The word mythology (from the Greek μυθολογία mythología, meaning “a story-telling, a legendary lore”) refers to a body of folklore/myths/legends that a particular culture believes to be true and that often use the supernatural to interpret natural events and to explain the nature of the universe and humanity. Mythology also refers to the branch of knowledge dealing with the collection, study and interpretation of myths, also known as mythography. The study of myths from multiple cultures is called comparative mythology.

  • 1 Term
  • 2 Categories
  • 3 Related concepts
  • 4 Religion and mythology
  • 5 Formation of myths
    • 5.1 The euhemerist theory
    • 5.2 The myth-ritual theory
  • 6 The study of mythology: a historical overview
    • 6.1 Pre-modern theories
    • 6.2 19th-century theories
    • 6.3 20th-century theories
  • 7 Comparative mythology
  • 8 See also
  • 9 Notes
  • 10 References
  • 11 External links


The Greek compound μυθολογία mythología “a story-telling, a legendary lore” is derived from μυθολογείν mythologein “to relate myths”, from μύθος mythos, meaning “narrative, speech, word, fact, story” + λόγος logos, meaning “speech, oration, discourse, quote, story, study, reason, argument”.

The term mythology has been in use since at least the 15th century, and means “the study or exposition of a myth or myths”.[1] The additional meaning of “body of myths” itself dates to 1718.[1] In extended use, the word can also refer to collective or personal ideological or socially constructed received wisdom[2] The adjective mythical dates to 1678.[3]

Myth, in general use, is often interchangeable with legend or allegory, but some scholars strictly distinguish the terms.[4] The term has been used in Latin since the 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes the meanings

1a. “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon”, citing the Westminster Review of 1830 as the first English attestation.[5]
1b. “As a mass noun: such stories collectively or as a genre.” (1840)
2a. “A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief”. (1849)
2b. “A person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious).” (1853)
2c. “A popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth.” (1928)

The term “myth” is used differently by different scholars and in different academic fields. In one of the broadest senses of the word, a myth is a traditional story.[6] However, most scholars define myth more restrictively. Specifically, in folkloristics, a myth is traditionally defined as “a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form”.[7] Some classicists argue that the category of myth should include non-sacred stories that do not explain the origins of the world. For example, the classicist Richard Buxton defines a myth simply as a “socially powerful traditional story” (Buxton 18).

By the Christian era, the Greco-Roman world had started to use the term “myth” (Greek μῦθος, muthos) to mean “fable, fiction, lie”. As a result, early Christian writers used “myth” with this meaning.[8] This use of the term “myth” passed into popular usage.[9]


Individual myths may be classified in various categories. These are some examples:

  • Ritual myths explain the performance of certain religious practices or patterns and associated with temples or centers of worship.
  • Etiological or origin myths describe the beginnings of a custom, name or object.
  • Creation myths, which describes how the world or universe came into being.
  • Eschatological myths are all stories which describe catastrophic ends to the present world order of the writers. These extend beyond any potential historical scope, and thus can only be described in mythic terms. Apocalyptic literature such as the New Testament Book of Revelation is an example of a set of eschatological myths.
  • Social myths reinforce or defend current social values or practices.
  • the Trickster myth, which concerns itself with the pranks or tricks played by gods or heroes.

Related concepts

In Shinto, the Japanese Kappa are a type of water imp and are considered to be one of many suijin (literally “water-deity”).

Myths are not necessarily the same as fables, legends, folktales, fairy tales, anecdotes or fiction, [10] although the distinction between these categories is not always clear.[11] Within the system used by folklorists, myth is one of the three major categories of traditional stories:[12]

  • myths – stories traditionally considered true and sacred, set in the remote past, in another world or an earlier stage of this world, whose main characters are non-human
  • legends – stories traditionally considered true, set in the recent past of this world, whose main characters that are human; can be either sacred or secular
  • folktales/fairytales – stories traditionally considered fictional and secular, set at any time and any place, whose main characters can be either human or non-human

However, some scholars use the term “myth” more inclusively, to encompass legends and folktales.[13]

Fairytales are often interpreted as secularized myths. When detached from the spiritual leadership of its society, a myth will often acquire the traits typical of fairytales.[14] During the period of Romanticism, many folktales and fairy tales were perceived as eroded fragments of earlier mythology (famously by the Brothers Grimm and Elias Lönnrot). Mythological themes are also very often consciously employed in literature, beginning with Homer. The resulting literary work may take place in a mythological setting without itself being part of a body of myths (e.g. Cupid and Psyche).

