What Is a Myth?

Henry Gaudet

A myth is a fictional story told to explain some aspect of existence. Worldwide, people have created myths in an attempt to understand the mysteries of the world. Regardless of origin, myths share certain common features such as religious and supernatural elements, connection to a larger collection of stories, and shared authorship.

Constellations, such as the one that depicts Orion the Hunter, inspired many ancient myths.
Constellations, such as the one that depicts Orion the Hunter, inspired many ancient myths.

For prehistoric and ancient civilizations, the world could be a confusing, mysterious and frightening place. They used myth and storytelling as a way of making sense of natural phenomena. Myths have played an important role in explaining the unknown, including the creation of the world, the passing of the seasons, and the shape of a constellation.

Greek mythology includes elements of fate and morality.
Greek mythology includes elements of fate and morality.

Myths often have something to say about the human experience as well. Morality, cultural values, and fatal flaws are all well represented in mythology. In these stories, heroes who display courage, wit and virtue valued by that culture typically triumph over evil. Conversely, those who give in to greed, vanity or weaknesses often meet a darker fate.

Religion and the supernatural are strongly represented in mythology as well. In a pre-scientific world, mythmakers turned to magic and divine power to explain most phenomena. Aspects of the natural world and of human nature may be given form and voice. Gods responsible for some aspect of nature, brave heroes facing dangerous monsters, magical creatures and fantastic places all figure prominently in myths.

High adventure and high drama play an important role. It stands to reason that a myth must be memorable if it is to be passed on. Many mythologies were initially passed on orally, with some only recorded when other cultures collected the stories. These stories often had the opportunity to grow in the telling.

Some cultures viewed their myths as fiction, but many saw the tales as literal, historically accurate fact. In these cases, tales had to fit together to maintain beliefs. An intricate world view was sometimes created through a series of myths throughout a culture.

Relationships were established between supernatural beings in the pantheon, according to some myths. Family ties, love triangles, feuds, and rivalries are all part of the mythological stories that were handed down from generation to generation. These told the tales of debts, promises, curses and blessings as well as teaching valuable life lessons to a society or culture.

Another distinguishing feature of a myth is the lack of a single identifiable author. Myths belong to the culture as a whole, frequently evolving with the retelling. Stories linked to a single creator, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, cannot be accurately classified as myths, despite their focus on figures and elements of Greek mythology.

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