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myth and its cousins

The term myth is often used (and misused) in ways that belie its original, primary, and most essential meaning. Because this misuse has become widespread, many renowned and experts and authoritative texts have come to accept these deviations as valid, even though they may tend to rob the word of much of its meaning, power, and punch. Such "misinterpretations" include:

The hero Beowulf from the legend of the same name

  • A fiction or half-truth.
  • An imaginary or fictitious story, person, or thing.
  • Any invented story, idea, or concept.
  • An unproved or false collective belief, especially one that is used to justify an ideology or social institution.
  • A story, theme, object, or character regarded as embodying an aspect of a culture, such as a movie star whose fame turned her into a popular myth.

Here, The Muse presents a definition of myth with the object of distinguishing the real thing from the deviations:

MythA traditional or legendary story, typically ancient, 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 or human nature.

A myth is a story, theme, object, or character that embodies an aspect of a culture or of the human psyche. It may deal with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes in a way that serves as a fundamental type in the world view of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of a society. Myths relate paradigmatic conditions and situations experienced by gods, heroes, or superhuman beings that are outside ordinary human life yet basic to it. These extraordinary events are usually set in a time that is outside of ordinary timeat creation, in prehistory, or, as with the famous Star Wars movie series, in the far distant future.

To be a true myth, a literary work must exhibit all three of myth's key characteristics—its literary form, purpose, and intended audience. If it has all three, it's a myth.

Cousins of myth are sometimes confused with true myth because they share one or two of these defining mythical characteristics, not all three.

Some genre-cousins of myth not to be confused with myth:

Fairy taleA story, usually for children, about elves, hobgoblins, dragons, fairies, or other magical creatures.

Folk tale—A tale or legend originating and traditional among a people or folk, especially one forming part of the oral tradition of the common people. Also, any belief or story passed on traditionally, especially one considered to be false or based on superstition.

Fable—A short tale intended to teach a moral lesson, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters. A didactic narrative, moral fable, or allegory.

Fantasy—Fiction characterized by highly fanciful or supernatural elements. An imaginative or fanciful work, especially one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters.

Fiction—The class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form, such as novels, short stories, or detective fiction. An imagined or made-up story. An imaginary thing or event, postulated for the purposes of argument or explanation.

Legenda non-historical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical. The body of stories of this kind, especially as they relate to a particular people, group, or clan. A collection of stories about an admirable person, often exaggerated or false.

Urban legend—a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing, or horror. Are there alligators living in the New York City sewer system or is that just an urban legend?

Nursery rhyme—a short, simple, often fanciful poem or song for very young children.

Tall talean exaggerated lie, usually humorous, in story form. The best tall tales are exaggerated so that no one would believe them; they are the result of efforts by storytellers to outdo one another.

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