Myths & Legends: The origins of fantasy
From belief in gods and monsters to tapping into our basic emotions, artists have long plundered the rich tales handed down the generations
Made from a mixture of ochre, minerals and vegetable dyes, the rich reds, blues, greens, yellows and blacks are still vivid on the walls of The House of the Vettii. In the doomed town of Pompeii, frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, the colourful mythological paintings live on: symbolic tales of a fighting Heracles, Pentheus torn asunder by his mother Agave, the punishment of the kin-killer Ixion turning forever on a fiery wheel. evoking creatures and elements,” says illustrator John Howe. “Now we take them for granted. They’re used, abused, manipulated, commercialised, bought and sold like other commodities. We associate them with immaturity. We believe serious imagery deals with life, not with imagined things. But fantasy art is the inheritor of that original magic, language and truth. Fantasy is now the realm of archetype.”
Fantasy’s rich heritage is often overlooked. Canadian artist, writer and art
I think images were once magic, were language, the earliest letters evoking creatures and elements
The two wealthy merchant brothers who lived in the house were not the first to find intrigue and comfort in myths and legends. Bronze Age Sumerians put down their creation myth in The Epic of Gilgamesh some 2,000 years earlier. People have been making sense out of life’s mysteries through wondrous stories and beautiful images ever since. These tall tales are nothing less than people’s first attempts at religion, philosophy and comprehending human nature. They are also the origin of modern-day fantasy.
“I like to think that images were once magic, were language, the earliest letters historian Charles Moffat has a pretty good idea why. “Fantasy is seen as lowbrow because people treat the subject matter as a meter for what they consider to be quality art,” he says, “even though its broad spectrum includes mythology.” For Charles, fantasy’s Year Zero can be traced back to a popular screen-printing patent in 1907, spelling out future inexpensive reproduction of images and text. But there’s always more to a legend than a single point of view.
Cernunnos John Howe may be best known for his Middle-earth art, but he has an equal passion for Celtic myth,
including this antlered god.
Andromeda In 1869 Edward Poynter
painted the beautiful Andromeda, just before she’s rescued by Perseus.