Make Myth Your Muse

by Birgitte Rasine | 25 comments

The Holidays are here.  Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid-al-Adha, Kwanzaa. Bodhi Day and Boxing Day. Junkanoo and Hogmanay. Winter Solstice.

Actually, holidays (holy days) run the solar gamut—practically every day, some culture somewhere in the world is celebrating or commemorating something or someone: holidays are our cultural myths.

Well, that's nice. Why should a writer care?

Because myths are the stuff of legends, and the engines of stories.

Photo by Birgitte Rasine

Photo by Birgitte Rasine

We humans have been telling stories since we learned to talk. No doubt those tales that sent torrents of adrenaline through our veins also seared the strongest tracks in our memory, and were told and retold through generation after iPad-less generation. Indeed, the definition of myth is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or culture, or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.”

So where do you draw the line between a myth and a fictional story?

You don't.  You write one into the other.

Myth Wrapped in a Story Inside a Plotline

Now, it may seem fairly easy to take any old fashionable myth and tuck it into your narrative.  But here's the problem. The most powerful myths will typically also be the most re-told. Which means many other writers have come this way before you, scooping up overused myth dust to sprinkle onto their works.

You need to dig deeper. Find those obscure, forgotten, seemingly insignificant tales that no one—to your knowledge—has written about, or into. Myths that no one has reshaped into a surprising twist of plot, an original premise, an unforgettable scene.

I'll give you an example.

When I was doing research for my upcoming novel about the history of chocolate, I discovered that there was a Maya king named Jasaw Chan K'awiil I, A.K.A. Lord Cacao. I swear on my eighty-percent cacao Panama Extra Dark chocolate bar. It just so happened he was the man who brought Tikal back to power in the 7th century, and Tikal is close to where my story takes place.  Naturally, he had to be part of the narrative.

But I couldn't just stick him into the story and be done with it. I created a fictional myth around the real myth of Lord Cacao, one that aligns naturally with the plot line of the novel, galvanizes the final conflict, and takes the story to its climax. In fact, the new hybrid myth became the very backbone of my story. Nothing less.

Find Your Myth

You cannot simply graft a myth onto your narrative.  You have to know everything about your story as well as everything about the actual time and place your story lives and dies in.  Do the research, remember?  It's painful, but then so is running that six-minute mile for two weeks because you've had too many chocolate truffles during the holidays.

Read. Read everything you can about the history, the culture, the people relevant to your specific story. If you're doing historical fiction, the world's your oyster. If you're writing fantasy, search for myths that can serve as parallel archetypes to the world you're creating. If you're working on a thriller, use myth to deepen the psychological profile/s of your protagonist and/or antagonist.

Still not sure where to begin?  Other authors' works are a great start.  If you look around, you'll start seeing myths everywhere. Good old Shakespeare of course, James Joyce, and Jorge Luis Borges were masters of weaving mythology into their works. Contemporary writers who use mythology include Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Seamus Heaney, and many others.

Sooner or later, you will have to step into these heady waters and weave a myth into your story.  Which myth shall pique your muse?

One More Thing

Above all, very Happy Holidays to everyone here at The Write Practice community.   I have tremendously enjoyed these first few months as a Write Practice blogger, and look forward to many more conversations with you in the New Year.

What are some of your favorite modern books that incorporate myths?

PRACTICE

Work a myth into your writing, and share with us which culture or heritage the myth comes from. Or create a myth of your own, but tell us what it's based on or what aspects of the myth you've created. In either case, tell us how the myth enriches your story.  Post your work here in the comments.

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Birgitte Rasine

Birgitte Rasine is an author, publisher, and entrepreneur. Her published works include Tsunami: Images of Resilience, The Visionary, The Serpent and the Jaguar, Verse in Arabic, and various short stories including the inspiring The Seventh Crane. She has just finished her first novel for young readers. She also runs LUCITA, a design and communications firm with her own publishing imprint, LUCITA Publishing. You can follow Birgitte on Twitter (@birgitte_rasine), Facebook, Google Plus or Pinterest. Definitely sign up for her entertaining eLetter "The Muse"! Or you can just become blissfully lost in her online ocean, er, web site.

25 Comments

  1. Katie Hamer

    Birgitte, you have such wonderful, well-thought out practices. I think you could, and should, make a book from them.