Religion and mythology

In a scholarly context, the word “myth” may mean “sacred story”, “traditional story”, or “story about gods”. Therefore, scholars may speak of “religious mythology” without meaning to insult religion. For instance, a scholar may call Abrahamic scriptures “myths” without meaning to insult Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

Many myths, such as ritual myths, are clearly part of religion. However, unless we simply define myths as “sacred stories” (instead defining them as “traditional stories”, for instance), not all myths are necessarily religious. As the classicist G. S. Kirk notes, “many myths embody a belief in the supernatural […] but many other myths, or what seem like myths, do not”.[15] As an example, Kirk cites the myth of Oedipus, which is “only superficially associated […] with religion or the supernatural”, and is therefore not a sacred story.[15] (Note that folklorists would not classify the Oedipus story as a myth, precisely because it is not a sacred story.[16])

Examples of religious myths include:

  • An Australian myth describing the first sacred bora p. 33-36</ref>
  • The Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, a creation account around which the Babylonians’ religious New Year festival revolved[17]

Formation of myths

A number of theories seek to explain how myths form in the first place. Examples include the euhemerist theory and the myth-ritual theory, which are discussed below. In general, these theories see fully-formed myths as products of gradual cultural processes, rather than as deliberate creations of individual storytellers. As F. W. J. Schelling writes in the eighth chapter of his Introduction to Philosophy and Mythology, “Mythological representations have been neither invented nor freely accepted. The products of a process independent of thought and will, they were, for the consciousness which underwent them, of an irrefutable and incontestable reality. Peoples and individuals are only the instruments of this process, which goes beyond their horizon and which they serve without understanding.”

The euhemerist theory

Relief of the “Descent of the Ganga” in Mahabalipuram (also Mamallapuram), India; detail of the central part, the complete relief is 9 m high and 27 m wide.

According to one school of thought, myths began as accounts of real historical events. These accounts became distorted and embellished over many retellings, ending up as fantastic stories about gods and heroes. This method of interpreting myths, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiquity and can be traced back (from Spencer) to EuhemerusSacred History (300 BCE) which describes the inhabitants of the island of Panchaia (“Everything-Good”) in the Indian Ocean as normal people deified by popular naivety.

This process occurs in part because the events described become detached from their original context and new context is substituted, often through analogy with current or recent events. Some Greek myths originated in Classical times to provide explanations for inexplicable features of local cult practices, to account for the local epithet of one of the Olympian gods, to interpret depictions of half-remembered figures, events, or to account for the deities’ attributes or entheogens, even to make sense of ancient icons, much as myths are invented to “explain” heraldic charges, the origins of which has become arcane with the passing of time. Conversely, descriptions of recent events are re-emphasised to make them seem to be analogous with the commonly known story. This technique has been used by some religious conservatives in America with text from the Bible, notably referencing the many prophecies in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation especially. It was also used during the Russian Communist-era in propaganda about political situations with misleading references to class struggles.

Mâche argues that euhemerist exegesis “was applied to capture and seize by force of reason qualities of thought, which eluded it on every side.”[18] This process, he argues, often leads to interpretation of myths as “disguised propaganda in the service of powerful individuals,” and that the purpose of myths in this view is to allow the “social order” to establish “its permanence on the illusion of a natural order.” He argues against this interpretation, saying that “what puts an end to this caricature of certain speeches from May 1968 is, among other things, precisely the fact that roles are not distributed once and for all in myths, as would be the case if they were a variant of the idea of an ‘opium of the people.'”

