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In my story the protagonist hears, in a temple ceremony, the reading of a religious/mythological text. Now in the actual story, I don't need the text itself (the role of the text in context, and the protagonist's reaction to it are the important points), but since I've seen the tag challenge, I thought I'd ask about how to write it anyway (and after all, having an actual text of that myth might come handy at times).

Basically the text describes how an ancient ruler asked the oracle, but because the sacrifice is not valid, the oracle gives a false answer.

But the point is, it's a religious text, not just a story told for entertainment. So what would be the major points in writing a text that it comes over not as a random story, but as a decidedly religious text?

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The easiest way to accomplish this is to imitate the style of real-word mythology. There are various different sources, which all have different styles and different symbolism.

In the Western world, probably the most well-known stories are those of Greek mythology, Nordic mythology, and of the Old Testament. Given that you have an oracle as part of your story, Greek mythology would probably be the closest to your example. You can easily find sources online and try to imitate the style. Some general aspects that I would try to look out for are these:

  • Myths often start relatively quickly, sometimes even in medias res, i.e. right in the action. The story does not start as the ancient ruler sets out to see the oracle or as he contemplates what kind of sacrifice to make. It starts like this: Once, an ancient ruler came to the oracle to ask for its wisdom for the coming war. "Grant me a vision, o wise Oracle", said he, "for I have brought you rich sacrifices".
  • Emotions are more extreme than in other stories. People "cry out in anger" and they "weep bitterly".
  • The moral of the story is said relatively explicitly by one of the characters in the story. There is no real subtlety. It's meant to teach the audience a lesson, after all.
  • Try to emulate the rhetorical devices that were popular back then. Rhetorical questions are a big one: "Why are you angry, wise ruler? Was it not you that put the false sacrifice on the altar? Was it not you who thought to give bloody venison to the goddess of wisdom?" Then there are parallelism and antithesis ("the error was human, the punishment was divine"), alliteration ("With cosmic clarity the preacher prophesied a dreadful dream"), ... one of my favorite ones is the one where the sentence is specifically designed to have a specific sound, as in the Metamorphoses by Ovid when some characters get turned into frogs: "[...] quamvis sint sub aqua, sub aqua maledicere temptant [...]" As the characters try to speak, they can only croak like frogs, and the text actually imitates it: "sub aqua, sub aqua" basically sounds like "qua, qua", which is what frogs sounded like to the Romans.

Generally speaking, these stories are relatively short anecdotes that are supposed to teach you something, and they come from a background of oral tradition in which subtlety is not really a thing - these stories are meant to be performed. Even so, there might be interesting symbolism in the stories, and the language is often quite poetic with cool rhetorical devices. The language is of course kept quite old-timey so that the gravitas and importance of the story come across.

Imitating an existing style is only one way of doing it. The advanced way would probably be to really think about your culture, about the way these stories got told in the past and who would appear in these stories. Maybe in your culture the stories are more light-hearted, so that they always have to have a good ending where the character has learned their lesson. Maybe the story is actually quite long, because your culture lives in a place with long, cold, dark winters where stories have to be long to keep people entertained. In that case, the character would only listen to one small part of the story, and this part would be quite dragged out (repetition would likely be even more important in this case). It is probably more interesting and more fun for the readers to get an insight into a really unique culture this way, but it will be a lot of effort for a relatively short scene. After all, if you imitate a well-known style, the readers will get it instantly - if you don't, the story might seem awkward.

  • : P ... "In the Western world, probably the most well-known stories are those of Greek mythology"... Obviously false... In the Western world, the most well-known mythology is certainly christianity : P – sesquipedalias Jun 9 at 19:08
  • Keep reading to the end of the sentence. ;) Though I did emphasize the Old Testament when the New Testament certainly had its fans as well. – PoorYorick Jun 9 at 21:25
  • Use some of the short stories from the Old Testament as a good start for your research. The book of Jonah is quite short, contains the mystical elements (talking to God, the whale saga) and highlights many of the points talked about in this answer. – Stephen Jun 10 at 1:51
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    * Whoa, indeed. My bad. ... * Or, if you want to model your mythology after a kind and peaceful religion, try Leviticus in the Old Testament instead. – sesquipedalias Jun 10 at 11:49
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One element of religious texts is the antiquated language. Since the text has been canonised, it has not changed while the language moved on.

