The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Myth: A traditional anonymous story, originally religious in nature, told by a particular cultural group in order to explain a natural or cosmic phenomenon. Individual myths are typically part of an interconnected collection of such tales, known as a culture’s mythology. Even when a culture no longer believes that its myths are true explanations, however, these stories often survive as receptacles of important cultural values.

Myths generally offer supernatural explanations for the creation of the world (whether seen as the planet alone or the universe generally) and humanity, as well as for death, judgment, and the afterlife. Myths that explain the origins of humanity often focus on the cultural group telling the myth and may even portray the group, as in many Native American myths, as “the people,” or the “true” people. Stories chronicling the adventures of gods and other supernatural forces, especially stories about their various feuds and encounters with mortals, are also common fare, as are tales about the fictional humans who must interact with them. The ancient Greek warrior Achilles is as much a mythic figure as Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods in the Greek Pantheon.

Myths are distinguished from legends, which detail the adventures of a human cultural hero (such as Robin Hood or Annie Oakley) and tend to be less focused on the supernatural. Whereas a legend may exaggerate — perhaps even wildly — the exploits of its hero, it is likely to be grounded in historical fact. Myths also differ from fables, which have a moral, didactic purpose and usually feature animal characters.

A comparison of myths produced by different cultures reveals that myths are strikingly similar in the phenomena they seek to explain and the questions they address, a point that led twentieth-century Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung to argue that myths reveal a collective unconscious, a common inheritance among all human beings of unconscious memories dating back to the origins of human experience. Many writers have accorded myths a similarly evocative power and have either incorporated myths into their works or created their own mythic frameworks in an attempt to reach their audiences at a universal or primal level of human thought, emotion, and experience; eighteenth-century poet William Blake and modernist poet William Butler Yeats are among the best known mythopoeic writers. Furthermore, myth critics have also looked beyond the idiosyncratic surfaces of individual texts to find mythic figures, forces, patterns, implications, and structures. Myth critics maintain that certain myths are so deeply ingrained in most cultures that literary works typically involve the same general mythic formulas.

EXAMPLES: An ancient Babylonian creation myth elaborated in the epic poem Enuma Elish (“When on High”) posits that Marduk, the chief god, decided to create “Man” to serve the gods and that humans were fashioned from a mixture of earth and the blood of the god Kingu. The K’iche’ (Quiché) Maya account of the creation of humankind, as set forth in the Popul Vuh (The Book of the People) (c. 1550s), asserts that the gods made humans based on their desire for beings who would remember, worship, and nourish them and made them from maize (corn) after failed attempts to create them from mud and wood. According to a Native American Comanche myth, the Great Spirit created the Comanche people out of swirls of dust gathered from the four directions.