Writers Should Know Religion, Mythology, Folklore, Legends…

I have been reading The Birth of Satan, a history of Satan in the three major monotheistic faiths and the rise of Satan as a literary and artistic character. The authors emphasize the Christian and Jewish traditions, since those have had the greatest effect on the mythology of Satan in Western art and literature. Any serious writer in our culture should be familiar with the mythology of Satan. Literary “evil” usually depends on the stories associate with Satan, consciously or not.

When we state there are no new stories, what we are stating is that every new work builds on a shared canon of religion and myth. Good versus Evil is the “great plot-line,” with the traditional Judeo-Christian scriptures attributing everything from bad weather to wars to this epic battle. In this struggle between light and dark, right and wrong, humans find themselves tested. Some depictions reduce humanity to pawns (the story of Job certainly does this), while other cast us as free people able to affect this struggle (Sodom and Gomorrah, with Lot’s search for good men).

It does not matter if you, as a writer, are religious or not. The stories of Good versus Evil are part of our shared culture. The archetypes, the themes, the plots are part of our visual and written artistic traditions. We can encapsulate concepts with shorthand in our stories, assuming shared knowledge of the stories.

My personal reference library includes Bibles, the Quran, the apocrypha, The Dictionary of Angels, Religious Literacy, and numerous other guides to the great religions of the world. The stories in these texts, whether you believe they are divine or not, are the basis for much of our morality and understandings of human nature.

Most Americans profess faith. While this might not be true in some circles (e.g. academia), general society is shaped by religion and shared religious knowledge. This religious foundation is why stories with Biblical references are so popular. The Exorcist and The Omen come to mind. Even the most famous fictional serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, appears first in a book dominated by religious symbolism: Red Dragon. Fictional killers are often “religious,” from confused “avenging angels” to loyalists of Satan himself.

You want to craft a scary story? Pepper it with citations to the Revelations of John. What’s scarier than two multi-headed red dragons and the four horsemen of the apocalypse? It is in Revelations that God commands birds to descend in flocks to eat the flesh of evil-doers. Yes, flocks of birds eating people alive are from scripture, not Alfred Hitchcock. No other book has inspired as many works of fiction as Revelations has.

I encourage writers to go beyond our shared scriptural stories, too. Without understanding the origins of many of humanity’s greatest stories, a writer lacks one of the best tools he or she could possess.

Before I explain that, allow me a tangent.

I have never understood how we could craft “realistic” characters without at least some of them being religious. But, that also means knowing something about the various religious traditions found in our culture. Faith adds complexity to characters. But faith extends to cultural superstitions and myths, which we also should not ignore as writers.

We are shaped by our “official” religions and the myths of our cultures. Consider the mass migration from Ireland to the United States in the early 1900s. Irish immigrants brought not only the stories of their Catholic saints, but the mythology of Ireland. Some of the superstitions entered popular culture, well beyond the Irish. Leprechauns certainly are the stuff of both cheerful fantasy and horror.

It is not enough to know the basic stories of the Bible, a few popular myths superficially, and a folktale or two. A good writer should know, really know, the foundational literature of our cultures. Germanic, Celtic, Norse, and Gaelic mythology are rich sources of inspiration. Most people don’t realize Hel (or Hell) was a Germanic goddess — only loosely associated with Hades. Such little bits of knowledge can lead to other great story ideas.

Personally, I’m partial to Celtic mythology. The Celts had a rich religious tradition, accompanied by a complex mythology. I know one writer with a passion for Native American religion and myths. Another is an expert on Chinese mythologies. Numerous writers have used Egyptian beliefs for inspiration.

My suggestions for creative writers in the United States:

  1. The Bible, along with several commentaries. A good class such as “The Bible as Literature” can help you appreciate the literary qualities of scripture.
  2. The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. These works are among the most important in Western culture.
  3. Bulfinch’s Mythology. There are other, more up-to-date reference works on Greco-Roman mythology, but Thomas Bulfinch’s work is a classic.
  4. At least one good Celtic mythology reference work.