If you look at the Book of Esther as an example, it is very much "just a story". God's name isn't mentioned once in it. And the Book of Lamentations is five independent laments for the fall of Jerusalem, grouped together. Song of Songs contains rather bawdy love poetry. Book of Chronicles is a history text. Nowadays it is easy to recognise those texts as a religious text, because their language is old, but nothing indicates to me that they were originally written as such. (In fact, biblical historiography research indicates that they were not originally written as such.)

At the same time, while a text might not have been originally written purposefully as a religious text, it was not canonised without reason. There has to be something in it to make people say "this is important". As an example, in the Book of Esther it is the principle of mutual responsibility: Esther herself is not in danger, but she has a responsibility towards her people to try and save them.

And, since the text has been around for a long time, and was actively being read for a long time, it is reasonable for it to acquire multiple interpretations. Therefore, if you're writing a pseudo-religious text, it could be interesting to make it a text that would lend itself to multiple interpretations, and maybe even to play around with them in your story.

  • Actually, two different interpretations turn out to already be part of my story: For my protagonist it's clear that the text says that the sacrifice of the oracle must be valid, but the official opinion of the (local branch of the) religious organization is that it says that the oracle is unreliable, and thus asking it (in particular, the sacrifice required for it) can under no circumstances be justified. As of now I treated it as intentional misinterpretation by the priests in order to make it fit their moral code, but making the text itself ambiguous might indeed be a better idea. – celtschk Jun 8 at 13:03
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    I wouldn't say this is a strictly necessary facet of a religious text; the NIV Bible and several translations of Buddhist/Hindu sutras are proof enough of that. While plenty do play up the oldness, it isn't a necessity. – Matthew Dave Jun 9 at 8:56
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    The language is antiqued only if you use the original language text (like Quran in Arabic), or an antiqued translation (like King James Bible). Any modern translation will be, well, modern. – Davor Jun 9 at 9:15
  • @Davor That's only partially true. Even in modern translations there will be antique strangeness. Dialogue/direct quotations often sound odd to modern ears, and there are many figures of speech that don't translate into anything familiar, like the command to forgive "seventy times seven" (which really means an unlimited number of times). – icanfathom Jun 11 at 14:16
  • @icanfathom - and such a figure of speech should be translated. – Davor Jun 12 at 17:45
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I'd say the central component of a religious text is an element within it that is magical and unexplainable, and somebody is a subject of that (whether they like it or not).

The pagans believed everything had a soul and agency, not just all animals but rocks, the sky, trees and plants, rivers, mountains, the moon and sun ... everything. The river could be angry, and that could be beyond your control, but you might be able to placate it.

The Greeks truly believed their pantheon of Gods were real beings they might meet on the road or in the forest.

To create a religious text with an Oracle, I'd describe the oracle as connected to a higher supernatural power, the gods themselves, and she is infallible, omniscient in her trance.

I'd describe your supplicant as a greedy and vain person, trying to get away with a cheap sacrifice. But the oracle knows of this stain on his soul, and punishes him for it by giving him exactly the advice that he will believe and will provide his comeuppance.

Because that is what the oracle DOES with fools vain enough to think they can hide a lie from her. It is a tale of pride going before a fall, of hubris, of your supplicant thinking he can prevail over the gods themselves. And a warning to any that hear this tale, to not be as foolish as that poor bastard and suffer his fate.

