Discovering Myths and Legends
“Old myths, old gods, old heroes have never died. They are only sleeping at the bottom of our mind, waiting for our call. We have need for them.” Stanley Kunitz
Mythology today is most often described as the stories ancient peoples told to make sense of their existence, their place in the greater cosmos, and the appropriate and inappropriate ways of behaving throughout one’s life. Modern societies frequently view myths as mere stories, works of fiction, but to those who created and retold them again and again, they were truths, lenses into the deeper mysteries of existence. Yet the amount of interest in the myths of the past elucidates that perhaps there is still much wisdom to be found in the legends of old, especially those that offer insight into the beliefs and knowledge of our ancestors and fundamental aspects of what it means to be human no matter what century one lives in.
Where to Look for Myths and Legends:
There are many online resources for mythology stories from cultures all over the world, but they can be a bit hard to find through search engines if you’re query is too vague. I’d recommend starting with online mythology encyclopedias if you’re not sure exactly what culture (Greek, Celtic, Native American, etc) or genre (epic sagas, trickster tales, great love stories, etc) you’re interested in. In my personal opinion, books on mythology generally are a better place to look for in depth information and well written stories, as their authors have spent years researching on your behalf and myths from centuries ago aren’t likely to change so fundamentally that books become outdated.
A few examples of myths from different cultures:
Celtic Legend: A classic tale from Welsh tradition tells of the most beautiful woman ever to walk the earth, Blodeuwedd, or “flower face”. She was created by two magicians from the very essence of the flowers meadowsweet, broom, and oak to be wife to the god hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Her beauty and innocence captured Lleu’s heart immediately, but her own however remained untouched by love. They were married though and away went Lleu on further heroic escapades, leaving Blodeuwedd in a large castle accompanied only by her loneliness. But ah, who should she spy one day from her tower window but handsome young Gronw Peby, a nearby lord. Their love burst into flame as is only possible between two whose hearts have never felt such passion. In order to be with one another they agreed that immortal Lleu must be killed. No easy task to kill a god, but clever Blodeuwedd deceived Lleu so fully that he told her the only elaborate method by which he could be killed. And so, Blodeuwedd and Gronw tricked, trapped, and pierced Lleu’s side with a spear. Yet alas for the young lovers, as it so often goes in stories such as these, Lleu did not die but was transformed into a mighty eagle and his loyal magicians quickly restored him to his human form. Blodeuwedd in punishment for her betrayal was transformed into a lonely owl, cursed to spend eternity in the darkness of night.
West African Myth: Anansi, the trickster spider god well known throughout the African continent and far beyond, long long ago was given by the sky god Nayme a pot holding all the wisdom in the world. No other being knew anything then, not how to grow crops, or weave cloth, or make tools, but Anansi had begun to learn these skills and more every time he opened the lid of the pot and peered in. Rather than humbling him however, this wisdom filled Anansi with pride and he greedily decided that it was best if he kept all this wisdom to himself. I must hide the pot he thought and carried it the base of the tallest tree in all the jungle. I must hide it at the very top, he said, to keep it safe. He spun a great rope and tied the pot around his waist so that it hung like a great bulging belly between him and the tree trunk. Time and time again he would climb and then come slipping down once more, his little legs unable to cling to the tree around the pot, all the while growing angrier and angrier. A stifled giggling caused him to turn his head and there stood his youngest son, doubled over in muffled laughter. Why don’t you just tie the pot onto your back? Would not that be easier oh wise Anansi? His son fled before his father could climb down, but in his rush Anansi slipped and the pot smashed, releasing all the stored wisdom, which went flying into every corner of the world. And even angry Anansi had to admit, What is the point of having all the wisdom, if my own young son can think more clearly than I?
Greek Myth: Stories of the Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes are perhaps the most commonly told in modern times, but there were many other figures that centered greatly in Greek tales. One such character was Circe, a beautiful and powerful sorceress, but also a rather catty female. One such story displaying her rather malevolent temperament tells of when the sea god Glaucus (whom Circe rather fancied) came to beg of her a potion that would make the lovely water-nymph Scylla fall irrevocably in love with him. Circe in a fit of jealous rage traveled to the small spring where Scylla bathed daily and poured a potion into the water which transformed poor Scylla’s lower body into a monstrous six-headed dog which proceeded to terrorize and devour unsuspecting sailors who neared her grotto. This horrific fate was all the more unjust as Scylla didn’t even desire Glaucus, refusing his advances time and time again, yet all Circe’s rage was released on her, exposing the sad truth that sometimes the innocent are the one’s made to suffer.