Myths and legends are around us all the time. We see them in everything from novels to film and TV to video games to advertisements. What began as a way to explain natural phenomena has become a universal collective consciousness that brings people together and helps us understand each other a little more.
But there’s some confusion surrounding myth in the broad spectrum of folkloric oral tradition, as well as what place it has in literature today. Let’s dive into what myth really means with an easy myth definition, why it’s still important today, and some examples of contemporary literature that draws from these ancient stories.
What is myth in literature?
A myth is a classic story or collection of stories that’s closely tied to a certain geographical location, group of people, or religion. These stories were used to explain why things are the way they are today. Collectively, these stories are called “mythology.” Writers can draw on existing mythology or create brand new systems within a fictional world.
Myths can be something large, like how the world was made or how a particular mountain came into being; or they can be small, like why owls only hunt at night or how dandelions earned their yellow color.
Every culture in the world has mythology, because people have been telling each other stories for as long as there has been human connection. You can actually tell quite a lot about a culture from the values presented in its myths. For example, Greek and Roman mythology put a lot of value on aesthetic beauty, Norse myths celebrate brute strength and heroism, and Celtic mythology favors cleverness and cunning.
The great news for writers is that myths are filled with vibrant, powerful stories you can use to inspire your own work.
Myths vs. legends vs. fairy tales
Myths are part of the larger story expanse we know as folklore, which also includes legends and fairy tales. These terms are often used interchangeably, especially myths and legends. So what’s the difference?
Myths, as we saw above, are closely tied to a particular group of people and used to make sense of the world. They’re often held to be a deep, intrinsic truth within a given culture. While this is somewhat changing today, given the rise of science, skepticism, and media, there was a time not too long ago when mythology was held to be a part of real historical events. In other words, people believed these things really happened.
Mythology represents an intersection of history, culture, and social values presented through the lens of story.
Legends are a bit different. These are stories that are rooted in recorded history but have taken on a life of their own. They probably did happen at some point, but not quite like the stories about them would have us believe.
The legend of Robin Hood is a good example of this. There most likely was a real Robin Hood—historians have several conflicting theories about who exactly this was, including the idea that he may have been a convergence of more than one person—but so much of what we know about him comes from literary adaptation and film. King Arthur is another legend who has taken on an explosive role in the world’s consciousness.
Legends begin from a seed of truth and then—through a blend of gossip, heresy, romanticism, and hope—become something bigger than true.
Fairy Talesare made-up stories, usually with supernatural beings or elements such as fairy godmothers, witches, or talking animals. These were never intended to be taken literally; instead, they were developed to entertain and to teach lessons about life.
Fairy tales do have important truths hidden within them—for instance, “be kind to mysterious old ladies hanging out by your local well” or “if there’s a wolf in your bed, you should probably not get in next to it” (consider the subtext on this one). However, they’re acknowledged as being works of fiction rather than historical events.
Types of myths
Now that we know a little more about what myths are and why they’re culturally important, let’s look at the specific types of myths you’ll find in storytelling.
The creation myth is a traditional story that tells the early history of a people—how their world came to be. Some mythologies, such as Christian and Sumerian religious myths, have origin stories that come from one singular divine being. Other cultures, such as the Navajo people, believe the world was a convergence of disparate elements. Many, like those found in Mongolian mythology, believe a creation myth in which the world was born through a deity interacting with the elements around them—for instance, stirring the existing waters to create new life.
While different cultures disagree on exactly how the world we know came into being, most human beings agree that there was a distinct period of before and after, or a nothing and a something, created by a cosmic event.
Once there was a world to fill, there had to be things, people, and places to fill it with. Developmental myths are stories used to explain a natural or social phenomenon within the world, helping people understand how things came to be.
A famous example of this is the popular myth of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades from Greek mythology. Chances are, you’ve come across it before: Persephone, daughter of the goddess of the earth, eats six pomegranate seeds and accidentally binds herself to the god of the underworld for six months of the year. Demeter is less than thrilled with this arrangement, and her foul mood while her daughter is away affects the weather patterns of the world above—thus, creating the cycle of summer and winter. The ancient Greeks believed that the seasons changed because of Demeter’s loss and her deep connection to the land.
Many cultures also have myths that explain animals, plants, and natural structures. For example, several cultures worldwide believe that crows used to be white, but were colored black after they got themselves into trouble.
Other myths might explain why the redwing blackbird has only one red patch on its wing, or why willows lean their branches down towards water instead of up towards the sun like other trees (The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that daffodils lean towards the water because they were once a vain man leaning towards his reflection). In places where there’s a high rock formation or a deep valley, there’s usually a traditional story that explains how it got there. Some developmental myths explain real historical events in a way that was easier to understand.
These foundational tales helped people understand the natural world and their place within it.
Heroic myths are the third stage in a culture’s belief system. They happen once the world is formed, and brave and terrible people are off doing brave and terrible things. Sometimes, these intersect with developmental myths—for instance, if two warriors fight for so long that they carve out a ravine with their steps, or a mourning mother’s tears form a famous river.
Greek and Roman myths are brimming with heroic stories, such as the Trojan War or the Odyssey. Norse myths follow the trials of Thor, Váli, and Tyr, while Irish myths have stories about heroes like Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Human beings have always told heroic stories—they’re often the ones that stay with us most, because they have engaging characters, conflicts, and choices.
Function of myth in literature
Despite the fact that new stories are being created all the time, writers keep returning to these ancient tales. Every year there are new retellings and reimaginings of world mythology (and we’ll look at some of them below!) told through the lens of our 21st-century world.
The reason these stories persist generation after generation is because they give us a way to understand what’s happening around us. A great example of this is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. This novel brings myths from all around the world together in a hard look at capitalism and consumerism in modern America. Another example is Maya Deane’s novel Wrath Goddess Sing, an experimental retelling of The Iliad and the Trojan War that examines modern gender dynamics.
