Exaggeration: History Becomes Myth

It was the Black Company series by Glen Cook that made me realize how often history becomes myth, exaggerated beyond meaningful belief. The Books of Glittering Stone detail a religion somewhat similar to Hinduism, and the “big bad” is Kina, modeled on Kali in her aspect as a Death Goddess. Croaker, a recurring protagonist, makes the observation that 400 years ago, Kina and her extended family were probably just a group of powerful, bickering intermarried mages — and that in 400 years, he and his own interconnected family will probably be viewed in a similarly exaggerated, larger-than-life manner.

Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description. — D. H. Lawrence

That’s the example I’d like to live up to, when establishing the worldbuilding for my fictional world of Verraine. I’ve spoken about religion and war in myth cycles before, but now that I’ve decided I want to have just one holy text for the whole world. I know I’ll have different cultures focus on different things and have different additions, I need to take a closer look at how to best accomplish that. What fictional history will I focus on?

Much of the modern world is steeped in the Abrahamic traditions with variations large and small. As far as I’m concerned, the “Old Testament” is a primary source document about political tensions in Northern Africa and the Middle East a few thousand years BC. The New Testament is an excellent source of information about Rome during the reign of Augustus, with better storytelling than most of our sources about the ancient world.

At it’s core, the Old Testament is the story of a migratory people who force ascendancy over a native culture and pat themselves on the back for it. It’s a story that has been repeated throughout history.

I personally prefer the Mahabharata, which is about a dynastic war. But then, I also enjoy Game of Thrones much more than Vikings. It’s easier to root for people fighting against a bad king than for invaders, no matter how driven to survive the latter may be.

Like all primary source documents, these are biased accounts, but that doesn’t mean we should discount them. Even if many pieces of ancient religious texts represent blatant attempts at propaganda, the distortions still serve to give us information. For example, a forensics analyst might learn about a blow from the shape of a crack. I’d love to give my readers similar breadcrumbs. If history becomes myth, then myths can teach us history.

There is nothing truer than myth: history, in its attempt to ”realize” myth, distorts it, stops halfway; when history claims to have ”succeeded,” this is nothing but humbug and mystification. Everything we dream is ”realizable.” Reality does not have to be: it is simply what it is. — Eugene Ionesco

Not long ago, some of my students found out that one of my degrees is in Religion, and wanted to know whether I believed in God. One commented that he believed in God, but not the Bible.  I’m not super comfortable talking about religion in school — separation of Church & State and whatnot — but I figured that if people get to insist on Creationism being taught, and World Religions are a topic we cover in the World History curriculum, then the point I wanted to make was appropriate; it’s more about history than religion anyway:

I believe in Jesus, just like I believe in George Washington.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

The Delaware certainly isn’t the Rubicon, but crossing it was still a big deal.

My students didn’t understand the connection. They know that Wikipedia isn’t an acceptable academic source, but they never learned that history becomes myth.

It’s questionable whether our first president ever actually chopped down a cherry tree and then refused to lie about it, and his hemp crop certainly wasn’t marijuana. The implausibility of these stories is no reason to doubt that he lived at all, though — and he certainly was a great and important man. Washington’s heyday was a little over 200 years ago. In the grand scheme of history, that’s not very long ago at all. Yet, we have all sorts of little myths about him.

All historical figures have lies told about them and it’s hard to disentangle myth from fact. This includes Jesus Christ, and Gautama Buddha, Confucius and any of the divine kings we have records for. Achilles was very probably a great warrior; I doubt his mother was literally a goddess.  The legends of King Arthur have, I am certain, some loose basis in fact. I believe these historic figures existed; I believe they were great men. Just because I don’t believe everything written about them doesn’t mean that I don’t think they existed, or changed the world.

So now I need to decide for my novel what sorts of historic events led to the myths of Verraine. I wonder: which sort of war is more compelling? Internal or external? The War of the Roses, or the Fall of Rome?

