How Myths & Lore Don't Originate - And How They Do

Over the years I've found that many people have a lot of misconceptions as to how and why myths come to exist and take the forms they do. Inevitably these misconceptions lead to absurdly reductionist worldbuilding, and very often they perpetuate harmful stereotypes about minority spiritualities and erases the humanity from ancient and minority cultures. So to clear up these myths and give you a better idea of how things actually work, I've written this article.

Oh yeah, and you'll get to find out the most likely real mythological origin of dragons while you're at it. (It's probably not what you think it is!)

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No, dragons don't come from a primal fear of predatory animals. Nor were they inspired by dinosaur fossils.

It's a fact that cultures around the world have myths and legends about dragons or dragon-like creatures, whether as monsters or actual gods. For example, there's Quetzalcoatl, Leviathan, Tiamat, Ayida-Weddo, Nyami Nyami, the Lambton Worm, the rainbow serpents of Australia, the horned serpents of North America - the list goes on. You may have heard a hypothesis claiming the reason for this is that we all carry an instinctual fear of large cats, birds of prey, and crocodilians that developed way back when our pre-human ancestors were frequently eaten by these things. Supposedly, our subconscious minds coalesced these fears into an ultimate predator beast bearing a strong resemblance to Smaug or Spyro.

Other people have supposed that dragons were inspired by dinosaur fossils, for the fact that some dinosaurs resemble modern depictions of dragons.

Both of these ideas are easy to disprove.

For one thing, primal fears don't work like this. Humans aren't afraid of any specific animal species per se; instead, we're afraid of bad things happening to us. Our real primal fears include catching horrible diseases or being poisoned, being stalked or hunted, getting maimed and dismembered, losing control of our minds or bodies, losing our senses, being unable to communicate, being isolated or ignored, being annihilated from existence, or having any of these things happen to someone we care about.

If evolving instinctual fears of specific animals was a thing, then there are several animals we should be absolutely terrified of - but we aren't. Hippopotamuses are highly territorial and will chew us to death if we get too close, but we find them adorable. Mosquitoes spread deadly diseases, but we don't fear them more than any other insect.

And if we did actually carry a primal fear of animals that were dangerous to our ancestors, then merely seeing them in any context should make us feel uncomfortable and we should all have an innate sense that there's something very sinister about them. But that's not what happens. Most people agree that felines are adorable, and lions have been used as symbols of strength and power by many cultures - for example, the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet is depicted with the head of a lion, and a lion symbolizes the Tribe of Judah. Crocodilians and animals that resemble them aren't especially scary to us, either; we understand logically that they're dangerous, but most of us don't feel uneasy when we see them. Ancient Egyptians even kept a fairly docile species of crocodile around in temples. The more you look all over the world, the more you'll find things that just don't stack up if we supposedly have an inborn fear of these animals.

Then there's the fact that draconic beings aren't often characterized as predators per se. While some of them do occasionally eat people, it's by no means a universal trait. When it does happen, it's often only temporary - rescue comes when someone slices the its body open. By and large, maleveolent dragon creatures are associated with chaos and destruction in general, rather than predation as such. When it comes to monsters built around the concept of preying on people, they're frequently humanoid - think zombies, vampires, trolls, ogres, giants, oni, wicked witches in gingerbread cottages, etc. Other times, they're canine - think werewolves, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, etc.

Finally, both of these hypothesis incorrectly assume that the four-legged dragon with wings is the default, original dragon, which simply isn't the case. For one thing, this style of dragon is modeled on the Welsh dragon, which itself wasn't even a standard or typical depiction of a dragon back when it was created. Back in the Middle Ages, dragons were depicted in all kinds of ways, some of which would be barely recognizable as dragons to modern people.

When you start comparing myths from around the world, what you actually find are serpents or serpent-like creatures associated with water in some way. Quetzalcoatl, whose name literally means "Feathered Serpent," brings springtime rains. Leviathan is a giant sea serpent. Horned serpents often bring spring rains and floods. Same goes for rainbow serpents. Tiamat was a serpentine creature with horns who was the personification of salt water. Ayida-Weddo is a goddess of water and rainbows (among a few other things) and is known as the Rainbow Serpent. Nyami Nyami is believed to live in the Zambezi River. The Lambton Worm lived in a well. The more you look, the more creatures you will find like this. These creatures range from malevolent to benevolent depending on where you go. (Which again goes to show that the idea of a dragon as a menacing monster isn't universal, which is what you would expect if the idea came from some pre-human instinctual fear of predators.)

So then, why does everybody have myths and stories of serpentine beings associated with water? The simplest explanation is that is that the concept of a divine water serpent goes all the way back to the Middle Paleolithic, before humans started migrating out of Africa.

The thing is, these beings have many traits in common with each other - way too many to just chalk it up to coincidence. Every single one of them has at least a few of the following characteristics: an association with wisdom or knowledge, an association with immortality and/or rebirth, an association with fertility, an association with chaos, having something to do with the creation of the world, and an antagonistic relationship with a storm god who wields a powerful hand-held weapon or pair of hand-held weapons.

In other words, dragons aren't just an old myth - it's an old myth. Like, over 60,000 years old.

