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What Is Myth?


Lee Lawrie's Atlas Statue In Front Of The International Building, Rockefeller Center, NYC, New York, United States
Wayne Fogden/ Photolibrary/ Getty Images
Question: What Is Myth?
Although it may seem obvious, there is no single, simple answer. Here are some of the common ideas and their short-comings. Following these is a look at what folklorists and psychologists/psychoanalysts take the term to mean. Finally, there is a working definition you may find useful.

If It's a Silly Story, It Could Be a Myth

Everyone knows what a myth is, right? It's a story featuring centaurs, flying pigs or horses, or return trips to the Land of the Dead or Underworld. You find myths in the following places:

and the lesser known

"Obviously," you might argue, a myth is a ridiculous story no one really believes. Maybe some time, long ago, there were people naive enough to have believed in it, but now we know better.

Once you start looking carefully at that so-called definition, it falls apart.

Think about your own firmly held beliefs.

Perhaps you believe a deity spoke to a man through a burning bush (the story of Moses in the Hebrew Bible).
Maybe he performed a miracle to make a tiny amount of food feed a multitude (New Testament).

How would you feel if someone labeled them as myths? You'd probably argue -- and very defensively -- they aren't myths. You might admit you can't prove them to unbelievers, but the stories simply aren't as fantastic as myth (said with tones indicating disparagement). Vehemence of denial doesn't prove one way or another that something is or is not a myth, but you could be right.

The story of Pandora's box is said to be a myth, but what makes that any different from:

Biblical Myths: The Biblical story of Noah's Ark is not necessarily considered a myth by a religious Jew or Christian.

Plato The parable of Atlantis is stoutly defended as non-myth by those who believe in Atlantis.

British Myths: How about the legend of Robin Hood or King Arthur?

American Myth: Even the disproved legend about the axing of a cherry tree by the perennially truth-telling George Washington may count as a myth.

The word myth is used in many contexts, but it doesn't seem to have a single meaning. When discussing myth with others, you should determine what they mean in order to have a common frame of reference and avoid hurting someone's feelings (unless, of course, you don't care).

Myth Could Be Part of a Religion You Don't Believe in

Here is one philosopher's definition of myth that ties it in with religion:

A myth is a religion in which no one any longer believes.
Source: James Kern Feibleman, philosopher and psychiatrist (1904-1987)

As alluded to above, what is myth for one group is truth and part of the cultural identity for another. Myths are stories shared by a group, that are a part of that group's cultural identity -- just like family traditions.

Most families would be offended to hear their stories described as myths (or lies and tall tales, which probably fit them better than myth because a family is generally considered smaller than a cultural group). Myth can also be used as a synonym for a despised religious dogma or, as the quotation above says, a religion in which no one any longer believes.

Experts Define Myth

Putting a value on myth doesn't help matters. Negative and positive descriptions of the content of myth are not definitions and don't even explain very much. Many have tried to define myth, with only limited success. Let's look at an array of definitions from leading philosophers, psychoanalysts, and other thinkers to see how complicated the seemingly simple term myth actually is:

  • Myths are Origins
    Myths are often stories of origins, how the world and everything in it came to be in illo tempore. - Eliade.
  • Myths are Dreams
    Sometimes myths are public dreams which, like private dreams, emerge from the unconscious mind. - Freud.
  • Myths are Archetypes
    Indeed, myths often reveal the archetypes of the collective unconscious. - Jung.
  • Myths are Metaphysical
    Myths orient people to the metaphysical dimension, explain the origins and nature of the cosmos, validate social issues, and, on the psychological plane, address themselves to the innermost depths of the psyche. - Campbell.
  • Myths are Proto-Scientific
    Some myths are explanatory, being pre-scientific attempts to interpret the natural world. - Frazer.
  • Myths are Sacred histories
    Religious myths are sacred histories. - Eliade.
  • Myths are Stories
    Myths are both individual and social in scope, but they are first and foremost stories. - Kirk.

A Useful Working Definition of Myth

From the above learned definitions, we can see that myths are important stories. Maybe people believe them. Maybe they don't. Their truth value isn't at issue. Approaching, but not quite reaching an adequate, thorough definition of myth is the following:

"Myths are stories told by people about people: where they come from, how they handle major disasters, how they cope with what they must and how everything will end. If that isn't everything what else is there?"
Thank you, Robert O'Connell, for this working definition of myth.

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