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What Is the Difference Between Mythology and Folklore?

Spirits are commonly found in folklore stories.
Folklore, mythology, and religion are indigenous to many cultures.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Images By: Vitalez, Smithsonian Institution
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2014
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The difference between mythology and folklore can be quite subtle, and the terms are often used interchangeably by both laypeople and established scholars. One common method that may be used to differentiate between the two terms, however, is for someone to consider the scope of a story and use this to distinguish between mythology and folklore. Mythology usually refers to something extremely grand in scale and scope, often covering a wide geographical range and thousands of years. Folklore, however, is usually smaller in scale and is often thought of as the mythology of common people, though these stories can be just as well known.

Both mythology and folklore share many ideas and aspects, though these terms can be used to refer to fairly different concepts. The scale and scope of the stories told in these types of systems are often used to differentiate them. A story’s scale does not necessarily refer to the number of people aware of it, but rather to the nature of the story itself and the types of events and characters found within it. This scale can change over time, however, and so a transition can potentially occur between mythology and folklore.

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Mythology is typically considered to have a much larger scale than folklore, and to involve titanic events and characters. A story told about the creation of the universe or how the world was made is usually referred to as mythology. Similarly, the characters in mythology are often larger and more impossible figures than characters commonly found in folklore. Both mythology and folklore involve fictional stories and characters, but the people in myths are often divine or immortal beings who fight fantastical monsters and are involved in events that shape the very nature of the world.

In contrast, folklore usually arises on a smaller scale and involves more intimate surroundings, events, and characters. Folklore stories usually involve local surroundings and events, such as an explanation for how a nearby forest was created or the birth of a king who once lived in a particular region. The types of adventures and deeds performed by these characters are also frequently smaller in scale, such as a battle that gives a local mountain its name or types of local fantastical creatures. This distinction between mythology and folklore can be blurry at times, however, such as in instances in which smaller tales become larger ones, like the development of famous fairy tales or the Arthurian legend.

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anon328789
Post 3

Myths are also specifically a narrative form of folklore, while the umbrella term "folklore" encompasses material culture, custom, and belief as well as narratives.

Mor
Post 2

@croydon - I actually think it's a shame that more people don't explore the myths and folklore of their own country. I do remember hearing something about how when Tolkien was writing Lord of the Rings, he was hoping to invent something like a mythology for the British Isles.

They seem to be the kind of place that has lots and lots of folklore, when you think about things like the fair folk and selkies and so forth. But he wasn't satisfied with any grand mythologies and that was what he was trying to explore with the copious notes and background history he wrote while inventing it.

croydon
Post 1

It's interesting how you can instinctively tell the difference between the two even though there isn't really a fine delineating line between them. Take the Arthurian legends mentioned in the article. I would call some of those close to mythology now, rather than folklore, and others were much more obviously folklore.

It would be difficult to call the Holy Grail, for example, anything except a myth considering how large and epic its connotations and use in popular fiction has been. But there are other legends which concern the actions of individual knights and other characters which seem to be squarely in the realm of folklore.

On the other hand, when you think about how widespread the tale of Red Riding Hood is, you'd think it had passed into myth, but I think most people would still think of it as folklore.

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