Mythos (Aristotle)

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Mythos is the term used by Aristotle in his Poetics (c. 335 BCE) for the plot of an Athenian tragedy. It is the first of the six elements of tragedy that he gives.

Variations on plot[edit]

“In Poetics 13 and 14, Aristotle turns from the discussion of the three separate parts of the plot to a consideration of the plot as a whole composed of these three parts”.[1] In Poetics 13, Aristotle states his idea that the purpose of tragedy is the arousal of pity and fear. According to Belfiore, even though Aristotle uses one set of criteria for good plots in Poetics 13 and a different set in Poetics 14, “these two accounts are more consistent with one another than is often thought”.[2] Aristotle defines plot in chapter 13 of Poetics as a variation of two different “change types” and three different “character types”. A tragic plot is a movement or change between the end points of good and bad fortune, because of that there are two possible kinds of change: change that begins in good fortune and ends in bad fortune, and change that begins in bad fortune and ends in good fortune. The three possible “character types” are the characters of “decent” people, people “outstanding in excellence and justice”; “evil people”; and the “in-between man”. Of the six logically possible outcomes, Aristotle lists only four. Aristotle contends in Poetics 13 that the most desirable plot involves ‘An in-between person who changes from good to bad fortune, due to hamartia, “error.” Additionally, Aristotle states that the plot in which ‘An evil person changes from bad to good fortune,’ is the most untragic of all because it is not philanthropic, pitiable, or fearful.’ Poetics 13 deals with good and bad combinations of character types and change. Conversely, Poetics 14 discusses good and bad combinations of a pathos with the knowledge or ignorance of the agent. “Ranked from worst to best, by Aristotle, these are the four logical possibilities of pathos:

1. A pathos is about to occur, with knowledge, but does not occur.

2. A pathos occurs, with knowledge.

3. A pathos occurs, in ignorance.

4. A pathos is about to occur, in ignorance, but does not occur”.[3]

The emotional effect peculiar to the tragic action is therefore that of promoting the experience of feelings such as pity and terror, which constitute the ultimate end at which the representation of the mythos aims.[4]

Aristotle's mythos vs. the modern interpretation of plot[edit]

Aristotle’s notion of mythos in Poetics differs from the modern interpretation of plot most prominently in its role in drama. According to Elizabeth Belfiore’s Tragic Pleasures; Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, Aristotle believed that “plot is essential to tragedy, ethos [character] is second to plot”.[5] Aristotle believes that “psychological and ethical considerations are secondary to the events themselves”.[6] Aristotle’s view focuses nearly all of his attention on the events of the plot, which, in turn, leaves the characters to become merely conveyors of situations rather than humans with convictions and motives. According to Meir Sternberg, Aristotle “restricts the well-made epic or play to a ‘whole’ (holos) action, with ‘beginning, middle, and end’ linked throughout by necessary or probable sequence, so that nothing will follow its cutoff point”[7]). Aristotle’s definition of plot states that every event portrayed and every action taken is a logical progression from previous events. Aristotle’s focuses on mythos (plot) as opposed to a focus on ethos (character) or “conflict either in the sense of struggle within a person or in the sense of the clashing of opposed principles”.[8] Aristotle explains that tragedy imitates the actions and lives of human beings rather than human beings themselves.[9] Aristotle concerns himself with the universally logical events of a plot, rather than the specific and often illogical conflicts between characters associated with those events.

German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel believed that tragedy consists of the conflicts between each character’s ethical justification and the resolution toward a greater rational good.[10] Hegel’s viewpoint places character conflict as the central focus of tragedy, in clear contradiction to Aristotle’s plot-centric theory of tragedy. According to Meir Sternberg, modernist dramatic theory endorses the “open ending, and poststructuralism for preaching endless indeterminacy,” which is most noticeable in the modern absurdist theater.[11] In comparison, Sternberg asserts that Aristotle’s viewpoint directs all complex endings and forms of closure into simple cause-and-effect sequences.[12]

As well, many of Aristotle’s conclusions directly oppose those of twentieth century narratologists such as Vladimir Propp, who “reverses Aristotle's theory that ‘tragedy is imitation not of human beings but of actions,’ by writing that stories are about characters who act”.[13] Propp also argues that basic story elements, which he defines as functions, “are in fact ethically colored, either in themselves or because they are defined in terms of a character who has specific ethical qualities”.[14] Propp’s viewpoint directly conflicts with that of Aristotle in Poetics because Aristotle states that drama consists of a logical sequence of events that is not affected by ethical dilemmas.


  1. ^ Belfiore 160
  2. ^ Belfiore 161
  3. ^ Belfiore 171
  4. ^ Rizzoli 11
  5. ^ Belfiore, Elizabeth. "Narratological Plots and Aristotle's Mythos." Arethusa 33 (2000): 37-70.
  6. ^ Belfiore 40
  7. ^ Sternberg, Meir. "Universals of Narrative and Their Cognitivist Fortunes (II)." Poetics Today 24 (2003): 517-638.
  8. ^ Belfiore 64
  9. ^ 1450.a:16-17
  10. ^ Roche, Mark W. "Introduction to Hegel's Theory of Tragedy." PhaenEx 1 (2006): 11-20.
  11. ^ Sternberg 519
  12. ^ Sternberg 524
  13. ^ Belfiore 45
  14. ^ Belfiore 46


  • The Poetics of Aristotle at Project Gutenberg
  • Rizzoli, Renato. Representation and Ideology in Jacobean Drama; The Politics of the Coup De Theatre. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999
  • Aristotle, W. Rhys Roberts, and Ingram Bywater. The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle. New York: The Modern Library, 1984
  • Eggs, Ekkehard. Doxa in Poetry: a Study of Aristotle's Poetics. Poetics Today 23 (2002)
  • Belfiore, Elizabeth S. Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992
  • Belfiore, Elizabeth. Narratological Plots and Aristotle's Mythos. Arethusa 33 (2000)
  • Sternberg, Meir. Universals of Narrative and Their Cognitivist Fortunes (II). Poetics Today 24 (2003)
  • Roche, Mark W. "Introduction to Hegel's Theory of Tragedy". PhaenEx Vol 1, No 2, 2006.