Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #70:

Modern Myths, Part One: An Overview from Gilgamesh to Bunyan

by Shannon Appelcline

April 25, 2002 — In 1839 an English gentleman by the name of Austen Henry Layard set off on a journey to Ceylon. In Mesopotamia he was delayed — first for weeks, then for years — by the excavation of ancient mounds in Assyria. He would later bring back over twenty-five thousand broken clay tablets to the British Museum; Layard's successor in the excavation at Ninevah would continue unearthing tablets and in 1853 he would find something quite special.

As was typical of the archaeological expeditions of the mid-nineteenth century, it was a long time before everything could be catalogued and deciphered — before it was truly known what had been discovered. In 1872 translator George Smith revealed that one of the tablets recovered from Ninevah gave an account of The Flood. It was part of The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story nearly five thousand years old, and one of the first myths written down by mankind.

It was part of a form of storytelling which extends all the way from the prehistoric past to the electronic present, and that has its place in a medium near and dear to my own heart: online gaming.

This week and next I'm going to be overviewing myths, in both their ancient and modern forms. Afterward I plan to extend that discussion into a look at how mythic structures, from Jung to Campbell, can be used for online games. My current outline lists six weeks' worth of articles, so let's get started...

The History of Myth

Myth is a very old art form, quite possibly the earliest form of storytelling. It has its origins in prehistoric times, in the first time one caveman explained to another how the sun would rise again in the morning, or how spring would inevitably follow winter. The burial rituals of the Neanderthals tell us of the role that myth must have played in their cultures, though we have (of course) no written records of those prehistoric times.

When the first cultures began to appear on the river valleys of the world, myth began to appear as well — spontaneously, in every location, proving its universality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is drawn from the Tigris-Eurphrates river valley of the 3rd century BC. The Book of the Dead, which originated in the Nile river-valley, may be even older — parts of it possibly dating back to 4,000 BC. It tells of Osiris and Set, and the oldest battles of the god, and also of the oldest rituals for the dead and departed.

Across the world the eldest myths tend to fit the same pattern. They were the tales of the gods — Zeus, Thor, Mars, Raven, Horus, Grandfather Mantis, and Ishtar alike — and the mortals who interacted with them. They were the stories of how the world came to be and what made it work.

We artificially separate some myths into a category called religion, primarily on the basis of whether they are still believed by large groups of people (or, if you prefer, by whether they are true). Less than four thousand years ago, while The Epic of Gilgamesh was still being copied in Babylonian temples, the first bits of the Christian Old Testament were also being composed. Judaism entered the world, followed by Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, and a host of others. Like the oldest stories, these religious myths were about divinity, but more typically that divinity was a single (monotheistic) force. Sometimes these stories explained the shape of the world, as in Genesis, but more frequently they offered moral lessons instead.

Some time in the middle ages mythology began to shift again, and we saw a third important form emerge. Rather than being centered on gods, it centered around men. There had been humancentric stories before, from The Epic of Gilgamesh itself to The Iliad, but the heroes of these stories were always heavily influenced by the gods, and thus not able to truly act on their own, with free will.

One of the earliest examples of the new, truly humancentric form of mythology was The Song of Roland which may have begun to appear around 1100 AD. The even-better known Arthurian cycle began to truly build some one hundred years later. Some call these humancentric myths legends.

Faerie tales, or folk tales, appeared in this time too. Whether they are true mythology or not is a subject for debate. Without a doubt, they share a number of characteristics with older myths.

In the last few hundred years — as late as the start of the twentieth century — new myths were still being created in America (and elsewhere). These new stories could still clearly be recognized as extensions of a long mythic tradition. There was Paul Bunyan, who owned the giant blue ox Babe. There was Johnny Appleseed, who roamed the countryside planting trees. There was John Henry, who defeated the machine. Some of these recent American myths are called tall tales, but it is another somewhat artificial distinction — a narrow line of division to segregate myths told in a slightly different manner.

In many ways, I think we've now seen the end of what we define as traditional mythology, at least in the western world. They came to an end as the last frontiers on Earth began to close, as we learned too much and ceased to require stories to explain the universe. Some still remain, centered around the great mysteries, such as death, but for the most part they are gone.

What a road they've traveled though — what a variety of forms, from the oldest myths of the ancient world, to the monotheistic religions that still exist today, to the more humancentric legends and tall tales.

But, all these forms share a number of common characteristics, and by examining those characteristics we can unearth the modern inheritors of the mythic tradition, and eventually see how online games have the opportunity to fit into the same mold, and, thus, perhaps become something greater than they are.

The Characteristics of Myth

To be able to truly understand how online games could be mythology — how anything could be mythology in the modern era — requires an examination of myths to date. What are they and how are they defined? The most ancient myths — those of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans — tend to share a number of core characteristics. All of the more recent variants of the form — from legends to tall tales, and even, for the most part, folk tales — tend to share most, though not always all, of these same characteristics.