Although we visit the same myths and legends over and over, they have something new to teach us each time. By incorporating ancient myths into your own writing, you can find a new way to examine and communicate big ideas.
Examples of myth in contemporary literature
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the ways writers have taken famous myths and given them new life in their stories.
Greek mythology, sometimes called classical mythology, is one of the most popular story canons for writers. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of novels drawing on the broad scope of Greek myth—and yet, there’s always something new to discover. For some examples of Greek mythology in modern literature, check out Circe by Madeline Miller, Percy Jackson & the Olympians by Rick Riordan, or the graphic novel series Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe.
Norse myths bring to mind bloody battles and old gods, icy landscapes and harsh, guttural magic. For new and imaginative retellings of Norse myth, try reading The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne, or Runemarks by Joanne Harris.
Celtic mythology—which encompasses the many myths of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany—is a fan favorite that conjures rolling landscapes, enchanted harps, people turning into various things, and tragic self-fulfilling prophecies. Novels inspired by traditional Celtic myths include Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan, The Daughters of Ys by M.T. Anderson, and The Druid’s Tune by O.R. Melling.
Indigenous American mythology
The myths and legends of the native people of North America are woefully underrepresented in contemporary literature, which is a shame because there’s a wealth of beautiful stories to be explored. You can find echoes of these myths in Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, the Walker Papers series by C.E. Murphy, and Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley.
Chinese myths—and their close neighbors, Japanese and Korean myths—are experiencing a surge in popularity in literature today. These myths often contain supernatural beings, magical quests, and big cosmic ideas. Some novels that draw from the spectrum of Chinese myth include Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, and An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan.
Biblical stories have a long history of influencing Western consciousness, and they offer a fascinating lens through which to view the development of that world. Modern retellings of biblical story myths include Naamah by Sarah Blake, The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd, and Cain by José Saramago.
Egyptian myth has always had a mystique to it, with its animal-headed gods and goddesses, old-world curses, and relationship with the natural world. Novels influenced by these myths include The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin, Echo Prophecy by Lindsey Fairleigh, and A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark.
Indian and Middle Eastern mythology
Eastern mythology exploded into the Western world with a certain Disney film, but its roots go much deeper—to epics like the Rāmāyana and The Arabian Nights. To experience these traditional stories in a new way, try reading Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel, The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, or The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh.
Latin American mythology
The culture and oral tradition of Latin American countries is vibrant, colorful, and full of life—and we’re seeing more and more of it in contemporary literature. A few examples are novels like Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, and All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil.
Bringing myth into your own writing
As you can see, the mythic landscape contains a treasure trove of inspiration for new stories—and these are only a handful of the world cultures rich in ancient tales. Here are a few things to keep in mind when exploring these archetypal epics in your own writing.
Revisit old mythology
Even though these historical myths are as old as time, there is no limit to the ways in which they can be revisited, reconstructed, and reimagined. Myths are defined by their simplicity: stock characters, tangible objectives, clear heroes and villains. That means there’s a wide scope for nuance that you can explore in your own way.
For example, Madeline Miller, in her Greek myth-inspired novel Circe, took a one-dimensional femme fatale character and turned her into a fully formed person. Try looking at the characters in your favorite myths and legends. What unanswered questions do their stories raise? What’s at stake for them, and why? Who, really, are these people?
Every mythological figure has a story to tell, and it can be told in a thousand different ways. That’s why we never get tired of them.
You can also look at the core themes and relationships present in these stories and find ways to turn them slightly off center. What if you tell Persephone and Hades’ story from Demeter’s perspective instead, and it becomes a saga of watching one’s child grow up and make hard mistakes alone? How can you take a story as old as time and make it relevant for the struggles people are facing today? Think about how you can frame these familiar characters to communicate a new message.
Can I draw on myths from a culture outside my own?
One big concern writers have when pulling inspiration from world mythologies is whether or not it’s okay to reach for myths and legends of another culture. In today’s hypersensitive social media landscape, it can be risky for writers—especially those of a majority ethnicity—to “borrow” ideas from other, less represented backgrounds.
The answer to this can be very personal and might vary from one writer to another. However, the key tenet to keep in mind is to approach other people’s cultures with an open mind and with respect. Read everything you can find about these stories and about what they mean within that culture; make sure your new vision for your story remains true to what it represents to its people.
Once you’re finished, seek out a few sensitivity readers. This means reaching out to people native to the culture from which you’re borrowing and asking them for feedback on your manuscript. They can tell you if anything you’ve written is unintentionally hurtful or propagating negative stereotypes. This can be very easy to do by accident, which is why it’s important to get an outside opinion.
Create new mythology
Instead of upcycling ancient world myths, you can create entirely new ones! During your worldbuilding process, you can build pantheons of gods and heroes and come up with new explanations for why your world is the way it is.
Think about things like: why do the seasons in my world change? Why did this one flower evolve to be poisonous? How did this world come into being, and how will it end? Who are the ruling gods of this world, and what is the people’s relationship to them?
Whether your myths are presented as real historical facts, or they’re just stories that are passed down through family traditions, the types of stories people tell each other will reveal a lot about your world.
And guess what? We have a whole lesson dedicated to building living, breathing fantasy worlds here.
Myths explain universal truths—then and now
Even though world mythologies can have vastly different aesthetics, they’re united in their need to express truth, understand natural phenomena, and help make sense of a chaotic and unpredictable world. As a writer, you can tap into this ancient story archive to make sense of your own world, too.
Whether you’re reimagining Greek and Roman mythology, exploring traditions of the ancient Celts, or even creating modern myths of your own, you’ll find that the many myths around the world can help you see the mundane in a whole new way.