Myths, Legends, and Folktales: The Basics


So far for this site, I’ve been using words like myth, legend, or folktale while operating under the assumption that if this sort of stuff interests you, then you probably already know how they are different. Today I decided it would be wise to explain these concepts a little more thoroughly, both for future reference and for your convenience.

The first thing I should probably explain is that academics and scholars are not always in agreement about this sort of terminology. Mythology, for example, is sometimes used as a blanket term to refer to all of the concepts I’m about to elaborate on. It is also used to refer to a more specific concept, which is how I will usually use it on this site.

When I call something a myth I mean that it refers to the big stuff, stories of gods and goddesses, of the creation of the world, of ancient forces of chaos and order. In these sorts of stories, the main characters are generally supernatural beings. Humans might show up, and they might even have a prominent role, but the gods and spirits take center stage. In Greek myth, the god Zeus battles the enormous monster Typhon. There are no human players in this story, and it is a tale of cataclysmic forces; Zeus defeats Typhon by picking up a mountain and dropping it on the monster. Comparatively, you also have the story of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and gives it to humanity. Humans play a role in the story, but Prometheus, a titan, is the main character, and he is set against Zeus and the gods of Olympus.

Often myths serve to explain things about the world, such as the beginning of life, where earthquakes come from, or why we have seasons. They are instructive. They also tend to be somewhat rigid in structure. There are different versions of myths, to be sure, but most myths are part of a large tradition of stories that are an important part of the culture that produced them. Everybody in a given culture is familiar with their myths, and the larger framework of how those myths fit together. People in these cultures could believe these myths as literal fact, or they could see them as tools for teaching lessons. Many ancient Greeks believed the stories about their gods, but a number of famous philosophers, like Plato, did not.

This all might make mythology sound a bit similar to religion, but it’s not quite the same thing. Mythology can be important to a religion, but religion involves belief, along with actions and rituals that spring from that belief. It’s religion to worship the gods, but you can retell myths about the gods without actually engaging in religious behavior. I should note, many people use the term ‘mythology” to refer to the traditional stories of dead religions, but it can also be used to refer to the traditional stories of existing ones. That is how I will use it. The story of Satan’s expulsion from heaven is as much mythology as a story of Thor battling frost giants, in the sense that both are traditional stories of a culture. I don’t play favorites, so any religion or culture is fair game here, without implications of belief of disbelief, approval or disapproval.

Legends are something distinct from myths. Legends are stories about famous heroes or heroines of the past. Supernatural beings might show up, but they are not the main characters. The stories may be epic in scope, but they do not involve events as grand as the destruction or creation of worlds. The stories of the Trojan War and Odysseus, for example, are legends. Like myths, there are often different versions of legends, and they fit within a larger collection of stories that are generally regarded to have some order and consistency. Myth and legend aren’t the same thing, but they have similarities.

Also, like myth, people of the past genuinely believed some legends. This is because legends often have a quasi-historical basis, though it might be very faint. The dimly remembered actions of notable chieftains and leaders of post-Roman Britain, for example, may have inspired the stories of King Arthur, but there never actually was a King Arthur. On the other hand, some legends are very much based in fact, even if the details are untrue. The French king Charlemagne was a real person and an important historical figure. However, the legend about him receiving a magical ring from a talking snake is probably not true. The point is, despite these embellishments, legends were meant to in some way reflect the genuine past. Like myth, people often actually believed in these stories, though some certainly just saw them as a form of entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment, we come to Folktales. Folktales do not include the themes of creation or history that you see in myth and legend. Folktales are generally about normal, everyday people, as opposed to gods or great heroes of the past. Farmers, cobblers, bakers, all are classic protagonists of folktales. And while myths often take place before the dawn of human civilization, and legends take place in the glorious past age of heroes, folktales tend to be contemporary to the people telling them.  Stories like Jack and the BeanstalkVasilissa the Beautiful, or the fables of Aesop all fall into this category. They’re stories that were originally told to entertain adults around the fireside and maybe to educate children on simple concepts like “stealing is bad” or “life isn’t always fair.” The people telling them were generally aware that these stories were fictitious.

Some scholars classify folktales as “everything that is not myth or legend.” It’s a grab-bag category, with very little structure. A folktale from one town may be very well known there, but completely unheard of in the next town over. As a result, “folktale” is sometimes used as a catchall term that includes various stories that are hard to categorize, such as fables, nursery stories, fairy tales, urban legends, and travelers’ tales. If I don’t specify something as being a myth or a legend, or if it doesn’t include the elements of myths and legends as outlined earlier, you can safely regard it as just being a folktale.

I’m sure I’ll have to revisit some of these distinctions in future articles, but for now I think the bases have been covered. Next weekend we’re back to the fun stuff, with the first of a series of articles about elves. See you then!


1 Response to “Myths, Legends, and Folktales: The Basics”

  1. 1 knagato1 April 21, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I like the theme of legends and myths here, … more please!

    I blog occasionally on the theme of ancient Viking legends at:


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