Definition of Myth
A myth is a story that comes from an ancient culture and often includes supernatural elements. These elements may be anything from talking animals to people with superhuman powers to the interference of gods and goddesses in human affairs. Myths traditionally were created to explain the origins of the world or of belief systems, practices, or natural occurrences in the location of that culture. Most myths are set in a time before recorded history or exist somehow outside of time (e.g., “once upon a time” is a frequent opening line for myths in that it indicates a distant past without specifying when that past could have occurred). Though myths do not necessarily contain any “truth,” they often display the biases and values of the culture from which the myth came.
The word myth comes from the Greek word μῦθος (mythos), which means “story.” Due to the fact that there are aspects of myths that are hard to believe, the definition of myth has also grown to incorporate statements or belief systems that are not true (e.g., the myth of the American dream).
Difference Between Myth and Legend
There is much overlap between stories that can be considered myths and those that are legends. The main distinction is that a legend is a semi-true story that is based at least partially in real historical events. Legends are passed down from generation to generation, and, in the process, events may become distorted, exaggerated, and/or made supernatural. Myths are similar in that they are passed down from one generation to the next, but are not necessarily based in historical events. In a myth, the symbolism of the events in the story is more important than the events themselves.
Common Examples of Myth
There are many myths that are popular enough to be a part of cultural knowledge. Here are some examples of myths that are well-known:
- Icarus flying too close to the sun until his wax wings melted and he crashed into the sea.
- The Tower of Babel being created that led to the proliferation of different languages among humans.
- A great flood wiping all most or all of the humans at the time (prevalent in creation myths from around the world).
Significance of Myth in Literature
Most cultures had origin myths, which is to say, an explanatory story for how the world was formed, and how humans came into being. These are called either “creation myths” or “cosmogonical myths.” Many myths that formed alongside early civilizations have survived for thousands of years and remained a part of different cultural consciousnesses, informing our habits and understanding of morals and values. Myths are also very popular to be rewritten by authors over the centuries, who either choose to update them or reimagine the original story in a different way. Some authors also create their own sense of mythology in their writing in order to make their works of literature seem that much more profound and timeless.
Examples of Myth in Literature
My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.
(Metamorphoses by Ovid)
Ovid’s masterpiece Metamorphoses is an excellent example of myth and the way that Ancient Greek writers believed in the power of myth. He chronicles the mythological origin of the world up to the time of Julius Caesar. The above excerpt is the opening stanza of the first poem, and already we can see the presence of the supernatural in the poet’s proclamation that the gods “were the source of these bodies becoming other bodies.” There is an interesting mixture of historical fact and myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that represents the way that Ancient Greeks took myths to be true.
So times were pleasant for the people there
Until finally one, a fiend out of Hell,
Began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
And the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
In misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed
And condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
Because the Almighty made him anathema
And out of the curse of his exile there sprang
Ogres and elves and evil phantoms
And the giants too who strove with God
Time and again until He gave them their final reward.
(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)
The Old English poem Beowulf mixes the Biblical story of Cain and Abel with a modern present danger for the people who were listening to and telling the store of Grendel. Grendel is a mythological creature, “a fiend out of Hell,” who terrorizes the Anglo-Saxons in what is present-day Scandinavia. This is an interesting myth example that combines a much older story with a newer (at the time) mythological being.
THESEUS: [Reads] ‘The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung
By an Athenian eunuch to the harp.’
We’ll none of that: that have I told my love,
In glory of my kinsman Hercules.
[Reads] ’The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals,
Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage.’
That is an old device; and it was play’d
When I from Thebes came last a conqueror.
[Reads] ’The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary.’
That is some satire, keen and critical,
Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.
[Reads] ’A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare had a deep knowledge of Greek mythology, and there are numerous allusion examples to Greek figures and stories in myth. In his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream the character of Theseus shares a name with a Greek mythological figure. In this scene, Theseus is choosing which play he wants a nomadic theater company to perform; each scene has its origins in Greek mythology. There are clear allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the stories retold, but also in the theme of transformation that runs throughout Shakespeare’s play.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)
Gabriel García Márquez’s twentieth-century novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is an example of a contemporary author creating myths of his own in order to give more credence to the world in his novel. There are numerous supernatural events that occur in this novel, and García Márquez sets up expectations of the supernatural and mythological by starting his novel with a mini origin story. The town of Macondo somehow exists in such a recent world that “many things lacked names.” The mythological atmosphere of the first paragraph of the novel continues to influence the rest of the narrative.
Test Your Knowledge of Myth
1. Which of the following statements is the best myth definition?
A. A traditional story that often explains how things came to be, whether that’s a people, cultural practice, or belief system.
B. A story which has absolutely no truth in it.
C. A retelling of historical events in a supernatural way.
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2. Which of the following statements explains the difference between myths and legends?
A. Legends never contain supernatural elements, while myths always do.
B. Legends are based at least partly on some historical event, while myths do not necessarily have any historical basis.
C. Legends are passed down through the generations, while myths generally die out when a culture changes.
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3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Myths can no longer be created by contemporary authors.
B. People who told myths didn’t believe that they were actually true.
C. Myths from thousands of years ago are still told and retold and have cultural relevance.
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