Myths and legends are the sacred narratives of a culture. Like music, they are a human universal. Most myths have ancient origins and are transposed across generations by spoken word or sacred writings. Seldom are they ascribed to a single author. These stories blend religion with history, literature and science. They are the oldest recorded stories in the world.
Myths explain the way the world is through story. Carrying a deeper ‘spiritual truth’, they often deal with the origins of the universe, the deeds of supernatural beings and heroic individuals. Myths encapsulate a culture’s collective values and heritage; they both inform and reflect their worldview. Myths create cohesion and common values across a society and people who have never met.
Yuval Noah Harari, author of ‘Sapiens’:
Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.
Finnish Folklorist Lauri Honko:
Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature, and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behaviour to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.
‘Mythology’ refers to a culture’s collective body of myths and legends. The word myth comes from the Greek ‘mythos’, meaning story.
Examples of Myth:
- The Osiris Myth
- The Great Flood
- The Ramayana
In modern English, ‘myth’ is sometimes used to describe something commonly believed but untrue. This is not the scholarly definition, however. Experts seldom speculate whether a particular myth is empirically ‘true’ or not. A sacred narrative is the primary definition of a myth.
Legends, as defined by Oxford Dictionary, are ‘traditional [stories] sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated.’ Typically, they seem more credible than myths and often focus on heroic or saintly human characters instead of divinities.
Examples of Legends:
- The Trojan War
- King Arthur and the Holy Grail
- El Dorado
Folk Tales are traditional tales from a particular culture. Unlike myths and legends, folk tales are not religious and focus on ordinary people or magical creatures rather than deities and heroes. While high literature, and epic poetry is often recorded by a culture’s elite, folk tales spring from the oral tradition of the common people.
Examples of Folk Tales:
- Androcles and the Lion
- Brothers Grimms’ Fairy tales
- The One Thousand and One Nights
Because myths, legends and folk tales are primarily oral and are retold by different peoples, the same story can have multiple versions, with names and key details varying. Through that measure, they would constantly improve. Most myths and legends do not have an official version.
Most of these traditional stories are thousands of years old. The staying power of myths is a testament to their value.
Sources: Lauri Honko – the Problem of Defining Myth, Oxford Dictionary, Philip Wilkinson – Myths and Legends, Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens