Move over, Mythbusters. The folklore scholar’s definition of myth is more inclusive, and of interest to atheists and religious believers alike.
Myth is a genre of folk narrative, or stories/narratives that are also folklore (being informally-transmitted rather than institutional facets of culture). In a nutshell, myths are sacred narratives about the creation of the world.
There’s a long history of people associating myths with falsehoods. William Bascom, who has written pioneering scholarship distinguishing between the different genres of folk narrative, notes:
An extreme expression of this view is to be seen in the proceedings of the Fourteenth Conference of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute for Social Research, entitled Myth in Modern Africa (1960), where myth is equated with unverifiable belief. In the usage of folklorists for over a century, myths are not simply beliefs; they are prose narratives (13).
Thus “myth” has had multiple meanings for decades now, if not longer, and it can be used derogatively, weaponizing people’s beliefs against them. That’s not the the goal here.
It’s important to note that myths are distinct from legends. Both are told as though true in the communities where they’re believed, and both are narrated in the third person (as opposed to personal narratives, which are told in the first person). However, myths are set back at the creation of the world and the time shortly thereafter, whereas legends occur in time that we’d count as human history. Of course there might be some fuzzy territory, and different cultures define folklore genres differently; it’d be Eurocentric to assume that every culture’s narratives follow our definitional patterns.
For both myths and legends, if the narrative accounts for the specific origins of something still in existence today (such as animals, geography, or customs), they’re called explanatory or etiological narratives. One example of an etiological myth would be this Philippine myth about how the moon and stars came to be, while an etiological legend might be about the origins of the will-o’-the-wisp.
My folklore teacher at UC Berkeley, Alan Dundes, would explain the relationship of myths and legend by drawing an hourglass on the board, and then drawing a horizontal line through its middle. The line represents the beginning of human history, and so the bottom half of the hour glass represents time that is prehistorical and mythical in nature, and the top half represents historical time, which would be recounted in legends. Folktales (soon to have their own #FolkloreThursday post) take place outside the hourglass, in the realm of fiction.
Here are some examples of myths:
- The Book of Genesis, from the creation of the earth through Adam and Eve
- The earth-diver creation myth found in various Native American tribes, such as the Blackfoot
- The Norse creation myth as related in The Prose Edda
As Dundes sums up the trends in myth scholarship, we can see an increasing interest in understanding myths in their cultural contexts:
While nineteenth-century thinkers were content to muse about myths from the safety and comfort of their library armchairs, twentieth-century scholars often made a point of going into the field to experience firsthand the recitations of myth and their impact on living peoples. The substantial increase in the number of myths recorded from all over the world sparked new interest in studying the nature of myth (3).
We’ve seen progress from the types of theories proposing that mythical beings are based on real people (called euhemerism after the ancient philosopher Euhemerus who first proposed the idea) to theories attempting to account for the relationship between myth and ritual, or between solar myths and the minds of “primitive” people. There are psychoanalytic and structuralist and feminist interpretations of myth. At their core, many of their methods grapple with the question of how much to interpret myth literally or directly, and how much to interpret it symbolically. But however you slice it, myth is, at its crux, a charter for society, as famously stated by pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (in Dundes, 193-206). As long as humans are telling stories about our origins, we’ll also come up with ways to interpret them.
One of the major functions of myth is to validate social norms, to explain why the world is the way it is, to rationalize the social relationships and power dynamics of a given society. This is why it’s essential to connect myths to their tellers, to not take them out of context and treat them like literary texts and nothing else (though obviously studying myths in order to better grasp literary allusions is a worthwhile pursuit). On some level, myth reflects culture, and while there’s no universally valid way to explain what precisely that relationship is, keeping it in mind can help guide us as we attempt to understand myth’s many meanings.
Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, ed. Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 5-29.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].
Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.