How the Great Myths and Legends Were Created
By James Bonnet
The great myths and legends were not authored by individuals the way stories are today but were evolved naturally and instinctively by unconscious processes in oral traditions. Even if they started out as made-up or true stories, revelations or dreams, they still ended up for long periods of time in oral traditions and that became the principal dynamic behind their creation.
The process went something like this: it began with a real or imagined incident or event that was worth repeating, something so intriguing that we were compelled to repeat it. It was passed along by word of mouth, from person to person and from generation to generation until it had been told and retold millions of times and existed in a hundred different versions around the world.
Each time a story is retold it changes. This is due to certain natural but curious tendencies of the mind - the tendency, for instance, to remember things that make a strong impression and to forget things that don't impress us very strongly. There is also a tendency to exaggerate or minimize, to glorify or ennoble, to idealize or vilify. Beyond that, there's a natural, unconscious tendency to analyze things, to take them apart and put them back together in different combinations and a natural tendency to simplify or edit. The tendency to conserve energy in nature is very strong in everything we do, including how we organize and store our thoughts and memories. These are all things we're very aware of.
We experience these curious tendencies constantly. They are a significant part of our everyday lives. We all know how hard it is to get a story straight, or accurately remember something we've been told or even experienced, if it hasn't been written down. You tell someone close to you something exciting that happened (an incident worth repeating) and when you hear it repeated later that week or even later that day it's been severely changed. It's the cause of many serious misunderstandings. Well, you can imagine what happens to a story that has spent hundreds of years in an oral tradition. It has been thoroughly and completely changed.
We can see how this works if we look at certain important historical figures and examine how the real incidents which surrounded their lives and were worth repeating were evolved by oral traditions into marvelous and even miraculous tales that contained important bits of a truth hidden in the creative unconscious self. In great stories this hidden truth is a significant source of power.
The first example involves Achilles and the Trojan War. While there is no historical record of these events, most scholars, and most people for that matter, believe there really was a place called Troy and a Trojan war which took place on the western shores of Turkey some time around 1200 B.C. Many important archaeologists, Heinrich Schliemann among them, have devoted their lives to discovering the sites of these ancient events.
The real Trojan War, then, was the incident worth repeating, and Achilles was the greatest warrior fighting on the Greek side. It is controversial whether someone named Homer, the accredited author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, the famous legendary accounts of this war, actually existed, but assuming he did, the true story of the Trojan War had already spent four hundred years in the oral tradition before he put his poetic stamp on it, and another three or four hundred years in the oral tradition after his contribution before it was actually written down. In that time it had evolved from the real incidents worth repeating into a truly miraculous tale in which the swift-footed Achilles has become the nearly immortal and invincible son of Thetis, a sea goddess. All of the other gods, including Zeus, have taken sides and are playing active roles in the war and all manner of miraculous things are occurring. These immortal characters and miraculous occurrences have a psychological significance which goes far beyond anything a factual account of the real incidents could ever have conveyed. They do, in fact, reveal an excellent picture of the human psyche in transformation. And, more specifically, the consequences of anger on that transformation. All things we would have difficulty finding in a real account of that war.
Alexander the Great is another good subject to study in this regard because there is both a good historical record in the West as well as a rich tradition of legends in the East. In the West there are no real legends because there was always the real historical record standing as a reference to contradict them. But in the fabulous East, in places like India and Persia, where there was no historical record, he entered the oral tradition and all manner of fanciful and legendary stories evolved - "Alexander Searches for the Fountain of Youth," "Alexander Explores the Bottom of the Sea," and so on. These legendary stories, shaped and molded by these unconscious processes, contain the hidden wisdom we spoke of which the history does not. The historical record reveals reality; the legends that evolved in, and were sculpted by, the oral traditions contain the hidden, inner truth. The Fountain of Youth, for instance, is a metaphor of our lost potential. And Alexander's legendary adventures are treasure maps that can, if followed, lead us back to its recovery.
King Arthur is another interesting case. Many scholars believe that this legendary English king was evolved from a real general named Arturis. General Arturis lived in the 5th century A.D. and won ten consecutive battles against the Saxons before he was finally killed. If these scholars are correct, then after only five or six hundred years in the oral tradition this real general Arturis had been transformed into the legendary King Arthur who wielded a magic sword named Excalibur, consorted with a sorcerer named Merlin, founded Camelot, established the Round Table, and sent his chivalrous knights on a quest for the Holy Grail. And here again, like The Iliad and Alexander the Great, the legends surrounding King Arthur have a great deal to tell us about our inner selves, our vast potential, and our true destinies, while the brief historical record of General Arturis has probably had very little effect on any of our lives.
The curious tendencies of the mind that drive this natural storymaking process, and which we tend to regard as shortcomings, turn out to be the artistic tools of the imagination. And the creative unconscious used these tools to create these great stories. This vital information was being programmed into them bit by bit with each of these changes. The tellers of stories were only having fun but, in fact, they were helping to create and then pass this information along. This is where these old great stories get their power. These little bits of hidden truth have real charisma.
Myths are stories that have evolved to such an extent that the truth they contain has become so charismatic and obvious that religions are formed around them. All of the great religions have mythological stories as their justification and the source of their truth.
There is no better example of this than Moses or Jesus. Again, no historical record, but most people believe, or are willing to concede, that a real historical Moses and Jesus did, in fact, exist. After six hundred years in the oral tradition, Moses was turning staffs into serpents and performed any number of other miracles for the edification of the Pharaoh including the parting of the Red Sea. And after only forty to eighty years in the oral tradition, Jesus had become the result of a virgin birth and had risen from the dead. There's no way to calculate what affect a factual record of the real events surrounding these important figures might be having on our lives, but it's safe to say there have been very few things in life that have had a greater affect on the world than the stories that evolved from those real events.
There are four great secrets hidden in my book, Stealing Fire from the Gods. This is the first: the author of the great myths and legends is inside you. I don't mean that figuratively, I mean it literally. The intelligence and wisdom that created those old, great stories is inside you. You can get in touch with that source and make that precious knowledge and the power that goes with it, come alive in your work. If you combine that power with a contemporary realism and character, you can create superpowerful stories that have a significant impact on the world. And you can make yourself very successful, and perhaps even whole, in the process.
Meet the Author: James Bonnet
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.