Whether you’re writing a fairy tale retelling or just looking for inspiration, myths can provide a wealth of material to play with. Love, betrayal, war, politics, you name it–whatever you’re looking for, there’s a myth to help you. Myths can also serve as mini masterclasses in plot structure, for the framework on which the stories rest have been honed and refined over thousands of years. So if you’re looking for something to read (with purpose!), consider going waaaay back to basics.
Here are five lesser known myths to get you started:
1) Hermes and the Golden Cattle (Greek)
Hermes was born to Zeus and Maia, the daughter of a Titan, and raised in a cave on Mount Cyllene. A precocious child, Hermes made himself a lyre out of a tortoise shell, but he soon tired of it and decided to go on an adventure. He left the cave and came upon his brother Apollo’s herd of golden cattle, which he stole by fashioning “shoes” for each of the cattle out of oak bark and driving them backwards to disguise their tracks. When Apollo returned to find his cattle gone, he searched high and low but could not find them. Not for nothing, however, was Apollo the god of prophecy. An omen led him to Hermes’ cave on Mount Cyllene, where he found baby Hermes asleep in his cradle. Undeceived, Apollo snatched Hermes up and took him to Mount Olympus, where he was made to confess before their father Zeus. Though Zeus found Hermes’ antics amusing, he ordered Hermes to return the cattle to Apollo. Hermes did so but then promptly bought them back, giving Apollo his lyre as payment. Charmed by Hermes’ music, Apollo also gave his little brother a golden herding staff in exchange for a set of reed pipes, thus beginning a long friendship between the two.
2) Brigid and Bres (Celtic)
For years, the Tuatha de Danann battled the Fomorians, a race described sometimes as demonic giants and sometimes sea serpents–and sometimes giants riding sea serpents. In an attempt to make peace, the goddess Brigid married the Fomorian king, Bres. For a time, it seemed to work, but Bres became greedy and reopened hostilities against the Tuatha de Danann. Armed with magical weapons and shields that mended themselves overnight, the Tuatha de Danann overthrew Bres and forced him back into the sea along with his sons by Brigid. Brigid remained on the shoreline, ready to help either her people or her sons. Bres, angry at his defeat, sent his son Ruadan to kill Gobniu, the Smith. In the struggle, Ruadan was killed himself. Brigid’s cries of grief were heard throughout the land; it is said that it was Brigid who began the practice of keening at funerals.
3) Isis and the Seven Scorpions (Egyptian)
Hunted by her husband’s murder, Seth, Isis hid for a time in the papyrus swamps with her infant son Horus. Whenever she left the swamps, she was accompanied and protected by seven scorpions: Petet, Matet, and Tjetet in front; Mesetet and Mesetetef at her sides; and Tefen and Befen behind. One night, Isis visited the Town of the Two Sisters and sought shelter at a wealthy noblewoman’s house, only to have the door slammed in her face. A humble peasant girl offered the goddess hospitality, but Isis’s scorpions were not appeased. Tefen loaded his stinger with poison from the other six scorpions and crept into the noblewoman’s house to sting her son. The woman carried her son throughout the town, weeping and begging for help. Despite the woman’s earlier rudeness, Isis saved the baby by naming each of the scorpions in turn, thereby dominating them and rendering their poison harmless. Humbled by the goddess’s kindness, the noblewoman offered Isis and the peasant girl all her worldly wealth.
4) The Kidnapping of Idun (Norse)
Odin, Loki, and Hoenir were travelling in the mountains far from Asgard. Food was scarce, so when the travellers came upon a herd of oxen, they immediately slaughtered one to eat. But when they tried to cook the meat, the flesh remained raw and bloody no matter how long they held it over the fire. After a time, they became aware that an eagle was perched in the tree above them. The eagle told them it had laid a spell on the meat to prevent it from cooking. If they would give it some meat, it said, it would release the spell and let them cook the rest. They readily agreed, and the eagle took the choicest pieces for itself. Loki, believing the eagle had overstepped the terms of their bargain, attacked the eagle with a sturdy tree branch. The eagle, who was in truth the giant Thjazi, took the branch in his talons and flew high in the sky, pulling Loki after him, and made Loki swear to bring him the goddess Idun along with her fruits of youth and immortality. Only then did he return Loki to the earth. Loki delivered Idun as promised, but later rescued her by turning her into a nut and carrying her away in the form of a falcon. Thjazi pursued him in eagle form and nearly caught him, but he was foiled by the other gods, who threw up a wall of flame around Asgard just as Loki passed the barrier.
5) Echo and Narcissus (Greek)
Echo was an Oread, a nymph of the mountains. She incurred Hera’s wrath by distracting her with long conversations while Zeus cavorted with her fellow nymphs. When Hera realized what Echo was up to, she cursed Echo. The once loquacious nymph could now only repeat the last few words spoken to her. One day, Echo encountered the most beautiful young man she had ever seen and longed to tell him how she loved him. But she could not, for he had not spoken to her. After a time, the young man, Narcissus, became separated from his hunting companions and called out, “Is anyone there?” Echo repeated his words back to him, and the young man called out again, thinking that Echo was moving away from him, “This way, we must come together.” Overjoyed, believing that his words were meant to reciprocate her love, she ran to embrace him. But Narcissus rebuffed her cruelly and, catching sight of his own reflection in a pool, was enthralled by the image. Despite his rejection, her love for him only grew, and she mourned bitterly as Narcissus wasted away beside the pool. Echo, too, faded away, until all that was left of her was her voice.
These represent a tiny, tiny sampling of all the wonderful myths and legends out there. So, go—run amok through the wilds of the Internet and find something that speaks to you…then come back and tell us about it! What did you find? What are your favorites?
Tamara Linden’s storytelling career began at the age of three with “Squirm the Worm,” which was warmly received by an audience of assorted beetles in rural New Jersey (yes, “rural New Jersey” is actually a thing). She went on to study music composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Gettysburg College. Now, as an exam prep tutor and budding college planning consultant, she has time to devote to her first love, writing. Her work has appeared in Seven Deadly Sins: A YA Anthology (Envy) and Timeless Tales Magazine. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with a very sweet and loving man and an only intermittently sweet and mostly grumpy cat. Connect with Tamara on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.