Myth – Concept, Origin, Meaning, Characteristics and Examples


We explain what a myth is and what is the origin of this traditional story. Also, its main characteristics and some examples.

What is a myth?

A myth is a traditional, sacred story, endowed with symbolic character, which narrates, as if they were real, extraordinary and transcendent events, associated with the cosmogony of a people, that is, with their conception of the universe.

Myths offer answers to questions such as: what is the origin of the world? How did human beings emerge? Why does evil exist? What happens after death? Their stories involve supernatural or fantastic beings (such as gods and demigods, mermaids, fauns, nymphs, etc.) and take place in a primordial time, prior to historical time. Through these stories, a culture transmits its values and beliefs to future generations.

With the advancement of scientific thought, the term myth acquired a negative connotation, and began to be used to highlight the fanciful nature of an explanation, linked to religion, as opposed to rational thinking, typical of science.

More generally, myth is often used as a synonym for invention, fiction or falsehood. At the same time, in a positive sense, the term is used to refer to the central and important stories of a given community and to the outstanding people and events that become models or archetypes.

Origin of myths

Myths have an oral and anonymous origin, and are also transmitted orally from generation to generation. In ancient peoples, who lacked writing, it was common for myths to take the form of poems or songs, and to resort to the repetition of certain phrases or fixed formulas, in order to remember them more easily.

Myths are not fixed or immutable. On the contrary, as it passes from one generation to another, it is modified depending on the experiences and needs of each era. In this way, myths evolve over time and, generally, there are different versions of the same myth.

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Characteristics of myths

Myths have the following characteristics:

  • They tell stories related to the origin of things, the creation of man, the existence of good and evil, etc.
  • They feature gods, demigods, other supernatural beings, and in some, also the first human beings.
  • They have a sacred character, which links them with religion and which is consolidated when they are associated with a ritual (for example, the myths that explain the origin of a celebration).
  • They occur in an imprecise temporality, outside of human history.

Types of Myths

While each culture has created its own myths, there are marked similarities between the myths of different cultures, distant in time and space. For example, in many towns the myth of the universal flood is popular. Based on these coincidences, it is possible to establish some types of myths:

Cosmogonic myths

They narrate the creation of the world. For example: the Egyptian creation myth, in which the world is created by the will of Atum-Ra.

Theogonic myths

They tell the origin of the gods. For example: the birth of the Norse gods, such as Odin and his descendants, as narrated in the Eddas.

Anthropogenic myths

They tell the origin of humanity. For example: the Mayan myth of the creation of men from corn, collected in the Popol Vuh.

Founding myths

They recount the founding of a city or a community. For example: the myth of the founding of Rome by the twins Romulus and Remus.

Eschatological myths

They explain how the world will end. For example: the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the battle at the end of the world in which the gods will fight and in which the entire universe will be destroyed.

Myths of the cataclysm

They narrate the destruction of the world by a flood or other catastrophe, and its subsequent regeneration. For example: the Chinese myth of the great flood, which was controlled by the dragon Yu.

Myths of the onset of illness and death

They explain how humanity went from a happy situation to an unhappy state. For example: the Greek myth of the three ages (gold, metal, iron) or of Pandora, who opened the box that contained all evils.

Examples of Myths

  • Egyptian myth of Creation. One of the Egyptian versions of the origin of the world says that, in the beginning, only primordial water existed. Atum, the creator god, emerged by himself from the water. From him were born Shu, the god of dry air, and Tefnut, goddess of humid air, whom he sent to the other side of the water. Later, Atum sent the goddess Hathor to his eye. in search of her children. She brought them back and Atum, moved, cried. His tears became the first human beings.
  • Shu and Tefnut had two children: Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky. Nut was placed on Geb and, from that union, the stars emerged. Shu, his father, separated the couple and held Nut in her hands. Thus, the air came between the earth and the sky. Once a day, Nut swallowed the Sun and then gave birth to it again. This was the origin of day and night.
  • Greek myth of Orion. Orion was a famous hunter and hero born in Boeotia. He was the son of Poseidon, the god of the seas, and Euryale, daughter of the king of Crete. It is said that he was blinded by passion when contemplating the daughters of the titan Atlantes and the nymph Pléyone, so he dedicated himself to pursuing them for seven years throughout Greece.
  • The Pleiades, named after their mother, begged the god Zeus for their salvation and were elevated to the firmament, where they formed the group of stars of the same name. Orion, frustrated in his desire, died much later due to a scorpion sting, and was also taken to the firmament by the gods, so that he could continue their pursuit of him up there. But they later did the same with the scorpion that killed him, which thus gave rise to both the constellations of Orion and Scorpio.
  • Japanese myth of Ogetsu. Ogetsu is the goddess of food. Once, Amaterasu, the goddess of the Sun, sent her brother Tsuki-yomi, the god of the Moon, to go see Ogetsu. Upon arrival, Tsuki-yomi felt hungry and rudely demanded that Ogetsu feed her. Ogetsu, offended, spat rice, fish, seaweed and animals on Tsuki-yomi to satisfy her hunger.
  • Tsuki-yomi became enraged and killed Ogetsu with his sword. From the corpse of the goddess emerged all the basic crops of Japan: from her eyes, rice sprouted; from her nose, beans; from her ears, millet; from her genitals, wheat. Cows and horses emerged from her forehead and silkworms emerged from her eyebrows.
  • When Amartsu found out what her brother had done, she was horrified and decided not to see him again. For this reason, the Moon and the Sun are never seen together in the sky.
  • Popular mythologies. A small selection of the most popular mythologies could include the Judeo-Christian (The myth of Eden, the myth of Noah’s Ark, the Myth of Moses and the forty years in the desert), the Greek (Pandora’s Box, Theseus and the Minotaur, Ulysses and the Trojan Horse) or pre-Columbian mythology (The Popol Vuh of the Mayans, or The Origin of the Moon in Teotihuacan of the Aztecs).

