Mythopoeia (genre)

Mythopoeia (genre)

Mythopoeia (also mythopoesis, after Hellenistic Greek μυθοποιία, μυθοποίησις "myth-making") is a narrative genre in modern literature and film where a fictional mythology is created by the writer of prose or other fiction. This meaning of the word mythopoeia follows its use by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction.


Introduction and definition

Mythopoeia is also the act of making (creating) mythologies. Notable mythopoeic authors include Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, William Blake, H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake and George MacDonald. 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 distinguished from fantasy worlds or fictional universes 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 are almost invariably created entirely by an individual, like the world of Middle-earth.


The term mythopoeia is from Greek μυθοποιία, "myth-making".[1] In early uses, it referred to the making of myths in ancient times.[2] It was adopted and used by Tolkien as a title of one of his poems, written about 1931 and published in Tree and Leaf.[3] The poem popularized the word mythopoeia as a literary and artistic endeavor and genre.

The place in society

Works of mythopoeia are often categorized as 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.[citation needed] Without relevant mythology, Campbell claimed, society cannot function well.[citation needed]

Critics of the genre

Mythopoeia is sometimes called artificial mythology, which emphasizes that it did not evolve naturally and is an artifice comparable with artificial language, so 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 of art, or artifice, cannot be said to be the narrative of a culture’s sacred tradition...(it is) at most, artificial myth."[4]

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 G. Walker.[citation needed]

In literature


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.[citation needed]

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.[4]

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).

Tolkien and the Inklings

Tolkien's now famous work of mythopoeia includes The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.[4] J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth is perhaps the best-known of contemporary invented mythology. In his fictional works, Tolkien invented not only origin myths, creation myths and an epic poetry cycle, but also fictive linguistics, geology and geography.

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

At the time that Tolkien debated the usefulness of myth and mythopoeia with C. S. Lewis in 1931, Lewis was a theist,[5] and liked but was skeptical of mythology, taking the position that myths were "lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'".[4][6] However Lewis later 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."[1] 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. 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 emphasized that an allegorical reading misses the point (the mythopoeia) of the Narnia stories.[citation needed]

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.

William Blake

William Blake's "prophetic works" (e.g. Vala, or The Four Zoas) contain a rich panoply of original gods, such as Urizen, Orc, Los, Albion, Rintrah, Ahania and Enitharmon. Blake was an important influence on Aleister Crowley's Thelemic 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.

Collaborative efforts

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 Lovecraft and literature by Henry Rider Haggard and George MacDonald; the latter two C. S. Lewis praised for their "mythopoeic" gifts.[7]

The repeated motifs 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 overt presentation of it.[citation needed]

The pulp works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard contain imagined worlds vast enough to be universes in themselves[citation needed], as does the science fiction of Frank Herbert, E. E. "Doc" Smith and Michael Moorcock[citation needed].

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.[citation needed]

Neil Gaiman's novels deal with various mythologies, and combines them into a single, cohesive world.

Stephen King's novels and short stories form an intricate and highly developed mythos, drawing in part on the Lovecraftian, with characters such as the demonic Crimson King and Randall Flag appearing in several (otherwise unrelated) works, as well as a supernatural force known only as "The White". The Dark Tower series serves as a linchpin for this mythos, connecting with practically all of King's various storylines in one way or another.

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon is a rare attempt at a cohesive science fiction mythos.

In film

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."[8] 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."[9] In a broad analysis, McConnell associate the American western movies and romance movies to the Arthurian mythology,[10] adventure and action movies to the "epic world" mythologies of founding societies,[11] 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.[12]

George Lucas and the 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."[13] 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."[14] 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.[15] The Decent Film Guide's Steven D. Greydanus agrees, calling Star Wars a "work of epic mythopoeia".[16] In fact, Greydanus argues that Star Wars is the 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..."[16]

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 hogwash"[17]).

