Mythology is rich with character, history and enduring examples. They are possibly the most ancient form of storytelling. Before there were written histories of cultures and lands there were half truths and stories about them. These stories served as the connection between the people that told them. Often there were morals and guidelines to the stories and to a community with no written laws, these held the fabric of their society together. Many of the moral ideas which cement our own society were passed down to us through fictional stories. Although a diverse genre, there are some distinguishing features of myths and legends that are common to most languages and cultures. The main aspect, however, is the flexibility of these stories to adapt to whatever culture they find themselves in. This genre is a fascinating section of literature.
Mythology is prehistoric, meaning that it pre-dates written language. Predominantly, it survived through oral history, passed on by word of mouth. Legends are stories that began as real events and people but were blown out of proportion by embroidery and retelling. It is suspected that the Arthurian legend began with a real man, who led the people of Britain some time in the dark ages. However, most accounts of the story include mentions of magic and impossible creatures. Myths are creative tales, but they often serve as vessels for complex ideas. They include well known tales such as The Minotaur and Icarus. They served to bring cultures together and occasionally against each other. The Romans and Carthaginians justified their wars by calling to mind the legendary Aeneas, who, supposedly, had been at odds with the ruler of Carthage in his journey to found Rome. By a common history, true or imagined, a land mass could become a nation.
One of the functions of mythology was to lay an unofficial guideline of the values of a society. This is particularly evident in the legends about Gods and heroes. Often in ancient times, religion and mythology were indistinguishable, both explaining supernatural phenomena and events. This is true in the famous myths of Ancient Greece and Rome, Australian Aboriginal folklore, and many beside. It was also used as a way of defining moral ground. Before there were written laws and governments, societies modelled themselves on glowing legends of perfect lands and rulers. The Arthurian legend is a brilliant example of this. King Arthur is famed as having introduced and enforced the rule of law and having disputed the theory of “might is right.” For hundreds of years afterwards, English society modelled itself on these ideas. In Australian Aboriginal legends, the dreamtime spirits lived in the ideal way and aboriginal culture continued almost unchanged for thousands of years by following their example. Myths and legends have played a vital role in the structure of different cultures.
Mythology is common to most people. Because of this they are as varied as the cultures which invented them. Some defining features do connect them, however. Most have an underlying theme. A story with no meaning or purpose could hardly stand the test of time to survive as mythology. However, the beauty of this genre lies in its freedom. Each story that has been passed down through the generations is open to individual interpretation. They are refreshed with every new era. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, telling the story of King Arthur, took most of its inspiration from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur written 400 years earlier. It, in turn, had brought together different stories from much older books and poems. Myths and Legends are being constantly adapted to keep up with current culture and this is what defined their nature. The film Troy (2004), The Alexander series of novels by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, and much more popular literature are stories thousands of years old. Without doubt, they will be retold time and time again.
There must have been millions of myths and legends told over the ages, most lost to the passing of time. For thousands of years they have been a part of every culture. They gave those who knew them an identity and a character. They gave societies a common memory and a connection to the land in which they lived. Often, they laid out the ground rules by which a group of people strove to live. In a time before laws, they separated people from just animals by enforcing order with a common standard. Having evolved separately in most parts of the world, mythology has got to be one of the most diverse and varied genres. It is this tendency to adapt to whatever society they have been accepted into that really defines it. No other stories are as rewritten, retold, and recreated as those of myth and legend. They shall no doubt live on.