Taking From the World Tree: Mythology and Cultural Appropriation

Mythology has long been a source of inspiration, and indeed material, for those writing fantasy fiction. One of the gold standard examples I always use is J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings universe was influenced by Norse mythology. Tolkien’s creation took a much different form, but there are echoes of these myths in Middle-Earth and beyond.

A case could be made for mythology being the original fantasy fiction. Tales of gods and heroes, magic objects and world-shattering powers. The Labors of Hercules read like a fantasy story. So, too, the story of Gilgamesh. The Ramayana is ancient epic fantasy.

So it’s no wonder that these stories, rife with the fantastic, would become the basis for some of our modern fantasy fiction. This is seen often with fantasy creatures -- dragons, pegasi, trolls, ogres, satyrs, fauns, and even elves are all co-opted from mythology to populate fantasy stories. Only it doesn’t stop there -- characters, gods, storylines, structures -- all of these things are adopted from myth.

Defining the boundaries of cultural appropriation is a difficult matter... Playing with the toys and tools of another culture is a risky proposition and is capable of doing some damage.

So elements of myths make their way into fantasy, with or without the serial numbers filed off, just the way that fantasy sometimes borrows from folk tales or legends. But there are some authors who are more direct in their borrowing.

Roger Zelazny is someone who I’ve spoken of before here. He is the first writer who comes to mind when thinking of this phenomenon. The Chronicles of Amber, covered here, draws on the dysfunctional families of various pantheons and also pulls from Celtic myth and the Arthurian legends. In Lord of Light, mentioned in this previous column, he draws on Hinduism and Buddhism. In Creatures of Light and Darkness he tackles Egyptian mythology. He branches out into Native American myths in Eye of Cat.

Zelazny might be one of the most overt, but many fantasy writers do this. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series modernizes Greek myths. My last column mentioned Tad Williams’s The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which draws on Christian mythology. Neil Gaiman drew on a multitude of myths in both his Sandman comics and novels like American Gods and Anansi Boys. Janni Lee Simner draws on Iceland’s Sagas in her Thief Eyes. Kij Johnson’s Fox Woman riffs on the Japanese kitsune myths. C. S. Lewis, in his Christian Narnia stories, uses Silenus and Bacchus, characters from Greek mythology. Even Marvel Comics has drawn on various mythologies, perhaps most famously with the Avengers’ Thor. And all of this before we even think about delving into local legends or folk tales.

But is this use of mythology acceptable? I love Zelazny and his work, but he took freely from these mythologies for his own purposes. I felt that he honored the original stories, but is it even up to me? When does taking from these myths cross the line into cultural appropriation?

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation is just that, when one culture appropriates elements of another culture. Mythology and folklore certainly count. But defining the boundaries of cultural appropriation is a difficult matter. I’ll direct you to this post at The Angry Black Woman where they collect ideas and discussions in the comment section about this very topic.

I’m not here to tell you what falls under the umbrella of cultural appropriation or not. It’s clear, though, that playing with the toys and tools of another culture is a risky proposition and is capable of doing some damage. One of the threats of cultural appropriation comes with modifying the original source, often a simplification of the ideas present in the original culture. Something quite subtle and nuanced and beautiful can become homogenous and blunt and cliched.

The issue becomes even more charged when talking about minority or colonized cultures. In these cases, power and privilege become issues. And no matter how well-meaning or how researched such stories may be, there’s still the danger of not honoring where these stories came from. Of trivializing the source.

Then there’s the idea of taking these elements and transposing them to a different people, divorcing them from their origins. Retelling The Ramayana in rural America might sound like a really cool idea, but by cutting out the people whose culture created this story, aren’t you doing them a disservice? Aren't you devaluing that culture and the very story you're borrowing?

