Why Study Mythology?

This month’s post of Mythological Monday! Hurray! Today, I want to talk about why anybody should study mythology/religion, especially writers, and why I enjoy it.

As was commented on in a previous post about religion and the writing craft, some writers treat religion and mythology as a single unit: mythology. I don’t. They are still important to learn for various reasons. Firstly, if you’re not learning something, then you’re stagnating…dying. Also, nothing can give insight into a culture like studying their mainstream religions. Religion and mythology can also help us understand our own pasts, like a theological history. Religion and mythology are great resources, and sometimes great beginnings, for writers. And finally, most real people have a religion that they subscribe to, so a character that you want to feel real, should also have one.

There is a reason why I separate religion and mythology into two groups. Even among religions there are sets of beliefs that are often mythological, and called so in that religion, but are not held as doctrine. A great example would be Judaism. They have doctrine, found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. That is religion. They further have a set of stories, and some beliefs, which can be learned, is usually accepted as true, but “unfounded” so to speak. That is mythology. It is from one of those stories that my novel has blossomed. The Lilith myth. It is a story used to explain why there are two versions of the creation story in the Bible, why a woman is supposed to be subservient, as well as the existence of demons. This is mythology. I treat most ancient religions as religion: Greek mythology, Japanese, Norse, etc. Those I treat as religion. But when it’s clear that the religion has a set of beliefs that itself treats as myth, I almost have to treat it slightly differently.

And now for the ranting. Stagnation is a nice term for death. If a person is not learning something, anything, not stretching their comfort zone, they are dying. It really is that simple. I can say this from experience. I graduated last December. Since then I have not gone to school, but instead focused on trying to find employment. I have been learning nothing. And as the last nine, nearing ten, months have gone by I have felt myself wither away. All the zeal, the beliefs, the joy that I had in life has slowly been sapped away. I’m not learning. I’m not working. I can’t seem to do anything right now. Besides being completely depressing, there is a stagnation that creeps in even on my writing. I’ve noticed that as time has gone by my writing, at least the quality thereof, has suffered more than I would have at first believed. So yes, learning anything is important, but what could be more fascinating than another religion?

Learning the majority religion of any given culture can help a person understand that culture in ways that simply looking at it couldn’t. Why? Because oftentimes the history of a culture is tied to their practiced religions, sometimes to the point of being inseparable. If you’re studying the history, then you’re studying the religion. Japan, for example, if you’re studying their history, you’ll see the kamikaze pilots in WWII. That stems, at least in some part, to the Japanese sense of honor, which is linked to their religion.

These topics can also help us to understand our own history in new ways. It is said that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” We have seen this time and again with war…Korean War, Vietnam War, the War on “Terror.” All of them doomed to fail from the first. Of course, if you listen to Sun Tzu it’s because they didn’t understand the Art of War. But I digress, understanding the Christian roots of Western culture, most specifically American culture, can help us to comprehend why there is separation of Church and State, and why it should continue to be so. It can help us understand how things quite often go horribly wrong when religion and politics mesh. In our own history the most immediate situation that comes to mind is the question of “gay” marriage. I don’t have “gay” lunch. I have lunch. Marriage is the blending two souls no more. The Salem witch trials also come to mind. Abortion. The KKK. There really are too many problems to list.

Religion can also be a great resource for writers. It can be used for inspiration, like my own work was. Alternatively, the religions of ancient cultures are often used in present day, such as the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. It should not be necessary to point out that in every case, each writer brings something familiar to the story as well as something special only they could have thought of.

And finally, writers and readers alike prefer round, complex characters. Since most people have some kind belief, religious or otherwise, it only makes sense to let your characters have one. If your character is an ex-Catholic vampire from Jersey, s/he will act completely different from an Islamic werewolf from London. Hmm…an Islamic werewolf in London. That might have potential.

I started studying religion simply because I liked it. I enjoy learning different perspectives. I suppose that’s why some often think I have no perspective. That’s not entirely true. More often than not, when I was in my religion classes, I went against the majority for the fun of it, even if my personal beliefs aligned with theirs. Plus it really is the best way to go about learning history in my opinion.

