Naming the Ineffable

Why artists love mythology


In late 2013 I painted a series of illustrations for an herbal guide. It consisted of thirty plants painted in a traditional watercolor botanical art style. This greatly honed my botanical draftsmanship. Some of the plants I was able to locate in local nurseries to purchase and add to my own garden. Others I was able to seek out at the Berkeley Botanical Gardens. But a large number of the plants I had to forage for my specimens in my local environs. This proved to be highly instructional in teaching me to identify much of the plant life around me, because in the process of finding the ones I was seeking, a whole lot of misidentification also happened. The result was that I ended up with a much more complete knowledge of the names of so much of the mass of greenery that I had always seen as uniform “trees and plants”.


Suddenly they all had names, and in gaining names they became noticed.

This is why Names have power. When one can name something, it is no longer allowed to be unseen and anonymous. Its identity has been solidified.

The power of names is something that folklore and mythology has known for a long time. The great forces that move the world, and that define the parameters of existence for the protagonists of those ancient tales are often encapsulated within the identities of the Gods and Goddesses, or the Spirits of the elements and beasts. Named, they become empowered and undeniable in their primal expression. The sky is not simply the blue firmament, but named and embodied by primeval titan of Roman mythology Uranus. Love, this emotion that is at the core of humanity, gets incarnated in all its disparate forms across every culture: filial love, romantic love, passion and lust, Godly love. It is named Aine to the Celts, Venus to the Romans, Freya in Norse and Oshun on Yoruba mythos. Naming these forces tames them, and lets us weave them into tales.


Odin - Raven-God Norse Germanic Mythology

Raven-God – Odin

For an artist, this is the appeal of that mythological subject matter. The essence of folklore is about humanity, and the naming of the sometimes inexplicable forces that dictate our lives. There is a universal appeal to that because we can all sense the core truths that the stories are layered on top of. For an artist then to paint with mythology as our inspiration is to tap into that deep well that spans across time to when the very first stories were told by firelight to try to acknowledge, tame and explain the ineffable.

Hawthorn Embrace - Nimue & Merlin - arthurian legend

Hawthorn Embrace – Nimue & Merlin

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  1. Steven Tryon

    Well said, Steph

  2. Haley

    Wow. I love the way you can paint a picture with words just as well as you paint with, well, paint.

  3. Martha

    Beautifully said. Even your words create images that conjure just as much beauty as your magnificent paintings. As always, a joy to visit your blog. <3

  4. Robin Kowalski

    I found that book about Chinese ghost stories you spoke of finally finding in a little bookbato.the seller fixed up the binding and put a new cover on it etc. Looks great but still has that wonderful old book smell. Needless to say I bought it arI found the story about the man who was in love with a Fox spirit. Actually once started reading it was hard to put it down. I love all the stories. I can see where the art can come out of the reading. You have helped me in so many ways in my art. From pens to books. Thank you Stephanie, for being a big part in my learning not only in painting but to see art in everything. Be blessed sweet spirit.

    • Stephanie Stephanie

      I’m glad you were able to find it Robin! 😀

  5. Maxine

    Wow, Your words are akin to your painting, they inspire us to perceive more.. I miss having artist friends who’s own works lift and carry our own muse’s into new territory. thanks for this, the acorn shells are exquisite.

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