Mythology Introduction

Delahoyde & Hughes


“Myth” can be a touchy term if taken wrong (especially if one includes texts such as Genesis within the category). The Greek word mythos originally referred to an authoritative speech or a story. More generally, a myth is a traditional story. But there is something special about myth not captured in these definitions. So we need to hash this through some more.

What does “myth” not mean?

    • Fact: myth does not mean historical or scientific “truth,” but then these other approaches, although we tend simplistically to invest our faith in them today, often don’t help explain phenomena sufficiently or meaningfully anyway. And mythologies are, in another sense, collections of truths, even if they “explore rather than explain” (Philip 8).
    • Fiction/Falsehood: e.g., “That Justin Bieber is really talented is a myth.” In such a case, we use “myth” as a euphemism for “lie.” This is a mistaken and unfortunate notion of myth, a stumbling-block to your successful comprehension of mythology.
    • Religion: it is too easy to say that one person’s religion is another person’s myth. Belief and the course of action that follows from belief — the core of religion — are not particularly relevant to the study of myth.

Myth should mean a powerful traditional story that a culture uses to unfold its own worldview and beliefs, or its explanation for natural phenomena (geological, psychological, etc.). Purists will say that “mythology” is the study of myth(s), but I find the term useful as referring to a culture’s system of myths, its interrelated set of stories. In other words, the birth of Athena is a myth; the Greek Pantheon and its involvement in the Trojan War is a mythology.

Sometimes concern arises regarding “myth” versus other terms for old tales. This gets too blurry to be bothered about, but here’s what the authorities say when asked to distinguish some of these.

    • Myths — Myths proper, or divine myths focus on the lives and ways of the gods and may be treated as sacred fact by the people telling them. They are set in the remote past, a vague time outside human chronology, often in a world different from the one familiar to the culture’s own. Myths explain a society, and its concerns and values, to itself. They provide models of behavior in times of crisis. Myths never have authors; we just inherit later literary versions of the stories.
    • Legends (or Sagas) — The acts and great deeds of heroes are treated as sacred or secular fact by the people telling about them. These are set in the recent past, essentially in the world as the culture knows it.
    • Folklore — This is the collective oral wisdom of a community, treated as fiction, usually secular, set any time or place often outside of time and place. Humans or animals serve as the main characters and the stories may justify current customs for the society.
    • Fables — These are fictional stories meant to teach a lesson, a sub-category of folklore.

Myth is often a highly symbolic genre. Rather than the novel’s traditionally particular realism, myths tend to favor the “archetypal.” An archetype is a pattern or original model for all its subsequent and particular manifestations: a well-known category or type, such as a story pattern (a genre such as the fairy tale, action movie, or romance novel); a familiar kind of character (the heroine, the cowboy, the step-mother); a meaningful image (the dove, the color red, a snake, an apple, King Kong crucified); or a universal experience (the quest). These, when encountered in the arts, resonate because they are laden with meaning already. We know how to respond, maybe even innately. (Jung broke from Freud in perceiving a “collective unconscious” rather than solely individual sexual neuroses behind dreams and behavior.)

In cultural productions (art, literature, film, tv, ads, etc.) archetypal story patterns and powerful symbols encourage viewers to participate ritualistically in basic beliefs, fears, and anxieties of their age. Mythology has always been more than storytelling; dances, dramas, rituals, and other arts have similarly carried along mythic meaning to their cultures.


The Orpheus of classical myth serves
as an inspiration to teachers.
His lyrical talents are inspirational
and the miseries of the underworld
grind to a halt when he is en forme.
He has been to hell and back.
Even torn apart and decapitated
by mindless bacchanals,
his music continues to sweeten
the lives those who would listen.


is another resource for Humanities in the Ancient World.