Modernist Use of Myth

In an age that was wrought with scientism, technology and loss of spirituality, many of the major modernist writers realised and asserted the employment of integrative mythology in order to give “shape and significance” to the contemporary fragmented reality.



The use of myths in Modernist literature highlighted the classical tone of the age. Myth has a symbolic value; it condenses emotions and experiences. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most representative of Modernist works with a profusion of mythical usage. TS Eliot employed the mythial method to accentuate the experiences of loss of fertility and death in  The Waste land, which are tied together by the multiperspectival and mythical character Tiresias.


Fisher King

Largely influenced by Jessie Weston‘s From Ritual to Romance and JG Frazer‘s The Golden Bough myth of the Fisher King -based on which, both these works focus on the persistence of the ancient fertility rituals in modem thought and religion.  The Fisher King, who has been wounded in his genitals and whose lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a desiccated ‘Waste Land’. The legend suggests that the healing of the Fisher King would lead to the country’s fetility; this healing of the Fisher King has been the subject of mythic tales in various cultures. Eliot adopts the Fisher King legend as appropriate to describe the condition of the modern society, with the difference that there is little scope for healing.

“The Fire Sermon” by Tiresias (which is reminiscent of Buddha’s speech), Biblical imagery and symbolism associated with the legend of the holy grail, “What the thunder says”, from the Upanishad etc. are other mythical allusions.


The Holy Grail

James Joyce in Ulysses recreates the mythical Homeric Odysseus into the modern Leopold Bloom and narrates his mundane, sordid existence in an ironic epic manner. Eugene O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra adapts the Greek mythical Electra from Aeschylus’ Oresteia into Lavinia Mannon.

WB Yeats, like his admired predecessor Blake, undertook to construct his own systematic mythology based on historical, astrological and occult material and consisting of the Phases of the Moon, the Great Wheel and the Gyres, as expounded in A Vision and a number of remarkable lyric poems such as The Second Coming and Byzantium 

Categories: Literature

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2 replies

  1. Myth always conveys depression, darkness, anger more than fairy tale. It has nothing good to do for the society. I wonder the world will stop reading realistic literature. 🙁

  2. Read Joseph Campbell’s Four Functions of Myth.

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