Myths are sacred stories that are taken to be true, explain a culture’s beliefs, and are set in a distant mythological past with gods and demigods as their main characters. Legends are set in the more recent past, possibly only a few years distant, feature local or historic characters, and may or may not be taken as true. Folktales generally are taken to be ﬁction and tend to feature generic types, such as orphans, princesses, witches, kings, and cowherds.
Legends diverge from myths in that theymay use historical facts and mix in certain features of storytelling. While legends may include the supernatural —King Arthur sleeps in a cave and will emerge when Britain needs him, for example—or even gods, they generally are not primarily about the gods. Legends also might be stories that are politically or morally useful—as in the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Young George was unable to tell a lie, a supportive belief about a nation’s ﬁrst leader.
Both myths and legends are sometimes confused with folktales, but there are concrete differences between them. Folktales differ from legends in that the settings are vague and conventional rather than local. The story may take place in a castle or on a mountain, but these places are not geographically deﬁned. In contrast, myths and legends often are attached to real places, such as Mount Ararat in modernday Turkey, where Noah is believed to have landed.
Supernatural elements appear in folktales as well as myths, but in folktales these elements function as contrasts to the heroes or as obstacles to be overcome. In a myth, a god may slay a dragon to create the world from its body, but a folktale hero slays a dragon to win the hand of a princess in marriage.
Mythology and Cynics
Myth is sometimes derided as simple falsehood or even just superstition, particularly when it is compared with science. Yet mythic thinking is not devoid of realistic thoughts. Humankind’s comprehension of the workings of the world is woven into sacred stories. Although the methods of science and myth are not often similar, both can work toward the same goal. Both attempt to explain the world in order to comfort humankind and satisfy its yearning for knowledge.
People have various reactions to the myths of other cultures, ranging from skeptical to condescending or scandalized, depending on the degree of cultural bias the observer holds. Therefore, myths have been used by early explorers, colonizers, and missionaries as examples of the “primitiveness” of certain indigenous peoples. Today, anthropologists and folklorists delve into the myths of different cultures with respect for their importance.
Artists and writers have borrowed from myths when they found their ideas or imagery of interest. Historians have used myths as evidence of past events. In such cases, the myths may be “demythologized,” a process by which a historian claims that the mythic elements were historic people and events altered by storytellers into mythic stature.
Certain categories of mythic protagonists stand out in world mythology. There is the protector deity, such as the Greek Prometheus, who taught humans many arts and gave them ﬁre. There are culture-hero deities, such as Raven of the Paciﬁc Northwest who brought sunlight to the world.
Many cultures also feature myths of dying and resurrected deities. These include Christ’s sacriﬁce of himself for humanity and his resurrection, and Osiris’s murder by his brother Set and his resurrection as an agricultural deity.
In a Trobriander myth of Oceania, the culture-hero protects the people against a human-eating ogre. This story explains the origin of the practice of cannibalism in that region.
Trickster ﬁgures are common throughout the world. They take many forms, both human and animal. They may be playful, foolish, mischievous, and sometimes harmful. Through their actions, the world is created or revealed. They may bring light to humanity, for example, but they also may bring death.
Tricksters enact the extremes of human behavior. By doing so, they discover the features of nature and our limits in both the natural and social world. The extreme behaviors depicted in folk narratives emphasize what acceptable behaviors are in society.
One well-known trickster is the Coyote of Native American myths. In one tale, he inadvertently brings death into the world. Coyote initially does not know what death means. He thinks it would be better for people to be able to grow old and die than to crowd the earth with eternal life. But when his son is bitten by the angered rattlesnake and dies, Coyote learns the meaning of death. This ﬁrst death is the model for all others.