Any exploration of fantasy must acknowledge the origins of imagination. Fantasy begins in the primeval depths of the human mind where feelings and ‘spirituality’ are expressed in tales about fears, desires, triumphs, rites of passage, the natural world and superstitions. Religious belief systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to express the mysteries of fertility; to give meaning to existence and death; to personify good and evil; to help moralise and legitimise law and order. Hero myths describe how particular individuals deliver a nation to safety – often through quest or war. We can see how myths have created a potent source of fantasy whose influence is easily detectable in much literature and art. In fact, in our post-modern world we seem to be returning to myths as a source of both meaning and entertainment.
The ancient Greeks came to consider mythos as inferior to logos, but why should fantasy be deemed inferior to the rational word? Give me the myths any time over Plato’s dull republic, which allows no place for the artist, being too obsessed with order and stifling control. Latin writer Ovid (43 B.C. – A.D. 17) wrote Metamorphoses at the same time as the birth of Christ, and it contains the best-loved versions of the Classical myths, retelling Greek, Latin and Babylonian folklore and legends. He gives an account of creation and a flood, then after the golden age of Saturn, his son Jupiter (also known as Zeus or Jove) and Juno (Hera) become king and queen of Mount Olympus, standing alongside the pantheon of Phoebus (Apollo), Diana (Artemis), Venus (Aphrodite), Neptune (Poseidon), Mars (Ares) et al. It is Prometheus the titan who creates humans from dust, prompting the volatile relationship between the supernatural and human worlds. This begins Ovid’s epic retelling of tales about gods, demi-gods, heroes, nymphs, love, murders, journeys to the underworld, tragedies, and of course, metamorphoses. Alongside Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and the Greek tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Ovid has helped us to keep alive some of the most exciting and fantastical stories the world has ever created.
Myths offer us an overview of our complex world and provide us with symbolism and imagery on which to base our philosophical, religious and psychological understanding of the world around us. The seasons are explained by the abduction of Proserpina; evil enters the world via Pandora’s box; Phaeton burns the world by bringing the sun too close to the earth, thus creating deserts. Some of our language and words come directly from the myths, such as ‘lycanthropy’ from Lycaon who was turned into a wolf; ‘cygnet’ from Cygnus, who became a swan; Arachne transforms into a spider, giving us ‘arachnid’ and hence ‘arachnophobia’; and we all have an Achilles heel. Some of the tales have become overly familiar, such as the golden touch of King Midas, the twelve labours of Hercules, the fall of Icarus and the legend of the wooden Trojan horse. Shakespeare has ruined the elegiac romance of Pyramus and Thisbe, whilst the stories of Jason and Perseus have been made into epic, if not wholly successful, films.
What is striking about the Greek and Roman myths is the horrific and tragic violence that abounds between men and gods. The gods are not role models or loving deities, but have human emotions and jealousies, often engaging in petty squabbles or falling guilty of hubris themselves. Zeus takes the shape of a swan and rapes Leda; Jove rapes Callisto, a beautiful nymph, and rather than jealously avenging her husband, Juno punishes poor Callisto by turning her into a bear who is then killed by her own son. Likewise, Actaeon happens to see Diana bathing naked and for his trouble is turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting hounds. Niobe makes the fatal, but seemingly common, error of not worshipping a god when ordered to do so. Her pride leads to the death of all her fourteen children before she is turned into a weeping statue. Prometheus is tortured for stealing fire from heaven – an eagle rips his guts out every day and it is constantly mended – for thirty years.
On the other hand, love is also a prominent theme, as something for which people are even willing to die. Echo wastes away in misery, heartbroken at her rejection by Narcissus, who falls in love with himself. Venus mourns for the death of Adonis, whilst Cupid and Psyche eventually marry in triumph over adversity. Pygmalion falls in love with the statue he has created of the perfect woman; the Trojan War occurs because Helen of Troy is abducted by Paris; Salmacis out of lustful obsession, refuses to let go of Hermaphroditus causing them to be joined as one one new creature who is both male and female. The haunting story of Orpheus tells of his misery when Eurydice dies on their wedding night. He visits her in the underworld and makes the mistake of turning round once more to look at her. For doing so he is silenced and cannot play his beloved lyre. Classic mythology contains some of the most beautiful romances, but also some of the most terrifying horrors.
Two of the most disturbing stories are those of Myrrha and Tereus. Myrrha is sexually attracted to her own father and she manages to seduce him and trick him into bed. This tale goes one step further than Oedipus who only unwittingly married his own mother. Tereus, however, was greedy. Obsessed with his own sister-in-law, he kidnaps her, rapes her and keeps her prisoner, cutting out her tongue to stop her telling anyone. His wife, Procne, finds out and coldly gets revenge on him by killing their own son and feeding him to Tereus. She also, rather unnecessarily, brings out the son’s head as proof. This is reminiscent of Medea who discovers her husband, Jason, is to marry another woman so she kills the bride to be with a poisoned robe and murders her own sons before escaping in a dragon-drawn chariot. Many of the tales are the most gruesome and violent you will ever read, and some people think horror is a modern phenomenon!
