World building with mythology


I love a good creation myth. Don’t you? It’s one of the things that makes Fantasy great and also gives a story a truly robust feel. Even if your story isn’t steeped in religion or even really about religion, people have long pondered where they came from and envisioned great stories about their creation and existence and this makes it an important part of a story, even if it’s just part of the unseen structure that never gets a mention in the actual prose.

Now, I’m not an expert on religion or mythology, but I took my fair share of nontraditional religious studies classes in college and high school and have had a life-long fascination with Greek mythology. One of my favorite classes was a course I took in college called Religion and Violence where we studied a variety of religions (old, new, eastern and western), and in particular, ones that had violent creation myths. The one that sticks out in my mind to this day is the Babylonian creation myth, also known as the Enuma Elish. In this story, Marduk, son of Tiamat gets into a battle with his family and kills his mother. He tears her in half to fashion the earth and the sky. Gruesome, right?

If you look at other religions, angry and violent battles between deities is a common thread. You see it often in Greek/Roman mythology. And, while humans may have been purposefully created, there are a number of times that new deities rise out of violence. Aphrodite, for example, comes to be when Cronos’ hacks off Uranus’ genitals and throws them into the sea. Zeus kills Athene’s mother and eats her. But, somehow, Athene survives only to be born out of her father’s head. Speaking of Zeus himself, here’s another deity who kills his parent, though unlike Marduk, he kills his father. It must run in the family.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, as I mention at the start, a great fantasy story with thorough world building may involve a creation myth (but certainly not a requirement). I’ve read some great stories recently for which the authors clearly spent a great deal of time on their world building and also included a dazzling creation myth: Laini Taylor does this in her Smoke and Bone trilogy and so does Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner in their recent book The Other Side of the Sky.

As I’m trying to ease myself back into the space of writing and creating, I decided to take a look at my own creation myth for a story I started working on last winter. This story involves the moon, the sun, the stars and an owl. And, like many stories about gods and goddesses, the characters in it have very human qualities and are given to being fickle and jealous.

In my creation myth, the moon is always dark because the sun hoards his power and light. The moon is encouraged by an owl to steal some of the sun’s power. She sneaks into his home when the shadows (shadows being her only tie to the daylight hours) fall across the sun (a solar eclipse) and steals handfuls of bright light bursts (like diamonds) from a bowl. She gets distracted by her reflection in a looking glass (since she always lives in darkness and has never seen her reflection before) and doesn’t leave the sun’s home until it’s too late. He returns and sees what she has done and gives chase. She flees, her hands filled with tiny rays of light.

I won’t share the ending as I’m super excited about it and don’t want to spoil any surprises. But, here’s where it gets interesting: humanity is created when one of those bursts of light falls from her hands and lands on earth, thereby suggesting that humanity’s creation was possibly an accident (if I choose to take the story that route). My big question now is: what does that do to the psyche of a people who believe their own creation wasn’t intentional? Does it have an impact? I’ve had a lot of fun pondering this, but am still not set on a direction. If you have an opinion or suggestion, I’d love to hear it!

If you look at the creation of humans in various religions and mythologies, the act of creation tends to be intentional. In Christianity and Greek/Roman mythology, for example, you can see this. Is it boastful or haughty for people to believe that they were intentionally created, particularly in the image of a deity? (Please note that I am not attempting to make a statement about religion or people’s beliefs with this post or thought. I’m simply exploring ideas for the purpose of my own story writing and world building. Please don’t take offense.) So, if people then are an accident, how does that change how people interact with their deities? Or does it? Even if people weren’t an intended outcome, the god or goddess doesn’t have to abandon their creation. (My mind has suddenly turned to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the way Dr. Frankenstein abandons his creature). Perhaps it depends upon how the deity is perceived to care for/walk among its’ creation.

It may surprise you how much religion actually can play into a story in the fantasy genre. But, people are so closely tied to their religions – they fight and kill over them, they dedicate their lives to them, they share them with others or keep them alive but hidden if they are threatened, they die for them. So, it makes sense that religion is a common thread in fantasy. Focusing some of your world building efforts on religion/your world’s creation myth will help you bring your world to life and give your characters a tether to connect them to others of their kind (or not, if they so choose).

I’ve been enjoying easing back into writing and being extremely creative by imagining my own creation myth for my next project with hopes of an exciting new story to spin. What sort of creation myths have you created for your stories? I’d love to hear about what inspired your imagination!

Photo by dirk bijstra from Pexels.

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