What is a Myth? Definition, Examples of Myths in Literature

Myth definition: Myths are traditional stories that are created within cultures in order to offer explanations for phenomena.

What is a Myth in Literature?

Myth meaning: Myths initially began with religious origins as stories told in order to offer logical explanations to people of a culture in order to explain natural or cosmic events.

Example of Myth

In Greek mythology, the story of the nymph Echo explains the origin of how sound echoes came to be heard.

Characteristics of a Myth in Literature

Here are a few common features that myths typically share:

  1. Myths are often told as if they were factual. These stories were meant to offer reasonable explanations; therefore, the audience believed these stories to be true.
  2. Myths include gods and/or goddesses, and these figures often have supernatural powers.
  3. Myths include an explanation for how something came to be in the world. Such stories have ancient origins; therefore, they did not have the scientific explanations that we do today for such phenomena as weather.
  4. Myths often teach morals to their audience. Within many myths, there is a lesson to be learned.

Myth vs. Legend

While both myths and legends deal with well-known cultural figures, there are many differences between the two. Legends are focused around a cultural hero rather than supernatural gods/goddesses. And while the tale may be largely exaggerated, it is usually based on some historical facts.

  • An example of a legend would be the legendary Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

The Function of Myths

While less important today, myths served a great importance in ancient history. During times when scientific discoveries had yet to be made, myths offered comfort and explanation for events that people sought to understand. Today, myths are important for us to read because they tell of the morals and traditions of these societies. It’s also important to study myths because many modern writers refer to these myths in there writing particularly ones originating from Greek and Roman mythology as well as the Bible.

Examples of Myths in Literature

In Greek mythology, a popular myth is the tale of Daedalus and Icarus. In this myth, a father, Daedalus, builds him and his son, Icarus, wings in order to escape from the maze in which they are being held captive. Daedalus warn Icarus to not fly too close to the sun or else the heat will melt the wax holding the wings together causing him to fall into the ocean. However, Icarus does not pay heed to his father’s warnings and falls into the sea and drowns. This myth teaches the lesson that we must listen to our elders.

Ancient Greeks offered an explanation for the changing of seasons with the myth of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter, Persephone. One day, while picking flowers for her mother, Persephone was captured by Hades, god of the Underworld. Demeter was so distraught over her daughter’s disappearance that she refused to maintain favorable harvests. Meanwhile, Persephone remained in the underworld and became Hades’ wife. When Demeter found out about this arrangement, she threatened to never let crops grow again. In order to appease both Demeter and Hades, it was decided that for part of the year Persephone would stay with Demeter and the other part with Hades. This is how the seasons began, for during the spring, Demeter would create beauty in celebration for her daughter’s return; however, in the fall all leaves fall and crops would come to their ends because of Demeter’s grief over her daughter’s return.

Summary: What are Myths?

Define myth in literature: Myths are stories that often have religious origins that provide explanations for natural phenomena, offer moral insight, and include supernatural beings.