The Powers of Myth

Posted by Pamela Jaye Smith on

Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the worlds around us and within us.

Is your story mythic? Well, it should be.

And it can be, if you tap into the timeless and powerful tools of storytelling that make some tales so universal yet so personal that they stand the test of time and become classics.

It's said that every "real" myth is true on at least seven levels. So, no matter your genre or your style, more than likely some aspect of your story is directly related to a myth. The more you play that up - within the context of your story and in an organic way - the more the inherent powers of myth will enhance your project.

Some of the most important Power Tools of Myth-making are:





Here is a look at each of these categories, plus some suggestions on how to use them in your projects.

* MYTHIC THEMES - Beyond the Hero's Journey

Myths are things which never happened but always are.
Salustius [84-34 B.C.E.]

Having trouble making your story fit the pattern of the Hero's Journey? Can't quite make those paradigms match your own characters and plot?

Maybe that's because your story is actually based on a different pattern.

Contrary to popular opinion, The Hero's Journey is not the only Mythic Theme. It's certainly a good one, but it is only one of many.

A few years after the publication of Hero With a Thousand Faces, Dr. Joseph Campbell modified his position about the monomyth and observed that for different times and places there were indeed different mythic structures and archetypes.

There are many other powerful Mythic Themes ranging from "Lost Love Rescued" to "The Wake-up Call," from "War In Heaven" to "The Search for the Promised Land."

But, you say, you don't need those dusty old Mythic Themes; your project is entirely original.

Well, probably not.

But that's okay.

It's good, actually. You know that saying about nothing new under the sun? It's kind of true and kind of not true. Though these timeless tales we call myths survive the rise and fall of civilizations and seem to magically appear and reappear across the globe, every culture and every age gives each of those marvelous old stories their own special spin. And so can you, with a bit of conscious creativity.

The Mythic Themes are like musical keys, an artist's palette, poetic styles - they are, like The Hero's Journey, powerful universal paradigms that can enhance your own individualistic storytelling.

No matter the genre, no matter the style, from futuristic to faeries, from coming-of-age to aged lovers, the heart and spine of your story will usually echo some ancient tale. So have some fun researching your story's mythic background. Align your story with one of those timeless paradigms. Try to echo at least a half dozen of the basic Plot Points within a myth, in whatever order seems most dramatic to you, and voila - your story is on its way to becoming mythic.

(At the end of this article are suggested collections of myths.)


Whate're is well conceived is clearly said,
And the words to say it flow with ease.

Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux [1636-1711]
The Art of Poetry

Another Mythic Tool that's fairly easy to use is the Mythic Statements.

Contrary to contemporary screenwriting advice that your dialogue should never be "on the nose" but should always resonate with subtext, there are three times in a story when I think it essential to say exactly what you mean. These are touch-down points for your story's Theme, and the anchoring ends of a character's arc.

The three Mythic Statements are best given in specific, direct, and poetic if possible, language. They are:

The Mythic Statement - What's the Story About?
My favorite example is from Apocalyse Now when Captain Willard is getting his mission from the General. The General has a fabulous, poignant speech about the heart of darkness within each man and how Colonel Kurtz has succumbed to the dark side.

The Mission Statement - What's the Heroine Supposed to Do?
Here again, I'd suggest you watch Apocalypse Now and listen to how clearly Capt. Willard's mission is laid out. He's to go upriver and terminate the Colonel's command - with extreme prejudice. In other words, go kill the rogue colonel.

The Lesson Statement - What did the Heroine Learn that was a Surprise to Her?
In Apocalypse Now the Lesson Statement is actually made at the beginning of the movie. Watch that whole first section of the film, right to the end of the scene in the General's trailer, for an excellent crafting of the three Mythic Statements.

A most poignant Lesson Statement is in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Sam is encouraging Frodo to carry on in spite of all the setbacks. His impassioned plea is that all the great stories are there being some good in the world and that it is worth fighting for.

It's helpful to put these Mythic Statements on note cards above your keyboard so that every page, every scene you write will resonate with their ground-truths. You don't want to keep restating them in words, but rather to support them in your project's actions, attitudes, and ambiance.

As an exercise, go back to your favorite five books, films, plays, operas, or computer games and pull out these three Mythic Statements for each. See how well or not the creators used this Mythic Tool to anchor their intent and the import of the story.


A man's character is his fate.
Heraclitus [c.540-480 B.C.E.]

Whether your story is plot driven or character driven, you always want to have unique, vivid, and believable characters.

As a consultant, one of the main problems I see in people's stories is that the characters all sound the same. Giving each individual their own personal background, psychological profile, fears and desires, strengths and weaknesses, motivations and foibles is an easy way to delineate them for your reader, actors, players, or viewers.

One of humanity's favorite pastimes is analyzing other humans. So it's no surprise there are a lot of systems of character analysis that you can use to develop your own fictional characters. Some of the most extensive and elaborate include the Enneagrams, the Meyers-Briggs profiles, archetypes from the pantheons of various cultures' myths, and the Centers of Motivation, or chakras.

