|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #79:
The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Five: Ritualizing Backstory
With thanks to Greg Stafford and RuneQuest
July 4, 2002 - In the United States this day July the 4th is a day of holiday and celebration. If you're like millions of other Americans all across the country, you've spent the day enjoying a backyard barbecue and will soon be heading off to see fireworks at an amusement park or a civic center. (And, I'm aware that there are many non-Americans reading this and also many Americans not celebrating the holiday, but stay with me; I have a point here, and it's about myth.)
If you're like millions of other Americans you're actively celebrating one of the United State's numerous legal holidays, but... have you ever stopped to think about what it really means?
The Fourth of July is, you see, like all holidays, a ritual. It's an organized way to remind ourselves of the mythology that underlies our country. And that's going to be my topic for today the ritual of July 4th, what it tells us about mythology, and how we can expand those ideas into online games.
The Ritual of the Fourth
There are numerous elements which define the Fourth of July ritual. Barbecues (or picnics), fireworks, and the colors red, white, and blue are the biggies. But, particularly as you step back in history, you can find other elements that have been a part of the holiday over time. Parades still show up now and then; I can vaguely recall participating in one back in 1976, my tiny bicycle adorned with red, white and blue streamers. In Ye Olden Days you also used to have speeches, oratory, and a lot of civic pride.
I'm going to examine some of these various elements in turn, and as I do I hope to portray three major ritualistic influences upon the Fourth of July: historic recreations, symbolic representations, and symbolic replacement.
We see historic recreation most powerfully in the element that is at the heart of Fourth of July celebrations: the fireworks. The historic symbolism of fireworks should be immediately obvious to anyone who thinks for a moment about the Independence Day celebration. We're celebrating the fact that we won a war to gain our independence, and so, once a year, we set off neutered explosions to recreate the acts that brought us the Independence that we still enjoy today.
The importance of this imagery is supported by the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Moving onward, we can find symbolic representation in the colors red, white, and blue. The original symbolism of those colors is probably lost to most of us; we simply think of that tri-color mating as the mark of our country of patriotism. But, when the earliest patriots were trying to decide upon the colors for their country's flag they picked specific colors which had specific meanings to them, and perhaps some of those meanings are universal enough that we still reflect upon them at a subconscious level when we see the colors displayed today.
Secretary of the Congress Charles Thompson described the symbolism of the colors when he wrote about the Seal of the United States, which also uses red, white, and blue:
The colors of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; white signifies purity and innocence, red, hardiness & valor, and blue, the color of the chief, signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.
We have to dig a bit deeper to discover the symbolic replacement within the Fourth of July; we need to really consider all of the elements that make up the holiday as a whole. As I've already mentioned the earliest incarnations of the holiday included not just fireworks and patriotic colors, but also lots more parades, speeches, and other public gatherings. Oddly enough, there'd been a holiday that Americans used to celebrate which had exactly the same components: the King of England's birthday. Thus, the rituals of July 4th actually validate the new Independence Day holiday by subsuming the older King's birthday rituals.
The barbecues and picnics that surround the Fourth of July suggest one other bit of symbolic replacement found within the holiday. In America, the Fourth of July is very much the holiday that ritualizes the start of summer, just as the Summer Solstice did in elder days. The older Summer Solstice rituals often involved bonfires, sometimes even driving cattle across hot coals. The correlations to popping cattle bits on the grill seems fairly clear.
Rituals in Online Games
The next clear question is: how do we expand these ideas about ritual and backstory into online games? The first thing you need to do is decide how you're going to manage the backstory-ritual interface. There are two main methods:
You've now sketched out a tight correlation, either with a backstory which is embodied in a ritual, or a ritual that embodies a backstory. The next thing you need to do is figure out what exact method you'll choose to demonstrate this correlation. You could be very explicit or totally abstract. You'll probably use a number of these methods, as we see has happened in the Fourth of July holiday.
There's one last consideration that you should make when figuring out how rituals will work in your game: when will the ritual be held. A number of possibilities spring to mind:
And that's ritual in a nutshell. You've got great backstory real myths that you've created for your world. Ritual is the way to introduce them.
As I've noted elsewhere in this series, the structure I decided upon for these myth articles is the same as Kimberly Appelcline's Elements of Good Storytelling. Having finished reading this week's column, you should go read The Elements of Good Storytelling #5, Imagining Backstory.
Much of my understanding of how ritual can be used to help show backstory comes from Greg Stafford and the World of Glorantha, which for years was part of the game RuneQuest. The latest version of the game, HeroQuest, is even closer to its mythical roots.
And finally I wanted to make a few additional notes on old topics.
When I talked about singular plot in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #76, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Two: Singular Plot in Theory, I neglected to discuss another way to define singular plots in myth. Many students of myths, and folk tales specifically, use something called a type index (or a motif index) to define the many different types of stories which are told. These can be great sources for mythical story ideas. Here's a discussion of what types are. Here's types for a very specific class of folk tales. You can also find numerous books with complete motif indices.
Finally, some notes on character, which I discussed in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #78, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Four: The Heroic Character. The hero is just one archetype who shows up again and again in mythology, and I'd considered covering other mythology archetypes. However, upon doing some rereading of Jung, it became obvious to me that the scope of archetypes was much larger than just myth, so I've decided to save that for a future series on The Psychology of Online Games.
I'm again doing a bit of research before I decide for sure what the next column will include. I think there might be some opportunity to talk more about the structure of rituals, but I also want to finish up my talk of mythology by returning to the whole question of modern myth. I have a few more thoughts about how the modern day is trashing myths, and also about how myths still exist (and can thus be created in your own games).
We'll see which topic is best to explore in 7.