On a completely different note, since this is my first October post, I thought I’d share my writing goals for this month. My single goal is to write 1,000 words a day, besides my blog. So far, I have only fell short yesterday by 100 words, but I simply had to go to bed.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Why Study Mythology?

  1. Oh, Dorothy. 😦 My heart goes out to you! I’ve been unemployed since March, mostly ’cause I wanted to focus on school, though I’ve been job hunting since the end of May and only recently (like today) found a part-time position that is unrelated to my field of study. Not having a steady job or something you can regularly contribute to can be terribly stagnating for every aspect of your life. (I used to volunteer by working with kids a lot, which I really did enjoy, but I guess dedication to college has taken its toll on me, heh. I felt I had very little to “give” just a few years into the whole university experience.)

    It’s strange that you bring up your interest in religion at this point in your life: for me, it’s been the complete opposite! I’ve been indoctrinated by religion my whole life (though, I guess many religious people have) and I kind of just want to step back from it all and be able to see things from a non-religious perspective for once. Even so, I still believe there is a God and that he has an annoyingly uncanny sense of humor, for one, and that he wants me to learn certain things. Regardless, my desire to live in rigid accordance with religious doctrine has decreased over the years. More and more I see purpose in every aspect of life, though the big picture is never completely clear. It does seem to reveal itself slowly over time, however.

    I feel like these slow times I’ve spent unemployed have been breaking me down so that I might be built up again, eventually–with renewed purpose. If that makes sense…

    Anyhow, I think I’ve taken the same approach to my WIP: stepped back from religion–or rather, taken a broader look at it by learning to see truths outside of what I’ve been taught. Though, it’s been a very gradual process (approaching five years now, I’d say). There are religions in my story, but I use them primarily to explore how different cultures can understand the same things in different ways and how one worldview can provide answers to life in ways that others can’t. They’re also there to create tension between peoples, but that’s really more of a byproduct. (I didn’t design the religions so that they’d intentionally cause their practitioners to be dead-set against one another; that would feel contrived to me. Their reasons for hating, fearing or misunderstanding each other tend to be much more basic than religious reasons, though religion–and mythology–is sometimes used to provide explanation for their troubles. In other words, the religions are built around their experiences, not the other way around.)

    Maybe eventually I’ll take a greater, deeper interest in the various religions of the world, but for now I’m pretty much burned out by religion in general, heh. Any interest I do have in them is fairly superficial at this point, I’m sad to say, though I have gotten basic inspiration for fictional religions from several real ones. I am glad you find interest in studying religions, though, and that this has brought joy into your life. 🙂

    Also, I’m glad to see you’re still around on the blogosphere, heh. I was worried my reader stopped receiving updates from here or something! lol

    • Thanks for the thoughts. I really didn’t intend to rant about being jobless, but sometimes it feels like once I start writing, it takes on a life of it’s own, this was one of those cases. On the last note, I somehow lost my password (probably has something to do with my computer crashing…oops that was an ID10T error) and could not figure out how to reset it. I kept writing until I realized I was checking the wrong email for the change password link from wordpress. Lol.
      I also got real tired of indoctrination. Many, I believe, are raised so indoctrinated that it permeates their lives whether they want it to or not. It has seeped into their subconscious. While my first love of studying religion came from reading Greek and Roman mythology in Jr High. That was when I first realized that I was tired of the religion I’d been growing up in. From then on I grabbed what I could on what religion I could. I have so many books on Mythology, Legends, Demons (and other subversive spirits) and I added a second major in Philosophy and Religious Studies with a focus in Native American Religion. Studying religion has, over time, become something resembling obsession. It’s the one thing I can count on to keep me going, keep expanding my horizons.

  2. I’ll start by saying that I understand how you feel, with respect to unemployment and the terrible, grinding, hopeless feeling you get when you’re not being productive or learning or growing or just doing something. I’ve been there. More than once. It’s not someplace I’d wish anyone to have to go… but these days far, far too many have been in that place for ever-so-long. I’m fortunate, I guess, in that I’ve never been in that place for longer than about five months or so at a time.

