Exaggeration: History Becomes Myth

It was the Black Company series by Glen Cook that made me realize how often history becomes myth, exaggerated beyond meaningful belief. The Books of Glittering Stone detail a religion somewhat similar to Hinduism, and the “big bad” is Kina, modeled on Kali in her aspect as a Death Goddess. Croaker, a recurring protagonist, makes the observation that 400 years ago, Kina and her extended family were probably just a group of powerful, bickering intermarried mages — and that in 400 years, he and his own interconnected family will probably be viewed in a similarly exaggerated, larger-than-life manner.

Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description. — D. H. Lawrence

That’s the example I’d like to live up to, when establishing the worldbuilding for my fictional world of Verraine. I’ve spoken about religion and war in myth cycles before, but now that I’ve decided I want to have just one holy text for the whole world. I know I’ll have different cultures focus on different things and have different additions, I need to take a closer look at how to best accomplish that. What fictional history will I focus on?

Much of the modern world is steeped in the Abrahamic traditions with variations large and small. As far as I’m concerned, the “Old Testament” is a primary source document about political tensions in Northern Africa and the Middle East a few thousand years BC. The New Testament is an excellent source of information about Rome during the reign of Augustus, with better storytelling than most of our sources about the ancient world.

At it’s core, the Old Testament is the story of a migratory people who force ascendancy over a native culture and pat themselves on the back for it. It’s a story that has been repeated throughout history.

I personally prefer the Mahabharata, which is about a dynastic war. But then, I also enjoy Game of Thrones much more than Vikings. It’s easier to root for people fighting against a bad king than for invaders, no matter how driven to survive the latter may be.

Like all primary source documents, these are biased accounts, but that doesn’t mean we should discount them. Even if many pieces of ancient religious texts represent blatant attempts at propaganda, the distortions still serve to give us information. For example, a forensics analyst might learn about a blow from the shape of a crack. I’d love to give my readers similar breadcrumbs. If history becomes myth, then myths can teach us history.

There is nothing truer than myth: history, in its attempt to ”realize” myth, distorts it, stops halfway; when history claims to have ”succeeded,” this is nothing but humbug and mystification. Everything we dream is ”realizable.” Reality does not have to be: it is simply what it is. — Eugene Ionesco

Not long ago, some of my students found out that one of my degrees is in Religion, and wanted to know whether I believed in God. One commented that he believed in God, but not the Bible.  I’m not super comfortable talking about religion in school — separation of Church & State and whatnot — but I figured that if people get to insist on Creationism being taught, and World Religions are a topic we cover in the World History curriculum, then the point I wanted to make was appropriate; it’s more about history than religion anyway:

I believe in Jesus, just like I believe in George Washington.

Washington Crossing the Delaware
The Delaware certainly isn’t the Rubicon, but crossing it was still a big deal.

My students didn’t understand the connection. They know that Wikipedia isn’t an acceptable academic source, but they never learned that history becomes myth.

It’s questionable whether our first president ever actually chopped down a cherry tree and then refused to lie about it, and his hemp crop certainly wasn’t marijuana. The implausibility of these stories is no reason to doubt that he lived at all, though — and he certainly was a great and important man. Washington’s heyday was a little over 200 years ago. In the grand scheme of history, that’s not very long ago at all. Yet, we have all sorts of little myths about him.

All historical figures have lies told about them and it’s hard to disentangle myth from fact. This includes Jesus Christ, and Gautama Buddha, Confucius and any of the divine kings we have records for. Achilles was very probably a great warrior; I doubt his mother was literally a goddess.  The legends of King Arthur have, I am certain, some loose basis in fact. I believe these historic figures existed; I believe they were great men. Just because I don’t believe everything written about them doesn’t mean that I don’t think they existed, or changed the world.

So now I need to decide for my novel what sorts of historic events led to the myths of Verraine. I wonder: which sort of war is more compelling? Internal or external? The War of the Roses, or the Fall of Rome?

Let me know what you think!