, after Hellenistic Greek
μυθοποιία, μυθοποίησις "myth-making") is a narrative genre
in modern literature
where a fictional mythology was created by the author or screenwriter. The word mythopoeia
and description was coined and developed by J. R. R. Tolkien
in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes
into fiction. Mythopoeia is also the act of making (creating) such mythologies. Notable mythopoeic authors include J. R. R. Tolkien
, C. S. Lewis
, Robert W. Chambers
, H. P. Lovecraft
, and George MacDonald
, among others. While many literary works carry mythic themes
, only a few approach the dense self-referentiality and purpose of mythopoeia. It is invented mythology
that, rather than arising out of centuries of oral tradition, are penned over a short period of time by a single author or small group of collaborators.
As opposed to fantasy worlds or fictional universe aimed at the evocation of detailed worlds with well-ordered histories, geographies, and laws of nature, mythopoeia aims at imitating and including real-world mythology, specifically created to bring mythology to modern readers, and/or to add credibility and literary depth to fictional worlds in fantasy or science fiction books and movies.
Mythopoeia can be created entirely by an individual, like the world of Middle-earth, or can be formed as a result of an amalgam of writings, like the Cthulhu Mythos.
The term mythopoeia
(virtually Greek μυθο-ποιία "myth-making") was adopted and used by Tolkien as a title of one of his poems
, written about 1931 and published in Tree and Leaf
. The poem essentially defined and popularized the word mythopoeia
as a literary and artistic endeavor and genre.
The place in society
Works of mythopoeia are often categorized with fantasy
or science fiction
but fill a niche for mythology in the modern world, according to Joseph Campbell
, a famous student of world mythology. Campbell spoke of a Nietzschean
world which has today outlived much of the mythology of the past. He claimed that new myths must be created, but he believed that present culture is changing too rapidly for society to be completely described by any such mythological framework until a later age. He did, however, use Star Wars
as an example of the creation of such fantasy worlds by which civilization will one day describe itself. Without relevant mythology, Campbell claimed, society cannot function.
Critics of the genre
Mythopoeia is sometimes called artificial mythology
which emphasizes that it did not evolve naturally and artifice
comparable with artificial language
, and should not be taken seriously as mythology. For example the noted folklorist Alan Dundes
argues that "any novel cannot meet the cultural criteria of myth. A work or art, or artifice, cannot be said to be the narrative of a culture’s sacred tradition...(it is) at most, artificial myth."
Students of myth-making and comparative religion have also been accused of weaving their own myths rather than honestly interpreting the ones they purport to study, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Georges Dumézil, Jane Ellen Harrison, James Frazer and Barbara Walker.
Perhaps the first attempt to construct mythology was the book of Pherecydes of Syros
, written in Greek Southern Italy
in the 6th century BC. Pherecydes transformed the Greek pantheon beyond recognition, with Zas
("he who lives") rather than Zeus
as the king of the gods, and Chronos
("time") rather than Kronos
as Zas's father. Pherecydes's book was a key turning-point in the Greek movement towards scientific and philosophical thought.
Tolkien's concept of mythopoeia
Mythopoeia the poem
Tolkien wrote Mythopoeia
(the poem) following a discussion on the night of 19 September 1931
at Magdalen College, Oxford
with C. S. Lewis
and Hugo Dyson
in order to explain and defend creative myth-making. The discussion was recorded in the book The Inklings
by Humphrey Carpenter
Mythopoeia, the poem, is addressed from "Philomythos" (myth-lover) to one "Misomythos" (myth-hater) and takes a position defending mythology and myth-making as a creative art about "fundamental things". The poem begins by addressing C. S. Lewis as the Misomythos, who at the time was sceptical of any truth in mythology:
- "To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'".
Tolkien chose to compose the poem in heroic couplets, the preferred metre of British Enlightenment poets, as it were attacking the proponents of materialist progress ("progressive apes") on their own turf:
- "I will not walk with your progressive apes,
- erect and sapient. Before them gapes
- the dark abyss to which their progress tends --..."
The poem refers to the creative human author as "the little maker" wielding his "own small golden sceptre" ruling his subcreation (understood as genuine creation within God's primary creation):
- "your world immutable wherein no part
- the little maker has with maker's art.
- I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
- nor cast my own small golden sceptre down..."