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Social Studies to 6th graders and spends the bits of time left over writing books that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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16 Responses

  1. Hey! Hey! Somebody else who’s read the Black Company! Yes! 😀

    Interesting topic! It’s part of why I went into history as my area of study: why learn how to write and the stories that have been created when I could learn where the stories came from to begin with? It’s served me well.

    And I’m not surprised your students didn’t get it. It’s part of why I left teaching.

    As to which war is more interesting, I think the answer lies in whether you want a story that focuses on upheaval with future growth ahead or if you want a story about a collapse and how people survive the ruins.

    • Eleanor says:

      Did you see that Graeme Flory did a Black Company Reread for Tor? Squee!

      That’s definitely the question, what do I want the story to be about; I’m trying to decide if I want it to be more “Game of Thrones” or more “Vikings,” and hoping that getting a sense of what other people prefer in their fiction will help me make that decision.

      • In terms of preference then, I rather like War of the Roses over Fall of Rome as a story. As a historian, it’s the reverse (Rome fascinates me), but I like stories that come to a happy sort of conclusion.

  2. I love how history can influence myths, and how myths can reflect history. It’s one of the reasons I love mythology so much. Like you said, history is biased. Myths can be as well… But together they paint an interesting picture.

    • Eleanor says:

      For me, it’s sort of the idea that statistics can be misleading… but at the same time, we have to remember that the plural of anecdote isn’t fact. They all go together.

  3. Alex says:

    Very good topic! My dad once told me Merlin was the real deal, unlike Harry Potter. It was completely baffling, so I asked him about it and he said that because it’s lasted so long and because there’s evidence of historical basis for King Arthur that this is proof that magic used to exist. Well, yes, most fiction is based off of fact to some extent. And sure, Harry Potter may not last so long, but there are books being written today that will. If you actually look you can find plausible bases for most myths. *sigh* I should know better than to discuss such things with him by now. He spends too much time watching videos and reading books by conspiracy theorist.

    I agree with your student who doesn’t believe in the Bible. I DON’T believe in God, but I’m willing to accept that a higher power may exist, however unlikely I may find the idea. But I’ll never be able to see the Bible as anything other than a book written by men to control other men.

    As for which story, I’m not sure. History is one of my weakest areas of knowledge. First instinct says The War of the Roses, though.

    • Eleanor says:

      Alex, your comment is super timely! The post I have scheduled for next week actually addresses people who think that myths about ancient magic are somehow proof of magic (albeit magic in the ‘sufficiently advanced technology’ sense).

      I think that some books of the Bible were certainly written specifically as propoganda; the Gospel of John is a perfect example. The Old Testament has Leviticus, which I don’t think anyone would argue is specifically intended to control people’s behaviors. But the narrative portions are more akin to an oral tradition of a culture’s historic heritage, and in that sense, by and large likely to be as true as anything we know about, say, Henry VIII or Caesar.

      That said, thanks for voting on what sort of historic underpinnings you like best in a story! That gives me one mark for the “internal strife” column 🙂

      • Alex says:

        Awesome! I’ll keep my eye out for it.

        Yes, that’s true. A lot of it is more like history than propaganda. I just can’t see it as God’s Word the way most religious people can, even if I’m willing to assume for an argument that God exists. 🙂

        • Part of the issue with the Bible is that people think you have to take it as 100% correct and as being all of a piece. Neither is accurate. There’s a reason we call them “books” of the Bible: each was written by somebody, for somebody. Knowing who and for whom makes understanding the Bible so much easier. And more interesting.

          • Eleanor says:

            The Bible is definitely WAY more interesting once you stop trying to make it all make sense as one cohesive whole and start understanding the reasons behind the contradictions. Eyewitness accounts differ; that doesn’t make them lies, but does give you insight into the perspectives.

  4. Shellah says:

    This reminds me that you have to question everything. As to your question, both wars are interesting to me.

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