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Origin Myth: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 Defining Origin Myth
  • 0:46 Cosmogonic Myth
  • 1:35 Aetiological Myth
  • 2:17 Foundational Myth
  • 3:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

For years, uncomfortable parents have used the story of the stork to talk with their children about an uncomfortable subject. This is an example of an origin myth. Find out more about origin myths in this lesson.

Defining Origin Myth

Like most humans, you've probably wondered how the oceans formed or asked the question, 'Why am I here?' Origin myths are the stories we tell to explain how things came to be, and every culture has them. Origin myths don't always have to be stories that we might find improbable or otherwise 'untrue' in some way; they are merely accounts given to try to explain what has happened before our time. The term 'origin myth' is a very broad one and can actually be divided into three distinct types: cosmogonic, aetiological (or 'etiological'), and foundational. Let's examine these three types of origin myths, looking at some well known examples.

Cosmogonic Myth

A cosmogonic myth, or cosmogony, is one that describes the beginnings of the universe, so we might also call it a creation story. There are as many cosmogonies as there are cultures in the world, many of which describe the creation of our universe as the result of a single monumental event.

For instance, the biblical account in Genesis of the Creation tells the story of how God spoke the universe into existence over the course of six days. Each day he provides the cosmos with further shape and definition as he separates sky and earth and sea, fashions the stars and other celestial bodies, gives life to all the plants and animals, and finally decides to make humankind as his companion by gathering the dust of the ground and breathing life into the molded form.

Aetiological Myth

Aetiological myths (from Greek aition, meaning 'cause') tell us why a particular event, either natural or human, happened or continues to occur. Stories that tell us about the coming of winter or why we celebrate certain holidays or religious rituals are aetiological myths.

Most people are familiar with the story of how Sir Isaac Newton recognized the force of gravity after having an apple drop on his head. The details of this fateful fall are speculative at best. Nevertheless, this myth has circulated for centuries as a way of explaining how we first came to understand the concept of gravity and to apply that concept in future scientific studies.

Foundational Myth

Foundational myths can also begin their telling at creation, but unlike a cosmogony, this type of myth typically focuses on an individual location and its people, helping them keep track of time and ancestry.

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