Definitions of Myth

"In common parlance, a myth is an 'old wives' tale,' a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact."

--David Adams Leeming, The World of Myth (3)

"Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student's experience that he cannot believe them to be true. . . . Myth has two main functions.  The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as:  'Who made the world?  How will it end?  Who was the first man?  Where do souls go after death?'. . . . The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs."

--Robert Graves, "Introduction," New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (v)

"Myths are things that never happened but always are."

--Sallustius, 4th cent. A.D. (quoted in Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden)

"'The thing you should all remember,' said Mrs. Dancey, my teacher, 'is that myths never really change.  Sometimes they're garbled and they certainly appear in different guises to different people who recount them.  But the basic legends don't alter.  We're talking about truths.'"

--Edward Bryant, "Good Kids"

"The Myth, in a primitive society, that is in its original living form, is not just a tale.  It is a reality.  These stories are of an original, greater, more important reality through which the present life, fate, and mankind are governed.  This knowledge provides man with motives for rituals and moral acts."

-Veronica Ions, The World's Mythology (6)

"A myth is a narrative which discloses a sacred world."

--Lawrence J. Hatab, Myth and Philosophy (19)

"By knowing the myth, one knows the 'origin' of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will."

--W. Taylor Stevenson, History as Myth (17)

"Greek mythology is largely made up of stories about gods and goddesses, but it must not be read as a kind of Greek Bible, an account of the Greek religion.  According to the most modern idea, a real myth has nothing to do with religion.  It is an explanation of something in nature:  how, for instance, anything and everything came into existence; men animals, this or that tree or flower . . . Myths are early science, the result of men's first trying to explain what they saw around them.  But there are many so-called myths that explain nothing at all.  These tales are pure entertainment, the sort of thing people would tell one another on a long winter's evening. . . . But religion is here, too."

--Edith Hamilton, Mythology (19)

"Myth purports to offer an adequate explanation for everything--for the elements and laws of nature, for social structure, ethics and the dynamics of the individual psyche."

--Norman Austin, Meaning and Being in Myth (2)

"Myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance"

--Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (23).

"There are and remain two aspects of myth:  one is its story-structure, which attaches it to literature, the other is its social function as concerned knowledge, what it is important for a society to know."

--Northrop Frye, The Great Code (47)

"The elements of mythical thought . . . lie half-way between percepts and concepts."

--Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (18)

"A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition."

--Joseph Campbell, interview

"We still like to make up stories, just as our ancestors did, which use personification to explain the great forces of our existence.  Such stories, which explain how the world began or where the sun goes when it sets, we call myths.  Mythology is a natural product of the symbolizing mind; poets, when not making up myths of their own, are still commanding ancient ones."

--John Frederick Nims, Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (41-42)

"Mythology is the womb of mankind's initiation to life and death."

--Joseph Campbell, "Bios and Mythos"

"Myths concern us not only for the part they play in all primitive, illiterate, tribal, or non-urban cultures . . .; not only for the grip that versions of ancient Greek myths have gained through the centuries on the literary culture of the Western nations; but also because of man's endearing insistence on carrying quasi-mythical modes of thought, expression, and communication into a supposedly scientific age."

--G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions (2)

Student comments:
"My definition of myth is a repeatable, poetic interpretation, deemed to be absolute truth, of an unknown." . . . "Myths are stories about greatness and symbolize the natural forces that drive and control people, inside and out."

"One question the book World Mythology, ed. Pierre Grimal] raised . . . surprised me.  It could be argued that myths are 'puerile and false.'  Yet if myth is in error, is it not the same with scientific 'truths,' which are destined to be constantly superseded?  Science is theory which is constantly being updated and changed as our knowledge grows.  As our understanding changes, we leave behind the 'myths' we previously believed."

"Today I believe we live with individual myths."