Creating Myths and Legends for Your Fictional Worlds, Part 2

Myths and legends part 2

Post written by Andrew Wall. You can read part 1 here and part 3 here.

Last week we explored the power of stories—in the form of cultural narratives—to shape members of a society. This week, we are taking a deep dive into a particular type of cultural narrative: myth. I will define what “myth” is, discuss what a myth does, and talk about some essential storytelling components of a myth. I will also address how myth-making can be valuable for writers!

What “Myth” Means

It is easy to be confused about what a myth actually is. This is especially true because of how we use the word “myth” colloquially. Generally speaking, when someone refers to something as a myth, they are implying that it is not true. However, this obfuscates what a true myth is in terms of a storytelling genre. After reading many definitions of “myth” and playing around with how to best synthesize them, I would offer the following as the core of what a myth is:

a myth is a narrative told to reveal a particular truth.

There are additional aspects discussed below that make a story a myth, but this definition cuts to the heart of it.

So, as we talk about myths, keep in mind that their primary concern is with communicating something that the society that penned the myth and is shaped by the myth considers to be an essential truth, a necessary piece of the lens through which those who belong to the society see the world.

What a Myth Does

The primary way a myth accomplishes revealing its particular truth is through a narrative that is being told in response to a question. The questions myths are primarily concerned with are “why” questions: Why do we do x, y, or z? Why do we believe a, b, or c? Why does such-and-such happen in the world? A myth can attempt to answer multiple questions or focus on just one.

A great example to illustrate this is one very well-known myth: the story of “Adam and Eve” (who aren’t named until the end of the story) from the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 2-3 for those who want to read along). Now, don’t stop reading for fear of a religious soapbox moment. Let’s take a look at this myth as a historical and literary text. There are several “why” questions that this myth sets out to answer for the society it comes from over the course of its narrative:

  • Why doesn’t God live with us?
    • Answer: Because humans were cast out from God’s presence.
  • Why do humans exist?
    • Answer: To be gardeners and caretakers of what God created.
  • Why are there two sexes?
    • Answer: Because humans require companionship.
  • Why do snakes not have legs?
    • Answer: Because of the role of the snake in the garden in pushing the woman to take the forbidden fruit.
  • Why don’t people and snakes get along?
    • Answer: Because God put them and humans at odds with each other after the garden incident.
  • Why does childbirth hurt? Why is society patriarchal?
    • Answer: Because the woman ate the forbidden fruit, knowing it was forbidden, and offered it to her husband.
  • Why do we have to work so hard farming for food?
    • Answer: Because the man ate the forbidden fruit that the woman gave him even though he knew it was forbidden and because humans do not live in Eden.
  • Why do we wear animal skins as clothes?
    • Answer: Because we are ashamed of our nakedness.
  • Why are we ashamed of our nakedness?
    • Answer: Because we now judge for ourselves what is good for us and what is bad for us and have determined it to be shameful/bad.
  • Why do we die?
    • Answer: Because the man and the woman didn’t eat the fruit of the Tree of Life.

As far as myths go, this one is pretty dense. I may have even missed a few question and answer pairs. Yet from what I have highlighted you can see that this myth sets out to answer some key questions about human nature, humanity’s relationship to the divine, and humanity’s relationship to the world for the society that created and relied on this myth.

A Myth’s Storytelling Components

In addition to being focused on answering a “why” question, a myth has three other particular components: certain types of characters, a special setting, and a particular relationship to facts.

Types of Characters

Myths are not stories about just anybody. You wouldn’t find a myth about a great king from a few generations ago. Myths concern themselves with the supernatural, with characters beyond the bounds of human experience, with subjects whose actions shape the very world around them. This can include divine beings or supernatural heroes.

The Greek myths about Heracles (you may know him as Hercules) and his exploits are an excellent example. Not only is Heracles the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, half god by blood, but his struggles are against gods and goddesses and the various political machinations of the Greek Pantheon. Some of his exploits include traveling to the underworld and fighting against monsters as old as time. This stuff is prime mythological storytelling.

Another example is the Babylonian creation myth Enuman Elish, which, among other things, tells the story of the birth of the gods, the conflict that arose between them and their mother (Tiamat, the goddess of chaos), and the ultimate victory of the Babylonians’ favorite god, Marduk, over Tiamat and his use of her corpse to create the world. Not super cheery, but mythological to its core.

A Special Setting

Myth is not simply special because of its cast. Its setting plays a key role in this too. Myths don’t just take place a long time ago, they take place in a “time out of memory.” What do I mean by that? Myths are stories about occurrences that no living person would remember. They are stories from the beginning of the world or very soon thereafter handed down from the “first of us.” If you consider that the prime actors in such stories are the gods themselves, this point makes good sense.

Narratives about how the world was created, like Enuma Elish mentioned above, and narratives about the sorts of things that happened when the world was young and things were still in flux are the primary topics of myths because they are set in a time when things aren’t yet how they are now. This is important if the stories themselves are explaining the events that led to things becoming what they now are.

“Truth” versus “Fact"

Another thing that follows from all of this is the concern of myth for “truth.” Now, in Western society we often equate the meaning of the words “truth” and “fact,” but these aren’t synonymous when it comes to myth. Remember, myth’s primary concern is with answering a “why” question using the divine and supernatural as characters. Put another way, myth wants to talk about things that are considered to be “true” by a culture.

Myths are not preoccupied with the modern concern of whether or not things are “factual.” For something to be a fact, it needs to be measurable, there needs to be evidence and a clear record of it. The ancient world perceived things differently than we do. They had a different lens, a different framework for understanding the world. This is neither good nor bad, greater or lesser than how we think about things now. It is just different. However, as a result, myths are not concerned with things like dates or eyewitness accounts. The focus is on telling the story uncluttered by such irrelevant details. Does it matter exactly how long ago the gods put the stars in the sky? Or simply that they did? Does it matter what day of the week Heracles killed the hydra? This type of information only serves as a distraction from the “truth” that the stories are meant to communicate.

Using Myths in World-Building

Aside from the uses of cultural narratives discussed in Part 1, myths offer some unique benefits. Creating myths allows you to take your shaping of the societies in your world to the next level. It is one thing to have a society that you know believes their species to be direct descendants of their gods. It is quite another thing to know why they believe that and what stories they would reference to make that connection for their children. For example:

  • It is one thing to have a protagonist who doesn’t believe people can change. It is quite another thing to know the myth they grew up hearing that encultured that belief into them.
  • It is one thing to have an antagonist that is searching for an ancient and powerful relic. It is another thing to know the myth they discovered that helped them learn of its existence and is helping guide them to its resting place.

There are so many ways you can use myths in world-building, in character creation, and even in plot development! What people believe about the world shapes what how they interact with it. Those beliefs do not emerge from a vacuum. Myth is a useful tool for explaining why things are the way they are in your fictional world... or, at least, for explaining what the residents of your world believe led to its current state.


In summary, myths are stories told to reveal a particular truth. They intend to answer “why” questions and do so with supernatural stories set in the primordial world, a world out of memory. They also do not concern themselves much with the clutter of facts, focusing purely on narrative and answering their questions, revealing their “truths.”

When it comes to world-building and getting ready to write a story, myths can be an extremely useful tool in answering some of the “why” questions that will give your setting a greater sense of depth and development.

In part 3 we will take a look at legends, what makes them tick, and how they are different from myths.

Want help creating myths and legends for your fictional world? I would love to collaborate with you in my Advanced World-Building coaching! And for more on building societies and cultures, check out our Society-Building Toolkit!

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