Characters Who Think With Mythology

Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series is an epic saga of political science fiction, strongly influenced by her background as a historian. As the series draws to a close with the recently released volume, Perhaps the Stars, Ada has taken the time to share her thoughts on how mythos impacts the lives and thoughts of characters, but also people.

Check it out!

By Ada Palmer

Which Greek god governs voyages? The answer is more complicated than just Poseidon, and an example of how, separate from having gods and mythological figures actually appear, another way to use mythology in fiction is depicting human characters who view the world through myths, offering new lenses on familiar concepts.

The ship voyage example is a useful one, and one I use a lot in my Terra Ignota. We are all familiar with Poseidon as the sea god, the one who raises storms and gives Odysseus such a hard time getting home, but sailing was extremely important to ancient Mediterranean cultures, and the Greek polytheism didn’t see sailing as one simple act, but a complex one with separate facets overseen by separate divine patrons. Who else might one pray to when setting out on a ship? (Or a spaceship?) To the winds perhaps, the Anemoi: Boreas, Notus, Eurus, and Zephyrus. To Hermes for some types of voyages, fundamentally a god of circulation, of people and information moving from town to town like coins from purse to purse, appropriate for merchant voyages, news-carriers, and travel among known and connected places, within the human world (including the afterlife, where all human roads ultimately lead). To Athena, who as goddess of crafts and craftsmanship is goddess of the craft of shipbuilding (those ropes, those woven sails), a patron of technology and vehicles, and sometimes known as Αἴθυια (Aithuia) i.e. “the diver” referring to the kinds of diving birds that skim along the water like a ship. And to Apollo, who is not well known as a travel god, but as god of archery is god of aiming, departure, inspiration, and discovery, connected with distance and seeing or aiming far, and whose titles include Έπιβατήριos (Epibaterios), god of embarkations, or god who leads people onto ships, as well as Θεοξένιos (Theoxenios) a protector god of foreigners or strangers traveling or staying in lands other than their own.

If you think about your last few trips somewhere, you can probably break down the different hopes and aspects of the trip governed by each: hoping the car/train/plane doesn’t malfunction (Athena), that the weather is alright (Poseidon, winds), that the business aspect of a work trip is successful (Hermes), that the ambitions of a more distant voyage find their aim (Apollo). It’s a very fine-grained subdivision, one which shows us how important and vexed travel was for such a culture, much like how Egypt’s many separate gods of different aspects of the Nile river show how complex its role was in Egyptian culture. And when writing a character who thinks in such terms—who considers Apollo-type journey and a Hermes-type journey very different, or who connects the creation of ships and vehicles with the arts of weaving and wisdom more than with those of fire and industry i.e. Hephaestus—you have not only the seed of an interesting character but a perspective which can give the reader new and mind-opening ways to think about what it means to climb on that spaceship, or set out on that quest.

This is exactly the kind of thinking-through-mythology that you can use in writing, either on a culture-wide level for world building—a world where Hermetic and Apollonian travel are regulated by different branches of government, or where shipbuilding is a women’s art—or for a single character. In Terra Ignota, one of my main narrators is Greek, and has an idiosyncratic understanding of the Greek gods which colors the narration throughout, the narration’s analysis of what it means to be waiting for transport, or his feelings about the impact of space elevators on humanity’s space access lensed through his understandings of Hermes, Poseidon, and Apollo. One of the early turning-points of the text is a moment when the narrator, declares “I have misunderstood Poseidon, reader, all this while!”, elaborating how, in a world with flying cars, orbital cities, a lunar capital, and Martian terraforming underway, “We mistake, we foolish moderns, when we seek the sea god in the sea. He is not H2O, not surface tension, tides and shorelines known and knowable,” concluding, “the god who rings the earth, Poseidon, is Old Enemy Distance.” (You can read the full excerpt here). In some sense it’s a strange moment to call a turning point since there is no event, nothing blows up, no tower falls or tide of battle turns, but in a global crisis in the Terra Ignota future, a world built around its easy transit and the commixing of all peoples around a globe, realizing that Poseidon—the part of voyaging which is the dangerous, disruptive distance in between—is still a major force shaping this trial of humanity, is an essential realization, enabling the next stages in which the characters can grapple with and shape the crisis in ways impossible without this understanding.

