(A warning — my knowledge is mostly of “western” mythology, so Roman and Greek, and so one should read this with that in mind. But if you are an expert on other mythologies, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, because the basis of the problem lies in technological facts of early human history and I would be excited to hear about exceptions.)
Okay it’s not. There is poetry, there are ancient ideas that are embedded in cultures. There are even cross-cultural motifs that echo something deeper within us (perhaps) than just the pre-Christian near-Eastern fantasies. But it’s also crap. So is history. The past is crap.
These stories are entrenched in a world where:
- women cannot practically and safely avoid pregnancy, a reduced physical state without modern medicine, hygiene, and technology
- rapid reproduction is essential to a population’s growth because of the high mortality rate in both children and mothers and consequently women become a resource rather than a human
- slavery is the petroleum that fuels productivity — until we can burn oil, this is the technological accelerant of the day and the pure utility of it eclipses the inhumanity of it
- warfare centers on the destruction or enslavement of whole civilian populations, sometimes just as revenge
- warfare is entirely thinkable (something nuclear weapons, for a while, half solved for us but is now back on the table)
And so these stories embody these horrors. At their best they present exceptions to these horrors as wild fantasies. Imagine a society where women had power! Weird! Strange! What magic and puissance would be needed to make this a reality?
Our gaming should be fantasy (even when it’s cyberpunk or whatever) — it should be about us wondering what could be (for good or ill) in the context of some imagined alternate world. It’s a creative process that I find very exciting. It’s where the fun is.
But mythology is not that. Mythology is the fantasizing of people who were stuck in the world I previously described. Co-opting those mythologies uncritically is placing yourself back inside those assumed horrors in order to imagine wonders that, frankly, either could or do actually exist now. This doesn’t strike me as interesting nor valuable. And so the worst possible defense of a game or its setting would be, to me, “but this is how the myth goes” or, more obviously indefensible, “this is how history says it was”. Even when it embodies deep truths about ourselves it warrants critical examination, because it really embodies deep truths about who we were 2500 years ago, and some of those truths might not be true any more. The assumption that these revelations are both universal and transcend time is lazy.
I would much prefer a fantasy that extends from now. It doesn’t have to be set in the modern age nor in the future; that misses the point. Thematically, it must be a fantasy of how things could be better than they are now. It can also be worse (maybe much worse) but ideally in ways that spawn from the new fantastical context and not just rowing backwards into some BCE backwater.
Most mythological presentation of women, especially as avatars for concepts, is pretty dismal. Women are idealized based on the ways they are of use to others. Or are amazing exceptions when they are not mothers and caregivers. This should not be amazing now, and I very much want to be amazed. We have maidens and mothers and literally wombs. We have muses, which are basically the uncredited authors of men’s art. We have goddesses that dote on boy heroes and tolerate husbands who don’t just cheat on them but casually rape. I want the rare show of autonomy and strength to be common. It is no longer amazing.
Of course mythology contains things worth mining. The stories are ones you can bet almost anyone has heard and that kind of commonality, those touchstones, make story telling much easier. We can speak few words and be sure that the audience knows all the missing ones. They contain images that are similarly entrenched. They contain powerful concepts such as the concrete realizations of abstractions like The Furies and that kind of realized metaphor is awesome. There’s a reason I always dug the D&D monsters, The Inevitables, the forces of elemental Law. That is an amazing opportunity for fantasy.
But that commonality is also a drawback. I’ve heard the story before. It’s the fantasy of people stuck in a world that doesn’t need to exist any more. I want fantasies for my world. What if something other than capitalism drove the motives of societies? What if there was no more oil? If magic worked, what would we really do with it beside solve ancient problems we’ve already solved? What if we encountered beings who were not like as at all — not palimpsests of known beings, but something entirely new?
Our stunted fantasies often revolve around the realization of deities — they are certainly concretely real. You can talk with them and they answer. What if there was a world with the similarly practical and perfect knowledge that there were no deities, that mortal consciousness is the ultimate consciousness?
What if power was free?
What if we were free?
So please, feel free to cloak your work in the imagery of mythology, but let’s not mire ourselves in ancient fantasies about escaping a world we already escaped. Let’s write (and perform) some genuinely new myths. Let’s take for granted the things we know we can do (even if we haven’t yet) and wonder harder about what else could change. Let’s make new things.
(Saw this morning that KatieQuixotic is talking about similar things on Twitter today. So thanks for sharing my brain a bit!)
One thought on “look, mythology is crap”
This was a great read. You are so right—myth is crap and we can leave behind the crap we don’t want. Let’s build up new mythology that empowers people and players today.
Richard over on his blog “Richard’s Dystopian Pokeverse” wrote a similar essay about the pitfalls of constructing history as a tool for RPG inspiration.
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