MythologyWhat's a...

What’s a Myth?

A Brief Definition of “Myth” as a Concept

In common parlance, the word ‘myth’ has a negative connotation, often implying something not only false but also dangerous. Referring to something as a myth is almost a value-judgment in and of itself in English.  It’s something that endures despite the truth being known. It can be something positive, but usually is not. But whether positive or negative, our common definitions are much too basic, and miss key aspects of the concept of myth.

It’s not as straightforward as “something fake”. In The World of Myth, Leeming describes myths as “stories by means of which our forefathers were able to assimilate the mysteries that occurred around and with them”(3). But more than simply being stories, he goes on to state that “in its explanatory or etiological aspect myth is also a form of history, philosophy, theology, or science. Myths helped early societies understand such phenomena as the movement of the sun across the sky and the changing of seasons…”(4). And that’s really what a myth is. It’s not just a narrative; it’s something explanatory.  It’s a story that tells some supposed fact about the world. In Myth and Knowing McClure states that “myths are ancient narratives that attempt to answer the enduring and fundamental human questions”(1).

More than being stories, myths are also autobiography. They help to define who people are. Whether true or not is irrelevant. It’s less about what they say and more about what they do. Puhvel offers a more cerebral definition, stating “In myth are expressed the thought patterns by which a group formulates self-cognition and self-realization, attains self-knowledge and self-confidence, explains its own source and being and that of its surroundings, and sometimes tries to chat its destiny.”(2)

That’s all well and good but, without the sociological jargon, what IS a myth? It’s a story that explains something. It answers the major questions of WHY some aspect of the world Is the way it is and WHO caused it. They are unique to a group, usually confined to a geographical area and are foundational to how that group formed its culture, to that groups AS a group. They can focus on the creation of the world, the creation of humans, the weather, sunrise/sunset, or even something as simple as why a flower is a certain color. The defining characteristic is that they explain something. They aren’t told and passed on just for fun. They’re meant to impart a cultural lesson or explain the existence of something.

References

Leonard S. and McClure M. (2003). Myth and Knowing. McGraw Hill

Leeming, David.(1991). The World of Myth. Oxford University Press

Pahvel, Jaan (1989). Comparative Mythology. Princeton University Press

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