With a mythic artifact, shiny blades, fireworks, and forbidden knowledge may come to mind. Our history is rife with artifacts, from Poseidon’s trident to King Arthur’s Excalibur. These relics have earned a place in history, as they do in the world of fiction.
In stories, artifacts are a trope used to further the plot and/or the characters. Many protagonists acquire a weapon or amulet for their quest. Some play huge roles in the plot—like Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet or the Dragon Balls.
The Role of Artifacts in Storytelling
An artifact is a prop that helps determine the trajectory of the story and character arcs. Strong artifacts usually come with a price, as the consequences of said artifacts are more interesting than the power they grant.
There’s also a whimsical factor, as seen in soft magic systems, where an artifact can provoke suspense and intrigue in the reader.
Some artifacts may be more mundane while evoking memories or emotions in the protagonist. These help the protagonist grow and reflect on the world, rather than inducing direct change.
Most importantly, there are lessons woven into each artifact. Messages that reflect on humanity’s inner struggles. The One Ring could reflect humanity’s greed and attachment, and the Triforce people’s unfulfilled wishes, the emptiness in their hearts.
Artifacts of our Ancestors
We humans evolved from storytelling. It’s ingrained in our DNA, and our aboriginal ancestors made full use of it. Tribes were superstitious, and all things had a connection to the spirit realm. Everything from stones, trees, or even organ meats were deified.
It was this collective faith that gave objects so much influence over the tribe’s culture. With this, a storyteller could weave elaborate tales around these beloved relics.
Modern Artifact Worship
Jump to the modern age. We worship cars, phones, homes, partners—anything that has value to us. That object or person is special because it is “mine” and generates a dopamine rush or the “reward” center of the brain.
One could say tobacco is a type of artifact beloved throughout history. Its use spikes dopamine and makes us feel great. Are certain drugs like tobacco or marijuana sacred, spiritual foods? People of the ancient world thought that way.
Artifacts as Part of Human Legacy
The attachment we humans associate with objects of power is woven into our brains. Our tendency to revere and worship since our ancestral days. It’s not surprising that artifacts still fascinate us so much in fiction.
If we turn inwards, as many philosophers recommend, we may discover the true artifact is our consciousness, left neglected save in fairy tales.
Artifacts are but guideposts, and we shall never tire of them until our own quest is fulfilled. Otherwise, we’ll always need another car, another phone to satiate our hunger.
Artifacts as Guides
The next time we read of Frodo, we can reflect on how the Ring mirrors a part of ourselves. We can understand the role of artifacts, in both real life and stories, all guide us towards inner truth.
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Aspectä rey’lief, fair reader, and thanks for reading!
—Ed R. White