Myth and Creativity

Hello, writers! There’s an old saying:  You don’t find the myth; the myth finds you.

We may manifest or borrow elements of myth (plot, symbols, images) or archetypes (characters) “unconsciously” in our creative writing. But it’s fun to work with myth directly and deliberately, either by adapting a myth, adapting symbols from a myth, updating a myth to contemporary times, etc. (Here’s an examination of the definition of myth.) 

Writers have frequently said to me that they would like to work with myth, but they don’t know enough about it, or where to start. And often, what myths they do know are from the classical Greek and Roman pantheons. 

One way to learn about more about myth is to work with them through writing exercises. Not only do you learn about mythology and the human condition, but you learn more about yourself. The myths that resonate the most strongly with you may highlight elements of your personal journey. 

Here’s a short intro for writers who want to work with myth. 

1) READING. As part of your immersion into myth, investigate World Mythology reference dictionaries, such as Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend; World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics by Donna Rosenberg; or any noted reference anthology published this century on world mythology. Libraries are a great resource for these works. There are free online dictionaries or anthologies available about world mythology, too. Two quick examples:: Sacred Texts, and Encyclopedia Mythica. Or if you want to invest towards a more scholarly world myth approach, you can subscribe online to Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology or ARAS Online

2) VISUALIZING. I also recommend perusing galleries of museums online as a way to learn more about myth and to see related visual representations (e.g., The Met’s Open Access images,  The Getty Center’s Collection, The Ashmolean Collection OnlineNational Museum of Denmark, or any museum that showcases an aspect of any mythology that interests you). If you have the time, try to go in person. In general, I highly recommend museum writing in person as a good practice or exercise. 

Here are a few beginning exercises. You can use them for informal journaling, and then try to create a formal piece out of one of them, or try to create new pieces for each exercise.

1A) ARCHETYPES. Start with the familiar. What is your favorite myth, from any pantheon (maybe that you recall from childhood)? Why? Who’s the most important character in it? Write a monologue, or first person poem/story/treatment, about that mythic figure. Try to incorporate all your feelings about the myth into your monologue, honoring your reasons for admiring it.

1B) ARCHETYPES. Next, what is your least favorite myth, from any pantheon (also could be from childhood)? Why? Who is featured in this myth? Write a monologue, or first person poem/story/treatment, about this mythic figure. Again, be sure to highlight all of the reasons you don’t like it. 

1024px-Diane de Versailles Leochares 2

                                                                       “Diana of Versailles,” Louvre

2) Join these two pieces together (1A and 1B) in a new work: imagine a space with these figures together. How do they interact (or not)? What theme do you see emerging? (Note: they do not need to be from the same pantheon.) 

3A) NEW WORLD. Work with the unfamiliar. Explore a new-to-you pantheon, something you are completely unfamiliar with. (Choose from resources mentioned above or find others that appeal to you.) 

3B) Write a piece in your favorite genre that describes or honors the "world" of this new pantheon. Be sure to include aspects of the landscape and the spiritual elements of this new world/place/pantheon.

4) SYMBOLS. Some of the spiritual and psychological impact of myth rests in its powerful symbolism.  A story based on or inspired by myth will resonate with an audience more strongly if the symbols from the original story are carefully represented or re-created in your work. The plot in a myth itself may turn on a major symbol (such as in "Jason and the Golden Fleece"), and a major archetype usually has a personal symbol that’s key in defining him or her (e.g., the statue of Diana of Versailles above has two key symbols related to Diana’s myths: her quiver of arrows and the stag). Think again about your favorite myth. What key symbols figure in this story? Write a piece specifically and only about its symbols. 

5) ADAPTING PLOT. Let's take a different approach to mythic plots than is currently popular in many writing courses. As opposed to trying to fit each myth into any template with successive hero steps, let's allow each myth its own uniqueness, with its own
 sui generis plot points. Find a myth that's new to you, and write down what you see to be its key story points. Then, adapt a new story from your outline that's set in contemporary times. 

6) MAGIC. Myth often centers on some sort of change. In myths and folk tales, this change may occur through magical transformations.  What is magical about the tale you love the most? What is the source of its magic? How is the world of the story different after "magic" happens? Is the magic related to the function of transformation? Pinpoint the source of magic in your favorite myth, and write a new piece only about the magic in the myth. Remember to include "magic" in any adaptation to contemporary times, too, especially related to transformation.
I hope these beginning exercises help you get started in exploring myth in your writing. Carl Jung wrote of the power of myth for the artist:

“Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring (82)” - C.G. Jung. The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. 

© Copyright 2019 by Laura Shamas. All Rights Reserved. 
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