And where, specifically, are the lines when it comes to mythology? Surely Greek mythology is safe since there aren’t any current practitioners of that religion, right? Well, it appears that there are.  And once you delve into Asian cultures and spiritual practices, the separation between myth and religious practice is more difficult to discern. Hinduism, for example, is incredibly complex, with layers and layers of accumulated beliefs and colonial influences leaving their stamp on it.

What to do about all this? Some might say that it’s best, then, to avoid appropriation altogether. Stick to your own culture. Stick to what you know. Yet, isn’t fantasy inherently a speculative genre? Fantasy writers write about other cultures all the time, many of them made up in part if not in whole.

Author N. K. Jemisin argues, also on The Angry Black Woman, that pulling back is the wrong approach, and I agree with her. Her post is worth reading simply to illustrate all the ways that not writing about other cultures can be damaging.

“This kind of thinking sounds good until you examine it more closely and notice the underlying assumptions. Namely:

  • That the responsibility for incorporating PoC into white-dominated media — and stopping racism in same — lies solely with PoC.
  • That all of us creator-types, despite being, y’know, creative, are incapable of understanding the experiences of people different from ourselves, so we shouldn’t even try.
  • That there’s no need for consumers to see complete, multicultural worlds. Unless they’re designed by committee, anyway.

Here’s one big problem with insisting that it’s never OK to appropriate: the result is segregation. And here’s another: it’s a cop-out. The anti-appropriation argument applies a simplistic solution to a complex and nuanced problem — doing a good job of depicting The Other in fictional representation. It can be done, but it requires hard work. Research, self-examination, strategy. Rather than come up with this strategy, however, the anti-appropriation argument is a punt. Let the PoC handle PoC, while the white people stick to white people. Problem solved, the Jim Crow way."

So what should writers do? It may sound trite,but one approach is to treat these other cultures, in this case other mythologies, with respect. Do your homework. Research these stories. Understand how they are part of the culture. Look at what they really mean. Look at what you want to do with these ideas. When the story’s written, talk to people in the culture, if you can. Get their opinion. And -- this is important-- listen very carefully to the feedback. Many people will say upon hearing negative feedback that it wasn’t their intent to offend, or that they had the best intentions. This doesn’t really matter. Damage is done regardless of intention. Ignorance is not an excuse.

I love mythology, of all kinds, and I’ve enjoyed many of the works I mentioned earlier precisely because of their mythological elements. I’d love to see this continue. I’ve done it myself and intend to do it in the future. I hope to do it with care.

I put it you once again, where do you think the lines are drawn? What do you think are good examples of adapting other mythologies? What do you think are egregious examples of cultural appropriation? What solutions have you seen, if any, that work? I'd love to hear what you have to say. 

Image of Creatures of Light and Darkness
Author: Roger Zelazny
Price: $9.28
Publisher: Harper Voyager (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 208 pages
Image of Thief Eyes
Author: Janni Lee Simner
Price: $5.99
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (2010)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages
Image of American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition: A Novel
Author: Neil Gaiman
Price:
Publisher: William Morrow (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 560 pages
Image of The Fox Woman
Author: Kij Johnson
Price: $18.74
Publisher: Tor Books (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages
Image of The Dirty Streets of Heaven: Volume One of Bobby Dollar
Author: Tad Williams
Price: $6.26
Publisher: DAW (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 416 pages
Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Comments

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce August 28, 2012 - 10:08am

Great article!

I'm Australian, and I've been considering writing a short story incorporating some Aboriginal Australian mythology into it. What's stopped me is thinking abot how to do this in a culturally sensitive light.  Research and talking to people in the specific demographic the mythology is taken from is pretty obvious stuff, but it's a good reminder of how to go about this without feeling like a culturally imperalistic dickhead.

 

Jairo Arana's picture
Jairo Arana is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mielville and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu August 28, 2012 - 11:47am

One time, I had to fill out this form. 

This was my favorite part. I found it so amusing (sarcasm). No, I wasn't smiling, that day.

Race: ________

My answer?

