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the essential nature of myth

The Norse Trickster God Loki and two Rhine Maidens

Welcome to The Essential Nature Of Myth, where The Muse Of Mythology explores the characteristics and qualities that make myths myths.

about this feature

All myths adhere to a set of essential, defining characteristics that they hold in common with other myths. Every myth must exhibit these defining characteristics in order to earn the right to be called by that name. In this feature, The Muse Of Mythology explores myth with the objective of unearthing these defining characteristicsof elucidating and explaining them in such a way that virtually anyone who joins The Muse on this exploration will be able to recognize a myth when he see one.

Here, The Muse will describe at the highest level of generality:

  • The nature of myth as story.
  • The nature of mythology.
  • How and why myth is undervalued and why it's important.
  • The purposes and uses of mythos.
  • The types of characters or actors who typically figure in a mythical tale.
  • The kinds of events that can take place in a myth.
  • The explicit messages and meanings to look for in a myth.
  • The implicit, subterranean messages to look for in a myth and where to find them.
  • The difference between mythology and religion.

Defining a myth is not as easy a task as it may at first seem. Myths are not simple, juvenile, or naive things, even though they sometimes seem so at first sight. This feature will give visitors to these pages an appreciation of some of the subtleties of mythic systems.

Why is an understanding of the essential nature of myth important? At heart, a myth is a good story that can be enjoyed more when one knows what to look for. Beyond that, myths harbor secret messages and meanings. Insight into the essential nature of myth equips a person with basic skills for unzipping a myth's hidden mysteries.

When a male Inupasugjuk giant meets a lone Eskimo in the arctic wilderness, watch out!

myth—what is it?

What is a myth, plain and simple? A myth is a traditional story in which gods or god-like creatures are the central figures; their interactions with other kinds of creatures drive the story to a conclusion. As simple as this notion is, people often lose sight of it.

From a scholarly point of view, a myth is a story typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures, which embodies and provides an explanation, cause, or justification for the history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

The term myth is derived in part from the ancient Greek word mythologia, which means a story-telling, a legendary lore, to relate myths. Its roots go back further, to the word mythos, which means narrative, speech, word, fact, story, and the word logos, meaning speech, oration, quote, story, study, reason, or argument. As we shall see, all of these definitions are apt and accurate descriptions of what a myth really is and what it does.

A mythology is a collection or system of related myths. As a scholarly pursuit, the term mythology, which is derived from the term myth, means the study or exposition of myths. The word dates from as early the 15th century or before. Even then, interest in the study of myths was sufficiently keen to justify coining a word to describe it.

In contemporary times, the term myth has taken on a variety of additional meanings, only one of which applies to the kind of myth The Muse is talking about in this feature. In the present era, a myth can be:

  • A traditional or fictitious story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.
  • An invented story, idea, or concept that is not true, as in His account of the event is pure myth.
  • An imaginary or fictitious thing or person.
  • An unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.

Here, The Muse is only interested in the first of these definitions. The last three definitions are popular notions which do not relate to the essential nature of myth.

categories of myth

From the point of view of character and subject matter, all myths fall into one of the following categories. Myths are about things such as:

  • Creation—Myths that explain the origins of the world or its destruction.
  • Gods and goddesses—Deities are the creators, overseers, personifications of nature, and symbols of power; they wield powers greater than man's. Their actions tell us about absolute power.
  • Heroes—Half human and half god or goddess, heroes perform deeds that are larger than life; they show us what humans, who are flawed, can be, do, or achieve when they wield extraordinary power.
  • Tricksters—Tricksters are deceitful and malicious; they challenge and redefine the normal order of things; they are agents of change; they upset apple carts.
  • Strange or fantastic creatures—Strange creatures are human-like or non-human creatures who possess bizarre characteristics or abilities that go beyond those of mere humans. They include grotesque monsters such as the Gorgons, chimeras, snakes or horses that talk or fly, giants, harpies, Leprechauns, dragons, nymphs that live in trees, elves, fauns, three-headed dogs, the 100-handers (the three Hecatoncheries), and the like.
  • Sacred places or objects—Sacred places are places where the sacred manifests itself in the world of the ordinary and mundane: places like rocks, lakes, caves, mountains, the bottom of the sea, the other side of the world (the dark side), and the underworld. Sacred objects are things that possess holy or mystical properties or powers, things such as trees, swords, chalices, and whirlpools.

As you think about these categories, keep in mind that neat categorizations like these are oversimplifications. No myth is about just one kind of character or subject; myths have connections between them, some of which are obvious and self-evident, others subtle and hidden. Myths have purposes, objectives, messages, hidden meanings, subtexts, and agendas.

From this list of characters and subjects, it's easy to see why myths play so important a role in expressing and shaping human culture. While virtually all civilizations create mythologies, and while all myths fall into basically the same categories, the myths of different civilizations have different stories to tell and different messages to send because each civilization approaches life with its own values and experiences.

Depending on the myth, the story told by a myth might have some combination of the following objectives:

  • Entertain

  • Promote a cause

  • Make a point

  • Proselytize or convince

  • Teach a lesson about life

  • Foster or condemn a moral value

  • Expose a fact or inform

  • Comfort and console

  • Explain how or why things are the way they are

  • Justify a societal or cultural rule or convention

  • Morally justify or rationalize the way things are

  • Emotionally justify or rationalize the way things are

  • Publicize an opinion

  • State a mystery

The above list of doesn't stop at the last bullet; there are many more objectives that a myth can have, but you see how it goes. A mythical story exists for you to enjoy for its own sake; at the same time it gets across a serious message in a way that's easy to swallow, remember, and accept.

more about the essential nature of myth

  • The feature called The Essential Nature Of Myth spans six pages. It is continued on the next page: click here.

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