The reference to not bowing before "the Iron Crown", and later reference rejecting "the great Artefact" have been interpreted as Tolkien's opposition and resistance to accept what he perceived to be modern man's misplaced "faith" or "worship" of rationalism, and "progress" when defined by science and technology: It must be stated though that Tolkien believed in rationalism, however, he did not believe that the modernist project was actually based on rationalism.
- "man ...keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
- his world-dominion by creative act:
- not his to worship the great Artefact."
Mythopoeia takes the position that mythology contains spiritual and foundational truths, while myth-making is a "creative act" that helps narrate and disclose those truths:
- "...There is no firmament,
- only a void, unless a jewelled tent
- myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
- unless the mother's womb whence all have birth."
Tolkien and the Inklings
Tolkien's now famous work of mythopoeia includes the Lord of the Rings
and The Silmarillion
. J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is perhaps the most well-known of contemporary invented mythology. In his fictional works, Tolkien invented not only a cosmogony
cycle, but also a fictive linguistics
Tolkien's idea of mythopoeia was soon followed by key authors in the Inklings, an informal literary discussion group associated with the University of Oxford, England, between the 1930s and the 1960s. This included his close friend C. S. Lewis.
C. S. Lewis and Narnia Series
At the time that Tolkien debated the usefulness of myth and mythopoeia with C. S. Lewis in 1931, Lewis was a theist
, and liked but was sceptical of mythology
, taking the position that myths were "lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'". However Lewis later conceded, and began to speak of Christianity as the one "true myth". Lewis wrote, "The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened."
Subsequently, his Chronicles of Narnia
is regarded as mythopoeia, with storylines referencing that Christian mythology, namely the narrative of a great king
who is sacrificed to save his people and is resurrected after three days.
Lewis' mythopoeic intent is often confused with allegory, where the characters and world of Narnia would stand in direct equivalence with concepts and events from Christian theology and history, but Lewis repeatedly emphasised that an allegorical reading misses the point (the mythopoeia) of the Narnia stories.
C. S. Lewis also created a mythopoeia in his neo-medieval representation of extra-planetary travel and planetary "bodies" in the Cosmic or Space Trilogy.
's "prophetic works" (e.g. Vala, or the Four Zoas
) contain a rich panoply
of original gods, such as Urizen
. Blake was an important influence on Aleister Crowley
writings, whose dazzling pantheon of invented deities and radically re-cast figures from Egyptian mythology
and the Book of Revelation
constitute an invented mythology of their own.
literature since the 17th century arose out of a collective effort at "mythology", as multiple anonymous authors wove an innovative hagiography
and founding myth
of the brotherhood in their tracts.
The Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft was likewise taken up by numerous collaborators and admirers.
Other modern literature
In this category are the Cthulhu Mythos
of H. P. Lovecraft
and literature by Rider Haggard
and George MacDonald
, the latter two C. S. Lewis praised for their "mythopoeic" gifts.
The repetitious themes of Jorge Luis Borges's fictional works (mirrors, labyrinths, tigers, etc.) tantalizingly hint at a deeper underlying mythos and yet stealthily hold back from any definitive canonicity.
The pulp works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard contain imagined worlds vast enough to be universes in themselves, as does the science fiction of Frank Herbert, E. E. "Doc" Smith and Michael Moorcock.
T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land was a deliberate attempt to model a 20th century mythology patterned after the birth-rebirth motif described by Frazer.
