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. There is, for example, often war as a vital part of the narrative. Though they deal with religion — what we, perhaps unfairly, call mythology — it is always in a very matter-of-fact way, and I believe it is the narrative conflict that has made these stories so enduring. 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
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, and gives the modern reader a great deal of background about the Greek religion in a manner that is more enduring than the oral myth traditions, which tend to be less encompassing, as well. It also has a romantic subplot, and ends in tragedy; all common elements 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.
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 Samuel, Judges, Kings 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.
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.
Beyond the West, the Mahabrata, 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 in a deeply interesting way?
I can’t; but we do have the Matter of Britain, one of the three great medieval literary cycles, which 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 who 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. For example, the whole thing culminates in a rebellion where King Arthur must defend his crown against usurpers during the Battle of Camlann.
That era also brought us the Matter of Rome, which basically gives us the Trojan War and classical mythology all over again, and isn’t nearly as interesting: 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!) Charlemange, 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, Charlemanges’ military commander Roland champions Christianity while Fierabras is the Muslim champion.
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.
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. They are often viewed as seminal sources of insight into their respective culture, and 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.
So instead, I’m going to write my own myth cycle, using the lessons I’ve learned above.