Myth and Fantasy - Mythological Elements in Modern Fantasy Literature
by Tala Bar
Ancient mythological stories were considered for many years as early forms of fantasy. Scholars, however, have recognized for some time now that these myths use one or another systems of symbolism, which actually bring to their audience tales based on the real situation of their time and place. Some interpreters analyze mythological stories on the basis of psychology; others see in them the historical and social background of their period. Robert Graves' interpretation in his books The White Goddess and The Greek Myths adds to the historical and social aspect also that of the seasonal one, drawn from ideas and rituals expressed in the worship of Nature and natural forces.
Many modern fantasy writers use symbolic elements in their works, obviously drawn from ancient mythology; however, not all these elements are used according to their accepted symbolic interpretations. A good number of fantasy writers use such elements on the basis of pure fantasy as the product of their own imagination, disregarding their possible initial symbolism. There are some common mythological ideas that are shared by tales from very different cultures all over the world. In this article, I endeavor to show the affinities between such common ideas as they appear in ancient mythologies and their counterpart in modern fantasy literature. These ideas, in the order I've referred to them, are Victim Hero, Cruel Goddess/Mother, Seasons, and Storm Goddess.
I - Victim Hero
The element of the Hero has been a favorite in literature since time immemorial; but the idea that the hero is also a victim is well embedded in ancient mythology, and definitely not all writers subscribe to it.
In my article "Hero and Heroism," published by the Online magazine Bewildering Stories in 2006 (s. link), I defined the hero not just as a person (man or woman) who performs acts of heroism, but as the one who is ready to do so under conditions of mortal danger: by definition, the hero is a person who is willing to sacrifice own life and wellbeing for the sake of others. That makes immediately every hero also a victim. That is to say, if there are no dangerous circumstances for the savior of the day, he or she should not be considered a hero. This idea is expressed by the Encyclopedia of World Mythology (ps. 25-6): "The end of heroes is often tragic and untimely." All the mythological heroes mentioned below are caused to die by women, which is part of the mythological system of the worship of Mother Earth and Nature.
The greatest known hero of the Western world, whose very name pronounces that notion, was the Greek Heracles; my Greek dictionary claims that this name is derived from that of the great Mother Goddess Hera, and its meaning is "Glory of Hera" (the word "hero", then, would be the masculine form of that feminine name).
According to the Greek stories attached to Heracles, he is doomed to be all his life the victim of Hera, who continually persecutes him. Having risked his life doing all his heroic deeds, Heracles is half dying a terrible death by poison and fire by the hands of his lover, Deianira, before being snatched by the gods and taken to heaven to become what is called "a demi-god" (s. link).
Parallel in many ways to the Greek Heracles is the Celtic hero Cu Chulainn, of whom the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology says (p. 241): "Cu Chulainn is the epitome of the Celtic hero who was the defender of his tribe, a mortal endowed with superhuman faculties which he exercised solely for the good of his people." He was "sorely wounded on a number of occasions", and died unconquered by the hands of the Fairy Queen Medb, who bewitched his powers away from him so he could be mortally wounded and his life on earth ended in agony, as Heracles' did.
Very similar to these two European heroes was the Middle Eastern, Biblical Israelite Samson (Shimshon in Hebrew, a name derived from the word for "sun" – shemesh), nicknamed in Hebrew Shimshon HaGibbor. The word Gibbor is derived from the root gbr, meaning "to be stronger than"; in translation, though, the word "hero" is often used, both in its mythological sense and in its modern usage in literature.
The story of Samson is told in the book of Judges of the Old Testament (chapters 13-16). Like Heracles and Cu Chulainn, Samson's birth was also miraculous; he preformed many heroic deeds in defense of his people, and his downfall was caused by the action of Delila the Philistine, who worked for her own people. Having been caught by his enemies, Samson was blinded and brought to their temple, where they made fun of him. As he found himself standing between two of the temple's pillars, he leaned on them and brought the house down on their heads and his own, saying, "Let me die with the Philistines". The story is concluded with the words, "In his death Samson killed more Philistines than in his life".
All these heroes are connected with the Sun in one way or another; Graves puts the Sun in his system of Nature worship as the son of the Great Goddess of Earth and Nature. A similar relationship is also found in American mythology, regarding a heroic figure named Poia. This name means Scar Face, and Poia is said to be grandson of the Sun god and the Moon goddess. He had got his scar when fighting and winning against a grizzly bear; he was made fun of because of his scar, and was not allowed to marry the chief's daughter, whom he loved. Despairing of humanity, Poia looked for a way to reach his grandparents in the sky, finally becoming a god.
