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.
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.