How to Write a Poetic Myth

Prophecies, epic ballads, myths, riddles, and clues are all staples of the fantasy genre, and they often appear in poetic form. Over the next couple months, I’ll be writing about each of these topics and including some of my favourite examples so you can write awesome poems in your own works. This post is all about myths.

Use Myths to Tell Stories

Myths extol the great deeds of gods and heroes; they recount how the worlds began; they provide explanations for natural phenomena; and they offer lessons and morals by which to abide. They are a peoples’ way of seeing and being in the world.

Myths are also a great way to tell the stories of your world without resorting to heavy exposition. And, like prophecies, they can show a lot about your characters in how they react to them: are your characters skeptical and treat myths like old wives’ tales, or do they have faith that the gods from myths are real?

Consider Oral Traditions

Most of our great myths began as oral poems. They were passed from poet to poet and from region to region. Poets were able to compose poems so rapidly because they understood the structure. For example, Homeric verse (The Iliad, The Odyssey), Old Norse poetry (The Poetic Edda, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún), and Old English poetry (Beowulf) all followed set formulas and employed different descriptive devices. Because these poems followed a pattern, poets could adapt and change them as needed to fit the regions in which they were performing as long as they kept to the metrical structure of the poem. The story of The Iliad could have changed more than once before it was finally set down by Homer.

Homeric Verse

“Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.”

The Iliad, Homer

In the Greek, Homeric verse was written in dactylic hexameter (of course, English translations will deviate). Dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, and hexameter means six feet.

Homeric verse uses stock phrases—repeated phrases that describe characters or elements—such as “rosy fingered dawn,” “winedark sea,” “bright-eyed Athena.” It also uses type-scenes—generic scenes that are familiar to the audience, such as taking steps to arm oneself for battle or preparing a ship for sea. For example, The Iliad contains many formulaic passages of soldiers preparing sacrifices for the gods, or characters relating a message they need delivered, which is then repeated word-for-word later on.

Old Norse and Old English Poetry

“So they went on their way. The ship rode the water,
broad-beamed, bound by its hawser
and anchored fast. Boar-shapes flashed
above their cheek-guards, the brightly forged
work of goldsmiths, watching over
those stern-faced men. They marched in step,
hurrying on till the timbered hall
rose before them, radiant with gold.
Nobody on earth knew of another
building like it. Majesty lodged there,
its light shone over many lands.”

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

Old Norse and Old English poems make use of alliterative verse, which employs alliteration—consonant or vowel sounds that are repeated—as the primary poetic device. These are the markers of alliterative verse:

  • Each line is divided into two “half-lines,” which are also called verses.
  • A caesura (a heavy pause, created with punctuation or spaces) separates the verses.
  • Each verse usually has two stressed syllables.

While there is some debate over whether Beowulf is a true oral poem, it does include formulaic themes (like “arming the hero”) and kennings, which are evocative descriptions of everyday things, used to fit the meter. For example, calling the sea the “swan-road.” The above passage has “boar-shapes” and “cheek-guards.”

Old Norse poetry is generally separated into two categories: Eddic poems and Skaldic poems. Eddic poems were considered to be minstrel poems, and they told stories of great heroes. Skaldic poems were composed for individual kings. Both used kennings.

Here’s an example from The Poetic Edda, which contains alliteration and kennings:

“The slender-seeming     sapling became
a fell weapon     when flung by Hoth;
but Baldr’s brother     was born full soon:
but one night old     slew him Óthin’s son.”

Oral Poetry in Worldbuilding

Oral poetry as a basis for mythology is useful for worldbuilding because it provides the opportunity for different versions or readings of the same myth, which, in turn, can lead to interesting character developments. For example, two regions worship the same god, but they have different ways of doing so because one version of the myth says the god demands human sacrifices while the other says the god demands grain.

Oral poetry uses metrical systems, formulas, and descriptive devices to shape the poem. Even if you don’t base your mythology off of oral poetry, these are useful devices to use when writing your myths. Think of the biblical creation story. Each day of creation starts with the refrain “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” and ends with “and God saw it was good.”

Use Strong Imagery

Images are a staple of poetry. We write them through a number of poetic devices, like simile and metaphor, and they bring life to ideas and emotions.

One of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, uses creative and beautiful images. Here is her poem, “A Note Left on the Door.”

“There are these: the blue
skirts of the ocean walking in now, almost
to the edge of town,

and a thousand birds, in their incredible wings
which they think nothing of, crying out

that the day is long, the fish are plentiful.

And friends, being as kind as friends can be,
striving to lift the darkness.

Forgive me, Lord of honeysuckle, of trees,
of notebooks, of typewriters, of music,
that there are also these:

the lover, the singer, the poet,
asleep in the shadows.”

I love the first image in this poem: “the blue skirts of the ocean walking in.” Here, Oliver is using a colour (blue), an adjective (skirts), and a verb (walking) to describe the rising tide.

Later, she has friends “striving to lift the darkness” and a poet “asleep in the shadows.” Of course, darkness is not a thing that can be physically lifted, but it is used as a metaphor, perhaps for grief (this poem is taken from Thirst, a collection Oliver published after the death of her partner, Molly).

The examples of oral poetry I used above have evocative images as well. The Iliad has souls “hurling down to the House of Death,” dead bodies as “feasts for the dogs and birds,” and two men fighting, “when the two first broke and clashed.” In Beowulf, the hall is described as “radiant with gold. / Nobody on earth knew of another / building like it. Majesty lodged there,” using colour (gold) and personification (Majesty physically living in the hall).

Use poetic devices and colourful images in your poetic myths to help anchor your world. Consider whether the myths in your world are passed along orally or if they are recorded somewhere—and if so, where? Note how your characters interact with these myths, whether they believe them or not, and how these stories have impacted your world’s history. Considering these questions and creating your own poetic myths can bring an extra dimension to your world and perhaps even inspire plot twists and character arcs you may not have considered before.

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