So what did inspire them? In addition to, well, snakes, there are a few other easy options that could've played into it - rivers, rainbows, and even the Milky Way, specifically. Rivers are shaped like snakes. As for rainbows, it's right in the name of the rainbow serpents. And the Milky Way is serpent-shaped and found up in the sky where rain falls down from.

The takeaway? Don't fall into the trap of thinking that ancient myth had to be inspired by something obscure, mysterious, or buried deep within our subconscious. What actually happened was probably a lot more simple and straightforward, involving things that people were familiar with and made sense to associate with each other. If primal fears were involved, they were probably perfectly normal human fears, not "ancestral fears." And instead of assuming that the only reason these myths around the world could have so much in common is because of some weird subconscious thing, consider that maybe, just maybe, it's because the original version of the story was invented by Stone Age Africans.

The "telephone effect" has been greatly overestimated; there are many other reasons why myths change and mutate.

Some people smugly assert that oral records cannot be trusted because people are constantly mishearing details and getting them wrong, therefore causing information to rapidly mutate. This problem with this assertion is that this simply isn't how oral records work. In oral cultures, teachers and learners alike work hard to make sure the details are kept straight. If everybody works really hard at it, they can keep consistent records for millennia.

While this probably happens sometimes, there are plenty of other reasons mythology can mutate, including:

Changes in politics. Leaders have a lot of influence over religion in many ways. They might fund temples or order ceremonies to honor deities they favor, and may outlaw cults or the general worship of deities whom they feel pose a threat to society. They might commission books about the myths they think are the most relevant and useful, and they'll have a lot of say in how those myths are written down.

Changes in social values. If the words, deeds, and characteristics attributed to a given deity begin to conflict with changing social values, then one of three things is likely to happen: People might conclude that the old myths and descriptions are wrong and begin telling myths that are more in line with how they feel the deity would be. Or they might reframe the deity as a more sinister, antagonistic figure. Or they might just ignore the deity altogether.

The reverse can happen, too. A deity whose traits and behaviors were once seen as sinister or malicious might be viewed in a more positive light as society ceases to condemn the types of things the deity was vilified for. Myths that portray the deity in an unfavorable light might be retold through a more sympathetic lens, or they might be deemed false and discarded entirely. Also, those who are outcast by society or just feel out of place might identify with the gods who embody the things society looks down on, and choose to worship them.

Changes in lifestyle. If a culture shifts from one lifestyle to another, they'll probably need to adjust their gods accordingly. A culture of nomadic shepherds might have a god whose function is to protect their livestock; should they settle down to an urban lifestyle, this god might take on the function of looking after people's belongings and protecting the home. A moon god who once personified death and rebirth in pre-agricultural times might also become associated with timekeeping once they begin farming and need to keep track of when to plant the crops.

Changes in landscape and climate. Whether because people migrate from one place to another or because one place changes over time, these kinds of changes can influence how belief develops. In a hot, dry climate you might have a deity of death and desolation associated with the desert or the midday sun, such as the Egyptian Set and the Babylonian Nergal. But up in Scandinavian regions, where the heat of the sun isn't as much of a concern, you find Surtr, who is instead associated with volcanoes.

The more you look into religious and political history, the more you can see things like this happen over time or work out where they most probably happened. (For example of politics affecting religion, the vilification of the Norse god Loki very probably came from a ruling class who felt threatened by the existence a god who frequently challenged authority.)

"Encoding" things into allegory, symbolism, and dramatic narrative doesn't happen the way some people claim.

Some people claim that ancient people "encoded" phenomenal events or spiritual truths into allegory and symbolism for one reason or another. For example, there are those who believe that encounters with aliens or usual celestial events were all told or written down as mythologized stories because ancient people apparently lacked the ability to describe anything they saw in literal terms.

In reality, people have always been capable of being very clear and literal where it matters. Witnesses to the eruption of Pompeii described the event very factually and literally. Ancient Egyptians recorded their dealings with other countries in very literal terms. And Babylonians were definitely capable of making unambiguous customer complaints. Ancient Chinese astronomers observed and wrote about comets without making them out to be some kind of supernatural monsters.

Ancient people would have had no difficulty whatsoever describing extraterrestrial encounters or weird space phenomena without getting vague or cryptic. Nor would they have had any reason to be anything but factual and literal. What would even be the point?

Some people claim that secret histories and hidden truths were deliberately encoded into myth and allegory by a corrupt elite to keep them hidden from the masses. There's just one problem with this: they wouldn't need to go to that much trouble. All they'd have to do is just not share their knowledge and beliefs with the public in the first place.

There have, of course, been various groups that kept their beliefs and practices hidden from outsiders. But it wasn't necessarily about hiding the truth from the masses. In Cuba, West Africans sold into slavery preserved their beliefs and practices by disguising them as the veneration of Catholic saints - a tradition which became known as Santeria. This way, they were able to avoid religious persecution for worshiping their own gods.