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One of the best of modern fantasy writers is Roger Zelazny, who uses many mythological elements in his books, though not always according to their traditional symbolism. In the series of Amber, the heroes of the two halves of the series are father and son, Corwin and Merlin. The name Corwin relates him to the family of crows and ravens, equated in the Online site of Witches Book of Names (s. link) to the Celtic Raven god Bran, who was grandson of the Sun god. Bran fell victim to the song of a beautiful goddess and was taken to the eternal Island of Women .
Zelazny's Corwin takes part in many wars and is continually persecuted by his brothers because of his claim to the throne of Amber. Later he is imprisoned by the Queen of Chaos and is vanished for many years from the face of the earth. His son Merlin, obviously a magical being according to British tradition, is the one who finally rescues Corwin; he is the son of that same Queen of Chaos, who persecutes him in his turn. After many heroic deeds, he finally becomes a prince and an heir to the throne of Chaos.
There is nothing princely or godlike about Marion Zimmer Bradley's Lewis Alton, the very human hero of part of her series Darkover. Besides being a literary hero, he has that characteristic of risking his life and sanity in order to save his planet and people from a great disaster; and in doing so falls victim to an arch villain, is tortured almost to death but comes out triumphant though badly damaged in body and spirit by the all-powerful Fire goddess Sharra. To my mind, Lewis Alton is one of the greatest heroes of modern fantasy, both in character and in actions.
Perhaps the most prominent Victim Hero in fantasy literature of our time is Harry Potter. In each one of the seven books written with him as hero by J.K. Rowling, he performs one or more act of heroism by risking his life for the sake of his friends and mates, while constantly being the victim of his persecutor and archenemy Voldemort – this time a male rather than a female – who wants to kill him as he has killed his parents. Voldemort is Harry's "uncle," fearing Harry Potter as a rival, in the best tradition of classic mythology. It has been said of Harry Potter that "He couldn't not go, not if there was even the faintest, slimmer, wildest chance that Ginny might be alive", a compulsion which makes him a classic hero. By her own admittance, Rowling used myths of all kinds in her magical Harry Potter's books, in which the motif of the Hero Victim is quite prominent.
II - Cruel Goddess/Mother
The Great Mother Goddess is the figure around which many ancient mythologies were created, and it was she, as presented by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, of whom the classical hero was mainly the victim. Hera, mentioned above as the persecutor of Heracles, was cruel even to her own son Hephaestus, who was an artistically gifted god who even loved his cruel mother, as it is said in the site of Ancient Mythology and Folklore (s. link). Heracles was not considered Hera's son, but she was still threatened by him and sent all kind of vicious beings to plague him. These include serpents when he was just born, as well as the Hydra monster and the Nemean lion.
Another cruel goddess was Artemis, who was a huntress and her emblem was the bear. Bullfinch Mythology says about her that, "Her worship was orgiastic and connected, at least in early times, with human sacrifices". This idea may be the idea behind the story about her turning the hunter Acteon into a deer who was chased to death by his own dogs.
A Norse cruel goddess was Skuld, of whom it is said in the Oh My Goddess Wiki site (s. link) that she was an unpredictable, merciless and cruel goddess who often disbanded the threads of life her Norns sisters had spun; the Norns were the Norse Fate goddesses. Skuld may have also been one of the Valkyries, who took the souls of dead soldiers to Valhala.
Perhaps the most prominent symbol of mother's cruelty in ancient mythology is that of Medea, Princess of Colchis, who helped the Argonaut Jason get the Golden Fleece. Medea married Jason and killed her own brother in order to escape with him from her own land to Greece ; her jealousy was so great that when he later wanted to leave her for a younger woman, she murdered his and her own children as revenge. In The White Goddess, Graves refers to her (p. 88) as "the Corinthian goddess who killed her children", as if that was some kind of regular ritual; and (p.) 238 he says that she was "a Pelasgian goddess".
It may be noted that most victims of the above mentioned women or goddesses are young men, who may have been considered heroes in the classical sense. Women who kill their children have always been considered unnatural, although such cases do exist in literature, as well as in real life.
A most beautiful description of a very cruel and unnatural mother in her behavior toward her son appears in modern fantasy in Diana Wynne Jones' book Sudden Wild Magic, although that attitude is ascribed to the woman being possessed by a strange being. This cruel mother is Lady Marceny, who cuts her son in half, presumably separating his body from his soul; she makes him into two separate persons who are opposite in character, keeping one half person (supposedly the body) under her absolute control, and sends the other one (who is "a good soul") into another universe to fend for himself. Later, she tries to do the same to her grandson, but he is luckily saved by his own mother, when the cruel woman is caught and the strange being is driven out of her body. (The opposites of good and evil, particularly in relation to body and soul, can be a subject for another mythological idea.)