Differences Between Myth and Legend

Some differences between myth and legend are:


Myths are narratives that explain the world through extraordinary events that are linked to gods and supernatural or fantastic beings. Legends are popular stories that use fantastic elements to tell a real, natural or historical event.


Myths are located in a time foreign to man (ahistorical time), while legends are located in a specific historical time.


Myths are led by gods or supernatural creatures, while legends are usually led by real men who experience fantastic events.


Myths address topics that pertain to humanity in general, while legends tell stories linked to a particular people.


Myths have a religious or sacred objective, since they explain issues related to the origin of the world, the worldview of a people or death. The legends have a didactic objective and usually leave a moral lesson.

Myth and other traditional genres

Due to its origin, the myth is related to other traditional narrative genres, such as legend, fable, parable and popular tales. The fundamental difference between myth and these other genres lies in the explanatory nature of myth in relation to central issues of human experience, the origin of evil and life after death. In addition, other differences can be noted:

  • Fables and parables are stories that have a moral or didactic purpose: through a story, they seek to teach a lesson. Unlike myths, they do not pretend that the events narrated are considered real.
  • Popular tales are traditional stories designed to entertain, although in some cases, they also seek to instruct and transmit certain values, just like fables and parables. Many stories of this type narrate the adventures of heroes and contain magical elements, but they do not present a cosmogony or attempt to offer explanations linked to the universe and the gods.

Interpretation of Myths

Myths are and have been the subject of various interpretations throughout history. Some of the main interpretations are the following.

Literal interpretation

Considers that myths are real stories, in which the events narrated actually occurred as they are presented. In this way, myths are inseparable from religion: they are explanations to be believed, which do not need to be demonstrated rationally.

Evemerist interpretation

Proposed by Evémerus of Mesene (a Greek writer from the 4th century BC), it maintains that the gods were originally historical figures revered as great benefactors of humanity. Myths are, therefore, deformations of a historical reality.

Allegorical interpretation

According to this interpretation, myths are similar to parables: they use figurative language to explain natural phenomena.

Symbolic interpretation

It states that myths are primarily representations of the ideas, values, and customs of the culture that created them. Through them, it is possible to understand a certain vision of the world.

Functionalist interpretation

For this current, myths are fundamentally stories that help define and maintain the customs, behaviors and beliefs of a community.

Structuralist interpretation

In this approach, myths are a particular form of logical thought, distinct from modern Western logic, through which individuals channel distress and make sense of the world.

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The myth in today’s society

Myths are not just something from the past, belonging to disappeared or primitive cultures. In today’s society myths continue to be told. Just as in the past they were transmitted orally, today it is done through cinema, television and, in recent decades, through the internet and social networks.

Many films and video games are based on myths, from which they take their themes and narrative structure. In general, these are action and adventure stories, in which the protagonist – like the mythical heroes – must overcome a series of dangers that show a post-apocalyptic world dominated by technology.

A particular case of the power of myths in contemporary society was the belief, current during the first half of the last century, in the Aryan racial superiority over the Semitic racial group. This belief, supported with supposedly scientific arguments, provided the intellectual justification for the persecution to which the Jews were subjected during the Nazi regime.

The fact that myths have served to justify genocides and wars is related to one of the functions that myth has in religion, where, in addition to addressing issues such as the origin of the world, it allows validating the existing social order.

Hello, I am Sunny Yadav. I am a writer and content creator. Through my blog, I intend to create simple and easy to understand content that will teach you how to start your online journey!

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