Myth Cycles: the Prevalence of War in Religious Texts

As I research background for my novel, I’ve noticed that many of the stories from which we’ve gained our understanding of ancient cultures have fundamental similarities. It’s common to find war in religious texts. Though they deal with religion — what we, perhaps unfairly, call mythology — it is always in a very matter-of-fact way. In some ways, it is the narrative conflict that has made these stories so enduring. In others, the appearance of war in religious texts serves to record the history of a people. War in religious texts often appears as a framing story. Sometimes, war in religious texts is intended as proof of a deity’s favor.

Sometimes, I wonder if they could be considered a precursor to the magical realism genre, which tells stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective; i.e. if there is a ghost, it is treated as absolutely real, not a fantasy element of the story.

Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated. — Thomas Bulfinch

Greece

Homer’s Iliad is all about the Trojan War, an ancient conflict between Greece and Troy (most likely located in modern-day Turkey, given the evidence). Though ostensibly a (doubtless exaggerated) historic account, it deals with the machinations of the gods. That makes it count as a war in a religious text. The epic poem gives a modern reader a great deal of background about the Greek religious viewpoint in a manner that is more enduring than the oral tradition, which is much more fluid. Verbal storytelling which tend to be less encompassing than a religious text, as well.

Achilles on Skyros, 1656 painting by Nicolas Poussin, now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Iliad also has a romantic subplot, which is another common element in compelling narratives.

For my purposes, though, the important thing is that it is a text that gives the modern scholar the majority of their understanding of an ancient culture and religion, and deals with war and the gods’ involvement… while still being compelling enough literature that we make schoolchildren read it.

Scandinavia

The Norse Eddas — prose and poetic stories — have Ragnarok, perhaps unique in that it is a fated battle rather than a summary of past events. It is still centered around a battle, albeit one between the gods themselves and not the culture in which the stories originate.

India

Beyond the West, the Mahabrata is a Hindu religious text. It takes place during the Kurukshetra War in India. An epic, it’s ten times as long as the Iliad and its sequel, the Odyssey, combined. I can’t claim to have read all of it, but I read parts of the Bhagavad Gita in college. That’s the the portion entailing a philosophical discussion of duty and freedom. The protagonist struggles with whether to engage in a war with his family; the Kurukshetra War was dynastic in nature, as with the British War of the Roses — which was, by the way, the basis for the Game of Thrones.  Can you imagine a historic epic set in Britain that doesn’t detail religion and conflict? War in religious texts serves as a lightning rod for philosophical debate.

Medieval Europe

The Matter of Britain is one of the three great medieval literary cycles. It gives us King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. Scholars often link characters in the Arthurian Cycles with Celtic gods, i.e. Morgan le Fay makes or a pretty convincing Morrigan, a battle goddess. She also appears in the Ulster Cycle, which is the Irish work detailing ancient wars and the gods’ involvement. For the Matter of Britain, though, I think it’s more interesting to look at the Christian themes; the quest for the holy grail, in particular, is fundamentally religious. No matter how you look at it, though, the King Arthur portion, at least (it’s oddly difficult to find out about the other sections), deals with knights, which means battles and wars.

Battle Between King Arthur and Sir Mordred by William Hatherell (19th century)

For example, the whole thing culminates in a rebellion where King Arthur must defend his crown against usurpers during the Battle of Camlann.

This era also brought us the Matter of Rome, which basically gives us the Trojan War and classical mythology all over again. Unfortunately the Matter of Rome isn’t nearly as interesting as Camelot: that’s why nobody ever hears about it. The Matter of France, though,  deals with the legendary (real, but still a legend in his own right!) Charlemangne, and is really cool. You may know it as the Carolingian Cycle. It deals with war, of course, on the grand scale; Christian Europe vs. the Moors. One portion deals with the Battle of Roncevaux Pass during the Moorish invasion of southern France, for instance. Even as it focuses on the individual characters, Charlemagne’s military commander Roland champions Christianity while Fierabras is the Muslim champion.

The Levant

The Nevi’im section of the Tanakh is structured around the conquest of Canaan and the conflicts undertaken by the Kingdoms of Israel; in the Bible, this would be SamuelJudgesKings and Numbers, along with the other narrative books. The gods of the area play a pretty big role in things, of course, and the battles between the Jews and their neighbors provide a lot of insight into cultural and religious practices of the time.

For me, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the exception that proves the rule, though even it begins with Gilgamesh’s oppression of his people; you’d think it would be a story of rebellion. Instead, the gods create a champion meant to free the people from this oppression — who winds up being Gilgamesh’s best friend. They travel together and fight glorious fights until (spoilers!) Gilgamesh dies. Which I suppose is one way to stop a king from oppressing his people.

Modern Interpretations

Though not all of these large collection of stories, these epics prose and poetic, are considered religious texts in modern times, they give vital information about the religions, the histories, of the culture they originated in. The difference in religiosity between the Old Testament, the Mahabharata, and the Iliad is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Regardless, these texts are often viewed as seminal sources of insight into their respective culture.

It is very difficult to separate religion from culture, even if it’s a purely secular culture, as during the dechristianization of France during the French Revolution, where Catholicism was supplanted by the worship of Reason.

I find it interesting that most of these narratives appear to be centered within a few thousand miles of the Jerusalem. Asia does not appear to share this trend, nor do the Americas, but neither do they seem to possess a singular text that serves as a repository of their mythology, and for my purposes, varied stories and philosophical works are not as useful for crafting a fictional religion.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing books that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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8 Responses

  1. How intriguing! Mythology is one of my favorite things about history… One of the few things that really garnered my attention during history studies, in fact. Writing an entire myth cycle sounds like quite the journey, but I wish you the best with it and hope to hear more about it in the future!

    • Eleanor says:

      It’s definitely going to be an adventure; so far, I have the origin story and one of the early myths for Verraine decided on. I’m sure I’ll write about them soon, I’m pretty excited about the societal implications of them 🙂

  2. Lidy says:

    I love mythology, the Greek myths being my favorite. The Norse and Egyptian myths come in second but all three influence an epic fantasy novel I’m writing (currently in hiatus). I even like exploring Japanese myths and folklore (another reason why I love anime). Even though they’re myths, they are deeply entrenched, spiritually and culturally in the people’s lives.

    • Eleanor says:

      I’ve had the devil of a time getting a good sense of Japanese myths. I’m familiar with some mythological creatures, and a handful of the myths, but every time I’ve gone digging I’ve come up blank on a coherent text to help get me started with enough context to make sense of things. It’s been a few years since I took a really comprehensive wikiwalk on the subject, though, so maybe I’m due: I just found out about the Kojiki, which seems like it might be a fantastic example of the principle I’m trying to demonstrate above… except I can’t find out much about it beyond the fact that it exists.

  3. Shellah says:

    I can’t wait to find out what your mythology ends up being!

  4. Renee Grace Thompson says:

    Very interesting and informative. Thank you.

    I once heard a Theologian say that Christian religion runs in cycles. This–Catholicism was supplanted by the worship of Reason–seems to be happening today, doesn’t it?

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