A similar situation of a vicious and cruel mother who tries to cut children's souls away from their bodies appears in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. As all these other women, Mrs. Coulter is a woman of high rank who has abandoned her only child Lyra to pursue her career. She cares enough for her daughter to avoid doing it to her, but is adamant in her purpose to sacrifice boys to her particular ambition of ruling the world.
III - Seasons
Most ancient myths connected with Nature refer to the figure of Gaia, or Earth, as the Great Mother Goddess, who is also in charge of the seasons of the year, according to the geographical situation of the culture she belongs to. The Earth is the Mother of us all, and like most mothers, she sometimes seem beneficent but other times she is harsh and cruel; mostly, she is indifferent to the plight of humanity, going about her business as Nature decrees; it is, however, humanity's nature to humanize everything around it.
Looking at the changes of season, it is easy to regard their passing in a circular manner, as it is apparent in the Wikipedia site of Wheel of the Year (s. link). In this way, life can also be regarded in a circular way in its progression from birth, growth, procreation, decline and death, with a possible revival after death as happens to plants, for instance. As children of Mother Earth, there were some young gods who were identified with certain plants and symbolized in a ritual of being born, loving, dying and reborn the life cycle in the world; such young gods were the Egyptian Osiris, the Canaanite Baal, the Greek Adonis, and the Anatolian Atis.
In northern countries, such young dying and reviving gods were connected with the Sun rather than plant life. They died with the disappearing of the Sun in autumn and winter, and came back to life with its reappearance in spring time. Such well known young god was the Scandinavian Balder, and a more recent and elaborated figure is the Christian Jesus.
Ancient years were sometimes divided into only two or three seasons; with the greater advancement of astronomy, however, a four season year was established, according to the relation between the Earth and the Sun. These seasons are punctuated by the Spring Equinox, the traditional symbol of blossom and revival; Summer Solstice, time of heat and fruitfulness in the North or the dead dry season in the Middle East; Autumn Equinox, season of falling leaves in North and the beginning of refreshing rains and revival in Middle East; Winter Solstice, the season of death in the North and of growth and flourishing in the Middle East.
What is important here is the fixed place of each season within the cycle: Summer always comes after Spring, Winter after Autumn, and this order can never change.
In Greece , a group of three goddesses called Horae personified a cycle of birth, life and death, as expressed in the three Greek seasons of spring, summer and autumn-winter; their worship was very important to practicing farmers. (The equation of autumn-winter appears also in the Old Testament; actually, the Hebrew year had only two seasons – wet and dry – i.e. life and death, as expressed in the myth of Baal and Mot in the Ugarithan myths – s. link.)
The idea connecting the seasons with the Mother Earth goddess exists also among the American Navajo; according to their myth, Estsanatlehi, whose name means "Changing Woman", created the first man and woman from pieces of her own skin (s. link). She is supposed to become old each winter and young each spring, in accordance with the seasonal changes occurring in the Earth.
In the book North American Indians by Lewis Spence, a story is told (p. 147) by the Algonquin tribes of the hero trickster Glooskap who wandered north into the Ice country and was put to sleep by Giant Winter for six months. Then he woke and went south, where the weather was warm and flowers were blossoming, and where he captured Queen Summer. The seasons here are significantly connected not only with the time of year but also with the geographical location.
In modern fantasy, there is much less awareness of the importance of the seasons, as people are no longer so close to the earth as they used to be; even modern farmers are less dependent on the seasons for growing their products, with all the genetic changes that have been done to them. However, the idea of the seasons and their emotional meaning is still with us, and these are used in modern fantasy, which is the closest genre in literature to ancient myths and rituals; it is not always easy to tell, though, whether such usage is conscious or not.
The idea of the change of seasons and the practical or emotional meaning attached to it appears more than once in modern fantasy. Robert Silverberg wrote a two-part series of books based on such change: Winter's End and The Queen of Springtime, expressing that idea by their very names. In the first book, after an attack of meteors, Earth has sunk into thousands of years of dark winter with bare means for survival; like plants in the dead season, people live underground, where they scratch their subsistence diet and do not dare to come up into the open, desperately waiting for better days. The book tells of the last days of that period and the beginning of the end of winter. In the second book, the world has been reborn, the air has cleared from the meteor's debris and people have come out into the open; but they are reborn into a period of strife and only a leader queen, like a Queen Bee, can take them into the period of Spring, peace and prosperity.
Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman gave their four-book series of the Dragonlance Chronicles titles according to the four seasons of the year, together with their meaning: I. Dragons of Autumn Twilight; II. Dragons of Winter Night; III. Dragons of Spring Dawning; IV. Dragons of Summer Flames. It is interesting to note that the fourth volume does not directly belong to the former three, and it may be assumed that it was given its name first because of the character of its content, and second to complete the nominal series. It may also be note that the meanings of two of the individual seasons are mixed: Winter Night refers to the Norse winter, when the Sun is hidden; Summer Flame, on the other hand, refers to the hot and dry Middle Eastern summer.
The idea of the Northern winter as full of deadly snow and ice and summer as full of blossom appears in Terry Pratchett's book Wintersmith: Winter here is represented by a man, a smith, while summer, as in Silverberg's books, is a lady. The two of them dance around the year, change places in spring and autumn, the way it has worked for thousands of years. The year is round and the seasons get into each other's places, winter deep into summer and summer deep into winter. Pratchett divides the year into its basic, classic form of two seasons only.
Hans Christian Andersen, on the other hand, in his fantastic story The Snow Queen, sees Winter as a harsh queen of ice and snow who lives in the North Pole. Spring is also female here, appearing as the young girl Gerda with her roses, who goes all the way to the North Pole to save her friend Kai from Winter's clutches.
It is interesting that the C.S. Lewis saw his own Winter Queen in the same wicked light, as she appears in the the first of his Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Snow Queen here is not just harsh as winter's snow and ice; she is down right evil, a witch in the best of myth and fairy tale tradition, who for hundred of years has turned living creatures into stone. Fighting against her is not one Gerda-like child but four – perhaps representing the normal, four-season year – two girls and two boys; they succeed in allowing Spring to come to the land in the form of its ancient Sunny symbol, a lion; this zodiac sign belongs to the sunny month of August, although at the time of its first creation it may have belonged to Spring. (In the thousands of year passed since then, there have been a few shifts in the seasons of the zodiac signs – s. link).
IV - Storm Goddess
One of the most prominent appearance of the character of Mother Earth (which, as a rule, includes earth's atmosphere), is in her stormy phase. Storms are not always seasonal, arriving according to changes in the weather, thus considered capricious in nature, attributing the deity representing them with a violent temper. Thunder storm that bring rain with them, mainly in winter, are related to male gods of fertility (like Zeus or Baal); there are, however, some forceful female deities, whose stormy manifestation expresses great power and influence. The Greek Mother goddess Hera, Zeus's Olympian wife, is said to have such stormy power (s. link).
Another stormy goddess is the African Yoruban Oya. It is said about her that she is a goddess of music and dance, wind and fire (s. link), as well as a Moon goddess and the ruler of river Niger ; she is supposed to be wild, untamed and unpredictable, and she sometimes she takes the form of tornadoes and of lightning. Oya is the guardian of female leadership, goddess of childbirth, fertility and all aspects of woman’s life, including career, health and family, transformation and change. In fact, she is a Great Mother Goddess who expresses herself in thunder storms.
Mother Carey was a storm goddess of the British Isles , and the storm petrel birds were considered to be "Mother Carey's chickens", as the English expression goes. Mother Carey was only known in connection with storms, appearing as a crone who controlled bad weather. However, in an island country surrounded by seas, whose many people make their living by being sailors, fishers, or sea merchants, such a character must be of great importance.
It is specifically Mother Carey who appears rather prominently in some works by prominent British writers. In his poem Mother Carey (s. links), John Masefield calls her "Mother of all witches, storms, shipwrecks and of sailors' bones", which makes her a sort of Sea and Death goddess.
In her particular character as Storm Goddess, Mother Carey features in Charles Kingsley's book Water Babies (s. link). In this book, Tom, the chimney sweep boy who turned into a water baby, who needs to save the soul of his cruel boss and thus do a good but difficult thing, must overcome his fears and go to see old Mother Carey in her own Haven, "where the good whales go when they die', so that she would tell him what to do. He finds her "a very grand old lady, full three feet high, and bolt upright, like some old Highland female chieftain." There came a flock of petrels, which are Mother Carey's own chickens; "the gale was right abaft, and away they went over the crests of the billows, as merry as so many flying-fish." Mother Carey, then, in this story is in charge not only of storms but also of punishing the guilty and rewarding the innocent, in the best manner of an ancient Goddess of Judgment.