Race: HUMAN

I don't care about color, gender, nationality, and all the other differences, which make us unique, and, yet, are used as barriers, when they should be bridges to enrich ourselves with cultural diversity. For me, there are no walls.

We're all Human, we all share similar experiences (yes, Human... with a capital "H"). All mythologies, regardless of region, nationality, share similar traits. Joseph Campbell's two books, Heroes With A Thousand Faces and The Power Of Myth, displays example after example of many cultures, all of them, very much alike. If you love mythology and folklore, I very much recommend those two books.

All myths have similar stories. A universal flood: Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah's Ark in the book of Genesis. The son or sons who must confront the father, the Navajo twin heroes, Nayenezgani "Monster Slayer" and Tobadzhistshini "Born for Water" searching for their father; Telemachus searching for his father, Odysseus; Cain killing Abel; Romulus killing Remus.

No matter where you go, you'll find all myths and folklores have very, very much in common.

I will not allow myself to be segregated from the rest of Humanity because of the circumstances of my birth, such as my ethnicity, where I was born, where I was raised, to decide what I can write. When I write fantasy, I write about cultural and ethnic diversity and the importance of embracing that diversity. To just see the mythological creatures borrowed from other cultures, or created out of my own mind, or any author's own mind, is to miss the point. It's about the human experience. Mythology is about the use of symbols. That's all it is. Get past the symbols, which are no more than threshold guardians, and you'll see a much wider perspective. Get stuck on the symbols, you're stuck at the gates and missing out on the adventure. 

Writing about other mythologies is like being the hero, out on a quest, and bringing those mythologies, those stories, reinvented, "reborn," "resurrected," "changed," the same, yet not the same, back to his or her community, like a boon, the treasure, the Holy Grail, whatever magic item, or symbol, and sharing it with the rest of the community for the greater good.

That is the job, the quest, of us writers of fantasy.

If mythology has taught me anything, it's that we're not much different. Mythology is the map of the collective mind. We are all human. When we share our mythologies, we realize, we're not all that different. 

La Emme Nikita's picture
Class Facilitator
La Emme Nikita from Los Angeles is reading Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory August 28, 2012 - 2:27pm

My fantasy manuscript is about a race of angelic beings, each with a specific duty and characteristics, that have exercised godlike powers over humanity since the dawn of time. I draw largely from Norse and Greek mythology in my telling, but the general point of the story is that these are beings that are seen as gods or monsters and interpreted differently by different cultures all over the world. 

Ancient Greece provided the model for our modern-day democracy; why can't its stories provide a model for modern-day fantasy? Some of these myths and traditions are so old and universal they've become a part of humanity, rather than belonging to the culture that created them. It's important for us to keep mythology relevant in art. Without adapting these myths for modern audiences I think we run the risk of losing them, in time. How many kids will go on to learn more about the Greek pantheon after reading Percy Jackson or watching Disney's Hercules? How many people wanted to learn more about Shinto after playing the video game Okami? Like Harry Potter became a gateway to reading for many kids, works which adapt and incorporate elements of myth can introduce a new audience to these old and priceless stories.

Artists have a duty to preserve these myths, but they also have a duty to respect them. Neil Gaiman was once asked how much research he had to do for the Sandman series; his response was "all of it". Sandman, American Gods and Anansi Boys are thick with established myth told in a unique and loving way that respects the cultures from which the original stories are drawn. The same can't be said for Wagner's Ring Cycle, which twisted the Norse Myths into Nazi propaganda.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 28, 2012 - 2:29pm

wonderful subject to explore.

I like Steven Erikson's (not Steve Erickson) solution. He invented his own world, with its own peoples, cultures, and religions. Mind you, he's a professional anthropologist who spent 10 years developing it with friends. Nevertheless, his cultures are rich, and feel as if they could have existed in our world, given the same circumstances.

I suppose it depends on what the difference is between appropriation, allusion, homage, and inspiration.

