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The ancient Roman poet Ovid, in his "The Metamorphoses," told the story of the nymph Io who was seduced by Jupiter, the king of the gods. When his wife Juno became jealous, Jupiter transformed Io into a heifer to protect her. This panel relates the second half of the story. In the upper left, Jupiter emerges from clouds to order Mercury to rescue Io. In the lower left, Mercury guides his herd to the spot where Io is guarded by the hundred-eyed Argus. In the upper center, Mercury, disguised as a shepherd, lulls Argus to sleep and beheads him. Juno then takes Argus's eyes to ornament the tail feathers of her peacock and sends the Furies to pursue Io, who flees to the Nile River. At last, Jupiter prevails on his wife to cease tormenting the nymph, who, upon resuming her natural form, escapes to the forest and ultimately becomes the Egyptian goddess Isis
This panel by Bartolomeo di Giovanni relates the second half of the Metamorphoses. In the upper left, Jupiter emerges from clouds to order Mercury to rescue Io[1][2]

Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in society, such as foundational tales. Myths often consist of sacred narratives about gods. According to Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko:

Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society's religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.[3]

While myth and other folklore genres may overlap, myth differs from genres such as legend and folktale in that neither are considered to be sacred narratives.[4]

Although the term may be used to mean a 'false story' in colloquial speech, myth is commonly used by folklorists and academics in other relevant fields, such as anthropology. Use of the term by scholars has no implication whether the narrative may be understood as true or otherwise.[5]


Ancient GreeceEdit

According to Albert A. Anderson, a professor of philosophy, the term μῦθος (mythos) appears in the works of Homer and other poets of Homer's era.[6] In these works, the term had several meanings: conversation, narrative, speech, story, tale, and word.

Like the related term λόγος (logos), mythos expresses whatever can be delivered in the form of words.[6] Anderson contrasts the two terms with ἔργον (ergon), a Greek term for action, deed, and work.[6]

The term mythos lacks an explicit distinction between true or false narratives.[6]

In the context of the theatre of ancient Greece, the term mythos referred to the myth, the narrative, the plot, and the story of a play.[7] According to David Wiles, the Greek term mythos in this era covered an entire spectrum of different meanings, from undeniable falsehoods to stories with religious and symbolic significance.[7]

According to philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), the spirit of a theatrical play was its mythos.[7] The term mythos was also used for the source material of Greek tragedy. The tragedians of the era could draw inspiration from Greek mythology, a body of "traditional storylines" which concerned gods and heroes.[7] David Wiles observes that modern conceptions about Greek tragedy can be misleading. It is commonly thought that the ancient audience members were already familiar with the mythos behind a play, and could predict the outcome of the play. However, the Greek dramatists were not expected to faithfully reproduce traditional myths when adapting them for the stage. They were instead recreating the myths and producing new versions.[7] Storytellers like Euripides (c. 480–406 BC) relied on suspense to excite their audiences. In one of his works, Merope attempts to kill her son's murderer with an axe, unaware that the man in question is actually her son. According to an ancient description of audience reactions to this work, the audience members were genuinely unsure of whether she would commit filicide or she will be stopped in time. They rose to their feet in terror and caused an uproar.[7]

David Wiles points that the traditional mythos of Ancient Greece, was primarily a part of its oral tradition. The Greeks of this era were a literate culture, but produced no sacred texts. There were no definitive or authoritative versions of myths recorded in texts and preserved forever in an unchanging form.[8] Instead multiple variants of myths were in circulation. These variants were adapted into songs, dances, poetry, and visual art. Performers of myths could freely reshape their source material for a new work, adapting it to the needs of a new audience or in response to a new situation.[8]

Children in Ancient Greece were familiar with traditional myths from an early age. Based on the writings of philosopher Plato (c. 428–347 BC), mothers and nursemaids narrated myths and stories to the children in their charge.[8] These women were tasked with rearing children. Apparently they had to find ways to stimulate the children's language skills and imaginations. They lacked access to children's literature or television, so the solution was to turn to storytelling. David Wiles describes them as a repository of mythological lore.[8]

Bruce Lincoln has called attention to the apparent meaning of the terms mythos and logos in the works of Hesiod. In Theogony, Hesiod attributes to the Muses the ability to both proclaim truths and narrate plausible falsehoods (falsehoods which seem like real things).[9] The verb used for narrating the falsehoods in the text is legein, which is etymologically associated with logos. There are two variants in the manuscript tradition for the verb used to proclaim truths. One variant uses gerusasthai, the other mythesasthai. The latter is a form of the verb mytheomai (to speak, to tell), which is etymologically associated with mythos.[9] In the Works and Days, Hesiod describes his dispute with his brother Perses. He also announces to his readers his intention to tell true things to his brother. The verb he uses for telling the truth is mythesaimen, another form of mytheomai.[9]

Lincoln draws the conclusion that Hesiod associated the "speech of mythos" (as Lincoln calls it) with telling the truth. While he associated the "speech of logos" with telling lies, and hiding one's true thoughts (dissimulation).[9] This conclusion is strengthened by the use of the plural term logoi (the plural form of logos) elsewhere in Hesiod's works. Three times the term is associated with the term "seductive" and three times with the term "falsehoods".[9] In his genealogy of the gods, Hesiod lists logoi among the children of Eris, the goddess personifying strife. Eris' children are ominous figures, which personify various physical and verbal forms of conflict.[9]

Popular usageEdit

A myth can be a collectively held belief that has no basis in fact. This usage, which is often pejorative,[10] arose from labeling the religious myths and beliefs of other cultures as incorrect, but it has spread to cover non-religious beliefs as well.[11] Because of this popular and subjective word usage, many people take offense when the narratives they believe to be true are called myths.



  1. ^ "The Myth of Io". The Walters Art Museum. 
  2. ^ For more information on this panel, please see Zeri catalogue number 64, pp. 100-101
  3. ^ Honko, Lauri. 1984. "The Problem of Defining Myth" in Alan Dundes (Editor). Sacred Narrative: Reading in the Theory of Myth, p. 49. University of California Press.
  4. ^ Salamon, Hagar and Harvey E. Goldberg. 2012. ""Myth-Ritual-Symbol" in Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem (Editors). A Companion to Folklore, p. 125. Wiley-Blackwell.
  5. ^ Winzeler, Robert L. (2012) Anthropology and Religion: What We Know, Think, and Question Rowman & Littlefield, pg 105-106
  6. ^ a b c d Anderson (2004), p. 61
  7. ^ a b c d e f Wiles (2000), p. 5-6
  8. ^ a b c d Wiles (2000), p. 12
  9. ^ a b c d e f Lincoln (1999), p. 3-5
  10. ^ Howells, Richard (1999). The Myth of the Titanic. Macmillan. 
  11. ^ Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, pp. 23, 162.