Graves , less interested in morality and more in the power of the goddess, describes in his book Watch the North Wind Rise what happens to the believers when the sacred and ominous name of Mother Carey is mentioned. The narrator – a present-day visitor to the far future ruled by the Great Goddess – is going to the main city of Dunrena together with a bunch of locals. In his careless talk in the manner of modern days, he says, "It's embarrassing to be one of Mother Carey's chickens, and portend storms…" At hearing these words, his companion, Capitan Nervo, turns deathly pale. He slips from his horse and throws himself on the grass by the roadside, where he lies as if dead. The narrator is confused at such behavior, wondering if it was caused by the mention of Mother Carey. It is explained to him by the sage Quant, spelling her name instead of pronouncing it, that the legendary character called Mother Carey happened to be a dreadfully sacred name. She's the Goddess of Wind, and anyone mentioning her name is blown over the moon. As the book's title indicates, its whole idea is a great storm prophesied and created by the Great Goddess (whose Mother Carey is only one aspect of) to cause change in the futuristic, complacent, land of New Crete . The North Wind mentioned in the title of the book was raised, of course, by Mother Carey.
A different way of looking at the Storm goddess appears in Marion Zimmer Bradley's book Stormqueen!. Zimmer Bradley uses many mythological ideas in her fantasy books, and I suspect most times she knows what she is talking about, as can be drawn from her series of Avalon. In the Darkover series, the Storm Queen is Dorilys, the hero of the book by that name, whose particular "gift", or psychic power, is raising storms. It is interesting to see what the author is saying about that gift of raising storms (p. 178): (It is) "sex-linked … dominant in females. Dorilys might survive the birth of a son. She could not survive the birth of a daughter." The reason is that a daughter gifted before her birth is liable to kill her mother, as Dorilys has killed hers. Her power, however, is too strong for her young age and she cannot control it; with the slightest provocation she kills people, enemies and friends alike, and she has to be stopped by other powerful psychics, as she cannot even be killed without causing total disaster. The Stormqueen, in short, is a powerful goddess, not to be ruled by the laws of humans.
The mythological elements used by modern fantasy writers mentioned in this essay are by no means exclusive. Other such elements are, for instance, shape-shifting, witches, heavenly bodies, etc.. Not all fantasy writers either use or have any special feelings for ancient myths; some base their ideas solely on modern ideas and conditions of life, treating the magical acts they use in their writings as a kind of science. On the other hand, looking at some science fiction works as more like science fantasy, some technological ideas can be regarded as a kind of magic. In the realm of fantasy, the lines between science and magic are not always hard and fast as some "experts" would like to believe or pretend. But myth is always based on the reality of life, anywhere.
Names - http://www.skepticfiles.org/mys5/names5.htm
Hero - http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue200/heroes_heroism.html
Heracles - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heracles#Death
Cu Chulain - http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/morrigan.html / http://www.luminarium.org/mythology/ireland/cuchulainnsick.htm ;
Poia - http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheStoryofPoia-Blackfoot.html
Hera - http://library.thinkquest.org/03oct/01155/hephaestus.html
Skuld - http://manga.wikia.com/wiki/Oh_My_Goddess/Norns
Artemis – http://bulfinch.englishatheist.org/b/pantheon/Artemis.html
Medea - http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/grecoromanmyth1/g/medea.htm
Seasons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_of_the_Year
Horae - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horae
Baal/Mot - http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/393875/Mot
Navaho - http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/mythology/estsanatlehi_seasons.html&sw=true
Lion - http://www.khandro.net/animal_lion.htm
Zodiac history - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiac#Early_history
Oya - http://www.mothergoddess.com/africa.htm
Mother Carey - http://www.answers.com/topic/european-storm-petrel
Water Babies - http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Charles_Kingsley/The_Water_Babies/Chapter_VII_p1.html
Witches Lore, nonfiction, Issue 3, June 1, 2008
Mythological Giants and Their Wars, nonfiction, Issue 12, September 1, 2010
Myth and Fantasy, Mythological Elements in Modern Fantasy Literature, Issue 15, June 1, 2011
King David in the Cave, nonfiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012
Human Sacrifice, nonfiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014
The Loss and Search for a Loved One, Issue 28, September 1, 2014
The Mythology of Water, Issue 32, September 1, 2015
Mazes and Spirals, Issue 33, December 1, 2015
Tala Bar, I am a writer and an artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found in this address:
Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address:
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