Definitions and Origins


What is a myth?

In common usage a myth is a generally held belief that reason tells us is untrue. In all likelihood it is a “myth” that George Washington never told a lie or that eating an apple a day will “keep the doctor away.” As limited as this understanding of myth is, it is related to a more sophisticated understanding in which a myth is a story—usually about gods and heroes—that is held by some to be true, but which to others is clearly untrue because it exceeds the possibilities of common experience. Some Native Americans, for instance, tell a complex story about how “in the beginning” they emerged from the earth. Most other people would speak of this story not as a fact but as a myth.

It can be said that a myth is first of all a narrative, a story that is of deep importance to a particular group of people—a family, a clan, a tribe, a religion, a nation. Some see myths as primitive attempts to explain natural phenomena. In this sense, the story of the departure and annual return of the Greek goddess Persephone is an “explanation” of the changing seasons. Many scholars believe that myths are articulations in story form of religious rituals. Thus, the story of the murder and resurrection of the Egyptian god Osiris is related to Egyptian funereal ceremonies. Others see myths as metaphors or allegories that help humans feel related to the universe, or that unite individuals as a group. The Zulu creation myth unites the Zulus as a culture; it gives them a clear identity and source of being. Some analysts see myths as comparable to dreams in that they reflect the inner concerns, neuroses, and priorities—the collective psyche—of the culture that “dreams” them. The Babylonian myth of the female monster Tiamat being killed by the hero Marduk might be said to reflect an ancient Mesopotamian view of the orderly arrangement of society. Ultimately, then, myths can be said to be true stories in that they represent a given group’s sense of its relationship with nature, the world, and the unknown. To equate myths with falsehoods is to ignore their power and importance.


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