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    This is something all of the other answers missed. Something is "mythical" if it is larger than (everyday) life. What really helps is to use archetypes and symbolism which stimulate the imagination/subconscious and create an atmosphere of awe or importance. A myth is not just another story. These aspects lend it power. – Joe Jun 13 at 5:14
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You might want to present the in-story text as a parable which means the story has a teachable message, rather than words like "mythology" or "religion" which imply a spiritual calling.

the role of the text in context, and the protagonist's reaction to it are the important points

The protagonist needs to relate to the story. He identifies with that situation, and has a realization about an earlier experience, something he failed at. It might be the wrong realization or he might identify with it for the wrong reason, but to him this story makes a kind of personal sense when other myths were just a wall of text.

In every culture there are the "big religion" stories about sacrifice and the gods' transformation to deity, but there will also be hundreds of smaller parables that are just there to show how the god was inherently wise, or honest, or a trixter long before they reached their final status.

A very silly American myth that I was told as a child (even in school) was that George Washington "could not tell a lie". He receives a (magical?) hatchet made of silver and uses it to chop down his father's favorite cherry tree. Confronted by his father, Young George fesses up to his over-exuberant tree chopping – or whatever, the story is ridiculous. Worse this parable has nothing whatsoever to do with the themes of founding a nation, creating a representational democracy, being a general who leads a revolution – all the things George Washington is actually famous for. It's just a parable about why kids shouldn't lie, and giving quasi-supernatural abilities (being unable to lie) to an historical figure.

Modern biographers would view the parable as a cultural artifact, but not believe it actually happened. As a 1st-grader this parable was mixed-in with history lessons which were presented as "facts". I absorbed it without question, and never considered it seriously until I was an adult and found it hilarious – mythology bordering on propaganda.

Your protagonist might relate to one of these smaller parables, and miss the deeper religious themes. He might walk away from the parable focusing on the wrong message – something like misinterpreting the George Washington story to mean that little boys can commit vandalism without consequences as long as they admit to it afterwards, or somewhere there is a magical truth ax once owned by George Washington.

The temple acolytes could even "lampshade" that this particular story is not necessarily a core philosophy, but still be glad something has sunk in.

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    Well, actually in my story, asking the oracle is what the protagonist wants to propose later that day. That's the context I was speaking of, and now you probably can imagine the reaction of the protagonist when hearing exactly that text (and the priest's interpretation of it, which basically is “never ask the oracle”) at that very day, in the presence of those who have to decide on his proposal. Basically, it results in another obstacle for the protagonist. But anyway, your answer might turn useful at another point in the story (or in the reaction of another listener); it's definitely a +1. – celtschk Jun 8 at 13:34
  • While I was taught the "can not tell a lie" story in the early 1970s, #1 I don't remember if I was taught it was truth or just a legend, and #2 definitely it wasn't silver. Just a plain old axe. – RonJohn Jun 9 at 22:25
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Some of the ancient styles noticeable in several types of mythological or religious story include repetition and specific structure. One of these is almost palindromic: "Healthy is he who eats coconuts, and whosoever eateth of the coconut shall be healed of his ills."

Another style groups things in threes, or fives, or sevens: specific numbers have meaning (as in Kabbala).

Another gives stories in small bites: A rich man asked Saladin, "How can I find inner peace and enlightenment such as you have?" Saladin responded, "First, rid yourself of the material possessions that weigh down your soul and that command your life," and the man went away sorrowing, for his possessions were vast.

Sometimes, in places where several different languages are or have been used, a key location or concept will be named in all of the local languages within the text, so that the place or concept can't be mistaken: "In the place that is southernmost on the isle called Manhattan, or Manaháhtaan in the Old Speech, that was known as Nieuw Amsterdam in the Middle Speech, or the Wall Street district in New York City by the subjects of His Glorious Majesty."

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Dune (Frank Herbert) does an excellent job of this. Each chapter (I think) starts with a quote from a particular quasi-religious work about Muad'Dib; the main character of Dune. Just giving the readers short extracts means that we imagine a much larger work. You could do a lot worse than to see what techniques Frank Herbert used.

  • Or it quotes from the Orange Catholic Bible, which was the religious text used in Mu'ad Dib's day. – Stephen Jun 10 at 1:54

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