    There’s so much to stir the imagination here. Myths are what give meaning to life, and remind us that there is something greater than our day-to-day existences. They can also help us to navigate murky waters.

    Of particular interest to me, especially at this time of year, is how the Romans synchronised Christian celebrations with Pagan festivities, to make them more palatable to the Ancient Britons. Easter also fits into the Pagan calendar.

    This post has sparked my curiosity, for two reasons. First of all, just a couple of days ago, I uncovered “The Encyclopaedia’ of Celtic Wisdom” which is a hefty tome, but looks as if it will be a fascinating read. Secondly, I’ve discovered a friend who has an amazingly in-depth knowledge of the origins of fairy tales, and with whom I hope to have many interesting discussions.

    To make these discoveries feels like the best Christmas present of them all. Happy Christmas, and good luck with the novel!

    Reply
    • Maure

      As a Pagan, I’m always interested when someone brings up the festivals. It’s kind of funny how most people will be celebrating Christmas as we’re winding down from the Winter Solstice, and the Spring Exquinox is often a full month off Easter.
      Also, I envy you your friend! Fairy tales are a fascinating subject, and such a rich ground to pull stories from.

    • Birgitte Rasine

      Maure, agreed. Much of what we celebrate today has its origins in pagan customs… the most obvious example is the Christmas tree. Perhaps the reason for the shift in timing for these Catholic holidays you mention was to disassociate them from their original pagan roots…

      Today so much of the original essence of festivals and myths has been so thoroughly commercialized and marketed (whether for capitalism or religious conquest) that most people likely have no idea where they come from and what they used to mean.

    • Birgitte Rasine

      Katie, how kind of you, thank you! I’m so glad the posts resonate. There is so much more to say on the topic, but I promised myself to keep the post concise. I may do another one or two on the topic in the future.

      Your friend sounds like an extraordinary resource! We should have a Skype session with him (her?). I think that would be extraordinary for the Write Practice community.

      Re: the Romans, virtually all of the major strategic geopolitical powers throughout history have co-opted the myths, customs, and beliefs of the peoples they sought to subjugate, in order to make the process of conquest smoother, easier, and more permanent. Rather insidious! The Spanish, and the Catholic religion, did precisely that to the Maya. Of course, they were helped by internal conflicts and jealousies among the Maya cities themselves, but the way they leveraged Maya and Aztec myths and the prophecies of the Mayan calendar to subvert their indigenous culture is truly stunning. Sadly, they’re still at it to this day.

    • Katie Hamer

      Birgitte, what a lovely idea. Thanks for the suggestion. I will pass it on to my friend. We’ve chatted over Skype a couple of times, so I think it would appeal to her. Is it all right if I email you? (I have your email address still).

      I agree, religion, sadly, is all to often used as a method of controlling the masses. At the same time, we should never forget the great works of art, and life achievements, of many who have felt guided by their beliefs. I guess religion is a tool, and is very much open to interpretation. It can heal, or it can corrupt, depending on your agenda.

    • Birgitte Rasine

      Yes of course Katie, email me whenever.

      And thank you for your big-hearted comment about religion. I agree it’s not religion in itself that causes these grievous sociocultural issues, but rather the intentions and actions of those acting in the name of said religion. I would extend the metaphor, in fact, to everything the human race lays its hands on. There will always be the good, the bad, and the everything in between. Call it our human spectrum. 🙂

  2. Debra johnson

    Mine is unclear right now, but it is circling how even though we are all different as writers we are all the same. And it stems from a single gift Here is my start.

    As I looked at her secret Santa name I smiled. I pulled Rosa’s name and while everyone was struggling with their gift ideas I knew exactly what I was
    going to get Rosa.

    After work I went to her favorite store and began her hunt for the perfect gift or gifts. The interior was beautifully decorated for the season and it smelled of spice and pumpkin. Just to inhale I couldn’t wait to get home and make a cup of my favorite cappuccino. I went to the stationary isle and straight to the index
    cards and grabbed two packs one for her and one for me.

    Then I went to the dish isle and looked over all the cool coffee cups and designs. One can never have to many cups especially writers. I found two with an inscription on them. The first one said Writers are never alone and the other said Imagination makes anything possible. Before long she had the things she wanted and quickly looked at the clock. Everything bought in under an hour. Perfect and with time to spare, plenty of time to wrap the gifts. The party the gifts were for was less than an two hours away.

