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How to Write a Poetic Myth

This month’s article is a guest post by editor and poet Kyla Neufeld! Special thanks to Kyla for sharing her knowledge on myths and poetry.

A stone sculpture of a lion with wings, its paw on a book.

Myths extol the great deeds of gods and heroes, recount how worlds began, explain natural phenomena, and offer lessons or morals. They show a peoples’ way of seeing and being in the world.


Many myths begin as oral poems, passed from poet to poet and from region to region. Oral poetry is useful for worldbuilding because it provides the opportunity for different versions of the same myth, which can lead to character development. For example, two regions could worship the same god, but have different ways of doing so because one version of the myth says the god demands human sacrifices while the other says the god demands grain. You can explore your characters through their views of myths: are they skeptical and treat myths like old wives’ tales, or do they have faith that the gods are real? Myths are also a useful way to tell the stories about your novel’s world without resorting to heavy exposition.


Oral poetry uses metrical systems, formulas, and descriptive devices to shape poetry. For example, in the biblical creation story, each day of creation starts with the refrain “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” and ends with “and God saw it was good.” This repetition is memorable.


Use Repeated and Familiar Phrases


Poets could compose poems so rapidly because they understood the structure. For example, Homeric verse (The Iliad, The Odyssey), Old Norse poetry (The Poetic Edda, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún), and Old English poetry (Beowulf) all follow set formulas and employ different descriptive devices. Because these poems follow a pattern, poets could adapt and change them as needed to fit the regions in which they were performing. The story of The Iliad could have changed more than once before Homer wrote it down.


Here’s an example of Homeric verse:


“Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.”

—The Iliad, Homer


This snippet uses stock phrases—repeated phrases that describe characters or elements—such as “rosy fingered dawn,” “winedark sea,” “bright-eyed Athena.” It also uses type-scenes—generic scenes that are familiar to the audience, such as arming oneself for battle or preparing a ship for sea. The Iliad contains many formulaic passages of soldiers preparing sacrifices for the gods, or characters relating a message they need delivered, which is then repeated word-for-word later on.


Try Alliterative Verse


“So they went on their way. The ship rode the water,

broad-beamed, bound by its hawser

and anchored fast. Boar-shapes flashed

above their cheek-guards, the brightly forged

work of goldsmiths, watching over

those stern-faced men. They marched in step,

hurrying on till the timbered hall

rose before them, radiant with gold.

Nobody on earth knew of another

building like it. Majesty lodged there,

its light shone over many lands.”

—Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney


Old Norse and Old English poems make use of alliterative verse, which employs alliteration—repeated consonant or vowel sounds—as the primary poetic device to indicate the metrical structure. These are the markers of alliterative verse:

  • Longer lines are divided into two “half-lines,” which are also called verses. The first verse is called the a-verse and the second is called the b-verse.

  • A caesura (a heavy pause, created with punctuation or spaces) separates the verses.

  • Each verse usually has two stressed syllables, which are called “lifts.” The first lift in the a-verse alliterates with the first lift in the b-verse.

The above segment from Beowulf uses alliteration in the second line, “broad-beamed, bound by its hawser.” Notice how “broad-beamed” alliterates with “bound”? We can also see this in line 5, “work of goldsmiths, watching over,” and line 8, “rose before them, radiant with gold.” The poem uses alliteration to emphasize the lifts in each half of the verse.


Invoke Imagination


Old Norse poetry is generally separated into two categories: Eddic poems—minstrel poems that told stories of great heroes—and Skaldic poems, which were composed for individual kings. Both types were known for their use of kennings—evocative descriptions of everyday things—which brought out the imagination in otherwise undescriptive images. For example, describing the sea as the “swan-road.”


Here’s an example from The Poetic Edda, which contains alliteration and kennings:


“The slender-seeming sapling became

a fell weapon when flung by Hoth;

but Baldr’s brother was born full soon:

but one night old slew him Óthin’s son.”


This verse tells the story of Baldr, slain by his brother with a mistletoe wand through Loki’s tricks. It invokes imagination by portraying both the mistletoe wand and Baldr’s brother Hoth as young. The mistletoe wand is a “slender-seeming sapling,” while Hoth was “born full soon: / but one night old.” And yet the mistletoe wand became a weapon and Hoth a murderer.


Use Strong Imagery


Images are a staple of poetry. We write them through a number of poetic devices, like simile and metaphor, to bring life to ideas and emotions.


One of my favourite myth poems, “Leda and the Swan,” uses creative and striking images.


“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.


How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?


A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?”


—W. B. Yeats


In this poem, Yeats tells the story of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus disguised himself as a swan so he could rape Leda. She birthed an egg, and from it came Helen, who was married to Agamemnon, but left him for Paris of Troy and thus sparked the Trojan War. The images in this poem are violent—a “sudden blow,” “great wings beating still,” “dark webs,” “feathered glory,” “brute blood,” and “indifferent beak” all portray the traumatic experience of rape and the eventual consequences of this rape.


The examples of oral poetry I used above have evocative images as well. The Iliad has souls “hurling down to the House of Death,” dead bodies as “feasts for the dogs and birds,” and two men fighting, “when the two first broke and clashed.” In Beowulf, the hall is described as “radiant with gold. / Nobody on earth knew of another / building like it. Majesty lodged there,” using colour (gold) and personification (Majesty physically living in the hall).


Use poetic devices and colourful images in your poetic myths to help anchor your world. Consider whether the myths in your world are passed along orally or if they are recorded somewhere—and if so, where? Note how your characters interact with these myths, whether they believe them or not, and how these stories have impacted your world’s history. Considering these questions and creating your own poetic myths can bring an extra dimension to your world and perhaps even inspire plot twists and character arcs you may not have considered before.

 

Kyla Neufeld is a poet, writer, and editor. She’s an unabashed geek interested in fantasy literature, mythology, and the intersections of feminism and fandom. She also has an MA in Cultural Studies from the University of Winnipeg.

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The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

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Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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