As mentioned in the article and above comments, knowing what you're getting yourself into, knowing what others have done to offend others of the culture in question, and doing your best to represent it fairly.

 

Jairo Arana's picture
Jairo Arana is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mielville and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu August 29, 2012 - 11:39am

The same can't be said for Wagner's Ring Cycle, which twisted the Norse Myths into Nazi propaganda.

I very much agree!

It was perverse. 

I saw a documentary on nazis and the occult. What these guys did was sick. Using mythology to create hate and "justify" genocide.

On Neil Gaiman:

Neil Gaiman was once asked how much research he had to do for the Sandman series; his response was "all of it". Sandman, American Gods and Anansi Boys are thick with established myth told in a unique and loving way that respects the cultures from which the original stories are drawn.

That's why I love fantasy. Giver me a reason to learn the mythologies of other cultures.And, man, do I have a lot books on mythology. 

 

Without adapting these myths for modern audiences I think we run the risk of losing them, in time. How many kids will go on to learn more about the Greek pantheon after reading Percy Jackson or watching Disney's Hercules? How many people wanted to learn more about Shinto after playing the video game Okami? Like Harry Potter became a gateway to reading for many kids, works which adapt and incorporate elements of myth can introduce a new audience to these old and priceless stories.

 

Artists have a duty to preserve these myths, but they also have a duty to respect them.

@Emma: Sorry Emma,  :S I just quoted about a quarter of what you posted.Hope you don't mind.  Hey, I can't help it if I agree, hahaha!

@postpomo: I'd have to quote your entire comment. 

I like Steven Erikson's (not Steve Erickson) solution. He invented his own world, with its own peoples, cultures, and religions

Nevertheless, his cultures are rich, and feel as if they could have existed in our world, given the same circumstances.

Sorry, I couldn't help it. Those were my favorite parts.

It is cool to create your own world. When you're inspired by other cultures and there's a bit of those other cultures, it makes that world much more diverse, and people form other cultures can relate to it. They feel represented, not left out, and it promotes diversity.

But, it's okay to focus on one culture. That's cool, too.

How many kids will go on to learn more about the Greek pantheon after reading Percy Jackson or watching Disney's Hercules? How many people wanted to learn more about Shinto after playing the video game Okami?

 I just felt, for a moment, like I was being told I couldn't write about other cultures and their mythologies, other than where I was born or raised. I know that wasn't your intent. We do have a responsibility to represent other cultures fairly and get it right. It's a very good article and raises a question worth keeping in mind. Me? I read a lot. I do a lot of research. Most times, that research...it doesn't even feel like work. Anyway, fantasy... Fantasy is what allows me, us, to connect to other cultures and embrace them. It's the perfect "excuse" to learn about other cultures and mythologies. You want to get it right. You want... I want them, to connect to other people with my writing. And I love fantasy and and all the world's mythologies for that. They allow me to connect to the rest of the world, to all of Humanity. 

Anyway, all of you have an awesome week!

Cheers and Very Best Wishes!

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk August 29, 2012 - 7:06pm

Thanks for that, Jairo. My intent has never been to say that people shouldn't write about other mythologies or cultures. My personal aim is to do so while also honoring the original source material as well as the culture it came from. And I think it's still a learning experience for everyone who does this.

Jairo Arana's picture
Jairo Arana is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mielville and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu August 30, 2012 - 6:12am

@rajanyk: My pleasure and Thank you so much for your article. What you wrote is something worth thinking about, the importance of honoring other cultures, and that is and has always been my purpose when writing fantasies inspired by other mythologies.

By writing fantasies inspired by other cultures' mythologies, we help preserve them for future generations. And then, from the fantasy genre, readers feel interested in reading the actual mythologies. It also promotes cultural diversity.

I read comic books, as a kid.

