What is a myth?

Introduction

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'll be writing about the myth genre with help from scholars Alan Dundes, William Bascom, and others, helping you analyse a myth, and discussing ways to bring myth to your story craft.

Folkloric Definition of Myth

In his 1984 introduction to Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, folklorist Alan Dundes provides the simpler of the two definitions I'm including here. He writes that "A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form (Dundes 1984, 1)." Well and good, but I think we need a bit more than that if we want to utilize myth in our writing.

William Bascom's 1965 article "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives" offers a more comprehensive definition. He writes:

Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past. They are accepted on faith; they are taught to be believed; and they can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of dogma; they are usually sacred; and they are often associated with theology and ritual. Their main characters are not usually human beings, but they often have human attributes; they are animals, deities, or culture heroes, whose actions are set in an earlier world, when the earth was different from what it is today, or in another world such as the sky or underworld. Myths account for the origin of the world, of mankind, of death, or for characteristics of birds, animals, geographical features, and the phenomena of nature. They may recount the activities of the deities, their love affairs, their family relationships, their friendships and enmities, their victories and defeats. They may purport to "explain" details of ceremonial paraphernalia or ritual, or why tabus must be observed, but such etiological elements are not confined to myths (Bascom 1965, 4).

This definition gives us a great deal to work with as writers, so I'll break it down into a handy checklist and add a few notes of my own.

Myths are:

  • Narratives: Stories which may be told or written as prose or poetry.
  • Sacred: Associated with holy teachings, rituals, and paraphernalia.
  • Believed: Taught for the purpose of encouraging or strengthening belief, accepted on faith, and cited as factual.
  • Cosmological: Detailing the origin of the world, of humankind, of life and death, of good and evil, and so on. They also recount the origins and lives of gods and other superhuman beings.
  • Otherworldly: Set in the distant past or in a place different from the Earth as we understand it.
  • Populated: Containing primary characters who are not human but may have human attributes such as gods, giants, elves, dwarves, culture heroes, and sometimes animals.

I should add that folklore scholar Lauri Honko problematizes defining myth as indicated above and includes modern theories of the genre in his essay for Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. However, my focus here is on introducing writers to folklore scholarship, so I don't want to overburden you with theoretical discussion. If you're inclined to read Honko's essay, you'll find a reference to it in the bibliography.

Example of a Myth

Ready to work? Great! Give the short piece that follows a good read, and using the checklist above, see what elements of myth you find in it.

The Golden Age

It was during the time that Cronus was reigning over the gods that men were first created, and this was called the Golden Age. In the Golden Age it was always springtime, and beautiful flowers blossomed the whole year round in the woods and meadows. It was not necessary for men to labour at tilling the ground, for the earth brought forth of itself everything they could possibly require. Apples and melons and grapes and other fruits grew wild everywhere, and in the brooks their flowed a delicious kind of water that tasted like milk. Men, too, were good and happy, and they all lived for a long time, for three hundred years and more, and did not get old and grey, but always remained young. They had no need of houses, but lived out of doors with the beautiful earth for a carpet and the sky for a roof. Neither were there any distinctions such as we have now between rich and poor, or the upper and lower classes, but all were equal and lived together as friends. When they had lived for a long time and had had enough of life, they fell into a deep sleep and never woke again. That was their death (Younghusband 1915, 8).

Analysis

How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this piece is a prose narrative, which is cosmological because it details the origin of humankind during a time when Cronus reigned over the gods. It's otherworldly because it takes place during a Golden Age in the distant past when the Earth existed perpetually in springtime. Finally, it's populated with gods and beings who, while they are called "men," are immortal and become guardian spirits at the end of the age.

Having written this, I would add that the myth of the Golden Age comes from Hesiod's Works and Days, which is itself a poem, so the original narrative was poetic. I would also add that because Works and Days is central to our understanding of Greek mythology, it probably represents part of an early religious system, which means that at least some elements of his narrative were probably both sacredand believed.

Do myths have to contain all of these elements? I don't think so, but I do think human beings have a sophisticated sense of narrative that helps us to identify story types when we see them based on other stories of the same type we've seen before, and we can do that because of the way these stories are constructed.

How a Myth Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Myths

One fairly straightforward way to utilize existing myths in your writing is to embed them in it. Sheri Tepper does this to good effect in Gate to Women's Country when she embeds Euripides' play The Trojan Women in her novel under the title Iphigenia at Ilium. Tepper's use of the play is central to the world she creates and the characters who inhabit it, and rightly so. Myths are precious to people who believe in them as commentaries on the sacred, and I would argue they are also precious to people who do not believe in them as commentaries on human belief and behaviour. This means they are narratives of consequence that have the power to affect human consciousness and conduct both individually and collectively.

So if you're using myths in your stories, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does the myth depict?
  • Is the myth part of a dominant or a marginalized culture? How does this affect its power?
  • Who values the myth? Are there any people who feel negatively about it? Why?
  • What impact does the myth have on the individual? The family? The culture?
  • How will you express this myth in your plot, characters, and setting?

Creation of New Myths

Of course, you might also decide to create new myths and write your stories around them. Lois McMaster Bujold does this in her World of the Five Gods novel and novella series, where the gods include the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. These gods appear in mythical narratives, and they also appear to their chosen messengers in dreams and visions. As you might expect, these beings, their narratives, and their manifestations are important to the culture of the stories as well. Members of the Father's order are judges, while members of the Mother's order are healers, and members of the Bastard's order might be sorcerers sharing their bodies with demons, who belong under the watchful eye of that god. Together, these elements of fictional myth are the cosmological underpinning of Bujold's world, and almost everything that happens in her series is set atop it.

If you do decide to write your own myths, you have a toolkit now that might help, containing:

  • Definitions of myth written by scholars of folklore.
  • Structures of mythical narrative based on those definitions.
  • Analyses of a myth, yours and mine.
  • Suggestions for using existing myths in fiction and for writing your own myths.

A Closing Passage on Myth

In common parlance the term myth is often used as a mere synonym for error or fallacy. "That's just a myth!" one may exclaim to label a statement or assertion as untrue. (The terms folklore and superstition may serve the same function.) But untrue statements are not myths in the formal sense...nor are myths necessarily untrue statements. For myth may constitute the highest form of truth, albeit in metaphorical guise (Dundes 1984, 1).

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of the legend.

Bibliography

  • Bascom, William. 1965. ‘The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives’. The Journal of American Folklore 78 (307): 3–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/538099.
  • Dundes, Alan. 1984. ‘Introduction’. In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, edited by Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Honko, Lauri. 1984. ‘The Problem of Defining Myth’. In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, edited by Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Younghusband, Frances. 1915. Myths Of Hellas. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.

My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD student in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com. #FolkloreAndFiction #csmaccath #FolkloreThursday