Cultures are shaped by their stories. These stories might reinforce cultural ideals, religious ideals, general morals… or, on the flip side, they might subvert or reject these ideals. Myths and legends are a prime example of this, as they often reflect the mindset and values of the cultures that created them. So today I want to talk about how to build and use myth and legend in your fantasy world.
The Purpose of Myth
/miTH/1. a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
Myths are stories created not only to entertain and inspire, but to explain. They might explain natural phenomena (creation, the origin of fire, a worldwide flood); historical facts, though they may be fictionalized (the naming of Athens, the ancient peoples of Ireland, the existence of giants); or societal practices (the installation of a monarchy, legal marriages), to name a few.
A good starting point for developing your culture’s set of myths and legends might be to ask, “What would they seek to explain?” Is there a magic system that needs an origin story? Are there social practices that the people would seek to justify or explain? Why do they think that the sky is blue? Having a list of these sorts of questions will give you a starting point for every culture you work with in the future.
Determine the Tone of Your Culture’s Myth and Legend
Once you have a list of questions to answer, choosing a tone and focal point for the culture’s mythology can be a good idea. Do they have a lot of stories about the gods themselves, like Norse mythology? Do they focus more on supernatural—but still relatable—heroes, like in Greek and Roman mythology? Are there stories of mythological beasts? Are the interactions between gods and men a big focal point, like in some Native American mythology?
As for tone, is it comedic like Norse mythology, romantic like Greek mythology, dramatic like Egyptian mythology, down-to-earth like Native American mythology, epic like Japanese mythology, dark like Mesoamerican mythology? Some combination?
Merging Myth and Legend from Different Cultures
Many cultures over the ages have synthesized their beliefs, shaping their native beliefs to fit some newly introduced worldview (or vice versa). The same might be true of your world, depending on its age and the culture you’re building. A very isolationist culture isn’t likely to synthesize beliefs, nor is a young civilization that hasn’t met any of its distant neighbors yet. But if your world is old and there’s been a lot of cultural mixing, you might ask what these cultures’ myths and legends looked like to begin with, which cultures have the most prevalent myths and legends, and how various cultures might have shaped those ideals to fit their own concepts of myth and legend. There are a few ways this synthesis might manifest.
- Cultures might assimilate the events of the myths, shaping them to fit with the timelines and morals of their own myth and legend (e.g. declaring that their legendary ancestors were placed there by their god rather than chased there by mythological beasts).
- Cultures might adopt the morals of the myths, but use them as the basis of stories that better fit their own mythos (e.g. taking a story of gods and making it about heroes, or turning a story about gods and men into a drama among the gods).
- Cultures might adopt the events and morals of the myths, but rewrite them to better fit the tone of their own mythos (e.g. taking a dark myth and making it comedic).
- Cultures might alter their own mythology to fit the new (e.g. shaping the moral of a certain legend to reflect the character of a newfound god)
Building synthesized myths, though challenging, will bring additional depth to your world.
What Impact Do Myth and Legend Have on Everyday Life?
This question can be deep (“Because of the story of Fer-Aven, the Piradi believe that true peace is unattainable without supernatural aid”) or it can be surface-level (“The myth of the unicorn is used as a bedtime story for children”). But myth and legend, like religion (and any other worldview element of your culture), will have bearing on your characters’ everyday lives. Even if they don’t ascribe to this mythos themselves, if it colors the culture around them then it will impact them to some degree. (Unless they’re monks or hermits or otherwise intentionally cut off from society, which could actually be a fun angle to play off of. But in that case, how would they react to be introduced to this mythos for the first time, and is there a situation in which this would happen? *cough* But I digress.)
Surface-level answers might also include good luck tokens or elements of décor that are derived from myth and legend. What if people hang black curtains in the spring to make the spring goddess feel more welcome in the overworld after half a year spent in the underworld? Or blue, because they believe she lives above the clouds when she’s not present? Myth and legend can impact setting as well as character.
Does your world have any myths or legends? What is their impact on the culture? What questions do they answer? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!