Frequently Asked Questions about Mythology
1.  What is a myth?

There are many ways of thinking about myths, but I like best the following definition from the great Swiss scholar of Greek religion, Walter Burkert:  "Myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance" (Structure 23).  This definition may sound vague, so let's develop it:

a traditional tale:  Myths develop over many years as part of a vibrant cultural tradition.  Myths originate in cultures without writing (called oral cultures), and they are passed down by word of mouth. Since they are traditional, myths are created by a collective cultural process and not by one author. Moreover, myths must be tales, or stories, and not simply religious concepts or practices.

with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance:  Myths may refer, however, to religious concepts or practices like rituals, to natural events like the seasons or floods, to hidden psychological archetypes, to historical, political, or legendary events like the deeds of a famous hero, to cosmological patterns, to the folklore of a particular culture, or to universal folktale patterns. For some more interesting attempts to define myth, read "Definitions of Myth."

2.  Are myths true or false?

This is a tricky question to answer, but in general, myths are metaphorically and symbolically true, but factually and literally false. When people believe that a myth is literally true, they can be said to have a certain kind of religious belief.  In any case, in this class we will interpret and analyze myth stories as if they were fictional. We will look at these stories for symbolic, metaphoric truths about human character and origins, the spiritual realm, and culture. Some myths also claim to answer great and not-so-great scientific, philosophical, and spiritual questions (e.g., how did the earth get here? Who are the gods? Where did that rock come from?).

3.  How do I make sense of myths?

Read them carefully; let them settle in your mind and heart. Italo Calvino wrote:

With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside. (4)
The most useful tools in making sense of myths are
a) learning how to read and interpret mythic metaphors and symbols,
b) comparing and contrasting significant characters, events, and actions (called motifs) in one story with similar events in another story, and
c) learning about the culture that produced the myth.
When comparing and contrasting mythic motifs, you will often notice that different motifs tell you a lot about cultural and natural differences, while similar motifs tell you a lot about psychological and religious similarities. You may also be surprised to find logical patterns hidden in mythical symbols or story structures. For more help in making sense of myths, read "What to Compare / Contrast," Good Questions to Ask about Myths and Gods," and "Ways of Interpreting Myth."

4.  How do I tell the difference between a myth, a legend, and / or a folktale?

Start with William Bascom's definitions.  In his article, "The Forms of Folklore:  Prose Narratives," William Bascom gives the following definitions of folktale, myth and legend:

* "Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction."

* "Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past."

* "Legends are prose narratives which, like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considerably less remote, when the world was much as it is today."

Bascom differentiates among Folktale, Myth, and Legend by focusing on the original audience's views of the fictionality, time period, setting, religious importance, and divine or human statues of the main characters.  He provides the following handy chart of his views:
Myth Fact Remote Past Different world:  other or earlier  Sacred  Non-human (often gods)
Legend Fact Recent Past World of today  Secular or sacred  Human (heroes)
Folktale  Fiction Any Time  Any Place  Secular (non-sacred) Human or non-human
* Folktales are non-sacred fictional stories that occur "once upon a time" and feature both human and non-human characters.  Example:  "Little Red Riding Hood."

* Legends are considered true stories primarily about human heroes that occurred in the recent past and may feature some religious references.  Example: Odyssey.

* Myths are considered true sacred stories that occurred in the remote past and have non-humans (gods, monsters) as the principal characters.  Example: Theogony.

Works Cited
Back to ENG 204 World Mythology Course Index