A myth is any traditional story consisting of events that are ostensibly historical, though often supernatural, explaining the origins of a cultural practice or natural phenomenon. Myths are often stories that are currently understood as being exaggerated or fictitious. The word "myth" is derived from the Greek word mythos (μῦθος), which simply means "story". Mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. A myth also can be a story to explain why something exists.
Human cultures usually include a cosmogonical or creation myth, concerning the origins of the world, or how the world came to exist. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals and plants. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded time or beginning of the critical history. A myth can be a story involving symbols that are capable of multiple meanings.
A myth is a sacred narrative because it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it. Myths also contribute to and express a culture's systems of thought and values.
The term is common in the academic fields of mythology, mythography or folkloristics. Use of the term by scholars has no implication for the truth or falsity of the myth. While popular usage interchangeably employs the terms legend, fiction, fairy tale, folklore, fable and urban legend, each has a distinct meaning in academia.
In popular use, a myth can be a collectively held belief that has no basis in fact. This usage, which is often pejorative, arose from labeling the religious myths and beliefs of other cultures as incorrect, but it has spread to cover non-religious beliefs as well. Because of this popular and subjective word usage, many people take offense when the narratives they believe to be true are called myths.
To the source culture a myth by definition is "true", in that it embodies beliefs, concepts and ways of questioning to make sense of the world.
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- "The Myth of Io.". The Walters Art Museum.
- For more information on this panel, please see Zeri catalogue number 64, pp. 100-101
- Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1995. p. 794.
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- Howells, Richard (1999). The Myth of the Titanic. Macmillan.
- Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, pp. 23, 162.