Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Let's be a little more creative: World Mythology

With the success of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson's Olympian Greek gods series looming over our heads, and the fact that Greek and Roman mythology is by far the best well known mythology in the western world, its easy to say, "lets write a book around this."

Which is great and all, don't get me wrong. But a part of me has been thinking lately about how there is so much more how there that hasn't been explored and written about. Yes, Greek and Roman mythologies are fascinating (I also have to give a nod to Egyptian mythology, the other, slightly less than, well known tales), but at the same time, aren't they a bit...over done?

Granted, I've been the rise of more books exploring other cultures like Eon by Allison Goodman, The Dragon King Chronicles by Ellen Oh, Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, Empire of Shadows by Miriam Forster, The Dark Caravan Cycle by Heather Demetrios, and a slew of other novels lately. And while that's great, I encourage authors to consider reading these stories and writing their own featuring characters from other, less represented cultures and mythologies.

I ranted about this on my Tumblr blog the other day, but I'll try and keep this from turning into a rant.

Reasons to Why We like Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythologies

Picture URL (Picture from Pinterest)
I believe my mom has this book actually
  • The West has a lot more information on these mythologies. We have a lot more information on Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythologies than other mythologies, especially here in the West, because "ancient" culture is often defined by Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Roman cultures. A part of this reason is because the Roman pantheon often adopted other beliefs into their own and kept good records about this. After the Romans fell and other cultures rose to power, it was the Ottomans with their scholars who kept good records and studied old Greek culture and then after them, the Renaissance turned European minds to old Greek and Roman culture. And through a long period of time, people kept coming back to these cultures. I believe that other cultures in the West are lesser known also thanks to European Imperialism and trying to convert natives of other places to "European civilization" and stamp out native beliefs or mix them with Christianity.
  • Its familiar to us from school. If you remember anything from your world history classes, philosophy, and maybe a literature class, Greek and Roman mythologies and culture is often taught. In history classes, you were probably introduced to Greek and Roman mythology and culture and history. In literature classes, you probably studied the Iliad, Odyssey, and Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Mark Anthony play. In philosophy classes, the old Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato were taught. Many of us are probably familiar with the famous Egyptian queens like Nefertiti and Hatshepsut, and the stories about Egypt from Christian Bible stories. Therefore, most of the West has probably been introduced more to these thoughts than other cultures. (I think the only introduction to African belief I was taught was primarily Muslim and Christian beliefs and then the stories about Anasazi the Spider). 
  • Its influenced our culture and architecture and art. Look at the American capital buildings. They're often based on Greek and Roman architecture. Lots of older, famous statues and art were based on Greek and Roman mythologies and styles. There has been lots of movies based off of Helen of Troy and there's also the Electra and Oedipus complexes proposed by the psychologist, Freud, based off of Greek mythologies. Even many of our plants in the solar system have names from Roman and Greek mythology such as Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. And even today we still borrow inspiration from them. 

Reasons to Use Other Mythologies

  • Other cultures are rich in their mythologies and diverse and imaginative. Japanese mythology has some of the weirdest, most random, and most interesting sets of mythological creatures I have seen. Aztec and Mayan mythologies are also varied and fascinating (although at times similar due to the place and time). Hinduism is a great example of the varied beliefs that falls under it and even Buddhism has a lot of greatly, fascinating beliefs. Native American beliefs are varied and fascinating like other traditional African beliefs (not counting Muslim or Christian beliefs here for this point). 
  • A lot of mythologies share similar beliefs. You're probably already familiar with some other mythologies than you realize. This is also a form of study called comparative mythology. 
    • Nearly all world cultures have a story of a flood myth where a man and his relatives most often are the only survivors (this is where I have to say that there HAD to have been a world flood if almost every culture has a similar myth. That or all the cultures had to have had a similar origin point and it occurred before they all split off). 
    • If you've been watching the Marvel superhero movies lately, you're probably familiar already with the Norse rainbow bridge connecting the realms of heaven and earth called Bifrost. It was guarded by a deity called Heimdall. You're probably less familiar though with the same concept in Japanese mythology that also has its own guardian. 
      A Japanese woodblock print of a woman 
      and kitsune fox spirits
    • Another similarity is the Greek myth of a man named Sisyphus who continually rolls a stone up a hill only to have it fall back down and he has to restart. Well the Indian mythology has a similar story with a character called Naranath, as does Wu Gang who continues cuts down a self healing tree, and the Aztecs also have a similar myth. 
    • World trees are all a feature of German/Norse, Hindu, Mongolian, and Slavic mythologies. 
    • Aztecs had a version of vampires called Civatateo who were noblewomen who died in childbirth with white skin who also stalked people at night and had a thing for blood much like the vampires of Western traditions. 
    • Like the Celtic and Irish beliefs of little people, many other cultures had beliefs of little people living in hills, mountains, forests, and other places. Such as the Ainu from Japan.
    • It is noted, although there are strange similarities between mythologies worlds apart, many cultures share similar beliefs due to proximity (for example, the fox spirits of Eastern Asia like the kitsune from Japan, the kumiho from Korea, and the huli jing from China) and the Romans who eventually shared their own beliefs with Greek and Egyptians. Similar beliefs are spread through religions coming to new areas (like Buddhism in Asia) or by conquest by more powerful countries. 
    • Also noted Here I haven't compared Celtic, African, or Native American beliefs as much because although I have studied them, I can't say off the top of my head any beliefs that pop into my head for this section. But if I think of them, I will add them. Be aware that this is only a sampling of freaky similarities between cultures that to our knowledge didn't have contact with each other. 
  • Using other world mythologies can help diversify your writing and introduce you and your readers to other cultures you might not be that familiar with. You don't have to be an expert or a member of another culture or mythology to study it. And not only by studying it will you increase your knowledge, but it will inspire and spark your imagination. Spending even a few minutes on sites like Encyclopedia Mythica will teach you a great deal or looking up other mythologies on Wikipedia is a great starting point as well. I like to stress this point because other mythologies are so rich and fascinating and rarely in the West do they get talked about. Barely even do we ever see authors make use of Native American, Aztec, Mayan, or Inca mythologies. And have you EVER seen a novel that really used traditional African mythologies in it? Besides Egyptian, I can't recall ever seeing a novel use or reference their mythologies. And Africa has so much diverse beliefs in it! 
Research and Respectfulness
Like any story or idea that requires research, I must make sure to stress the importance of doing your research thoroughly and well thoughtfully. Make sure to look up other sources than Wikipedia and to check out different kinds of mediums like videos, photography, art, podcasts, and books. Is your source credible, can the information be found elsewhere, is this even what you're looking for? These are just some questions to ask when evaluating sources. Obviously, when talking about world mythologies we can't all really be reading original sources and material and in some cases, its impossible. 

My dog studying
This is not how you study
A point I'd like to make is to also be aware that if you can, ask someone from that culture or someone who's studied it (for example, a professor, most professors are happy to answer questions even if you're not their student). If you're talking to someone from that culture or looking up what people from that culture think, make sure to think about or ask if the way you want to use your research in your story is being done in a respectful and sensitive manner. 

But what about fantasy and science fiction? Well there's several questions and answers here for that. First of all, if you have a great nugget of research but you're not sure if its credible or not, it's probably okay to use it (just make sure you double check in case you missed something earlier). 

Another thing to remember is that it is your story and you can write it however you want. You can reinvent twists on old mythologies or even combine them, that's up to you. Or even create your own, based off of world mythologies. 
A Black swallowtail butterfly
The Aztecs believed that the dead
rode on the backs of butterflies

Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant (The story of Civilization)
Highly recommend for classic history reads

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