Defining Myth, Folklore, and Legend

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Do words like mythology, folklore, and legend have clear definitions? Yes they do: in fact, they have multiple definitions depending on who you ask. Let me explain:

Folklore as a Medium

One of the meanings of the word folklore refers to a unique form of cultural expression. Specifically, folklore refers to the study of culture that is transmitted from person to person, whether by word of mouth, indirect observation of others, or through modern technology such as email. To quote from Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies (available from JSTOR and from a local library):

The thing that distinguishes folklore from these other forms of cultural expression is the way it’s transmitted… In folk culture, the lore is typically shared by word of mouth; more generally, we say it’s shared person to person (which could include direct conversation, indirect observation, e-mail, phone calls, online chats, etc.).

I think that definition is the clearest, but if you are interested in learning more, the American Folklore Society lists several (less clear) definitions of folklore on their “What is Folklore” webpage.

Folktale, Myth, and Legend as Genres of Folklore

Folktale, myth, and legend are all different genres of stories/folklore. Folktale, myth, and legend are the three main genres of “prose narrative” in folklore (Bascom). Prose narrative means what it sounds like: it’s a narrative (story) that is written in prose (e.g. a book, not a poem). The fact that myth, folktales, and legends are defined as genres (subtypes) of folklore means that the following definitions of folktale, myth, and legend only make sense in the context of culture that is transmitted from person to person (i.e. folklore).

What is the difference between the three genres? The book Folklore Rules contains a (perhaps oversimplified) explanation of the differences between the three types:

So, in summary, we have folktales, which are told as fiction, set in a fictional world, and which are only symbolically true, if presented or perceived as true at all. We have legends, which are told as literally true (though not necessarily believed), and set in the real world. And we have myths, which are told as a sacred truth, and which are set in a sort of prototype of our world. As you can see, knowing which genre you’re dealing with when you come across a story is enormously helpful when it comes to analyzing the meaning and function of that folk narrative.

Examples of folktales include the fairy tales you probably have read in your childhood (Folktales are sometimes referred to as tales or fairy tales). An example of the legend genre is the story of Jason and the Argonauts (Dundes). And an example of a myth would be a creation myth.

There are other forms of prose narratives, including reminiscences/anecdotes, and jokes/jests (Bascom). Reminiscences “concern human characters who are known to the narrator or his audience, but apparently they may be retold frequently enough to acquire the style of verbal art and some may be retold after the characters are no longer known at first hand. They are accepted as truth, and can be considered as a sub-type of the legend, or a proto-legend” (Bascom). Jokes are similar to folktales as “jokes or jests do not call for belief on the part of the narrator or his audience” (Bascom).

Myth Defined by Mythologists

The case of mythology is more complicated, because the general public, as well as many non-folklore scholars (usually Mythologists), use a different definition of myth than the folklorist. This definition is difficult to express clearly; to quote John S. Gentile:

[R]ather than seeking a single definition to unite or to bind the essays in this issue, readers may do well to think that each author pursues a different idea of myth and enriches our understanding by doing so. A closer consideration of the definitions of myth, including many of those presented above, reveals myth’s close and vexed relationships with truth, falsehood, belief, identity; the nature of being, and the sacred.

However, in his book Mythograpy Doty provides a working definition of myth that I think will be helpful to the reader:

A mythological corpus consists of a usually complex network of myths that are culturally important, imaginal stories, conveying by means of metaphoric and symbolic diction, graphic imagery, and emotional conviction and participation the primal, foundational accounts of aspects of the real, experienced world and humankind’s roles and relative statuses within it. Mythologies may convey the political and moral values of a culture and provide systems of interpret individual experience within a universal perspective, which may include the intervention of suprahuman entities as well as aspects of the natural and cultural orders. Myths may be enacted or reflected in rituals, ceremonies, and dramas, and they may provide materials for secondary elaboration, the constituent mythemes (mythic units) having become merely images or reference points for a subsequent story, such as a folktale, historical legend, novella or prophecy.