Against Barthes, Mâche argues that, “myth therefore seems to choose history, rather than be chosen by it”,[19] “beyond words and stories, myth seems more like a psychic content from which words, gestures, and musics radiate. History only chooses for it more or less becoming clothes. And these contents surge forth all the more vigorously from the nature of things when reason tries to repress them. Whatever the roles and commentaries with which such and such a socio-historic movement decks out the mythic image, the latter lives a largely autonomous life which continually fascinates humanity. To denounce archaism only makes sense as a function of a ‘progressive’ ideology, which itself begins to show a certain archaism and an obvious naivety.”[20]

Catastrophists such as Immanuel Velikovsky believe that myths are derived from the oral histories of ancient cultures that witnessed “cosmic catastrophes”. The catastrophic interpretation of myth, forms only a small minority within the field of mythology and often qualifies as pseudohistory. Similarly, in their book Hamlet’s Mill, Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend suggest that myth is a “technical language” describing “cosmic events” pertaining to precession.[21] In The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy and the War Against Time, William Sullivan applies the principles in Hamlet’s Mill to an analysis of the mythology of the Incas.[22]

The myth-ritual theory

According to another school of thought, myths arose as an expression of or justification for ritual practices. This interpretation of myth was particularly popular among 19th century anthropologists such as Sir James Frazer and William Robertson Smith.

Smith introduced the myth-ritual theory in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. In this work, he argued that people developed myths in order to explain the rituals they were already performing. As an example, Smith cited the ancient Near Eastern practice of mourning for the god Adonis. Originally, Smith conjectured, people simply mourned the annual death of vegetation out of “natural sympathy”; later they tried to explain this custom by saying that they were mourning the death of a vegetation god (Adonis).[23]

Frazer similarly argued that myth developed out of ritual. He famously claimed that human thought progresses from magical rituals, through religion, to science.[24] According to Frazer, religious rituals did not involve a belief in gods. In particular, according to this view, people did not perform rituals in order to appease a god. Rather, people believed that rituals allowed them to harness magical laws that operate without any divine intervention. Later, when belief in these magical laws had waned, people began to explain religious behavior as an interaction with supernatural beings. According to Frazer’s theory, the rituals surrounding Adonis would have originally been performed to magically make the earth grow; later, the practitioners explained their ritual as a mourning for Adonis.[25]

Some more recent scholars have also supported versions of the myth-ritual theory. One example is Robert Graves, who said, “True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially.”[26] However, according to Yeleazar Meletinsky, the myth-ritual theory has never been proved and is not currently supported by most mainstream scholars.[27]

The study of mythology: a historical overview

Historically, the important approaches to the study of mythology have been those of Vico, Schelling, Schiller, Jung, Freud, Lévy-Bruhl, Levi-Strauss, Frye, the Soviet school, and the Myth and Ritual School.[28]

This section describes trends in the interpretation of mythology in general. For interpretations of specific similarities and parallels between the myths of different cultures, see Comparative mythology.

Pre-modern theories

The critical interpretation of myth goes back as far as the Presocratics.[29] Euhemerus was one of the most important pre-modern mythologists. He interpreted myths as accounts of actual historical events, distorted over many retellings. Varro distinguished three aspects of theology, besides political (social) and natural (physical) approaches to the divine allowing for a mythical theology.[citation needed]

With the Renaissance, interest in polytheistic mythology was revived, with early works on mythography appearing in the 16th century, such as the Theologia mythologica (1532).

19th-century theories

The first scholarly theories of myth appeared during the second half of the 19th century.[30] In general, these 19th-century theories framed myth as a failed or obsolete mode of thought, often by interpreting myth as the primitive counterpart of modern science.[31]

For example, E. B. Tylor interpreted myth as an attempt at a literal explanation for natural phenomena: unable to conceive of impersonal natural laws, early man tried to explain natural phenomena by attributing souls to inanimate objects, giving rise to animism.[32] According to Tylor, human thought evolves through various stages, starting with mythological ideas and gradually progressing to scientific ideas. Not all scholars — not even all 19th century scholars — have agreed with this view. For example, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl claimed that “the primitive mentality is a condition of the human mind, and not a stage in its historical development.”[33]

Max Muller called myth a “disease of language”. He speculated that myths arose due to the lack of abstract nouns and neuter gender in ancient languages: anthropomorphic figures of speech, necessary in such languages, were eventually taken literally, leading to the idea that natural phenomena were conscious beings, gods.[34]

