Types Of Myth

Myths can be organised into three broad categories; etiological, heroic and folk tales. This is of course contestable, as the Myth that fits neatly within the contours of any academic designation is very rare. These categories however, tend to be informed by what many scholars have attempted to identify as the functional purpose of Myth. The numerous and diverse theories form a spectrum of comparative mythology. I have briefly explored some of these in previous posts, such as the ability to define society or cultural identity and explain natural phenomena. Other functions are more subtle, such as communicating anxieties and unrest within the collective unconscious and, perhaps the most interesting and insightful function of rationalising psychological behaviours and impulsions.

It’s my intention to outline the three broad types of Myth here, and return to create links to posts that represent strong examples. There may be many obvious examples I could refer to, but until I’ve explored and posted about them, I’d rather not get ahead of myself. This might be a good time to cheekily hint that, if you like, you can follow my blog and receive email notifications each time I post.

Etiological Myth:


Etiological Myths are concerned with the divine, specifically, themes of creation and the actions of divine beings. Etiological Myths are chiefly set in the age of the gods, before the time of humans. They often interpret how mankind came to inherit the earth as it was (known as Cosmogony), or how humans first came into being. It is worth noting however, that gods and their actions, communications and general involvement of the affairs of humankind are visible across all types of Myth. There are Myths that also allude to either the early days of a utopian human existence, preceding the afflictions of disease, death and suffering, or the existence of an afterlife, that also capture an essence of the divine.

As a general rule, Myths that attempted to rationalise natural or psychological phenomena in the absence of scientific exploration seem best represented by this category. Deities are ascribed characteristics that associate them with specific phenomena, allowing people to interpret what they see around them as a reflection of that deities’ will, temperament or actions. Parallel to this ‘tangible’ interpretation of divine intervention, is the concept of human behaviour, action and emotion presided over by a custodial, divine being. A person overcome by their emotions or other such compulsions, may have been deemed helpless under the thrall of, or even temporarily inhabited by, the appropriated entity. Similarly, a person may be elevated beyond mortal ability when imbued or influenced by divine power. This is however, often very apparent in the second type of myth explored here.

Heroic Myth


Heroic myths are certainly not devoid of divine intervention, but are centred around the actions of mortal human characters who, more often than not, are descendants of the gods. Their divine lineage marks out these characters as heroes in their time, representing the best of humanity in terms of skill and ability, especially when concerned with fighting and combat. Whilst retaining ‘call-backs’ to etiological and divine myth, heroic myths appear less concerned with unexplained physical phenomena, as they are with social commentary and psychological exploration.

In some cases, as heroic myths are concerned with mortals and their burgeoning civilisation, they have a tendency towards historical recollections of actual or potentially true events; without dispensing fully with what we may describe in modern literature as the paranormal. It may be argued the the more grounded in realism a tale may be, the more apt it is to consider it Legend rather than Myth.



Folktales are less inclined to explore and explain relationships between humans, the natural world and the divine. They function rather to entertain, communicate instructional information and teach a moralistic lesson through allegory, in the manor of fables. This is not to suggest that they do not involve mythical creatures, magic, powerful artefacts and the like, as these elements can make for some of the most entertaining stories there are.

These elements are presented through some surprisingly specific and recognisable motifs and act metaphorically to communicate themes such as personal development or rights of passage. It is common for the protagonist of a Folk tale to demonstrate great wit and cunning in order to survive perilous situations or encounters with terrible creatures that represent some kind of social anxiety or concern.

From providing explanations of the world in etiological myth, exploring relationships between mankind and the divine, or preserving history through heroic myth, to demonstrating a social imperative through Folktales; Myths clearly serve a variety of recognisable and discrete purposes.Yet as myths may contain combinations and elements of all three categories discussed here, it may be frustrating or seem counterproductive to become too focused on setting out boundaries and distinctions. Approaching myths with a knowledge of these categories in mind however, may help deconstruct their intentions, therefore communicating both an understanding of the circumstances and times in which they were formed and an exposition of some longstanding issues that people continue to grapple with today.


Blackwell C W, Hackney Blackwell A, 2002, ‘Mythology For Dummies’, Wiley, Indiana

Meineck P, 2004, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

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Oral Tradition and Myth: Cultural Connections.

20130621-151348.jpg While thinking about the origins of Mythology in the Oral Tradition I remembered a great example from Professor Michael D. C. Drout. A Philologist and presenter of a Modern Scholar audio course on fantasy literature, Drout suggests that the fantasy genre as we know it is actually a resurgence of Traditional Oral Epic. Fantasy literature uses elements borrowed from Oral Epic and, by association, Myth; allowing us to grapple with complex themes of cultural importance and communicate them effectively in a way that can be replicated.

