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. 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. Myth can mean 'sacred story', 'traditional narrative' or 'tale of the gods'. A myth can also 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, such as the myth of gremlins invented by aircraft technicians during World War II to avoid apportioning blame. Myths are often therefore stories that are currently understood as being exaggerated or fictitious.
According to Albert A. Anderson, a professor of philosophy, the term mythos appears in the works of Homer and other poets of Homer's era. In these works, the term had several meanings: conversation, narrative, speech, story, tale, and word. Like the related term logos, mythos expresses whatever can be delivered in the form of words. Anderson contrasts the two terms with ergon, a Greek term for action, deed, and work.
The term mythos lacks an explicit distinction between true or false narratives.
In the context of the Theatre of ancient Greece, the term mythos referred to the myth, the narrative, the plot, and the story of a theatrical play. According to David Wiles, the Greek term mythos in this era covered an entire spectrum of different meanings, from undeniable falsehoods to stories with religious and symbolic significance.
According to philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), the spirit of a theatrical play was its mythos. The term mythos was also used for the source material of Greek tragedy. The tragedians of the era could draw inspiration from Greek mythology, a body of "traditional storylines" which concerned gods and heroes. David Wiles observes that modern conceptions about Greek tragedy can be misleading. It is commonly thought that the ancient audience members were already familiar with the mythos behind a play, and could predict the outcome of the play. However, the Greek dramatists were not expected to faithfully reproduce traditional myths when adapting them for the stage. They were instead recreating the myths and producing new versions. Storytellers like Euripides (c. 480-406 BC) relied on suspense to excite their audiences. In one of his works, Merope attempts to kill her son's murderer with an axe, unaware that the man in question is actually her son. According to an ancient description of audience reactions to this work, the audience members were genuinely unsure of whether she would commit filicide or she will be stopped in time. They rose to their feet in terror and caused an uproar.
David Wiles points that the traditional mythos of Ancient Greece, was primarily a part of its oral tradition. The Greeks of this era were a literate culture, but produced no sacred texts. There were no definitive or authoritative versions of myths recorded in texts and preserved forever in an unchanging form. Instead multiple variants of myths were in circulation. These variants were adapted into songs, dances, poetry, and visual art. Performers of myths could freely reshape their source material for a new work, adapting it to the needs of a new audience or in response to a new situation.
Children in Ancient Greece were familiar with traditional myths from an early age. Based on the writings of philosopher Plato (c. 428-347 BC), mothers and nursemaids narrated myths and stories to the children in their charge. These women were tasked with rearing children. Apparently they had to find ways to stimulate the children's language skills and imaginations. They lacked access to children's literature or television, so the solution was to turn to storytelling. David Wiles describes them as a repository of mythological lore.
Bruce Lincoln has called attention to the apparent meaning of the terms mythos and logos in the works of Hesiod. In Theogony, Hesiod attributes to the Muses the ability to both proclaim truths and narrate plausible falsehoods (falsehoods which seem like real things). The verb used for narrating the falsehoods in the text is legein, which is etymologically associated with logos. There are two variants in the manuscript tradition for the verb used to proclaim truths. One variant uses gerusasthai, the other mythesasthai. The latter is a form of the verb mytheomai (to speak, to tell), which is etymologically associated with mythos. In the Works and Days, Hesiod describes his dispute with his brother Perses. He also announces to his readers his intention to tell true things to his brother. The verb he uses for telling the truth is mythesaimen, another form of mytheomai.
Lincoln draws the conclusion that Hesiod associated the "speech of mythos" (as Lincoln calls it) with telling the truth. While he associated the "speech of logos" with telling lies, and hiding one's true thoughts (dissimulation). This conclusion is strengthened by the use of the plural term logoi (the plural form of logos) elsewhere in Hesiod's works. Three times the term is associated with the term "seductive" and three times with the term "falsehoods". In his genealogy of the gods, Hesiod lists logoi among the children of Eris, the goddess personifying strife. Eris' children are ominous figures, which personify various physical and verbal forms of conflict.
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.
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.
- Anderson, Albert A. (2004), "Mythos, Logos, and Telos: How to Regain the Love of Wisdom", in Anderson, Albert A.; Hicks, Steven V.; Witkowski, Lech, Mythos and Logos: How to Regain the Love of Wisdom, Rodopi, ISBN 978-9042010208
- Lincoln, Bruce (1999), "The Prehistory of Mythos and Logos", Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226482026
- Wiles, David (2000), "Myth", Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521648578
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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.
- Kirk, p. 8; "myth", Encyclopædia Britannica
- "myth". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. 2016.
- Anderson (2004), p. 61
- Wiles (2000), p. 5-6
- Wiles (2000), p. 12
- Lincoln (1999), p. 3-5
- "Define Mythography at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
- Howells, Richard (1999). The Myth of the Titanic. Macmillan.
- Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, pp. 23, 162.