Selecting and sticking with one of these systems for your characters will go a long way to building an ensemble of dynamic individuals that will express not only your own ideas and emotions but will also tap into the timeless truths of what it is to be human and yet yearn to be more than human.


Grey-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing o'er the wine-dark sea.
Homer [c.700 B.C.E.]
The Iliad

The settings and props, clothing and weather, pets and vehicles of your characters can all carry Mythic Symbolism.

So much of what your audience gets from your work is on levels other than the obvious. Unlike those times when you need to flat-out state your Theme, Mission, and Lesson, for the most part your story will be more rich and resonant if you use symbolism and imagery, the poetry of storytelling, to engage our other senses and our imaginations.

Science is showing us the places in our brains where we actually perceive certain colors, shapes, and symbols. It turns out that, just as the true mythmakers have always known, our brains are hard-wired to perceive and interpret symbols.

Some of the symbolism is pretty basic:

Earth - the physical world
Water - the emotions
Fire - the mind (and sometimes the fiery passions)
Air - the spirit

Yet within each of those categories there is a wide range of expressions and interpretations. Think of what you can do with water to symbolize various emotional states: ice - frozen, coldness, rigidity; roiling tempestuous waters - stormy unsettled emotions; placid calm waters - peacefulness. Or the lack of water. Or refreshing rain.

It seems pretty basic; it is, that's why it works. So when you're writing in your descriptions, settings, and environment, keep in mind those universal symbols that express states of mind and states of emotion.

You can also use these variances to provide contrast within a scene: e.g. have one character sitting before a body of water while the background behind the other is solid ground. Subliminally we'll pick up a disparity of psychological states in your two characters.

Colors and shapes can also play a big part in your storytelling.

For some stories where symbols and images were almost characters in themselves, think of Moulin Rouge, Giant, The Matrix, Under the Sheltering Sky, Moby Dick, and The English Patient.

From ancient Egypt to modern ball teams, animals have been used by storytellers to express characters' psychological states of mind and resultant actions. Even if you don't apply a direct correlation on the page, try assigning the most appropriate animals to each of your characters and then use that terminology in your descriptions. E.g. "cunning" (like a fox), "lumbering" (like a bear), "sneaky" (like a coyote), "regal" (like an eagle).

A most vivid mythic image is the Leap into the Abyss. The action reflects the descent of the spirit into matter, the leap of the soul from a higher frequency dimension into this earthly one, the departure from childhood towards adulthood - any big change in psychological or physical states, really. You can see it on the Tarot card of The Fool "O." It's a central point of initiation in the Carlos Castenada Don Juan book series. And check out these famous film leaps, each of which propelled the characters into a new reality: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Thelma and Louise, and The Fugitive.

Here's another image that seems to show up in so many TV shows and movies - (to misquote Galaxy Quest) it's that big stupid fan they put in every episode. I think not only does it represent a dangerous doorway, it's also a visual that D.P.s and Gaffers love because of what it does with light and motion.

An effective exercise to call forth the inherent Mythic Symbols and Imagery for your project is to write a short sonnet or free-verse poem using as many sensate words as you can. How does it look, feel, sound, taste, smell, etc. Now incorporate phrases from your poem into your descriptions and dialogue. That's how the ancient myth-makers did it when they wished to impart a concept or an inspiration via their stories.

In conclusion, you too can use these Powers of Myth to improve and enhance your own storytelling.

Though not everyone learns the classics in school anymore, we are fortunate to have many popular and quite accessible books in the marketplace on myths, archetypes, symbols and imagery. Every storyteller's bookshelf would benefit from a good collection of books on myth.

Start with Aesop's Fables: Laura Gibbs has an excellent translation from Oxford World's Classics. Joseph Campbell's four part series The Masks of God covers the mythic stories and symbols of most times and cultures. Two classics in the Greco-Roman field are Bulfinch's Mythology and Edith Hamilton's. Robert Graves does a great job with both the Mediterranean and the Celtic myths, going into fascinating esoteric interpretations.

A couple of good compendiums of world myths are the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, and the old standby Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (abridged, or if you've a few years of reading time, his twelve-volume series). There are enough weird practices and beliefs from around the world laid out in Frazer's work to keep your imagination spinning out stories for decades.

Dr. Carl Jung did a lot of work with the Archetypes and psychology and many helpful books by many different and diverse authors have been spun off from his work as well as those of the ancients. The Writers Store carries a number of books about character psychology based on the different character analysis systems.

As for symbols and imagery, you no longer have to go study in an isolated monastery for two decades to access this information. There are many books available, some arcane and academic, others very easy and accessible. I'd suggest at least one of each for your writer's library. The Lost Language of Symbolism by Harold Bayley and The Secret Language of Symbols by Fontana are two of my favorites.

So take up your Mythic Tools and take your place in the long line of myth-makers who create moving and memorable stories that powerfully engage and entertain your audience.

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