Classical mythology has provided a fertile nutrient tank for fantasy writers. Not mentioned here are Pan, Atlas, Medusa, Pegasus, Nemesis, Bacchus, the minotaur, cyclops, satyrs and centaurs. But of course, the Greeks and Romans do not have a hold on mythology. Every society collects and develops its own system of folklore and legends, often connected with its religious beliefs. Notable myths and legends can also be found in Egyptian, Hindu, Celtic, Norse, African tribal, American Indian, Aboriginal and Polynesian cultures.
- In the Egyptian legend, Isis pieces together the dismembered and scattered pieces of Osiris’ body and with embalming fluid, brings him back to life.
- Hindu god Brahma has four faces, Shiva has four arms and three eyes, and Devi is the Great Mother Goddess. Vishnu is incarnated as Krishna.
- Celtic warrior Cuchulain had superhuman powers, able to make one eye disappear whilst the other grew terrifyingly large. Finn still sleeps, ready to fight for Ireland. Arthurian tales developed from the Celtic traditions.
- Norse gods Odin, Thor, Frigg and Loki battle it out in Valhalla until Ragnarok. Creatures such as elves, dwarves and giants appear in epic poems.
- Beowulf was a Viking hero who defeated monsters and dragons.
- In Nigeria, the Ibo people believe the largest yam in a crop embodies the spirit of the King Yam and it is blessed with fresh blood. This is typical of African totemic religions. Much misunderstood is Voodoo with its worship of spirits. Wise god of death, Baron Samedi guards the eternal crossroads in his top hat.
- For North American Algonquin Indians the Manitou is a name for the Great Spirit. The shaman uses trance to exorcise spirits or give wisdom.
- Australian Aborigines believe that their ancestors went ‘walkabout’ in ‘Dreamtime’, creating all things, and each clan is named after its spirit animal.
- Maoris believe that Rangi the sky god so loved Papa the earth goddess that they would not let go of each other. When they finally did, light came into the world, but they still weep to be parted thus explaining the dew and the mists.
The symbolism of fantasy has become closely linked with the subconscious since Freud declared that the content of dreams relates directly to the psyche. Carl Jung, however, believed that the images of myths, such as those of The Arabian Nights and Faust, allow the individual to enter the primitive realm of the collective consciousness. Archetypes are presented in these texts, which relate to those existing in the human collective consciousness that help us to create symbols to express our deepest fears and desires. These archetypes include familiar characters such as the hero, wise woman, shadow, innocent child and tempter. In this way fantasy and myth help us to identify different parts of our own reality. Jung called fantasy texts ‘visionary’ and described their creation and subject as, “a primordial experience which surpasses man’s understanding”.
The process Jung calls ‘individuation’, of becoming whole or enlightened, demands a literature of transcendence, and symbolism of the archetypes serves an essential function in helping us to understand ourselves. We need to reclaim the primordial or archaic mythologies as represented by the ancient poets and by modern fantasists in order to gain a greater personal and spiritual hold on our own realities.
Fantastic elements in literature are frequently allusions to, or themes directly purloined from the world’s oldest legends. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales includes stories about the Knights of the Round Table, animal fables, fairy tales and romantic songs. John Keats wrote poems about the sun god ‘Hyperion’ and of ‘Endymion’ who slept forever in a cave, whilst W.B. Yeats famously retold the legends of the Celtic Twilight. Thorne Smith in 1931 pre-empted Terry Pratchett with his hilarious satire on the classical pantheon, The Night Life of the Gods. Poul Anderson and J.R.R. Tolkien have adapted Norse and Teutonic legends in their fantasies. Henry Treece rewrote many myths as adventure stories in the 1950s, whilst Michael Moorcock has also employed various Celtic and Arthurian mythologies to his own advantage. More recently China Mieville used the Pied-Piper of Hamlyn and the Caribbean spider god Anansi in King Rat (1998), just as Neil Gaiman writes of Odin, Thoth, Anubis and others in American Gods (2001).
Many great writers continue to narrate stories with a mythical power, including venerated authors such as William Golding, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter and John Barth. Contemporary fantasists have developed mythology into urban legends, thus creating new myths and stories for our cultures. Herman Hesse succinctly expressed the important function of fantasy in the following aphorism: “Like art and poetry, the religions and myths are an attempt on the part of mankind to express in images the ineffable”. And long may fantasy continue to pursue this exciting, vital and challenging task.