People sometimes use the words myth, legend, folktale and fable as though they were interchangeable, but are they? The dictionary definition of each is as follows:
Myth … a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief or natural phenomenon
Legend … a story coming down from the past, especially one regarded as historical although not verifiable
Folktale … a characteristically anonymous, timeless and placeless tale circulated orally among a people
Fable … a narration intended to enforce a useful truth especially one in which animals speak and act like human beings.
In reviewing these definitions it is easy to see why, in casual conversations, these terms are used in an inexact fashion. A review of some of the secondary definitions adds to the confusion. A secondary definition of legend reads “a popular myth of recent origin”. Even mythology specialists openly differ on descriptions and definitions of these terms. Finding scholars who agree and disagree on the following observations should not be difficult.
The purpose of a fable is to teach some moral or principle of behavior. Aesop’s fables provide a range of such lessons (e.g. The Hare and the Tortoise = slow and steady wins the race). Fables are clearly fictitious and often contain elements of the supernatural but no mature reader would conclude that long ago these things really happened. But few would argue that fables have both entertained and enlightened children of all ages and cultures for many centuries.
Folktales also fall into the realm of fiction. They are not based on a particular individual or incident. Animals are often involved and they often act like humans.
Legends are very specific and they focus on a particular individual or incident e.g. The Legend of Paul Bunyan or the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These stories get handed down from generation to generation but lack hard evidence to back them up. And then, there is myth.
There have been a lot of academic arguments over the years on what constitutes a myth. Most cultures have them and although the content varies, the characteristics are roughly the same. Firstly, a myth is the story of a people passed down through the generations and not traceable to a particular author. Secondly, there is often a kernel of truth in a myth if you look at it searchingly. Thirdly, there are often variations in the story. (A string of storytellers in different locations over the years tend to add elements that often feature their locale.) Fourthly, “the faithful” believe the myth to be true and an important part of their belief system. Fifthly, a supernatural entity almost always plays a role. Sixthly, the myth offers an answer for phenomena or events in the absence of more plausible explanations, e.g. how mankind came into existence, what causes lighting, the changing of the seasons. Myths also often break the laws of nature- Odysseus visits the Underworld, Achilles can’t be injured except in the heel, everything Midas touches turns into gold.
Classical mythology deals with the relationship between mankind and the gods and goddesses who inhabit the domain of the supernatural. The historian Michael Grant says that “The myths told by the Greeks and Romans are as important as history for our understanding of what these people, ancestors of our own civilization, believed and thought and felt, and expressed in writing and visual art. For their mythologies were inextricably intertwined, to an extent far beyond anything in our experience, with the whole fabric of their public and private lives.” (Grant- Myths of the Greeks and Romans)
It must be remembered that the Greeks were an intensely religious people and to them their world was filled with a host of benevolent and malevolent beings, all of whom could have an impact on their well-being. It was essential to appease and placate these restive, capricious spirits and to enlist the support of deities who would be willing to assist the supplicant in getting a plentiful crop, carrying out a military assignment or undertaking some arduous task. Naturally enough, lack of success in any of these initiatives could be attributed to a god who happened to be in a cantankerous mood or simply the result of a failure to make an offering in the prescribed manner.
Science was in its infancy and had yet to come up with alternative theories to explain such things as the plague, earthquakes or the changing of the seasons. If you lived in ancient Greece and believed in the existence of the deities, Apollo, Demeter and Poseidon, which of the following would seem the more logical explanation?
-The plague is caused by animals (bacteria) too small to be seen by the human eye or the plague is caused by Apollo shooting arrows into people who had offended him;
-Earthquakes are caused by changes between the earth’s tectonic plates or earthquakes happen when Poseidon angrily drives his trident into the ground.
-The change in seasons is caused by the earth tilting on its axis or Demeter is mourning until her daughter Persephone returns from the Underworld.
Greek myths, as we know them, came to us from the lips of a small number of gifted and influential poets. The stories which they have passed on to us had been evolving over generations, had been tested in the face of critical audiences and were likely written and revised numerous times until they were in their present form. Carefully examined, they reveal a lot of information about the early Greeks, compelling information to those who are their intellectual, political and artistic heirs. We owe a debt of thanks, first and foremost, to Homer, the greatest epic poet, followed closely by Hesiod whose Theogony was a “who’s who” guide to the Greek pantheon. Pindar, (some say the greatest lyric poet ever), filled his victory odes with mythological references. The three Greek playwrights of tragedy- Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote almost exclusively on mythological subjects (One of them was quick to acknowledge that he and his contemporaries “all dine on crumbs from the great table of Homer”.) Herodotus, Aristophanes, Pausanias and Apollodorus round out the list of the ten men who collectively wove the fabric that essentially is Greek mythology.
Classical mythology has become an integral part of our lives although few today believe in the pantheon of gods and goddesses created and sustained by the fertile imagination of the ancient Greeks. Wander into any art gallery or museum and you will see evidence of the influence of mythology on the choice of subjects. Greek painters and sculptors went to the vast warehouse of mythology to draw inspiration for countless thousands of works; now we draw inspiration from their masterpieces. Greek playwrights relied on the tragedies of mythology to entertain audiences of their generation and subsequent ones up to the present day,
Hollywood movies, comic books, television programs and various genres of literature have peopled their stories with characters from mythology or derivatives from them. The world of advertising has also borrowed freely from mythology using the names and attributes of gods and goddesses to sell their products and services. Look at the telephone directory to see Atlas, a symbol of strength, used to sell steel and tires; Apollo, for a music store; Aphrodite, spa and beauty services; Athena, intellectual property; Hermes, messenger services; Dionysus, wine-making supplies. The world of classical mythology lives on in the 21 st century.