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A myth is a story about the remote past which is considered true within the society in which it is told. Creation myths take place before the world reached its present form in the most remote time – the first existing period of time known as the primordial age. The characters are normally non-human; they can be gods, demigods, and other supernatural figures. Myths are often associated with religion or spirituality and can be very important to those who believe in them. Some myths are used to explain how a particular reality came into existence, explaining why a society works and is structured the way it is.
Myths are different from folktales and legends. The definitions of these are not yet agreed upon but myths are generally understood to be true, about the remote past, and containing non-human characters. In contrast, legends usually feature human characters and folktales are understood as fiction.
The word myth is often used to mean false. For this reason, some religious people object to their beliefs being called myths and some scholars choose to avoid it in favour of other terms. Other scholars choose to call all religious stories myths in order to avoid treating one religion as more important or true than another.
Content of myths
All cultures have developed their own mythology over time. Mythology includes the legends of their history, their religions, their stories of how the world was created, and their heroes. These stories have a great symbolic power, and this may be a major reason why they survive as long as they do, sometimes for thousands of years.
The main characters in myths are usually gods, demigods, or supernatural humans, while legends generally feature humans as their main characters. Many exceptions or combinations exist, as in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. Myths are often endorsed by rulers and priests and closely linked to religion or spirituality. In fact, many societies group their myths, legends, and history together, considering myths to be true accounts of their remote past.
Creation myths take place in some early primordial age when the world had not reached its present form. Other myths explain how the society's customs, institutions and taboos were established and sanctified. A separate space is created for folktales, which are not considered true by the people who tell them. As stories spread to other cultures or as faiths change, however, myths can come to be considered folktales. Sometimes myths and legends get merged. Their divine characters get recast as humans or as demihumans (such as giants, elves, and faeries).
Creation myths describe the "official" belief as to how world was created. These myths differ greatly between societies, as any collection of myths clearly shows. Over the last three centuries, the power of myths over the minds of people has been challenged by the growth of science.
Historians' views on myths
Although myths are often considered to be stories of events that have not happened, many historians think myths are about actual events that have become connected with strong symbolic meaning, or that have been changed, or shifted in time or place, or even reversed. One way of thinking about this process is to imagine 'myths' as lying at the far end of an imaginary line. At one end of the line is 'dispassionate account', and 'legendary occurrence' or 'mythical status' is near the other end. As an event progresses toward the 'mythical' end of this line or continuum, the way people think, feel and say about the event changes. It may gain greater historical significance while the 'facts' become less important. By the time one arrives at the mythical end of the line, the story has "taken on a life of its own" and the facts of the original event have become almost unimportant.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. "myth, n. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Kirk, p. 8; "myth", Encyclopædia Britannica
- Kirk, G.S. 1973. Myth: its meaning and functions in ancient and other cultures. Cambridge University Press.
- Bascom, William (1965). "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives". The Journal of American Folklore 78 (307): 4. . . https://www.jstor.org/stable/538099.
- Eliade, Mircea (1998-06-22) (in en). Myth and Reality. Waveland Press. . https://books.google.com/books?id=CaIUAAAAQBAJ.
- Bascom, William (1965). "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives". The Journal of American Folklore 78 (307): 5. . . https://www.jstor.org/stable/538099.
- Bascom, William (1965). "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives". The Journal of American Folklore 78 (307): 9. . . https://www.jstor.org/stable/538099.
- Dundes, Alan (1984-11-15) (in en). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press. pp. 41–42; 49. . https://books.google.com/books?id=l5Om2ALAFbEC&pg=PA41.
- Leeming, David; Leeming, Former Professor of English and Comparative Literature David (2005-11-17) (in en). The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. vii; xii. . https://books.google.com/books?id=kQFtlva3HaYC&pg=PR7.
- Bascom, William. 1984. The forms of folklore: prose narratives. Sacred narrative: readings in the theory of myth. (ed) Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 5–29.
- "myths", A Dictionary of English Folklore
- O'Flaherty, p.78: "I think it can be well argued as a matter of principle that, just as 'biography is about chaps', so mythology is about gods".
- Eliade, Mircea.1963. Myth and Reality, transl. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row.
- Pettazzoni, Raffaele. 1984. The truth of myth. in Sacred narrative: readings in the theory of myth. (ed) Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press,98–109. pp. 99–101
- Dundes, Alan 1984. Sacred narrative: readings in the theory of myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, Introduction, p 1.
- Doty, William 2004. Myth: a handbook. Westport: Greenwood, p. 114.
- Fraser, James. 1906–1915. The golden bough: a study in magic and religion. Macmillan, 12 volumes plus an index volume.
- Watson, Peter 2009. Ideas: a history, from fire to Freud. Folio Society, London 2009; Watson, Peter 2009. Ideas: a history, from Wittgenstein to the word wide web. London: Folio Society.