To the modern reader, the stories that make up the mythology and folklore of ancient cultures are largely supernatural. Whether the storytellers originally responsible for composing, adding to, and passing on these stories necessarily thought in terms of “natural” and “supernatural” is debatable, yet the existence of such classical works as Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1867) by Ovid suggests that such a distinction eventually became clear. Ovid’s stories in verse are based upon Latin mythology and deal with transformations—metamorphoses—of humans into plants and animals, a theme destined to become common in what came to be recognized as supernatural literature.
Much later collections in the same general vein include Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708). Drawn from much earlier sources in Persia and Arabia, this mammoth collection has been the inspiration for innumerable other works and was translated in its most complete English version (1885-1886) by explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton. Rivaling The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments in scope and surpassing them in influence in the Western world are the tales that make up the cycle about the (perhaps) legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
The stories, characters, and themes preserved in these and many other collections have proven to be a treasure trove for later writers, although science and rationalism have frequently consigned them to a kind of literary underground. Yet the emotions they deal with—from fear of death on one hand to religious ecstasy on the other—have continued to animate writers and readers alike. In mid-eighteenth century England such emotions would erupt in a most memorable way.