Definitions

myth

myth

[mith]

Traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. Myths relate the events, conditions, and deeds of gods or superhuman beings that are outside ordinary human life and yet basic to it. These events are set in a time altogether different from historical time, often at the beginning of creation or at an early stage of prehistory. A culture's myths are usually closely related to its religious beliefs and rituals. The modern study of myth arose with early 19th-century Romanticism. Wilhelm Mannhardt, James George Frazer, and others later employed a more comparative approach. Sigmund Freud viewed myth as an expression of repressed ideas, a view later expanded by Carl Gustav Jung in his theory of the “collective unconscious” and the mythical archetypes that arise out of it. Bronisław Malinowski emphasized how myth fulfills common social functions, providing a model or “charter” for human behaviour. Claude Lévi-Strauss discerned underlying structures in the formal relations and patterns of myths throughout the world. Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto held that myth is to be understood solely as a religious phenomenon. Features of myth are shared by other kinds of literature. Origin tales explain the source or causes of various aspects of nature or human society and life. Fairy tales deal with extraordinary beings and events but lack the authority of myth. Sagas and epics claim authority and truth but reflect specific historical settings.

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or cosmogony

Symbolic narrative of the creation and organization of the world as understood in a particular tradition. Not all creation myths include a creator, though a supreme creator deity, existing from before creation, is very common. Myths in which the world emerges gradually emphasize the latent power of the earth. In other creation myths, the world is the offspring of primordial parents, derives from a cosmic egg, or is brought up from primordial waters by an animal or devil. Humans may be placed on earth by a god or rise from its depths or from a cultic rock or tree. There are often three stages of creation: that of primordial beings or gods, that of human ancestors who are often semidivine, and that of humans. Creation myths explain or validate basic beliefs, patterns of life, and culture. Rituals dramatize the myth and, particularly in initiations, validate the community's organization and rankings.

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Myth is derived from the Greek word μύθος mythos, which simply means 'story'."

Academic usage

In the academic fields of mythology, mythography, or folkloristics, a myth is a sacred story involving symbols that are usually capable of multiple meanings (cf. the works of Claude Levi-Strauss, Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Northrup Frye for various interpretations). The body of myths in a given culture usually includes a cosmogonical or creation myth concerning the origins of the world or how the world and its creatures came into existence. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded and critical history begins.

A myth is a sacred narrative in the sense that it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it, and it contributes to and expresses systems of thought and values. Use of the term by scholars implies neither the truth nor the falseness of the narrative. To the source culture, however, a myth by definition is "true," in that it embodies beliefs, concepts, and ways of questioning and making sense of the world.

Popular usage

In popular use, a myth can also be a collectively held belief that has no basis in fact according to the speaker. This usage, which is often pejorative, arose from labeling the religious myths and beliefs of other cultures as being incorrect, but it has spread to cover non-religious beliefs as well. Because of this popular and subjective word usage, many people take offense when the religious narratives they believe to be true are called myths (see religion and mythology for more information). This usage is frequently associated with legend, fiction, fairy tale, folklore, fable, confusing data, personal desire and urban legend, each of which has a distinct meaning in academia.

Urban myth is an alternative term for urban legend.

See also

References

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