The anthropologist James Frazer saw myths as a misinterpretation of magical rituals, which were themselves based on a mistaken idea of natural law.[35] According to Frazer, man begins with an unfounded belief in impersonal magical laws. When he realizes that his applications of these laws don’t work, he gives up his belief in natural law, in favor of a belief in personal gods controlling nature — thus giving rise to religious myths. Meanwhile, man continues practicing formerly magical rituals through force of habit, reinterpreting them as reenactments of mythical events. Finally, Frazer contends, man realizes that nature does follow natural laws, but now he discovers their true nature through science. Here, again, science makes myth obsolete: as Frazer puts it, man progresses “from magic through religion to science”.[36]

By pitting mythical thought against modern scientific thought, such theories implied that modern man must abandon myth.[37]

20th-century theories

Many 20th-century theories of myth rejected the 19th-century theories’ opposition of myth and science. In general, “twentieth-century theories have tended to see myth as almost anything but an outdated counterpart to science […] Consequently, moderns are not obliged to abandon myth for science.”[38]

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1873-1961) and his followers also tried to understand the psychology behind world myths. Jung argued that all humans share certain innate unconscious psychological forces, which he called archetypes. These universal archetypes express themselves in the similarities between the myths of different cultures.[39]

Following Jung, Joseph Campbell believed that insights about one’s psychology, gained from reading myths, can be beneficially applied to one’s own life.

Like Jung and Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss believed that myths reflect patterns in the mind. However, he saw those patterns more as fixed mental structures — specifically, pairs of oppositions (for example raw vs cooked, nature vs culture) — than as unconscious feelings or urges.[40]

In his appendix to Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, and in The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade attributed modern man’s anxieties to his rejection of myths and the sense of the sacred.

Mythopoeia is a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien for the conscious attempt to create fiction styled like myths.

In the 1950s, Roland Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies.

Comparative mythology

Main article: Comparative mythology

Comparative mythology is the systematic comparison of myths from different cultures.[41] It seeks to discover underlying themes that are common to the myths of multiple cultures.[41] In some cases, comparative mythologists use the similarities between different mythologies to argue that those mythologies have a common source. This common source may be a common source of inspiration (e.g. a certain natural phenomenon that inspired similar myths in different cultures) or a common “protomythology” that diverged into the various mythologies we see today.[41] Nineteenth-century interpretations of myth were often highly comparative, seeking a common origin for all myths.[42] However, modern-day scholars tend to be more suspicious of comparative approaches, avoiding overly general or universal statements about mythology.[43] One exception to this modern trend is Joseph Campbell‘s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which claims that all hero myths follow the same underlying pattern. This theory of a “monomyth” is out of favor with the mainstream study of mythology.[43]

See also

Comparative mythology, Archetypal literary criticism, Folklore, National myth, Artificial mythology, Legendary creature, Mytheme, Monomyth, Mythical place, Creation myth
Mythological archetypes
Culture hero, Death deity, Earth Mother, First man or woman, Hero, Life-death-rebirth deity, Lunar deity, Psychopomp, Sky father, Solar deity, Trickster, Underworld
Myth and religion
Religion and mythology, Magic and mythology, Hindu mythology, Christian mythology (Jesus Christ as myth), Jewish mythology, Islamic mythology
List of mythologies, List of deities, List of mythical objects, List of species in folklore and mythology, List of species in folklore and mythology by type, List of women warriors in folklore