    Reply
  3. Maure

    I haven’t done enough research to write any of it out yet, but one of my planned books, ‘We, The Fallen’ was built off the Pied Piper tale and takes place during the time of the Black Plague, which I’ve seen it associated with a few times. I originally only had the idea of a book based off the Piper myth, and I can’t remember why it was called ‘We, The Fallen’ – but then I ran into an informative post on the Black Plague and everything seemed to click together. The feelings of something being done wrong, met with a terrible fate; the Piper as a figure of death, which a number of people have theorized; the rats tying into the plague, and so on.

    Reply
    • Birgitte Rasine

      I’d say you have an interesting potential book here, Maure. I hope you follow through with it.

  4. Alex

    My attempt. Some comments at the end:

    She looked at one of the statues. A cold stone hero in cold stone armour with a cold stone shield and a cold stone sword. He looked so brave and yet so terrified at the same time. He’d set out on a great quest. He’d failed. There were several statues in her parlour. They’d all failed. They’d thought to slay a great monster and win great acclaim. They’d failed and these statues stood as monuments to their failure. They were so hansom. All of the heroes were. She might even go so far as to call them beautiful, except that she had seen beauty before. True beauty. The kind of beauty that only gods could have. She’d seen it twice and both times it had changed her.

    She stroked her swollen belly. How long had it been now? How long since that one night of pure ecstasy when he’d take her? Ravaged her in a way that only a god could. It had been much longer than the normal length of a pregnancy; at least a year. She must surely give birth to whatever it was that Poseidon had planted inside her soon. She just hoped that the fruit of her union was worth what it had cost her.

    Athena had not been happy with her. She still remembered her face. Beautiful rage. Beautiful vengeance. Beautiful hatred. For her and for him. She’d exerted a rage than only a goddess could exert. She’d made her into a monster for violating her temple with him.

    She’d been so beautiful back then. Beautiful and stupid. So beautiful that heroes like those that decorated her parlour had sought her. No, they’d pursued her relentlessly. Begging her for her favour. But she had sworn herself to the goddess. Sworn herself to the temple. Until he’d come. How could anyone resist a god? She wasn’t beautiful anymore. Athena had seen to that. She’d taken away her beauty.

    Now men still chased her, but not for her beauty. They hunted her like a monster. Hunted her for the glory of her death by their hands. She had tried to hide, tried not to look at them, but they found her. They climbed mountains and braved storms to get to here. She hadn’t wanted to kill them. Not at first. But she didn’t have a choice. They only needed to look at her to become statues.

    **

    Many people only know the one side of the Medusa myth. The male side. But the other side of it, from the point of view of Medusa is fascinating. A beautiful priestess turned into a monster, who would turn to stone anyone who looked at her, by Athena as punishment for sleeping with Poseidon in her temple. Much more interesting than the mamma’s boy who gets given plenty of help by the gods to essentially slaughter an innocent woman because his new step-dad wanted her head as a wedding gift.

    It’s fun to do this to myths. We only have a very popularised version of many Greek and Roman myths; a version created in the masculine environment of the historical Greek and Roman worlds and perpetuated by modern popular culture. Often there are different versions hidden away that most people are unaware of. It’s an interesting exercise to look at the other side of a myth, especially when monsters are created by the wrath of the gods. The Minotaur for example; a woman made to fall madly in love with a bull because her husband offended him.Brilliant!

    I hope to write this out into a full short story of the whole myth with Medusa’s point of view at some point

    Reply
  5. writerrobynlarue

    I love the idea of using myth and legend/fairy tale in story, though I have trouble finding obscure ones. I have a few in my file, and looking forward to working on them. Your post was indeed concise, and please, post more on the topic. 🙂

