In Song of the Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown says, “Snorri may be the most influential writer of the Middle Ages: His Edda, according to the 1909 translator, is ‘the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture.’”

She’s referring to Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic writer who set down the Norse myths in his work, The Prose Edda. It’s the quintessential work on Norse mythology and the text that everyone who is interested in the subject should read. Brown’s list of writers who have been influenced by Snorri Sturluson include William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Gabriel García Márquez, Ursula K. LeGuin, Seamus Heaney, Jane Smiley, Neil Gaiman, and, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien.

As I mentioned in my last post, mythopoetics is the term for the creative interpretation of myths and stories. It would be impossible to list every writer who referenced some aspect of mythology in their work. But if you’re thinking of incorporating mythology into your world, here are some ways to do so.

Use Names

One of the simplest ways you can reference mythology is to name one of your characters after a great hero or villain. If readers know the story, name recognition will give them some immediate insight into your character, or clue them into an important event to come. It’s also a handy way to let readers “in on the joke.”

Names in Harry Potter

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling introduces Remus Lupin. Later, Harry and his friends learn about werewolves. And finally, the revelation that Remus is actually a werewolf comes to light.

But for those familiar with mythology, Rowling may as well have held up a sign above Remus’ head that said “Here’s the wolf. Right here. He’s right here.”

Remus is a Greek figure who, with his twin brother Romulus, was raised by wolves. They later built Rome, and Remus was killed by his brother. Lupin comes from the Latin word lupus, which means wolf.

Also notable is the fact that the werewolf who bit Remus is named Fenrir Greyback. In Norse mythology, the monstrous wolf Fenrir is foretold to kill Odin during Ragnarök.

Names in Dune

The protagonist of Dune by Frank Herbert is Paul Atreides of House Atreides. His last name is a reference to The Iliad. Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus, and, when the text mentions them together, they are often called the Atreides, meaning “sons of Atreus.” Both Agamemnon and Menelaus were fierce and noble warriors, so by giving Paul this name, Herbert imparts some of those characteristics onto him. Dune also suggests that the ancient ancestors of House Atreides were, in fact, Agamemnon and Menelaus.

Use Familiar Character Descriptions or Situations

There are two things about Éowyn that remind me of mythology, but they aren’t explicitly stated in The Lord of the Rings; one is a character description and the other is a role she fills.

First, she’s a fierce shieldmaiden in the service of her king—sounds like she’s a Valkyrie to me. In Norse mythology, Valkyries were female warriors who chose who would die on the battlefield and then accompanied those soldiers to Valhalla. They were also lovers of great heroes, sometimes portrayed as daughters of royalty, and accompanied by ravens, swans, or horses. Éowyn seems to tick all of these boxes: she married Faramir—a great hero in his own right—she was King Théoden’s niece, and she came from a nation of horse riders.

Éowyn is also a cup bearer. In Germanic folklore, cup bearers presented the cup to the king first, followed by the other members of his retinue, while at the same time addressing them with well wishes.

Éowyn performs this duty three times in The Lord of the Rings: first to King Théoden before he rides for Helm’s Deep, second to Aragorn before he passes through the Paths of the Dead, and third to Éomer at Théoden’s funeral, when Éomer is crowned the next king of Rohan.

Re-tell a Myth or Use Myth as a Base

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians books do this really well. In the first book, The Lightning Thief, Percy learns that his father is Poseidon, god of the ocean, and is sent to Camp Half-Blood with other demigod children. From there he gets involved in an adventure in which he faces many monsters from Greek mythology, like the Minotaur, Medusa, and the Furies.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods blends mythologies and introduces new ones. In this book, the American manifestations of the Old Gods, like Odin, Bilquis, and Anansi, fight against New Gods, like Media (New Goddess of television and pop culture) and the Intangibles (New Gods of the modern stock market).

What Not to Do

As skilful as Rowling is at incorporating mythology into her works, she made a mistake with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. During the hype before the movie’s release, Rowling released her “History of Magic in North America” on the Pottermore website. The worldbuilding borrowed elements from Native American beliefs. Many Native scholars, themselves Harry Potter fans, responded in dismay that their traditions were treated as dead relics to pick from. Native cultures are also diverse and complex, and yet Rowling’s text lumped them all together as one “Native American community.”

In an article on her blog, Native Appropriations, Dr. Adrienne Keene said:

“We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors. Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are ‘uncivilized,’ that our existence is incongruent with modernity. This is not ancient history, this is not ‘the past.'”

While referencing mythology can make your works inventive and exciting to read, misusing it can harm others. If you have questions or aren’t sure if you should use a story or not, do some research and find someone who can help you. And more importantly—respect their advice if they say no.