To start with, Myths are larger than life. This grandeur influences every aspect of a myth. To start off with, the mythic characters are "far beyond the ken of mortal men." In the oldest myths, they are the gods themselves. Even in the more humancentric ancient myths, the protagonists are kings, who themselves were considered divinity (Gilgamesh) or the spawn of the gods (Hercules).

When mythology began to grew much more humancentric, in the Middle Ages, the protagonists were still normal men raised up to greatness. Arthur was fostered in secret, and only found greatness when he drew the sword from the stone. Gareth Beaumains began life as a kitchen scull. But each accomplished a great act and thus proved himself greater than those about him.

The scope, and thus the consequences, of myths tend to be greater too. The story of Persephone tells how a single woman brought winter to the world. The Arthurian cycle tells of how a lone man brought peace and hope to the embattled British Isles... at least for a time.

Myths also tend to be about the supernatural, be it gods that turn into swans, beguiling sirens, or a Holy Grail.

Another characteristics of mythology is that Myths are iconic. Things represent more than what they are. This is the most obvious in the oldest myths, of the gods. Ares was war, Thor was the storm, and Anu was the heavens. However, even in more recent tales we see the same iconization. Arthur was Britain while Paul Bunyan was the iconic lumberjack.

Many myths are also filled with simple and iconic dualities: good and evil, light and dark, summer and winter, day and night. They expand upon the iconism of the mythic characters, extending the same texture across the entire stories.

Invariably Myths either explain or exemplify. Some of the oldest myths exist to explain why the universe is the way it is. Why there are storms. Why we die. Why there is winter. Why there is night. Often these explanations are meant to offer comfort and to provide hope. Even in more recent myths which may not necessarily explain, we still see these latter characteristics: comfort, hope, and order. The final point of the Arthurian mythology, for example, is that Arthur will rise again when Britain has its greatest need: Arthurus Rex, quondam Rex que futurus.

More recent myths instead exemplify. As I mentioned, religious texts were some of the earlier myths filled with actual morality. The stories of King Arthur, filled with the ideals of Christianity and chivalry, fulfilled much the same purpose, as did the tales of Paul Bunyan, which idealized the rugged individual, or John Henry, which idealized the fight against progress. In each of these cases, mythology exemplified the ideas of the culture that spawned them, making those ideas and ideals bigger than life, even iconic. And by doing so, and doing so over the span of decades, even centuries, they tied those cultures together, generation after generation, through stories.

If some myths are now fading, such as the tall tales of the American West, it is because they contain ideals that we no longer adhere to — while those that still shine after hundreds of years, such as the legends of Arthur, portray ideals that we may still aspire to within our own culture.

Myths tend to follow rigid storytelling traditions. We've already seen some of this, such as the strict dualities present in most myths. In folk tales everything tends to occur in threes. In myths of most every type, there is a tight plot structure called The Hero's Journey. Through these familiar structure, and through the aforementioned iconic characters, listeners and readers could find comfort in the known.

Finally, Myths tend to be free. They are owned by no one. They are not intellectual property, not copyrighted or trademarked. Myths are released into the wild, and told and changed and retold again. Through this process they undergo a Darwinian evolution, with the best, most revealing, most important stories rising to the top. And in doing so they grow better, because they become the best of the best in a way that a story owned and told by one person never could. Lancelot was not in the oldest Arthurian myths, not in any of them until the French added him to the canon. Gawaine was a Celtic god in the oldest tales, then the first of Arthur's court, but he was eventual eclipsed by the Normandy newcomer. Storytellers adapt to their audiences, and so myths adapt too, and have been for thousands of years.

The Future of Myth

Before I close out this week's article I should note that much of the thought in this article is personal, based on my own thoughts and brainstorms from my wife, Kimberly Appelcline. Clearly, however, it's all been influenced by things I've read in the last thirty years. Ideas about the Hero's Journey come from Joseph Campbell, who we'll get to in a few weeks. Carl Jung wrote about archetypes and the collective unconsciousness; we'll get to him too. Finally, Greg Stafford, in his creation of the mythology behind Glorantha for RuneQuest and later Hero Wars, made it clear to me how mythologies are organically created in a way that I would never have realized from reading terrene myths; Eric Shanower did much the same in his brilliant comic book series, Age of Bronze, which creates a composite view of the Trojan War. I don't particularly intend to revisit these latter two authors in this series, but they deserve recognition all the same.

Next week I'm going to explore my assertion that traditional mythology is dead, by discussing what modern art forms are inheriting its ideals, and also by discussing how online games could become one of those heirs.

I'll see you in 7.

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