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Myth and Legend from Ancient Times to the Space Age

In common parlance, a myth is a fiction -- something which is untrue. Scholars of mythology define myth differently: a myth is a special kind of story which tries to interpret some aspect of the world around us. Robert W. Brockway, in his book Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse concisely summarizes a number of different scholarly ideas about the meaning of myth as follows:

A collective definition of myth composed of many theories might be framed by the following paraphrase:

Myths are stories, usually, about gods and other supernatural beings (Frye). They are often stories of origins, how the world and everything in it came to be in illo tempore (Eliade). They are usually strongly structured and and their meaning is only discerned by linguistic analysis (Lévi-Strauss). Sometimes they are public dreams which, like private dreams, emerge from the unconscious mind (Freud). Indeed, they often reveal the archetypes of the collective unconscious (Jung). They are symbolic and metaphorical (Cassirer). They orient people to the metaphysical dimension, explain the origins and nature of the cosmos, validate social issues, and, on the psychological plane, address themselves to the innermost depths of the psyche (Campbell). Some of them are explanatory, being prescientific attempts to interpret the natural world (Frazer). As such, they are usually functional and are the science of primitive peoples (Malinowski). Often, they are enacted in rituals (Hooke). Religious myths are sacred histories (Eliade), and distinguished from the profane (Durkheim). But, being semiotic expressions (Saussure), they are a "disease of language" (Müller). They are both individual and social in scope, but they are first and foremost stories (Kirk).

The terms legend and folktale are sometimes used interchangeably with myth. Technically, however, these are not the same. How should we distinguish them? Donna Rosenberg, in her book Folklore, Myth, and Legends: A World Perspective, offers some useful guidelines:

A myth is a sacred story from the past. It may explain the origin of the universe and of life, or it may express its culture's moral values in human terms. Myths concern the powers who control the human world and the relationship between those powers and human beings. Although myths are religious in their origin and function, they may also be the earliest form of history, science, or philosophy...

A folktale is a story that, in its plot, is pure fiction and that has no particular location in either time or space. However, despite its elements of fantasy, a folktale is actually a symbolic way of presenting the different means by which human beings cope with the world in which they live. Folktales concern people -- either royalty or common folk -- or animals who speak and act like people...

A legend is a story from the past about a subject that was, or is believed to have been, historical. Legends concern people, places, and events. Usually, the subject is a saint, a king, a hero, a famous person, or a war. A legend is always associated with a particular place and a particular time in history.

My interest in mythology intertwines with my interests in astronomy, archaeology, and catastrophism. My nascent annotated bibliography for catastrophism includes a section on mythology and religion in which I list works which I've found useful in the study of mythology, religion, and folklore. You may also want to check my pages on Astrology, Psychic Stuff, and Skepticism and Religion for related material.

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Last modified by pib on December 15, 1996.