    Reply
  6. ruth

    Hi Birgitte!
    Such an intriguing, inspiring post! Thanks for your thoughtful and inspiring words, a holiday gift in itself! ***
    Part of the wonder of Christmas was tied to annual visits from the Christmas Angel. She was only five years old when her parents urged her to polish her shoes and leave them outside her bedroom door before going to sleep. Each of four Sundays before Christmas, she polished her brown high-top shoes meticulously and set them outside the door with shaky hands. Was the angel watching? How would she know who the shoes belong to? Would she leave a treat? Where did the angel live?
    “Will I ever see my angel?” she whispered.
    The next morning, down in the toe of the brown high-top shoe, something special hid. Once it was a gleaming silver dollar, once a piece of darkest chocolate with a cherry inside and wrapped in sparkling gold paper. Once there appeared a carefully wirtten note in silver letters, signed “with love, Your Christmas Angel”
    It was a secret between the young girl and the unseen visitor. As wonderful as the treats were, more important was knowing that an unknown being watched over her. Tha angel offered something tangible from an untouchable source, the proof that angels surely hovered above.
    After so many years I still search for my angel, believing as surely as the little girl that one lingers close. The treats today are the gifts which surround me…family love,nature’s beauty, the peace of a starry night.***
    Note: I believe the myth of the Christmas angel and the shoes came as a tradition from Germany brought to us by a relative, although I have not been able to verify it anywhere.

    Reply
    • Birgitte Rasine

      Lovely post Ruth, thank you. This is a very special time of year for me, as I grew up with similar myths in my country (the Czech Republic). Even not being Catholic, the myths and traditions of Christmas run very deep.

  7. Carole Dixon

    Meghan and her husband got in bed shortly after midnight. When she awoke at three with a burning need to pee and to get some water, she found herself quite groggy. Stumbling into the kitchen, the rooms displayed a soft glowing luminance in her wake. It was those beautiful motion lights they had installed this year. Yes, it cost a fortune, but it was so worth it for the dark to light up in your presence. She could see their eighteen foot Christmas tree in the foyer with all white theme announcing the grace and good taste of her family.

    Standing at her refrigerator, tapping into the filtered water, she felt a presence behind her. Whirling around, Meghan saw Santa Claus. The water in her crystal goblet flew into her face, so extreme was her fright at seeing the intruder. Meghan tried screaming but found she made no sound.

    Santa looked benign, friendly really, with twinkling blue eyes, a weight problem and stacks of real gold trimming his red velveteen hat. Meghan understood then, it was just a dream. Hadn’t she taken some of that ambien before they had gone to bed? She’d had two White Russian drinks too, no. make that four. That ambien made you do funny things, hallucinate even. She could go with this. First she would get her gun though.

    Santa invited her to sit at the table with its silver service out and candles already lit. Cookies and milk were on the platter. “Just a moment,” she said graciously and she moved over and opened the drawer next to the sink and pulled out her small gleaming pistol her husband had ordered from that Newtown gun manufacturer last year right after that dreadful shooting. She slipped it into the pocket of her gleaming white satin robe and she walked over and took a seat with Santa.

    “And to what do I owe this visit?” Meghan asked rather playfully. She knew. She had defended his honor to the entire world. My God, it had been stressful. All she said was Santa was white and so was Jesus. Everybody knew it was true, but the liberal press had to attack over and over each Christmas, just ruining it for Christians everywhere.

    Santa shrugged and pushed the cookies at her. They were white puffed divinity cookies. Her favorite. “I know you have been through a lot,” he said, and I appreciate it. I especially appreciate what your government is doing this year, you know, escorting me all the way around the world in their fighter jets. That is just too cool.”

    “Well,” Megan munched her cookie enthusiastically, I didn’t have anything to do with the fighter jets.” And they both laughed merrily.

    Meghan settled into this dream she was having. Santa Claus. She couldn’t wait to tell her two children in the morning and her husband. What a great dream. She enthusiastically discussed with Santa how the American people, (the real ones, not those phony Americans the press made up, who said they actually liked Obamacare) had all writen her emails supporting her campaign to bring the white back into Christmas.

    About fifteen minutes and eight cookies later, Meghan felt her vision blurring. She felt a little more than woosey. Her head felt like it was floating off her body. She was laughing hysterically and every bite she took made her hungrier. Then she noticed Santa didn’t look so white anymore.

    “Whaaat?” Her sensibilities tried to kick in, but were thwarted. Santa’s face was pitch black and he had horns coming out of his head. Oh lord, this ambien wasn’t so much fun anymore. The black Santa was laughing like a hyena. Meghan went from relaxed to terrified.

    “Who are you really?” she screamed and wondered how her husband was sleeping through all this.

    “Why, I am Krampus and I am a very old creature indeed. I am Santa’s companion and I deal with the naughty kids.”

    No, you are not. You are a nightmare. My nightmare. THe real American nightmare. A black Santa. You do not exist,” and Meghan fingered her small pistol.

    “I do indeed exist, I am German and perfectly legitimate. You, my dear, are the one who really doesn’t exist. You think you live in a vacuum. You think you can lie to people all over the world night after night, make obscene profits and just get away with it. You think your white America is all that exists and you perpetuate this myth in a horrifying fashion.”

    “In fact,” Krampus went on, “since you are Germanic yourself, I am your own personal Santa from deep in your ancestoral roots. We go together, Meghan, you and me, like Hitler and a swastika.”

    “Don’t go pulling that Nazi shit on me,” Meghan snapped. “You are somebody from the liberal media and somebody paid you to scare the beJesus out of me.” And she pulled out her tiny pistol and fired.

    Krampus held up his black hand with curly nails going every which a way and smiled an awful smile with rows and rows of shark like teeth. He caught the bullet and ate it.

    “Meghan, you get what you deserve.” And he swooped her up into his black gunny sack and apparated up the chimney with her

    Reply
    • The Cody

      Ahhh very interesting and revealing. My mom grew up in Germany and said that “Black Peter” would travel door to door when she was young. It was just a person in costume but, if children at the household were naughty, Black Peter actually spanked them (the parents would let him). Oh how times have changed!

    • Carole Dixon

      This is so cool to have verbal lore substantiating the myth.

  8. Catherine

    Thank you very much for this excellent post Birgitte! I have two WIP’s in the works right now, and both of them revolve around two myths/legends which have always held a very special place in my heart.

    My first WIP is also my first novel (well, my first attempt at a novel) that deals with the legend of Swan Lake, and my second WIP is a Christmas short story that revolves around the story of the Nutcracker. I fell in love with these two stories most likely due to my ballet background, and the fact that I am a hopeless romantic and a great lover of fairy tales.
    Currently, the concept of my Swan Lake novel is much more developed than my Nutcracker short story since the idea for the novel has been in my head for three years now, whereas I began dreaming up the short story last Christmas.
    In the case of my Swan Lake novel, I am retelling the legend or rather saying what truly happened, because similar events are taking place in modern day as in the legend. I find it hard to describe because the main plot follows its own story line; it’s not a modern mirror-image of the fairy tale, and yet the characters are aware of the fact that this legend exists.
    The bulk of my research has been on the ballet itself since the legend’s origins were not well documented. Though, there have been countless stories starting from the time of the ancient Greeks that speak of women turning into swans and the like. Thankfully, I mentioned to one of my ballet teachers that I was conducting research on Swan Lake, and she turned out to be very supportive and even lent me a book of hers on the histories and plots of various ballets. It was a great help and a delight to read. I feel the research I’ve done has helped me immensely for now I have the tools to craft my own version of the legend that will give the events occuring in the modern timeline greater relevance.

    Reply
    • Birgitte Rasine

      Most welcome Catherine. Fascinating what you say about Swan Lake — it is at once so well known and commercial, and so mysterious. Yes, when it comes to myths you really need to spend some serious time diving way deep. 🙂 Good luck and keep us all posted!

    • ayakalim

      your idea seems so interesting i would love to read it

  9. Andre Cruz

    What a great writing prompt. I use news stories as inspiration for my own stories.

    Looking back into the past for uncommon folklore is an awesome idea. Thanks.

    We already have too many stories about Greek Gods. I would say if you want to get a unpopular myth choose one from a nonwhite culture, just like what you did in your research about Mayan culture.

    http://www.andrecruz.net

    Reply
    • Birgitte Rasine

      Agreed! As much as I love Greek mythology, I’ve seen and read far more than my fair share of it. All the movies, all the novels, all the poems… enough already. There is SO much more in the world! I remember I read a book of tales from Oceania when I was about 7 or 8, and it was the most amazing compilation of stories ever. There was another book about the Monkey King from China.

      But unpopular? Not at all. Just “unknown.”

    • Andre Cruz

      I am happy you are trying to shed light on the unknown stories.

  10. Antonio José Lourenço

    A very good start would be looking for Joseph Campbell works. One in particular is “The hero with a thousand faces”, a great book where he shows us that all heros follow the same pattern. He is tottaly based on mythology, due to Campbell profession: mythologist.

    Reply

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