Mythopoesis, from the Greek poiein (για να κανει) and mythos (μυθος), means the process of legend-making or myth creation within the literature and art of a culture.
Mythopoesis can be differentiated from mythology in that mythopoesis refers to legends and realms brought to life in creative works, rather than solely as a result of history or religion.
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.1
The value of mythopoesis to a society stands in relief during times of great trials or turmoil. Often times, particularly within the last century, rigid social structures, corrupt governing bodies, or the outbreak of war will awaken within people the desire for freedom from oppressive influences. Artists and writers have historically risen to fill this need by creating imaginative works that stir in their readers and viewers a sense of mystery and a remembrance of legends in symbolic form.
The above is an excerpt from Mythopoeia, a poem written by J.R.R. Tolkien after a discussion with C.S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson during which C.S. Lewis swore that all myths were lies, even if blown through silver. The poem was written by Tolkien to give further voice to his disagreement. At the time of the discussion, C.S. Lewis was an atheist. However, in years after, Lewis began to look at the origins of the Christian faith as a myth that had much influence due to the historical truth behind it. He later wrote The Chronicles of Narnia as a work of mythopoesis that goes past allegory to reveal a desire to revive mythical elements interwoven with Christian themes.
Myth takes on a sort of reality as people throughout the years have recreated them and identified with them as they found they mirror their own lives. Stories in the mythopoetic tradition often follow the form of a comedy in three acts; that is, a central character or hero lives in a state or place similar to Eden, encounters a conflict which expels him from this place, but resolution is reached by the character being accepted back into his previous life by way of transformation or rebirth. Whether his exile was self-imposed or exerted on him externally, he eventually is forced to choose a new path in life. In many traditions, heroes come to realize the value that exists behind the social conventions he shrugged off previously, and can then act as a conduit for social change upon his return, not because he is thwarting all tradition, but rather because he has torn away layers of obfuscation that previously hid its potential value.
While Tolkien helped to bring about the term for this type of artistic expression, its existence is deeply rooted in the history of literature, both in Western and Eastern traditions. In the writings of ancient Greece, mythopoesis is presented within a mythology where acceptance and resolution is brought about only after times of great conflict, war, or family turmoil. This is mirrored in the stories of the Moirai and the ancestral lines of Zeus, and in the stories of Kronos, Oedipus, Medea, Agammemnon, and many others. Where a true understanding of the mythopoetic elements involved comes into play in such well known stories in Greek mythology is in the symbolic connotations and overtones the stories have taken on throughout the years. The social climate that gives birth to these stories and the historical facts involved may often be lost, but the meaning and importance to the people is retained. As such, commonalities are often noted among works of mythopoesis across cultures. The myth of Prometheus, for example, is considered Greek in origin, and yet the archetype of the fire-bringer is one that existed in cultures predating ancient Greece as well as in other societies throughout the world. This has little to do with the facts of the stories, which may have been altered or changed with time. However, the idea of the potential that fire offers to the people, and the understanding that much had to be sacrificed to bring that knowledge forth is a common one. It also allows a reader to sense that the arrival of fire, and the growth of technical knowledge may always come as a result of sacrifice. Such myths are deeply rooted in tradition due to the strong connection to the psychological needs of people. The works of mythopoesis remain significant, regardless of their level of truth.
Some examples of mythopoesis in literature include:
1Tolkien, J.R.R. Mythopoeia. 1931.