There were also the mystery cults of ancient Greece and Rome. It's hard to be sure exactly when they started, but they were around for a long time. The mystery school of Eleusius came around in 1600 BC. The Eleusynian Mysteries taught a symbolic interpretation of the myth of Demeter and Persephone that held that rebirth was possible. The mystery school was somewhat selective about who it took - prospective members had to speak Greek and be sponsored by an experienced member. But at the same time, theoretically anyone could join, including women, slaves, and non-Athenians.

So why all the mystery? For one thing, there's the fact that members were expected to pay fees, which suggests a profit motive. Additionally, people just tend to like belonging to things that feel exclusive and special. If anything, ancient mystery cults can probably be compared to modern spiritual groups that almost anyone can join, but they'll be expected to pay money for seminars, spiritual attunements, etc. The similarities even continue right down to outright appropriating elements of other people's religion just to seem more exotic.

And these days, many Native American people keep their traditional religious views to themselves. It's not because they're trying to keep some amazing special secret truth hidden from us; it's because they know that white people will find a way to commodify and misrepresent their beliefs while simultaneously demonizing actual Native Americans. Additionally, their spiritual beliefs are just none of our damn business; we have more than enough of our own traditions and practices to look into if we want to get into that old-time religion kind of thing. It's not elitism; it's asking people to mind their own business and stop treating them and their culture as commodities.

So while secrecy and hidden meanings do exist in religion and spirituality, it's not necessarily for the reasons most people think.

There's also one big reason why so many myths and legends seem so cryptic to us: a lack of cultural context.

If someone showed you a picture of a snake coiled around an apple tree with a naked man and a woman standing on each side, you would immediately recognize this as a picture of the Garden of Eden. No one would need to explain what it means to you. In fact, someone could show you nothing more than a picture of a snake coiled around an apple, and you'd probably still think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The artist can safely assume that almost everyone will pick up on the symbolism in this painting, so there's no need to explain it.

Likewise, someone could begin a story with "One day, Cinderella couldn't find the broom" and you'd know immediately know who the storyteller meant and why she was looking for a broom.

The same goes for old myths and legends; many of them rely on context that would have been familiar to the audiences of their time. No one was trying to hide or obfuscate anything; there was just no need to explain the significance of every little detail. The more you study an ancient culture, the more you'll that find their myths and legends neatly slide into a complex, yet very coherent worldview, and you'll begin to see that there was never supposed to be anything all that weird or mysterious about them.

Not every myth comes down to "people just trying to explain the natural world." It's a lot more complicated than that.

Explaining the natural world is something that some myths do, but the reality is that myths can do many things, including:

Even stories about gods are often like this. Modern people often assume gods were always conceived of as flawless omnipotent beings with incomprehensible motives, but myths about them show something different. We see them having desires and emotions just like we do, ending up in struggles and conflicts we can relate to, and sometimes even playing the role of the antagonist to another god or even to a human being. The gods, by virtue of being flawed and limited, could be used as figures in narratives with practical social and entertainment value.

(Also, anyone who claims that we can't infer anything about who was supposed to be wrong and who was supposed to be right or claims we're always supposed to agree with the gods or highest-ranking god clearly doesn't understand anything about framing, or they're just acting like it's not a thing so they don't have to examine their assumption that ancient people were a fundamentally incomprehensible monolith - a worldview that denies ancient people their basic humanity and individuality.)

Something else people overlook is how humans are generally wired to think of anything that moves, helps them, or hinders them as sentient and feeling to some degree. This is why we do things like apologize to our phones when we drop them and get angry at alarm clocks for waking us up. Even when we rationally know that they're only inanimate objects, our social instincts are so powerful that we can't help but assign at least a little agency and will to them.

Once we believe that something is sentient and feeling, we assume that we can communicate with it, and that it might want to communicate with us. We also assume it has motives and reasons that line up with how it behaves. So when a volcano erupts, we might think we've done something to offend it and conclude that we need to do something to put it in a better mood.

So how do we determine what it wants? Some of us might make our best guesses - maybe it's angry because we invaded its territory or because we made too much noise. Or the priests and mystics might use their divination tools to ask what the spirit wants. Or they might enter a trance state to visit the spirit realm and ask the gods, or to allow a god to enter their body and speak through them. (The latter practice is sometimes known as divine possession, or ritual possession.)

While many of us might remember the many frauds and con artists who've claimed to talk to spirits for personal gain, it must be noted that many people and cultures did and still do practice this with all sincerity. Whether or not you personally believe they're really talking to spirits, the fact that people have been trying their best to do it for tens of thousands of years can't be overlooked.

Although assuming that inanimate objects are sentient and feeling might seem "stupid" to some of us, we should consider that it's actually an evolutionary advantage to overshoot rather than undershoot here. Individuals who undershoot frequently assume other human beings are nothing more than mindless automatons, and are more likely to engage in exploitation and other predatory behavior. An inclination to feel like your malfunctioning car just wants to spite you is not the worst trade-off for the ability to immediately perceive people from other cultures as fundamentally human and deserving of rights.

In summary!

You might also like:

Basic Tips To Create More Believable Sci-Fi & Fantasy Religions & Belief Systems
How To Create Fictional Structured Religions
Tips To Create Fictional Philosophies & Value Systems
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Advice & Tips On Developing Fictional Timelines & Histories

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