    I do feel like I should clarify my earlier comment about treating religion and mythology as fundamentally the same. Everything we study today as “mythology” was once someone’s religious beliefs: the ancient Greeks once believed in Zeus and the twelve Olympians, and built temples to them. The Norse believed in Thor and Odin and the other Asgard and in elves and dwarves and so on. In your post, for instance, you say that you treat these ancient beliefs as religion. For me, though, the fundamental question then becomes: how to you separate different beliefs from one another within a religion to classify one set of beliefs as mythology and another as core doctrine.

    Take Christianity, for instance, and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Some christian sects treat this story as allegorical: they don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve so much as they believe that there’s a spiritual truth to the story. Some treat it as literal: there was a man who God formed out of mud and breathed on. And then God performed invasive surgery on him, extracted a rib, and used that as the template to create a woman. Both versions of the religion accept the story as “true”, as part of their core and scriptural canon of beliefs, but they treat the story in very different ways. It is “mythology” for one and “religion” for the other? Why or why not?

    Or take your example of the legend of Lilith. How many Jewish people accept the story of Lilith as fact, as canon? How many only as legend? What about the fact that ancient Jews and Hebrews created magical amulets for the purpose of protecting their children from Lilith or Lilith’s children, because they truly believed that if left unprotected Lilith could come and steal their children’s souls away? And while Lilith isn’t named in the main Jewish scripture, the Torah, she is named in the various other Jewish scriptures called the Talmud. So… what makes Lilith “mythology” instead of “religion”? Clearly, some people believed in her – and feared her – enough so that they were motivated to action.

    That’s why I don’t feel I can separate the two. Someone, somewhere, once believed this or that “mythology”, and it was important to their religious practice in some way. If it weren’t, it’s unlikely we would still have record of the belief today. And the same goes with today’s religions: people very clearly believe them today. And for some people the beliefs of that religion are mere “mythology”, but for others they are important, vital truths. So, to me, they are one and the same. They are religion, and they are mythology.

    The only mental separation I make, in how I treat the words differently, then is that mythology concerns the remembered past – the stories that are passed down from generation to generation, regardless of whether those stories are part of current beliefs or not. Religion concerns the present practice – the structure and organization of belief. In that way, in my writing, the mythology concerns the stories, and the religion concerns the organization. But the two are inextricably linked. And the character who accept certain stories as true will not mentally separate them from the organizations that promote the teachings of those stories.

    • FWIW, I completely agree with you about how realistically portraying characters usually means understanding that character’s beliefs and/or religion. In many ways, I think that’s even true if the character is a contemporary atheist.

    • You have been more fortunate than I in the job department, and I hadn’t really meant to rant about being jobless (although it’d feel a lot less oppressive if I were jobless by choice), sometimes my words get away from me. But it really was meant as an example. I truly think that if you stop expanding your horizons, you’re only enabling your death to come quickly.
      On the mythology/religion division: I treat each branch of Christianity as a separate religion firstly. Some branches,like you said, treat it as literal, others as symbolic. In either case, it’s treated as doctrine. As religion. These are key components to the religion. My treatment of Lilith as myth stems from the mythology of her as Adam’s first wife. While she is mentioned once directly in the Old Testament (Isa: 34), and many times in the Talmud, it is her role as Adam’s wife that I treat as mythology. That she was feared is never up for debate. The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and Talmud treat her as a seductress and demon. That is religion. Did that make it any clearer?
      PS. I actually wrote this post in September, and meant to make a small series (First on using religion, then on studying it, and a few on specific religions that I use in my stories and why). However, once you commented on my first one, I revised this one slightly. And when I revised it I changed a few numbers. At the time, for instance I was only 8 mo. jobless, now it’s 9. And since you made a comment, I thought I could incorporate why I still separate them in there. Sorry if I offended.

      • No offense taken. I was just trying to clarify what I meant. But you’re perfectly free to treat religion and mythology however you want. I still don’t see the logic of how one belief is separable from another, whether within a specific faith or across related faiths, or whatever. It just seems to me that a belief is a belief, and whether it’s “canon” or not, if someone believes it then it’s part of that person’s religion. But ultimately, this is sort of an academic debate… it doesn’t really matter whether you call it mythology or religion. What matters, as far as a writer is concerned, is how your characters react to it. That’s all I mean to say, I guess.

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