Let’s break this definition down, starting with the first sentence. The phrase “mythological corpus” essentially means that mythology functions as a collection of myths, i.e. cultures have more than one myth. The phrase “imaginal stories” means that myths are stories that contain images/scenes/motifs that are “culturally important.” These images/scenes/motifs–this is the important part–relate the “primal [and] foundational” aspect of the world to the “real [and] experienced” aspect. To sum it up, myth is a collection of symbols/stories/motifs that connect something foundation to a culture to the present day.

The second sentence isn’t very important: it just lists some of the functions myths can perform in societies, as well as listing some of the common features many (but not all) myths have.

The third sentence contains one important detail: the fact that most mythological texts aren’t myths themselves, but merely reflect or contain portions of the mythic-images discussed in the first sentence.

This definition is crucially different from how folklorists would define myth. Mythology isn’t a type of narrative (story); instead, stories contain mythological images/symbols/motifs/narratives.

While I hesitate to use the word archetype because the word archetype has been abused (in particular, archetypes are not universal), I think it’s the word that perhaps most clearly captures Doty’s definition of myth.

Let me give an example of this definition in action. Under the folkloristic definition of myth, the Horatio Alger novels would not be consider myths: for one thing, they aren’t folklore (they are written by a single author), and if they were folklore they would probably be considered a folktale or a legend: they aren’t set in a past time or told as a sacred truth. However, the mythologists would probably consider the texts as being myths or as having mythic elements. The rags-to-riches story that the Horatio Alger novels pioneered is fundamental to American culture (to clarify: the exact text of the novels isn’t fundamental, but the underlying story is). The rags-to-riches story connect a fundamental aspect of American culture–the belief that success is linked to morality–and relate it to the world of jobs and employers and the modern day class system.

Unfortunately, scholars don’t really use this definition of myth that often. Quite frankly, it’s something that most scholars aren’t interested in. A large part of this has to do with people like Joseph Campbell whose inaccurate scholarship gives this definition of myth a very bad reputation.

If you are interested in learning more, I would recommend that you take a look at Doty’s accessible book titled Myth: A Handbook (available from a local library) or Dundes’ book Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth (also available from a local library).

What Mythology Is Not

The word mythology has been abused by the general public. Here is a list of some of the things mythology is not:

  1. Mythology is not religion. There already exists a word for concepts like “belief system” or “set of beliefs”, and that word is religion.
  2. The word “myth” tends to be used to refer to outdated concepts that people irrationally believe in, e.g. “the myth of the middle class” or “the myth of the killer cop epidemic.” (to use examples from both sides of the political aisle of the United States). Those types of statements aren’t accurate uses of the word myth.

I will add to this list as further examples are presented to me.

Works Cited & Further Reading

Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives”. The Journal of American Folklore 78.307 (1965): 3–20. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/538099>.

Doty, William G. Myth: A Handbook. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

Doty, William G. Mythograpy: The Study of Myths and Rituals. 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000. Print.

Doty, William G. “WHAT’S A MYTH? Nomological, Topological, and Taxonomic Explorations”. Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 86.3/4 (2003): 391–419. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41179117>.

Dundes, Alan. “Folkloristics in the Twenty-first Century (AFS Invited Presidential Plenary Address, 2004).” The Journal of American Folklore 118.470 (2005): 385–408. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137664>.

Dundes, Alan. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

Gentile, John S. “Prologue: Defining Myth: An Introduction to the Special Issue on Storytelling and Myth”. Storytelling, Self, Society 7.2 (2011): 85–90. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949151>.

Harris, Trudier. “Genre”. The Journal of American Folklore 108.430 (1995): 509–527. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/541658>. This article explains the history of the concept genre in folklore studies.

McNeill, Lynne. “Types of Folklore”. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. University Press of Colorado, 2013. 37–64. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hjz10.8>.

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