What Is a Myth?

In popular usage, the word myth usually refers to a fictitious story or a half-truth. For example, you might see a report in the media that uses myth for some commonly held belief that the reporter wants to prove is untrue. But myths go much deeper than false beliefs or made-up stories.

Scholars of mythology have struggled to agree on an exact definition, one that encompasses everything myth can mean. Myths may deal with questions of origins — who you are and where you came from. They may teach values or attempt to explain natural phenomena. Myths are often intertwined with religion, and some look ahead to the end of time. No wonder scholars have trouble settling on a single definition.

This book focuses on Greek and Roman mythology, but these are not the only myths. Other cultures — such as Japanese, Native American, Indian, Chinese, Norse, African, Celtic, Aboriginal, and Egyptian — have their own myths. Although the stories may be wildly different, all myths share certain characteristics. Looking at these similarities offers a starting point for developing a working definition of myth.

What Makes a Myth?

The myth has several characteristics that set it apart from other kinds of stories. One characteristic is how a myth is created. Unlike most works of fiction, myths are not the creation of a single author. A myth evolves as it's told, over and over again. Scholars explain that the mythology of a culture is created through the oral renderings of its people. Someone tells a story, and then the audience tells it again, and their listeners tell it again — and on it goes.

Because myths are told and retold, passed from one person to the next, there is often more than one version of the same story.

Like many modern religions, classical mythology explores the relationship between humanity and a higher power. Myths often tell stories about direct interaction between people and the gods and goddesses. In classical mythology, those gods and goddesses often act based on emotion, not reason, which makes for some highly dramatic situations.

A myth is a religious story that involves a higher power or entity. The gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings who appear in myths are worshiped or revered. Within the culture that created it, the myth is considered sacred and believed to be true.

A myth may attempt to explain the unknown, such as how the universe or Earth was created. It also attempts to answer the broad, fundamental questions all people ask themselves about the meaning and purpose of human existence.

Any individual myth is part of a larger mythology, a group of stories that belong to one culture. The myths that make up a mythology may be tied together by shared characters (such as the gods and goddesses involved), historical events (such as the Trojan War), or common themes (such as love and sex). A culture's mythology contains socially accepted truths that provide a sense of identity, shared values, and purpose.

These characteristics comprise the essential elements of a myth. In addition, a few other elements — not necessarily essential to all myths — may appear. For example, many myths highlight activities that break the laws of nature: People change into inanimate objects, the dead rise and live again, and so forth. Also, myths often convey different planes of existence and the interaction between them — heaven and hell, for example, or the future and the past.

Legends and Folktales

You may hear the words myth, legend, and folktale used interchangeably. Although each of these words refers to a type of story and all three share similarities, each has its own purpose. As you've just read, a myth evolves in its telling; addresses questions of origins, natural phenomena, or values; has a religious element; and expresses a sense of purpose and identity for its culture. Legends also evolve in the telling, as they are handed down from one generation to the next.

Although a legend is presented as true (relating to a specific person, place, or historical event), there is little or no hard evidence to back it up. Examples of legends include stories about historical figures such as King Arthur or George Washington, many ghost stories, and contemporary “urban legends” — widely circulated stories that are purportedly true and often contain an element of horror. A legend may not have all of the elements of a myth, however.

For example, although the legends of Robin Hood are full of adventure, they have no religious significance and don't attempt to answer any “big picture” questions. A myth can be a legend, but a legend is not necessarily a myth.

What is a fable?

Fables are short fictitious stories that often encompass a supernatural element. A fable is intended to teach a practical lesson — the so-called moral of the story. Fables often use animals to make their point, as in the fable of the tortoise and the hare or the three little pigs.

A folktale, as its name suggests, is a story circulated among the common folk. Folktales are simple timeless stories that convey the customs, traditions, and beliefs of ordinary people. Like myths and legends, folktales are told orally and may change in the telling. Folktales, however, usually do not attempt to explain natural phenomena, and they tend to be pure fiction; that is, they are not founded on a particular person, place, or event.

In fact, folk-tales are often set in a distant time and place, beginning with a phrase such as “Once upon a time in a faraway land. …” The fairy tale, including stories such as “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel,” is a kind of folktale. Like legends, folktales do not have all of the essential elements of myths, so a myth can be a folktale, but a folktale is not necessarily a myth.

  1. Home
  2. Classical Mythology
  3. What Are Myths For?
  4. What Is a Myth?
Visit other About.com sites: