Shakespeare, the Bible, and fairy tales are all types of myth. That doesn’t mean they are not true (although, of course, some are not) but that they are stories that aim to “explain ourselves to ourselves.” Myths have an important place in a culture’s collective memory, and can be used to provide a sense of national identity. This is why Richard Wagner, for example, used Germanic myths as the inspiration for his epic operas, or why Leslie Marmon Silko used Laguna Pueblo myths as the basis for “Yellow Woman” (1974).
The explanatory side of myths can be thought of as a way of answering life’s biggest questions, such as “Who am I?” “Why do people exist?” and “How does the world work?” It is possible to argue that all literature speaks to these questions on some level, and that all literature could thus be considered a form of myth. On the other hand, myths answer these questions in a much more explicit way than most other forms of literature, which is what makes them unique.
In Western culture, we are particularly likely to associate the word “myth” with Ancient Greek civilization. Stories such as the myth of Icarus are so embedded in our culture that sometimes people incorrectly assume contemporary literature is based on them. This is true, for example, of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), which contains flying people that are based on the “flying African” myth and not the myth of Icarus. On the other hand, many literary works can be traced back to this myth, such as W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940) and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with Fall of Icarus” (1966), which are themselves inspired by a 16th century painting of Icarus.
Although Ancient Greek myths are ubiquitous in Western literature, it is important to remember that the West is just one of many cultures, each with their own foundational set of myths. Like literature in general, myths take on lives of their own—as shown by the two poems based on a painting that was in turn based on the myth of Icarus. These examples show how complex and multi-layered the web of intertextuality can become.
Writers often transpose Greek myths into completely new contexts. In “Omeros” (1990), Derek Walcott features characters with names from Greek myth (Hector, Helen, Achille) who live in a Caribbean fishing village. Although the original Greek myths, such as the Iliad, were extremely specific to the historical moment in which they were produced, almost as soon as this moment passed new writers were taking the themes of Greek myth—such as the ideal of a hero—and using them in new ways. These themes, rather than being tied to Ancient Greek culture, are thought to be universal.
The concept of the Greek hero is a classic example of archetype. The original archetype had very particular qualities, such as masculine beauty and skill in battle; however, later writers have adapted the archetype in new and ironic or playful ways. This in turn raises the question of what constitutes a hero in a more general sense—what qualities does a person need to have in order to qualify as heroic?
As with reworkings of the Bible and fairy tales, Greek myths are often updated in an ironic way. Both James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) are modeled on The Odyssey, but refuse to portray their “heroes” as noble or heroic in the traditional sense. Likewise, Greek myths can appear in unlikely settings, such as the Indiana Jones films or the young adult novel series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which center around a teenage boy who finds out he is the son of the Greek sea-god, Poseidon.
The fact that the young adult “Percy Jackson” novels center around Greek myths might highlight the myths’ enduring power. Although the Ancient Greeks might seem distant from us, in reality the content of their myths—sex, adventure, debauchery, friendship—is startlingly similar to what you might find in the average contemporary novel or Hollywood movie.