Similar moments happen in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-3)—one of my major influences in writing Terra Ignota. Readers can sometimes get frustrated as the narrator Severian’s introspective tangents about ethics and metaphysics constantly interrupt the action, until we realize that in this far-distant future the most advanced technologies, space travel, time, even the growth and death of stars and planets, can all be wielded by those who attain clear understanding the moral and providential structures of the cosmos, thus that Severian’s insights into ethics or theodicy are more important than the battles, breakthroughs as world-saving as when a scientist progresses toward the long-sought formula. Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist (1986) and its sequels have similar-yet-different mythological lenses at their cores, in which the protagonist Latro and others he encounters in his ancient Greek/Mediterranean setting think through Greek myth and epic, but in different ways, as Latro encounters a world saturated with mythic beings he does not recognize (but we do), while others around him sometimes recognize his epic-hero nature and act on it in different ways. In one telling moment, a ship’s captain sees Latro knocked overboard in a storm, then sees other waves carry him safely back onto the deck, landing him on his feet just where he stood—nothing provably supernatural occurred, but the captain, thinking through his culture, understands this as the action of the gods, and, taking the fates of Odysseus’s companions in the Odyssey as a warning, decides it is not a safe thing to spend time around someone beloved of the gods.

There are a number of other examples of great fiction which uses mythological character lenses, some of them with and some without the mythic figures actually acting or existing. In Mary Renault’s historical novel The Mask of Apollo (1966) the protagonist understands the events he experiences lensed through his ancient culture and especially through Greek drama, his actions constantly shaped by his understanding of himself as a servant of Dionysius, and while the book contains a couple moments which the reader can interpret either as real divine portents or as all in the character’s head, the question of whether the gods are or are not real and acting in many ways has less impact on the events than the character’s period worldview. Eleanor Arnason’s Woman of the Iron People (1991) is anthropological science fiction, depicting aliens who see the world through their distinct mythology, without gods or metaphysics ever directly appearing—worldview is the key. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1989) does comparable things in its alien travel stories, as do his Ilium/Olympos cycle (2003, 2005). Poul Anderson’s novelette Goat Song (1972) is a future science fiction retelling of Orpheus, but one which doesn’t only keep the events and character relationships, but also transplants into a future context key parts of the ancient characters’ worldviews and ideas of ethics and justice. And Anderson’s brilliant The Broken Sword (1954), drawing on Norse mythology, does even more. In other media, mythological/theological thinking saturates the new Battlestar Galactica TV series (2004-9), in which characters on different sides of the key conflict hold a range of polytheistic, monotheistic, and skeptical worldviews, and their understandings of fate, providence, prophecies, free will etc. both shape the conflict and help us understand it. And in the anthropological direction, Larry Marder’s innovative comic series Beanworld (1985-ongoing) depicts a stylized primitive society gradually inventing elements of culture (music, art, story-teaching) and understanding their world through archetypes such as the Big Fish in the Sky.

People often ask if I think it’s odd to be a historian writing science fiction, since we think of past and future as opposites. But really there is nothing more similar to the future than the past: it’s a long period of time in which societies and beliefs develop, and new technologies spread causing disruption and innovation. And with different mindsets and worldviews. To me, the appeal of both history and genre fiction is first contact, encountering people who have a very different understanding of the cosmos they/we live in, putting things in different categories, analyzing them in different ways. Back in college, my favorite history professor Alan Charles Kors once said in class that, if you had a time machine and were stranded in the past, you could pick up the language with time, you could learn how to wear the clothing, and with good fortune find a way to make a living enough to eat, but that the difference which would still feel alien and constantly challenging even after years would be the mindsets, learning how to make persuasive arguments when what kinds of evidence people find most persuasive is so different, or learning how to guess how people will react to things you say or do when their ideas of what’s acceptable or unacceptable, a small thing or a big deal, are rooted in the completely different universes people from different historical cultures (or planets) believe they’re living in.

I often tell my own students in class that no alien in any episode of Star Trek has as unexpected a worldview as what they’re about to meet reading the first-person letters and opinions of people from centuries ago. That’s why so much of my favorite SF is SF shaped by history, especially the worldviews of history, the mythologies and cosmologies shaped the actions of people so fascinatingly different from our present. And it’s why I think one of the most powerful tools genre fiction can use to help us to step outside ourselves and question our own worldviews is by presenting characters who think in the robust yet alien worldviews of real historical belief systems, or invented belief systems modeled on them, whether the setting is past or far future, on Earth or far beyond.

  • Read the beginning of Perhaps the Stars on the Tor/Forge Blog.
  • Read the beginning of book 1 of Terra Ignota, Too Like the Lightning.
  • Read two short, stand-alone excerpts from Perhaps the Stars reflecting on Poseidon and the Greek mythological understanding of travel at the New Decameron Project.

Ada Palmer (she/her) is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas.

Purchase Perhaps the Stars Here:

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