Worldbuilding reflections: the ways the myths change

What really struck me when I researched my Phoenix article was the way the myth changed over time. When I started researching it I had a pretty good idea of what I expected to read – a physical description, plenty about burning into ashes and being reborn, maybe a story involving some mythical hero helping or being helped by it. So when I read first the Greek and then the Roman sources and found no reference to the bird actually being on fire at any point, and that these ideas only started to emerge in the later Roman and early Christian writers, it suddenly became a lot more interesting.

I think it’s hard to remember, when working on a world, that myths can and do change over time. They aren’t static. They change as the priorities of the society to which they belong change. To the Greeks and the early Empire Romans, the phoenix represented important aspects of their world: the cyclical nature of it, and the importance of deference to the gods and of carrying out appropriate funeral rites for one’s predecessors. It speaks of the stability of the world and the duties of its inhabitants.

But as the world changed and a new religion rose – a religion with resurrection at its very heart – and the Roman empire started to tear itself apart as emperor after emperor died violently after a short rule, that stability was no longer there, and filial piety was no longer at the heart of imperial rule as it had been during the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. Instead the key idea of the phoenix became transformation from something decrepit to something young and strong and full of hope – a motif that was perhaps very necessary in such uncertain times. At the same time the pagan elements – the central position of the sun god and his temple – were set aside to keep this pre-Christian pagan myth in line with church doctrine, and enable the church to use that message of hope borne from destruction without invoking pagan gods at the same time.

Then this motif of hope from the ashes of destruction was carried forward and embraced by those to whom it most resonated, who in turn added to the myth with complementary imagery and ideals.

In a fantasy world, each culture should have its own myths and beliefs, and while in a fantasy world a phoenix could well be real – or a dragon, or fairies, centaurs, gryphons and so on – that doesn’t mean that what people believe about those magical creatures, and the way a society views them, isn’t going to be informed by the society’s beliefs, its priorities and its core conflicts. And there’s not necessarily an “end point” to that – a point at which the myth can no longer change. It might seem today as though the core essence of the phoenix is fixed – widely embraced within our global society, so deeply embedded in our society it couldn’t change. But after some five hundred years of there being one singular image of what a phoenix is and what it represents to people – maybe Pliny the Elder felt the same.

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