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What Are Myths? - Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:02 Introduction
  • 1:05 What Makes A Myth A Myth?
  • 4:12 Some Common Types Of Myths
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

Lots of us read or even studied the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods in grade school or middle school. Just about every culture has its own myths, stories about gods and their magical deeds. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the defining characteristics of myths, as well as some examples.

Introduction

One of the most widely read young adult novels of recent years was Percy Jackson & The Olympians, in which a seemingly-ordinary 12-year-old discovers that his long-lost father is actually the Greek god Poseidon, ruler of the sea. Part of what made this series so popular, and so accessible to so many readers, was the way it drew on classical myths, which are ancient stories passed down through time.

You may be familiar with characters like Poseidon: his brother Zeus, king of the gods; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; or Ares, the god of war. These Greek gods are often widely studied in schools and also depicted in art, such as this picture of Hercules killing the Hydra.

Many other cultures have similar gods and goddesses, with myths of their own that describe their adventures. Since the beginning of human civilization, myths have been told all around the world, from Egypt to Japan to Australia to North and South America, and beyond.

What Makes A Myth a Myth?

At the most basic level, we can think of a myth as a story that explains how the world came to be the way it is. That's pretty broad, since people from different cultures have their own ways of understanding who they are and where they came from. Still, there are some defining characteristics common to all myths. Let's take a look at some key concepts.

A myth almost always features gods and goddesses. Just about every culture and/or religion features some kind of ruling god, or pantheon, a group of gods and goddesses. We've already mentioned the Greek gods, who exist in a complicated family network of brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and so on. Like any good family, these guys love to bicker, and they make lots of mischief among themselves.

You might remember, for example, that Zeus only got his power after he destroyed his father and uncles, the Titans. Countless myths exist about the rivalries between jealous and competing gods: in addition to the Greek gods we've mentioned, you may be familiar with the Egyptian god Osiris, who was murdered by his brother, Set. Similar divine families exist in African, Native American, Japanese, and other cultures' myths.

They tell about heroes. Similar to gods, but somewhat lower in status, we find the heroes. Heroes may be sons or daughters of gods, like Percy Jackson, or sometimes fully mortal. Heroes have supernatural powers or abilities that elevate them above the everyday. These characters usually interact with the gods, mediating between the human and the divine. Sometimes they have to go on a quest or journey or accomplish some kind of difficult feat.

They explain natural phenomena. Myths come from a time when science and technology were way less precise than they are today. Still, people have always looked around them and wondered questions like, 'Why is the sky blue?' or 'Why does it get dark at night?' or 'What's an earthquake?' Perhaps you've heard someone comfort a small child during a thunderstorm by saying something like, 'Don't worry, it's just God going bowling.'

Similarly, myths evolved to explain why certain natural events took place. Myths like these might also explain certain rituals or ceremonies that could be used to appease the gods during difficult times. For example, Chinese myths about Ba, the drought goddess, were used to help people pray for rain.

They are passed on by oral tradition. Many of the oldest myths arose in societies with primitive writing systems or no writing systems at all. Even up until the 20th century, a huge portion of people across the globe were illiterate. Myths fulfill an important function for societies where people get their information orally. Passed down from generation to generation, myths explain how a tribe or culture came to be, how to correctly worship a culture's gods and goddesses, and can also contain important historical information about past kings and heroes.

Some Common Types of Myths

Many myths fall into one of these types.

Creation Myths

As we've said before, one of the important functions of myths is to explain the world around us in a literary rather than a scientific way. One of the most enduring questions of humanity is 'How did we get here?' Creation myths answer this question in a variety of engaging ways. In the Iroquois creation myth, the Earth was formed on the back of a turtle. When the Sky Woman fell through a hole in heaven, the turtle rose up to catch her while she gave birth to two twin sons, one good and one evil.

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