Literature: Myths and Legends
A myth is a traditional story, which may describe the origins of the world and/or of a people. A myth is an attempt to explain mysteries, supernatural events, and cultural traditions. Sometimes sacred in nature, a myth can involve gods or other creatures. And, a myth represents reality in dramatic ways. Examples of Greek myth: Hercules, Hades, Achilles.
A myth is a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people. The purpose of myths is to account for the origins of something, explain aspects of the natural world, or delineate the psychology, customs, or ideals of society.
A myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has a deep symbolic meaning. A myth ‘conveys a truth’ to those who tell it and hear it, rather than necessarily recording a true event. Although some myths can be accounts of actual events, they have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Myths are often used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years.
A legend is a traditional tale handed down from earlier times and believed to have an historical basis. A legend is a story purported to be historical in nature, but without substantiation. Examples are: King Arthur, Robin Hood. Where evidence of the existence of actual historical figures exists, figures like King Richard are legends due in large part to the many stories that have been created about them.
Legend also refers to anything that inspires a body of stories, or anything of lasting importance or fame. The story is handed down from earlier times, but will continue to evolve with time.
A legend is a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person and has important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which it originates. A legend usually includes an element of truth, or is based on historic facts, but with ‘mythical qualities’. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate.
Comparison between Legend and Myth
|Evidence that events occurred / people existed?||Yes, but evidence may be insubstantial.||No|
|When and where did it happen?||Typically in more recent historical past. Usually from a specific culture.||Usually the ancient past from a specific culture.|
|Is it fact or fiction?||Facts are distorted or exaggerated. Some fiction.||No evidence to prove it as fact. Fictional stories explaining how “the world was created” or some type of natural situation that occurred on Earth.|
|Who are they about?||Notable people from history.||Gods, supernatural realm.|
|What are they about?||Often about heroic deeds, overcoming obstacles, but may also be about evildoing.||Traditional narrative that explains natural phenomena through symbolism and metaphor — often involves the gods of ancient cultures.|
Features of Legend
Characters and Setting
- Characters in a legend are limited to a small cast. They may be inanimate objects, gods, or humans with super traits. The gods are superheroes who may appear in human form, but maintain immortality and supernatural abilities. Legends typically take place in the past, and the setting is somehow relevant to the culture from which it derives.
- Legends are usually based on real characters and events, even though these have been richly embellished and exaggerated over time. This gives the narrative an exciting quality because all the events seem to be within the realm of possibility even when the plot has become so widely adapted or updated that it is completely fictional.
Plot and Theme
- A legend’s plot will include a lot of action, suspense and conflict. The characters of a legend are often faced with difficult obstacles to overcome, and struggle with their fate or destiny. Legends often explain natural phenomena, religious practices and human nature. They usually offer a straightforward moral, or a lesson for life.
- The plot of a legend usually focuses on an individual character, a cultural hero or a person respected and remembered (Jason, King Arthur, Robin Hood, William Tell, Roland) but there are also legends about places (Atlantis, Shangri-La), objects (the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone) and legendary animals (the Yeti, Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, Chupacabra).
- They also convey meaning about the way we live our lives that make them relevant and interesting across cultures and time. This makes them worth repeating through generations and publishing as new versions or adaptations for twenty-first century readers
- Legends employ many of the typical themes of traditional stories:
- good and evil
- friend and foe
- the supernatural
- rich and poor/rags to riches/riches to rags
- wise and foolish
- strong and weak
- just and unjust
- a quest or search
- a journey
- trials and forfeits.
Legends, like myths, reveal information about the way people lived, what they believed, what was important to them, what they valued and what they were afraid of.
Point of View
- Legends are written from the third person point of view. A legend will reflect upon a society’s culture, values and beliefs and the frail nature, or weakness, of human beings. Readers of the legend will believe that the main character is capable of overcoming any obstacles in his path, and root for him to succeed.
- Legends are usually passed down through generations. Prior to printing, legends were passed orally to teach the younger generation a certain set of values.
Structure and style
- Structure is usually episodic, as in the phases of a journey over several years or the stages of a great battle. Some legends tell the entire life story of their hero as a series of linked episodes, each one a story in its own right, as in the King Arthur stories and the sagas of German-speaking and Northern European countries.
Common structures include:
- chronological episodes;
- journey stories;
- sequential stories;
- life stories and community histories.
Like myths, legends sometimes use a more literary style than fairy tales or fables.
- rich, evocative vocabulary
- memorable language use
- use of rhythm and repetition techniques
- formulaic openings and endings
- imagery: simile, metaphor and symbolism
Features of Myths
- The usual purpose of a myth is to provide an explanation for the origins of phenomena (thunder, day and night, winter) by telling the story of how they came to be. Most cultures used myths, handed down orally from generation to generation from an anonymous source, to explain the world and its mysteries, so mythology from different regions usually reflects the wonders that people saw around them in their own environment.
- Myths often provide narrative clues that help to build a picture of the beliefs, lifestyles and ideology of the people who first told them.
- Myths are set in the past, usually a distant and non-specific past, and are presented as something that actually happened. There is evidence that the content of some myths is based on real events and places that may have existed.
- Myths explain why the world is the way it is and, for this reason, they reflect the basic principles of the religion or spirituality of the people. For example, Norse and Greek myths narrate what the gods did and how they interacted with humans.
Opposites occur frequently in myths as themes, including:
- good and evil;
- night and day;
- calm and storm;
- wise and foolish;
- old and young;
- beautiful and ugly;
- mean and generous;
- just and unjust.
Like other traditional stories, myths use quests, journeys and trials as themes. The hero or heroine often has to undergo some kind of test (the trials of Hercules) or set off on a long and difficult journey where dangers arise at each stage (the Odyssey).
Plot and structure
The plot of a myth usually includes incredible or miraculous, supernatural and superstitious events, where characters behave in superhuman ways using unusual powers or with the help of superhuman beings.
Characters typical of traditional stories appear in myths (talking animals, rich kings, foolish young men, clever villains) although the ‘trickster’ character is often a mischievous god (Loki, for example). The most notable character types in this sub-class are classic heroes and supernatural beings. Characterisation is an interesting focus for composition when children write their own myths or retell versions because the characters need to be awe-inspiring and larger-than-life.
Rich, evocative vocabulary and use of imagery are typical but style is often more literary than other types of tales so that some versions offer a more challenging read for children. Myths often include very vivid description of characters and settings (dense, mysterious rainforest or icy, mist-shrouded mountain peaks) and fast-moving narration of action. They tend to make less use of dialogue and repetition than some other types of traditional story. Simile is used widely to help convey grand settings and describe awe-inspiring characters.
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