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World Mythology: Characteristics & Significance

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

In this lesson, we will explore mythology as it relates to literature, both in reference and symbolism. We will also look at a few examples of how mythic archetypes make their way into literature.

Myth as Literature

For quite some time in both the American and European educational systems, Classical Mythology, or the mythology of the Greek and Roman cultures, was considered important. Today, some works from classical authors are still used in the classroom, but with so many works of fiction to choose from, teachers use these works of antiquity less frequently. Some of them, such as Homer's The Odyssey or Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, are still staples of literature classes. Works of European or Near Eastern mythology, such as Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh, are also used.

These works not only introduce students to the history of world literature, but also to world culture, as each story expresses qualities of the cultures the stories come from. It is also important to note that in the majority of these works, the main characters were young people in the process of transitioning into the world of adulthood. These tales have been taught in the hope that students would be able to relate to the characters and understand them as metaphors for the human experience.

Myth in Literature

Myth is still very much alive in literature today. Many famous authors and their works took inspiration from mythology and fairy tales. Still others engage in the action of mythopoeia - creating a history and mythology for their characters - when they write. This is often an extension of the world-building process all authors engage in when creating their stories. The term mythopoeia was believed to have been coined by J.R.R. Tolkien as he engaged in the process of creating the world of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. While authors create the world of their characters themselves, they may take ideas and themes from mythology to enhance that process.

C.S. Lewis, for example, borrowed from many different mythologies when creating his series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Some of these ideas are easily seen in the variety of creatures and inhabitants of Narnia, from the fauns and centaurs of Greek mythology to the giants and dwarves of Norse mythology. His White Witch takes some elements from the Snow Queen of Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale, and some from Medusa, the Gorgon from Greek mythology. In the Greek legend, anyone who looked at Medusa would be turned to stone; similarly, the White Witch owned a collection of statues who were once Narnians. Lewis took ideas from religion as well, as his stories were strongly influenced by his own Christian faith.

Tolkien, who was a friend of Lewis', also borrowed heavily from mythology in his writing. But instead of using themes and figures from a variety of mythologies like Lewis did, Tolkien used mostly Norse mythology as the basis for the world of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings. More specifically, Tolkien used themes from collections of Norse mythology like the Poetic Edda, a collection of Icelandic stories and myths. He was also influenced by the legend of Beowulf, and borrowed from his own experiences on the battlefield during World War I.

More recently, authors like Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling have used many direct references to mythology in their work. Riordan has used Greek gods in his novels, and mythical creatures populate Rowling's work. Rowling introduced young readers to mythology in other ways, too: the names of many of her characters make reference to Greek and Arthurian mythology.

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