  1. ^ a b “mythology”, OED
  2. ^ as in “At least since Tocqueville compared American society to ‘a vast lottery’, our mythology of business has celebrated risk-taking.” The New Republic, 29 May 2000
  3. ^ “mythical”, OED
  4. ^ “myth”, OED
  5. ^ Earlier editions of the OED also present this quote as the earliest attestation of myth, but consider it an example of the definition corresponding to definition 2.
  6. ^ “myth”, OED; Buxton, p.18
  7. ^ Dundes, p.45
  8. ^ Eliade, Myth and Reality, 1968, p. 162.
  9. ^ Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, p. 23.
  10. ^ Bascom, p.8-10; Zong, p.xxi
  11. ^ Kirk, p.22
  12. ^ Bascom, p.9
  13. ^ Segal, p.5
  14. ^ Simpson & Roud (2000). Dictionary of English Folklore. pp. 254.
  15. ^ a b Kirk, p. 11
  16. ^ Dundes, p. 45: “If a myth is ‘a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form,’ then it is perfectly obvious that the story of Oedipus is NOT a myth.” Segal, p. 5: Under theyall niggers suck dick definition, “the Oedipus ‘myth’, for example, would actually be a legend”.
  17. ^ Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, p. 77
  18. ^ Mâche (1992). Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion. pp. 10.
  19. ^ Mâche (1992). Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion. pp. 21.
  20. ^ Mâche (1992). Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion. pp. 20.
  21. ^ Santillana & Dechend (1990). Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth. pp. 222.
  22. ^ Sullivan, William (1996). The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy and the War Against Time. New York. ISBN 0517594684.
  23. ^ Segal, p.61-63
  24. ^ Frazer, p.711
  25. ^ Segal, p.67-68
  26. ^ Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, quoted in Watt, p.230
  27. ^ Meletinsky, p.117
  28. ^ Guy Lanoue, Foreword to Meletinsky, p.viii
  29. ^ Segal, p. 1
  30. ^ Segal, p. 1
  31. ^ Segal, pp. 3-4
  32. ^ Segal, p. 4
  33. ^ Mâche (1992). Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion. pp. 8.
  34. ^ Segal, p.20
  35. ^ Segal, p.67-68
  36. ^ Frazer, p. 711
  37. ^ Segal, p. 3
  38. ^ Segal, p. 3
  39. ^ Boeree
  40. ^ Segal, p. 113
  41. ^ a b c Littleton, p. 32
  42. ^ Leonard
  43. ^ a b Northup, p. 8


  • Bullfinch, Thomas, Bulfinch’s Mythology (1880s).
  • Alan Dundes. “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect”. Western Folklore 56 (Winter, 1997): pp. 39-50.
  • Barry B. Powell, “Classical Myth,” 5th edition, Prentice-Hall.
  • Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives”. Sacred Narrative. Ed. Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 5-29.
  • Boeree, C. “Carl Jung”. Personality Theories. 2006. Shippensburg University. 2 Feb 2009 <>.
  • Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
  • Charles H. Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation. George Braziller, 1963.
  • Dundes, Alan. “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect”. Western Folklore 56 (Winter, 1997): pp. 39-50.
  • Edith Hamilton, Mythology (1998)
  • Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930.
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling
    • Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 1856.
    • Philosophy of Mythology, 1857.
    • Philosophy of Revelation, 1858.
  • Graves, Robert. “Introduction.” New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. London: Hamlyn, 1968. v-viii.
  • Joseph Campbell
  • Kees W. Bolle, The Freedom of Man in Myth. Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.
  • Kirk, G. S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973
  • Littleton, C. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumezil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
  • Louis Herbert Gray [ed.], The Mythology of All Races, in 12 vols., 1916.
  • Lucien Lévy-Bruhl
    • Mental Functions in Primitive Societies (1910)
    • Primitive Mentality (1922)
    • The Soul of the Primitive (1928)
    • The Supernatural and the Nature of the Primitive Mind (1931)
    • Primitive Mythology (1935)
    • The Mystic Experience and Primitive Symbolism (1938)
  • Meletinsky, Eleazar Moiseevich The Poetics of Myth (Translated by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky, foreword by Guy Lanoue) 2000 Routledge ISBN 0415928982
  • Mircea Eliade
    • Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton University Press, 1954.
    • The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. NY: Harper & Row, 1961.
  • Northup, Lesley. “Myth-Placed Priorities: Religion and the Study of Myth”. Religious Studies Review 32.1(2006): 5-10.
  • O’Flaherty, Wendy. Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook. London: Penguin, 1975.
  • Reed, A. W. Aboriginal Myths, Legends and Fables. Chatswood: Reed, 1982.
  • Segura, E., Honegger, Th (eds.), Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings, Walking Tree Publishers (2007), ISBN 978-3-905703-08-5.
  • Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
  • Santillana and Von Dechend (1969, 1992 re-issue). Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-87923-215-3.
  • Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004
  • Walker, Steven F. and Segal, Robert A., Jung and the Jungians on Myth: An Introduction, Theorists of Myth, Routledge (1996), ISBN 978-0815322597.
  • Watt, Ian. Myths of Modern Individualism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
  • Zong, In-Sob. Folk Tales from Korea. 3rd ed. Elizabeth: Hollym, 1989.

External links

Look up myth, mythology in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


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