Then I discovered Greek mythology. Sure, Marvel & DC superheroes are cool. I love comics. But when I discovered mythology, while not forsaking my love for comics, I did feel even more fascinated by the actual mythologies which inspired them. Comics led me to mythologies from other cultures.

Thor, for instance. Marvel comic's Thor led to me learn more about Norse mythology. Oh, and there's this real cool issue of Thor in which Hercules brags about beating up Thor, to a group of kids, but when he notices that one of the kids gets bullied by the others for being a fan of Thor, Hercules  stops bragging about how he beat Thor and changes his story, right in the middle of it, to narrate how he was beaten by Thor. It was a real cool issue. Very noble of Hercules. I have it in my Essential Thor, by Marvel comics. It's right on the cover, with the two mythological characters fighting it out. It's a collection of several issues, featuring Hercules' first appearance in the Marvel universe. I still read comics, but I also read ancient mythologies from around the world. 

I'm glad Marvel comics rescued Thor from the distorted, perverse reinvention of the nazis. Yeah, the nazis hijacked Thor. Saw it in a documentary, nazis and the occult

It's been a pleasure to participate in this dialogue and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

Cheers & Very Best Wishes!

Arwen Undomiel's picture
Arwen Undomiel from Sydney, Australia February 2, 2013 - 6:23pm

This raised a question for me; What about "filling in the gaps" in mythology-based fiction? As a POC woman, is it culturally appropriative if I adapt the story of the Andvarinaut from Norse mythology and combine it with a plotline with echoes of LOTR, stating that Andvari was the second cousin of another Norse dwarf character, giving him more forms than just a fish,(the legend doesn't state that that was his only form, after all) and portraying him as a blacksmith and patron spirit in a way similar to the ways modern-day Northern tradition pagans depict him? (See http://www.northernshamanism.org/shamanic-techniques/journeying/races-of...) Is it right for me to do this to someone's religious beliefs, especially when I don't know anyone who follows these beliefs personally to ask, "Hey, would you be offended if you read this?" (I know of them, though).

Then again, several retellings of the story depict him as a blacksmith (there's a book called Gods, Heroes and Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain, and another from 1916 called Andvari's Ring, both of which depict a forge behind Andvari's waterfall) and there's not much known about actual pre-Christian Norse religious practices- it's only a theory that dwarves were regarded as guardian spirits and contacted in shamanism, so you could basically say that the people participating in this religious tradition are also filling in gaps with available evidence. Thoughts?

 

paulwilliams's picture
paulwilliams June 25, 2014 - 3:15am

Mythology is one of the ancient factors that consist of several stories and it helps to bring a suitable culture towards the society. Most probably Asian people were believed in the term mythology and we have found many types of historical and mythological popular stories. Apart from Asian continent this term is now rapidly spread around the whole world and most of the western people were also adopt several mythological changes for their culture and society.

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Adam Hoffman's picture
Adam Hoffman March 14, 2016 - 11:48am

One of the issues with the idea of not appropriating from the cultures of others but only your own is the situation when you're not even all that attached to your own culture or don't have much to draw from.  For example, I'm a White American male.  In many cases, people will argue that we don't have our own culture (well, at least we don't have our own language and many say we don't have a cuisine, but I digress).  However, looking at the culture and folklore we do have, much of US folklore and legend is broken up regionally.  So, you could argue that they belong to the people of those specific regions.  My ancestors were Christians of various different stripes, but I was not raised in a particularly religious household.  So, I have little attachment to Christian myth.  You could argue that we have the European fairy tales, but you could also argue that they belong to their respective cultures of origin when they were collected.  So, as a White American male agnostic who lives in Upstate New York around the Capital Region, the only myth or legend that I could really draw from is . . . "The Baker's Dozen".  It's a story about a baker who gets cursed because of how many Saint Nicholas cookies she is given.  Even then, there's a Dutch component that isn't part of my own heritage.  The question soon becomes where we draw the dividing line for what parts of culture are allowable to draw from.