Giving this subject more thought, however, I see that our modern age is in fact rife with mythologies, full of pantheons of heroes and villains.
Sports fans recall "glory days" of their teams, the roster full of offensive dynamos or impassable defensive player with near-superhuman abilities. Hard done by towns stick by their hard done by sports teams, regardless of their record, with near-religious devotion. And fans of rival teams argue with the religious fervour of true believers.
Professional wrestling takes mythologies to another level. Two wrestlers begin a rivalry, but unite against a common foe and forge a powerful friendship. (Gilgamesh and Enkidu anyone?) All the while, fans gravitate toward heroes or villains based on traits they admire or emulate—sportsmanship, bravado, mercy, vanity. And these careers can last for decades, forging long, complex stories.
Comics are modern mythology due to both the pantheon of characters and the devotion of fans. The committed track the histories of characters with the fervor of biblical scholars, able to tell you if Jason Todd ever met Gentleman Ghost and rising a cry of heresy if an off-hand comment contradicts an event from 15 years ago. Unless, like the Great Flood, some crisis (or "Crisis") wiped the slate clean to start over again.
Science fiction and fantasy universes, like Star Trek and Star Wars, present mythologies growing more complicated with each new episode, film, novel, comic or game. Fans discuss the canonical authority—a religious concept—of each medium. Is the Dark Horse or Marvel version of Star Wars accepted as correct in the event of a conflict? That is to say nothing of the near-religious rivalry between these two groups. If violence was as tolerated today as in ancient times, I have no doubt blood would be spilled at many science fiction conventions as Star Wars and Star Trek fans face off, each declaring the other as heretic.
Yet this all begs the question: Why? In ancient times, why did so many tales—of Thor battling Jörmungandr, Zeus' conquests, the various incarnations of the sun god Ra—come about? Looking at them, we see tales of morality, caution, identity. Lessons to entertain, explain the supernatural and reinforce cultural norms. What's more, they were interesting.
Western monotheistic religions are no less worthy of study or interest, and certainly contain lessons of morality, but with a smaller cast of characters. Perhaps as a people we need large, complex cast of heroes, villains and everything in between so we can align ourselves with one. This allows us to be a part of something larger than ourselves, but still consider ourselves special and distinct. In the past, cults and sects arose to worship different deities—sometimes the lesser known ones. Today, there are those who extol the virtues of Guy Gardner over Hal Jordan or proudly sport Aura Sing costumes.
And such large pantheons full of heroes, villains and everything in between reinforces the notion that the world is not as clear-cut as good and evil.
With electronic communication making it easier for tales to be told, I have no doubt more and more mythologies will arise, be debated and either grow or fall. Just like in ancient times. My hope is they provide us with comfort and a sense of belonging in such a large world.
The 2nd Toronto SpecFic Colloquium will take place on Saturday October 15, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Avenue). Register now at http://chiseries.ticketleap.com/specfic-colloquium/.
Matt Moore' short fiction has appeared in a variety of print, electronic and audio markets including On Spec, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Cast Macabre and the Tesseracts Anthologies. His short story "Touch the Sky, They Say" has been nominated for this year's 2011 Aurora Award's Best Short Story category. He blogs at mattmoorewrites.com.