The Golden Age by Pietro da Cortona (Source - Wikipedia)

The word Myth literally means 'story' or 'word' and comes from the Greek word ‘Mythos’. As the word ends with ‘ology’, the term Mythology can be said to mean the study of myth however in common usage, it is more often used to describe the whole body of myth that belongs to a particular culture. Mythological stories usually have no known original author, are normally set in a very distant past harping back to a Golden Age and contain various aspects of magic and the supernatural.

The question “what is myth?” is a very difficult one to answer as it can be defined in several ways. As a basic guideline, it can be said to mean the body of traditional stories that is told by a particular culture to its own people that encapsulate the world view, theories, values and fears they have. This however, is by no means definitive and many scholars would see it as an oversimplification at best, but it does serve to give an idea of the basic subject matter. (Note: The common usage to describe something that is untrue e.g. an urban myth is another legitimate definition of the word myth but is of no relevance in this context).

Types of Historical Tales

While it is true that myths are fantastical stories relating to a given civilization’s distant past, even these can be divided into groups such as myths, legends, sagas and folk tales. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 – 1942) suggested a general distinction between these types of stories that many scholars today find useful;
  • Mythological Stories – Refers to stories that involve gods, super-human heroes and/or cosmological themes in some way, either as the main focus or as a part of the overall tale.
  • Legendary Tales – Legends can be seen as stories that are rooted in historical fact that describe people that actually lived and had their stories exaggerated and refined over time, for example Robin Hood.
  • Folklore and Fairy Tales – These are stories whose first function is to entertain. They often involve people who while normal, are extremely clever and also often include animals that talk. They tend to be set in an unspecific distant past and attempt to demonstrate socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. A good example of a fairy tale would be Little Red Riding Hood, who out smarts a cleaver, talking wolf.
  • Sagas – These are groups of tales that follow a number of exploits of a particular hero or follow heroic actions of a family over a number of generations, with each part being a story in its own right. Sagas tend to follow a chronological order with the main hero/s being the embodiment of the ethics and virtues of the culture the story comes from.

Achilles Slays Hector, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-5 (Source -

These categories however are not definitive and often overlap as stories can contain elements of two or more of them. For example Homer's Iliad is based on battles between the Mycenaean Greeks and the Trojans that actually took place but the stories place gods and semi-divine heroes into the narrative such as Achilles, depicted above killing his enemy Hector. As a result, it could be argued that the Iliad is a legend or a myth with equal accuracy.

There is not and probably never will be a universally accepted definition of myth but this is not as important as it may seem. It can be said that myths that have been handed down to us have at least two things in common; for one thing as stories, they have longevity as people still want to hear them over and over again thousands of years after they were written. They also tend to have been an inspiration for other art forms down the ages as their stories become direct or indirect inspirations for other story tellers, painters, sculptures and so on from the time of their conception, right up to the modern day.

Hercules, here painted by Antonio del Pollaiolo c.1475 and the
subject of a 2014 blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Dwayne
Johnson (Source – Wikipedia)


Joseph, M. [Internet]. 2013. The Argument – What is Myth. Rutgers. Available from: [Accessed August 1, 2013].

Leonard, S.A. [Internet]. 2013. What is Myth - The History of the Term, Related Genres, and a Working Definition. Youngstown State University. Available from: [Accessed August 1, 2013].

Magoulick, M. [Internet]. 2013. What is Myth? Georgia Collage. Available from: [Accessed August 1, 2013].

Vandiver, E. [Video Lecture]. 2002. TTC - Classical Mythology. Whitman College.