Frank McConnell, author of Storytelling and Mythmaking
and professor of English, University of California
, stated film is another "mythmaking" art, stating: "Film and literature matter as much as they do because they are versions of mythmaking. He also thinks film is a perfect vehicle for mythmaking: "FILM...strives toward the fulfillment of its own projected reality in an ideally associative, personal world. In a broad analysis, McConnell associate the American western movies
and romance movies to the Arthurian
mythology, adventure and action movies to the "epic world
" mythologies of founding societies, and many romance movies where the hero is allegorically playing role of a knight, to "quest" mythologies like Sir Gawain
and the Quest for the Holy Grail
George Lucas and Star Wars Series
Filmmaker George Lucas
speaks of the cinematic storyline of Star Wars
as an example of modern myth-making. He claims: "With 'Star Wars' I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs. The idea of Star Wars
as "mythological" has been met with mixed reviews by some reviewers and critics: Frank McConnell says "it has passed, quicker than anyone could have imagined, from the status of film to that of legitimate and deeply embedded popular mythology. John Lyden, the Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Dana College, argues that Star Wars
does indeed reproduce religious and mythical themes: specifically, he argues that the work is apocalyptic
in concept and scope. The Decent Film Guide
's Steven D. Greydanus agrees, calling Star Wars
a "work of epic mythopoeia". In fact, Greydanus argues that Star Wars
primary example of American mythopoeia:
"The Force, the Jedi knights, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan, Princess Leia, Yoda, lightsabers, and the Death Star hold a place in the collective imagination of countless Americans that can only be described as mythic. In my review of A New Hope I called Star Wars 'the quintessential American mythology,' an American take on King Arthur, Tolkien, and the samurai/wuxia epics of the East..."
However Lucas's claims about the "mythical" aspects of Star Wars
' have also been criticized by other film critics (e.g. as "pseudo-mythic Joseph Campbell
George Lucas claims to have been consciously influenced by Joseph Campbell's theories in making the Star Wars movies.
In classical music, Richard Wagner
's operas were a deliberate attempt to create a new kind of Gesamtkunstwerk
("total work of art"), transforming the legends of the Teutonic past into a new, nearly unrecognizable monument to the Romantic
In popular music, George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic collective produced numerous concept albums which tied together in what is referred to as P-Funk mythology.
The band Rhapsody Of Fire have created and tell the stories of a well developed fantasy world with tales of epic wars between good and evil.
In popular culture
have been seen as the twentieth century's answer to epic
. Perhaps the most ambitious and deliberate effort at mythopoeia in the comic field was Jack Kirby
" series, with the cosmic struggle between Darkseid
and the gods of New Genesis
and Mister Miracle
and Orion as messiah
-figures. Neil Gaiman
series created a mythology around the Endless
, a family of god-like embodiments of natural forces like death
Role-playing games often include invented mythologies for their players to interact with. Examples include the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons or the world of White Wolf's Exalted. Their computer counterparts, computer role-playing games, sometimes have elaborate fictional universes that continue to be explored over many sequels, such as the best selling Final Fantasy X which along with its sequel Final Fantasy X-2 sold 10 million copies and boasts a legion of enthusiasts of its Fictional Universe.
Penny Arcade attempted to create an "artificial artificial mythology" in the "The Elemenstor Saga", a fictitious series of books that parodied generic fantasy fiction. The project is now maintained by a loyal fan base who have continued to make contributions several times a week over the span of several years.
In the TV show Battlestar Galactica, the invented mythology is an important foundation of the plot. A vast majority of the humans, or Colonials, are polytheists and believe in the gods of Kobol, whose names and attributes are very similar to those of the Classical gods of Greece and Rome, such as Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Ares or Hera. One of the religious books of the Colonial canon was written by or named for the prophet Pythia. The Book of Pythia tells the story of the fall of the planet Kobol (where according to legend Humanity had first arisen), the exodus of the Twelve Tribes to their new planets (the Colonies), and the journey of a Thirteenth Tribe to a planet called Earth. The Cylons, a robot race, believe in one sole god and it's been suggested that the origins of their religion may be in the Temple of Five, a sacred place which appears in Pythia's prophecy and was found by the Colonial and Cylon fleets.
The Mythopoeic Society
exists to promote mythopoeic literature, partly by way of the Mythopoeic Awards
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald:
- Lobdell, Jared, The Scientifiction Novels of C. S. Lewis: Space and Time in the Ransom Stories, chapter "Is there Really Something called Mythopoeia?", 2004, p. 162-165. (Available Online) ISBN 0-7864-1824-9.
- Film-making as myth-making:
- McConnell, Frank. Storytelling and Mythmaking. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979 ISBN 0-19-503210-1.
- Hart, Steven. Galactic gasbag, Salon.com', April, 2002.
- Greydanus, Steven D. An American Mythology: Why Star Wars Still Matters, Decent Film Guide, copyright 2000-2006.
- Lyden, John. The Apocalyptic Cosmology of Star Wars, The Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 4, No. 1 April 2000 (Abstact).
- Pegasus- A wiki for Constructed Mythology and Fantasy Worldbuilding