of having ethical and philosophical meanings, these myth are treated as being history and physics. Which in turn are once again inherently meaningless. Which might be why most stories about a war between heaven and hell don't do anything for me. Especially in recent years these often take the form of two opposing sides that don't really seem to have meaningful differences and are fighting for nothing but points on a scoreboard.

I was thinking about how people in my setting think about certain things that are important in their life. All civilization is based along coasts, so the sea would be very important to them. Also, deep below the ground are very ancient spirits from the beginning of time, which people greatly fear. And without planning on having a creation myth, I found myself thinking that it probably would be the most logical thing to say that the world began when land rose from the sea. People on the coast see land rising or sinking during some earthquakes, and for them it is like a new part of the world came into existance or part of their world disappeared from existance. A world in which there is nothing would be a world that is only sea.
In Germanic mythology, the surfaces of calm bodies of water were seen as portals to another world of spirits. Why not apply this to the surface of the ocean? That would mean any ship that sinks is not just destroyed and the sailors not just dead, but they have instead been physically pulled into the Otherworld. Lots of intersting potential there.
Another thing I was thinking about are metals. I don't even remember how, but somehow I ended up with the idea that copper and tin are the male and female children of the Earth and that in combination they become whole and the strongest known material other than some rocks. And how about making bronze a ritual element in weddings? Copper and tin could develop all kinds of meaning. (Bronze is also not a 50/50 mix but a 90/10 mix, which surely can be abused for all manners of symbols and metaphors. ;D) Again I have forgotten how it came to me, but I decided that iron is the blood of the Earth. (I know one world which has a magic metal that is belived to be the bones of a god.) Which is funny because rust is red for the same reason that blood is red. And the taste is actually iron, not copper. And being the blood of a great deity, it makes a lot of sense that it can hurt lesser spirits. (I think Heracles got the idea of killing an invincible monster with its own horn.)
There is really no system at all. Just a bunch of ideas that kind of started to accumulate.

Offline K.S. Crooks

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #9 on: March 13, 2016, 04:45:37 AM »
Perhaps the mythology and the stories involved refer to something real that could not be explained by people in the past. If an item or prophecy is misunderstood it can be the focus of a cause or solution of present problem for your story.
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Offline DrMclony

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #10 on: March 16, 2016, 04:36:12 AM »
Everything has a backstory and a history, but you dont have to use it.Maybe just leave room for it if it becomes relevent at a later date.

This. Give your readers some imagination room, let them think about it, give them the chance to gloat in the "I knew it!" moment later on. I am embarking on a Fantasy series at the moment, and I already know a lot of the mysterious history of the world will not be revealed until book three, and this is fine, as long as the world has depth without it. There is always "known history" and the mysterious. Find a line between them, and punch holes in the latter when appropriate :)
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Offline Yora

Re: Mythology for non-epic fantasy
« Reply #11 on: March 16, 2016, 12:34:10 PM »
Yes, but that's all history. Stuff that (supposedly) actually happened as facts. The stories people are telling each other to make sense and give order to the world around them is a quite different thing.

Something that I believe most fantasy doesn't actually have. Like few works of fantasy have actual religion or supernatural phenomena. Most of it is just made up history and science.