Examining Pop Culture’s Return to Classic Mythology

More so than any other genre, the building blocks of science fiction and fantasy will always draw from mythology, both knowingly and perhaps in spite of itself.

Russell Crowe as Zeus in Thor: Love and Thunder
Photo: Marvel Studios

Ancient mythology is continuing to experience modern updates. While there are often trends in the types of narratives being brought to audiences, from the superhero stories of the comics to the action blockbusters of the big screen, usually most of the arcs can trace their heritage back to the tales of early civilization. 

The gods and heroes, monsters and magic, of the Norse, the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Aztecs and so many more societies and cultures, continue to permeate through the lore of current cinematic and fantastical, fictional landscapes. But while those legends might have once been disguised in various other forms to appeal to a wider audience, they are now resurfacing in plenty of recent projects in the shape they were first conceived.

The Backbone of Modern Storytelling 

Humans have always told stories. A good tale can deliver an important message, allow for some artistic understanding of deeper emotional conflicts, or perhaps act as a light piece of entertainment. By extension, mythology is also importantly entrenched within ancient religion; the narratives of gods and demons helping people understand how the world has come to be. It’s always been a useful lens to see reality through, granting explanations for the unexplainable. 

Those stories have never been lost. They’ve simply been reimagined in modern popular culture. They might no longer make mention of Zeus and Isis and Loki (at least in many cases), but the themes they touch upon are still the same. The tragic love stories of William Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, are not a far cry from the romantic ramblings of the Romans. The bard was as influenced by those ancient stories as many other famous authors and world-builders are today. Mythology in all its concepts, themes and forms might be the structure and backbone of modern storytelling, but it has especially made an impact in sci-fi and fantasy. 

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Mythology’s Place in Classic Fantasy and Sci-Fi

Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. Those are just a few of the names of the biggest franchises in the world right now. There are a great deal of differences between all of those properties, but the similarities are also clear. There are genre-based tropes that can be associated with each saga, and in turn those conventions can locate their lineage in ancient mythology. 

The power of prophecy, the guidance of an elderly, wise and mysterious master, an unexplained force that binds the universe together, a band of warriors tasked with a particular quest, the chaos of a king’s court. Every single one of those narrative beats could be just as easily attributed to the legends of long-forgotten civilizations as they can be linked to any one of the series above. 

More so than any other genre, the building blocks of science fiction and fantasy will always draw from mythology, both knowingly and perhaps in spite of itself. The fact is, almost every conceivable attempt to craft a chronicle will touch upon a facet of stories from a bygone era. That hasn’t been strictly ignored in every case. Classics like Jason and the Argonauts are perfect examples of an attempt to take our fascination with these topics to the big screen. Despite standouts here and there though, myths have never fully overtaken our pop culture in their original form. Until recently. 

Recent Trends 

Traditionally, a few projects a year might be directly based on the lore of a former religion. In classic cinema that might have been brought through the sword and sandal genre. It’s definitely more common on the page, but when looking at the entertainment industry as a whole, myths never overtook spy thrillers, crime dramas, or ensemble comedies. Even within those fantasy and sci-fi flicks, there was never a specific focus on the actual characters and plots of the legends they took their structures from. 

But in 2022, you’ll be hard pressed to go to the cinema, log on to a streaming service, head to a bookshop or pick up a comic without a Zeus, Isis or Loki popping up. Suddenly, the actual stories, not reimaginings with new characters, worlds and plot devices, are being presented to audiences again. 

The fascination with the genre is pretty easy to explain. It brings the same world-building, character journeys and impressive elements of the stories we all love and are familiar with. Yet, there’s a historical precedent for them. On a deeper level, we know these are the myths that ultimately built society. 

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Influence in Comics 

It’s well worth mentioning at this stage that besides historians re-exploring those old ideas, and recent authors continuing to write of those ancient times, the creative imaginings of the comic book industry have heavily taken from everything we’ve spoken about. 

That’s definitely not a recent trend, but the impact of those years of graphic novels are having a very apparent impact on the big and small screen now. Just one look at the major comic book universes, both Marvel and DC, and it’s obvious that the gods of old are having a direct involvement in the development of releases. Wonder Woman is a part of a band of Greek warriors, while Thor is heir to Asgard. The Sandman from Neil Gaiman famously twisted together a cornucopia of religious influences. Those premises haven’t faded from the industry today and represent just one fragment of the pop culture takeover, which has been simmering in comics for some time. 

From Graphic Novels to the Big Screen 

It may be the original creations of the Eternals or the Norse tales of Asgard. It might even be Marc Spector’s transformation under the guidance of the Egyptian God Khonshu. Regardless of the premise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone has taken ancient mythology back into the mainstream with projects like Moon Knight, Loki, Thor and Eternals. Over on the DC side it’s the same, with the likes of Wonder Woman and The Sandman continuing to touch upon those same ideas. 

The superhero genre is everything right now, but it’s made way for the return of those classic characters that many would have assumed wouldn’t be making much of an impact in today’s tales. That’s really significant, as pop culture loves to follow trends. With deities becoming such a focal point, it only encourages other avenues and mediums to explore those areas, no longer discussing the themes behind other stylings but instead fully embracing the mythology. 

New Books

There’s also a whole sub genre in the world of novels that continues to dive deeper and deeper into our understanding of those early storytelling techniques and the ways in which we can retell them. But interest from the wider public has sparked some surprising developments. Stephen Fry’s riveting presentation of Greek myths in Mythos, Heroes and Troy are must-reads, as are the Neil Gaiman interpretations in the novels Norse Mythology and the West-African influenced Anansi Boys. 

But from the perspective of reusing these stories in new ways, the advent of social media in buying habits, from BookTok to Bookstagram, have also encouraged the production of further lore-based novels. The Troy-inspired The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Thesues and Minos-based Ariadne by Jennifer Saint or the  western folk tales and ancient Chinese and Japanese combination of Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, are just a few note-worthy mentions that demonstrate the current shift in what people want to read. Plus, Rick Riordan’s work across a variety of cultures is particularly vital for a new generation. And it’s not just in publishing that the evolving consumer base are looking for these exciting reimaginings. 

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Video Games 

The video game industry has been dominated by ancient civilizations. The newest incarnation of the God of War saga, combining Norse and Greek myth is a perfect example. But from Hades to Assassin’s Creed in its many forms, or even Ghost of Tsushima, players genuinely want to inhabit a bygone era full of the mystical stories they once read about. 

There’s of course something exciting about exploring Hogwarts and Middle-earth, but the draw of these kinds of titles is that they are focused on locations that humanity once thought of as true. There’s a strange sense of reality to them; a snapshot of an age that believed in an underworld, dragons or deities. The fascination with Arthurian legend has permeated titles based upon a more mediaeval and fantastical landscape like Skyrim or The Witcher, and it seems like the natural next step to look further afield for the adventures fans are seeking out. 

Why Do We Keep Returning to the Same Tales?

Ultimately, there’s something incredibly compelling about being able to step into these worlds. They act as the origins of the fables we love today and were once treated as the building blocks of our very civilizations. Ancient mythology has such an important part to play in human history and it’s brilliant that we now honor that in new ways. 

The influence of those legends will only grow within popular culture as more and more people rediscover the narratives of yesteryear. Interestingly, despite how familiar many of these moments feel, plenty of people are completely new to the adventures of Greek heroes or Mesopotamian protagonists. Somehow, despite their age, there’s a freshness and originality to the oncoming trend that can only have a positive impact on cinema, and wider entertainment.