mythology [Greek, = the telling of stories], the entire body of myths in a given tradition, and the study of myths. Students of anthropology, folklore, and religion study myths in different ways, distinguishing them from various other forms of popular, often orally transmitted, literature. Much of that literature is classified according to its presumed function: fables, which instruct; etiological tales, which explain; and folktales, which entertain.

Myths may perform any one or all three of these functions, but in addition play a critical role in how a culture constructs its sense of time. In this sense myths are contrasted to history, which concerns recent, well-documented events, and to poetic epics and narrative legends, which concern an historical person, place, or incident from the distant past; an example is the story of Lady Godiva's naked ride through Coventry. (The legends of Norwegian and Icelandic kings, recorded from the 12th to the 15th cent., are called sagas.) A myth, however, is generally a story that takes place in an imagined, remote, timeless past and tells of the origins of humans, animals, and the supernatural.

While ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish mythologies are the best known, other important mythologies are the Norse, which is less anthropomorphic than the Greek (see Germanic religion); the Indian, or Vedic, which tends to be more abstract and otherworldly than the Greek (see Veda); the Egyptian, which is closely related to religious ritual (see Egyptian religion); and the Mesopotamian, which shares with the Greek mythology a strong concern for the relationship between life and death (see Middle Eastern religions).

Myth has been employed for the enrichment of literature since the time of Aeschylus and has been used by some of the major English poets (e.g., Milton, Shelley, Keats). Some great literary figures, notably William Blake, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens have consciously constructed personal myths using the old materials and newly constructed symbols.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Folklore and Mythology


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