Greco-Roman mythology does not have the same hierarchic relationships. The term canon is used of mythology (Edmunds 1990, 4–5). However, canon does not mean that there were fixed versions of myths, or that there was a collection of text whose contents was to be respected in the production of further texts. No ancient author is treated by other ancient authors in the same way that fan fic treats its canonical texts, not even Homer (though some modern commentators in the field of classics can get snooty about changes to canon made by modern creators, thus denying Wolfgang Petersen license allowed to Euripides or Ovid). Their texts were composed by emphasizing or deemphasizing details of other versions that were in circulation, or inventing new details. No one, not even Homer, had access to “original” versions in the way that fan fic authors can read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story or watch the pilot episode of Star Trek.
Keen, T. (2016). Are fan fiction and mythology really the same?. Transformative Works and Cultures, 21.
This short piece examines the similarities and differences between classical mythology and fanfiction. There are certainly similarities between how classical myths were written, circulated and consumed, and how fanfiction works: multiple authors playing within a shared setting, with a shared set of characters. But there are, Keen argues, also major differences. Fanfiction is always in a hierarchical relationship with the canon work it is based on, but there was no real “canon” in that sense in classical mythology. Where Homer and colleagues got to tell and retell the central narratives of their material, fanfiction often plays on the sidelines, picking up minor characters, non-canon relationships, missing scenes or outright AUs. And of course there is the issue of cultural penetration: to be considered a well-educated citizen of the classical world, a knowledge of the mythology was a must. Fanfiction, on the other hand, even with the public exposure it has seen over the last few years, remains marginal at best.
Now, it’s certainly possible to construct the exact opposite argument here too. Are we comparing a literary form in its infancy with a body of work spanning over half a millennium? Might fanfiction, given that kind of time, transcend its relationship with canon, become the central narrative and achieve the cultural penetration that classical mythology had? Are we maybe even looking at the wrong bits of the classical canon, the bits that survived and therefore were dominant by definition? Those are all fun things to speculate about (and I am not a Classicist). But this is a very accessible short essay, and a great entry point to the Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work.