Feb
8
2016

Diversity on a Mythic Scale

Though we like to think of ourselves as predators, human beings are closer to herd animals. We instinctively cluster for safety, to help in raising our young, and to share resources. Unfortunately this herding instinct also pressures us to conform to the group’s culture, values, and sense of morality. Given enough time and isolation, this tendency can lead to homogenization of thought and eventually cultural stagnation.

That is why art is so important. Artists thrive on rocking the boat by introducing new ideas and points of view into the mix. However, artists are still people. We too have our comfort zones and fall subject to the echo chamber. Without conscious effort to expand our own horizons and produce something new, we will fall back on replicating what we enjoyed in the past.

A perfect example of this sort of literary rut is how English literature tends to treat mythology. Until recent years, my experience has been that many English and American authors tend to lean heavily on the Greco-Roman, Celtic, and Norse traditions. Looking at history, this makes perfect sense. The Anglo-Saxon tribes that would eventually accrete into the United Kingdoms were subject to Roman invasion for 370 years, had frequent conflict with their Celtic neighbors, and were victim to periodic Viking raids. Culture is traded in war as often as swords and spears, so it’s unsurprising that their pantheons and heroes have made their way into our works.

However comfortable, the road well-trod isn’t good art. To continue to push the boundaries with our fiction, we need to experiment and explore. Luckily, there is a plethora of mythology virtually unused by western literature. Need inspiration? Look into any of the Asian, Indian, Native American, African, or Pacific Islander traditions. There are dozens of cultures within each of these regions, all with their own history, traditions, and mythos. So long as you are careful to research thoroughly and do justice to the source material, chances are you’ll be able to introduce your readers to something they’ve never experienced before.

Kevin Hearne does an excellent job at this in his Iron Druid Chronicles. True to modern urban fantasy, Hearne’s world works to meld myth from around the world into a single universe. However, Hearne takes the concept to the next level by having his characters interact with gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters from every corner of the globe. He starts with the Celtic tradition in the first book, but quickly expands to a trio of Polish goddesses, a Hindu body switcher, and Coyote as seen by several different Native American tribes in the next couple of installments. He continues this trend over the course of the series and has introduced me to a variety of mythology that I’m itching to explore for myself. After all folks, we live in the information age. With the access we have now to people and source material very different from our own culture, ignorance is a choice.

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