“Stories are a communal currency of humanity”
– Tahir Shah (Arabian Nights)
October 11th, in the literary world, is Myths and Legends Day. Celebrated by literature lovers, it commemorates the beginnings of the communal currency of humanity by acknowledging the values of the ancient oral tradition and the power of storytelling.
The Tradition of Storytelling
Storytelling is the most ancient of all the arts. Its long history is shrouded in mystery. No one knows when the first stories were told or what these earliest stories were about; all anyone is sure about is that the practice of oral tradition (verbally passing stories down generation-to-generation) is quite ancient.
The oldest known surviving tale from oral tradition is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia depicting the deeds of a famous Sumerian king: the Epic of Gilgamesh. Though there are multiple epic poems from the early history of storytelling—Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as the Old English epic Beowulf—ancient stories, came in many varieties.
Myths, legends, folklore, fairy tales, and fables—all forms of ancient stories steeped in the oral tradition—give a sense to the importance and value of storytelling. Stories are one of the most powerful mediums through which people can conceptualize complex ideas or introduce new thoughts into the world.
Myths and Legends
Most people recognize the terms of legends and mythology; yet, many do not fully understand the purpose or qualities that constitute a myth or legend.
Ancient myths were the earliest attempts of humanity to conceptualize the vast and abstract nature of life. Essentially all mythologies are a cultural explanation for natural phenomena (e.g. lightning storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions), basic natural occurrences (e.g rising and setting of the sun), and the purpose of the human existence. Myths explored aspects of reality that were too complex to understand before contemporary technological and scientific advancements within the context of complete fantasy; myths put these concepts into a form.
One of the most common tropes in Western mythology is the creation of the world; an attempt to understand why the world exists, how people first came to inhabit it, and the role of humanity in the world.
In Norse mythology, before the world was created there were three exciting places: the vast emptiness known as Ginnungagap; the land of ice, frost, and fog called Niflheim (north of Ginnungagap); and the land of fire, lave, and smoke called Muspelheim (south of Ginnungagap). The north and south airs clashed in the middle of the void of Ginnungagap, causing the ice of Niflheim to melt. These waters then pooled into a humanoid creature which became first Jotun giant, Ymir.
Eventually, other gods and giants began to form, including Odin along with his brothers Vili and Ve. A battle eventually broke out amongst the gods and the giants before ending once Odin, Vili, and Ve murdered Ymir in his sleep. The three brothers took the corpse of Ymir and shaped Midgard (Middle Earth) from his remains in the center of Ginnungagap.
The creation story in Greek Mythology begins in a similar fashion to that of Norse mythology. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (a collection of Greek and Roman myths), at the beginning of time, there was only the gaping emptiness of Chaos. From this void emerged the three primordial deities: Gaea (the Earth), Tartarus (the Underworld), and Eros (Love). Gaea gave birth to Ouranos (Sky), and these two deities gave birth to a race of Titans and then the Hundred-Handed Ones and Cyclopes.
Once Kronos, son of Gaea and Ouranos, overthrew his father, the race of gods was born in his sons Zeus, Posiden, and Hades. These three brothers rebelled against their father, eventually seizing the throne for themselves and throwing Kronos and the Titans into Tartarus. Thus began the Golden Age of the gods.
Both Norse and Greek mythologies continue to describe the birth of mankind (Odin breathing life into two humanoid trees and Prometheus breathing life into shaped clay) as well as simplistic natural occurrences such as the sun’s cycle around the world. Through their mythologies, the Norse and Greek cultures tried to understand and explain the phenomena occurring around them and even their own existence.
While myths search for truth through fantastical methods, legends are tales with a basis in historical fact. Legends work similarly to fables; these types of stories work to teach some moral lesson. Yet, legends are shaped around on historical figures or events to provide a grounding for these lessons.
A popular legend and excellent example of the teaching qualities of the legend genre is the English story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The first mention of the legendary King Arthur comes from Wace of Jersey’s Roman de Brut (1155). However, the most well-known account of the King Arthur legend is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1485).
This legend serves as a guideline for princes and knights, particularly in regards to chivalry. The “great orders of chivalry” were central in knighthood during the Middle Ages. The fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table in this legend acts as a prototype and example for the countless knights in England throughout the Middle Ages.
Value of Myths and Legends
Myths and legends are highly fantastical types of stories. Regardless, they also have a strong foundation in the truth; myths and legends along with all ancient forms of storytelling always searched for the truth. As the renowned “Father of Fantasy” J.R.R. Tolkien says: “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).