George Lucas recounts that he was consciously influenced by Joseph Campbell's theories as he made the Star Wars movies.

In music

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 nearly out of recognition into a new monument to the Romantic project.

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 musical collective NewVillager constructed a mythology from Joseph Campell's Monomyth of which all their music, art, and videos serve to express.

The band Rhapsody Of Fire have created and tell the stories of a full-developed fantasy world with tales of epic wars between good and evil, although many elements are taken directly from Tolkien and other authors.

Blind Guardian, the European Power Metal Band, often evoke images from The Lord of the Rings.

In religion

Ideas and new myths drawn from mythopoetic work have been described as valid foundational religious thought in some neopagan organizations. Mythopoeia is considered a significant part of the religious practices of Westernesste, a neopagan church.[18]

In popular culture

Comic books have been called the twentieth century's version of the epic.[citation needed] In The Mythos of the Superheroes and the Mythos of the Saints,[19] Thomas Roberts observes that:

"To the student of myth, the mythos of the comics superheroes is of unique interest."
"Why do human beings want myths and how do they make them? Some of the answers to those questions can be found only sixty years back. Where did Superman and the other superheroes come from? In his Encyclopedia of the Superheroes, Jeff Rovin correctly observes, “In the earliest days, we called them ‘gods’.”

Superman, for example, sent from the "heavens" by his father to save humanity, is a messiah-type of character in the Biblical tradition.[20] Furthermore, along with the rest of DC Comic's Justice League of America, Superman watches over humanity from the Watchtower in the skies; just like the Greek gods do from Mount Olympus.[21]

"Jack Kirby's Fourth World" series, with the cosmic struggle between Darkseid's Apokolips and the gods of New Genesis and Mister Miracle and Orion as messiah-figures is another good example. Neil Gaiman's Sandman series created a mythology around the Endless, a family of god-like embodiments of natural forces like death and dreaming.

Role-playing games often include invented mythologies for their players to interact with. Examples include the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons, the world of White Wolf's Exalted, and the Elder Scrolls which boasts a mythology which could be argued is as detailed as Tolkien's. 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.[citation needed]

In the TV series Battlestar Galactica, an 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 has 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.

See also


  1. ^ New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ For example, "The first two, the most remote stages, are purely linguistic germs of mythology : the third is in the domain of mythopoeia, or myth-building." Bunsen, C. C. J. (1860). Egypt's Place in Universal History: an Historical Investigation in Five Books, Volume IV. Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts. p. 450. Retrieved 2009-08-03. 
  3. ^ Mythopoeia by J. R. R. Tolkien.
  4. ^ a b c d Dundes, quoted by Adcox, 2003.
  5. ^ (Lewis 1946, pp. 66–67)
  6. ^ Menion, 2003/2004 citing essays by Tolkien using the words "fundamental things".
  7. ^ Lobdell, 2004.
  8. ^ McConnell 1979:6
  9. ^ McConnell 1979:5, 99: "film is a perfect model of the epic paradigm: the founder of the land, the man who walls in and defines the human space of a given culture..."
  10. ^ McConnell 1979:15.
  11. ^ McConnell 1979:21.
  12. ^ McConnell 1979:13, 83-93.
  13. ^ George Lucas, quoted by Hart, 2002.
  14. ^ McConnell 1979:18.
  15. ^ Lyden, 2000.
  16. ^ a b Greydanus 2000-2006.
  17. ^ Hart 2002.
  18. ^ The westernesste website notes: "...primary focus upon the exploration and development of modern archetypes and mythopoeic work drawn from the literatures of fantasy, myth, folklore and science fiction."
  19. ^ ROBERTS, Thomas, The Mythos of the Superheroes and the Mythos of the Saints
  20. ^ KNOWLES, Christopher, Our Gods Wear Spandex, Weiser, pp. 120 - 2
  21. ^ International Journal of Comic Art, University of Michigan, pp. 280




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.


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