One of the earliest serious studies of folk lore and Oral Tradition from the 1930’s by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, found a longstanding tradition in the former Yugoslavia of visiting coffee shops during Ramadan. In these coffee shops people would enjoy renditions of epic tales set to the music of a one stringed instrument known as a ‘Gusle’ (pronounced ‘goo-sla’)


Parry and Lord studied the methods of the ‘Guslari’ and found that they had memorised a formulae which allowed them to recite the outline of a three to four thousand line story. This also meant that the stories where never quite told the same way, as the loosely improvised detail was added to this repetitive and formulaic structure. This is known as Oral Composition.

What is particularly relevant about this example as it relates to mythology, is that Parry and Lord identified that the Guslari made use of Hexameters, in a very similar way to the recorded works of Homer; ‘The Iliad’, and ‘The Odyssey’. However, when they examined the content of the stories they where able to identify other recurring motifs found not only in Homer but also other Epics of cultural and mythological significance such as Beowulf. From their work we can start to clearly identify connections between elements of Oral Tradition, Epic and Mythology, existing across a variety of cultures and representing a significant part of their development.



Drout D C, 2006, ‘Rings Swords and Monsters:Exploring Fantasy Literature’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

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The Formation and Preservation Of Myth

20130618-162114.jpg The first ‘true’ alphabet was created by the Greeks in the eight century BCE and is predated by the oldest known forms of Greek writing known as Linear A and Linear B. The often cited “Father Of History”, Herodotus, recorded that this was an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet (limited to only consonants), merged with elements of their own language.

As Myths existed long before the rise of documentation and literature, they where created and preserved in what is known as Oral Tradition. This is the tradition of storytelling performed by Bards, a very important and respected position within the culture of Ancient Greece.

Many Myths are truly epic in scale, making the task of the bards to memorise and recite them to an audience a formidable one. This is why we see much of Mythology preserved in the medium of Epic Poetry; a format which makes use of rhyme and rhythmic delivery, particularly Hexameters. Bards would also draw from a catalogue of stock phrases and descriptive names, or ‘Epithets’, which would be repeated throughout the telling of the tale. Memorising such epic tales in this way gave them structure and cadence, making them much easier to recall from memory. When people began to capture culture in the written word, these elements became characteristics of the classic mythological texts.

Professor Meineck points out that The origin of Myths in the Oral Tradition makes them “highly mutable”, meaning the details and plots of myths would change in the telling and in the hands of the many Bards acting as their custodians. Bards, and therefore Myths, would travel great distances over long periods of time and would adapt and change to accommodate their audience.


Of course myth was also captured in other forms of Art. Literature may have become a foundation of civilisation, but reading and writing was not yet a skill available to everyone. The transcribed records of myths would serve as scripts performed as plays, allowing entire communities to enjoy them. Many cultures have unique artistic styles across various disciplines from paintings to sculptures, often inspired by that cultures distinct mythology. Archeological discoveries have often revealed less sophisticated examples of mythological art adorning even simple household objects.




Blackwell C W, Hackney Blackwell A, 2002, ‘Mythology For Dummies’, Wiley, Indiana

Meineck P, 2004, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

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What is Myth?

We often use the word myth in our everyday lives to express something made up or unlikely, or perhaps in the sense of debunked ‘wives tales’. For example: I had a conversation recently where I was told “It’s a myth that spinach has loads of iron you know. That’s how they started selling it but they’ve studied it and it doesn’t have nearly as much as people think.”

In terms of Mythology as the study of Myth, or a collective body of Myths, people may have a tendency to think of them as children’s stories, or tales that where invented to explain the strange things that hadn’t yet been explained by science. Clearly there is truth in this but there is so much more to it. I Love that in ‘Mythology For Dummies’ the authors quickly make a great distinction. There are Myths that helped us understand what we couldn’t explain before science showed us the truth; and there are Myths that help us understand things we ‘know’ are true, but can’t explain with science.


The word Myth comes from the Greek ‘Mythos’, and translates as ‘story’, or in some cases ‘the plot’. It is opposed by the Greek word ‘Logos’, meaning an ‘account’, which reinforces that Myths are not necessarily grounded in truth. But anyone can tell a story about anything and it isn’t automatically a myth. So we start to define a myth as something that includes deities or the supernatural. Suddenly there is a parallel with religion.


Its still debated as to whether the Greeks for example really did believe in the famous Greek Pantheon, and there are certainly people who practice religions today that many would consider to be grounded in Mythology. But is whether or not a story, Myth or otherwise, is literally true, as important as the truths and meaning that people extract from them? Perhaps Myth can be approached in the same way a sociologist might study religion then, from a functional perspective, in terms of shared values and social order.

I like the definition of myth that Professor Meineck quotes from Walter Burkert:


“Myth is a traditional tale with secondary partial reference to something of collective importance”.

This definition is particularly strong, as it emphasises that myths are popular and continue to survive because they communicate something important. They mean something that we feel is worth remembering and can capture a representation of ourselves; even helping to define who we are.


Blackwell C W, Hackney Blackwell A, 2002, ‘Mythology For Dummies’, Wiley, Indiana

Meineck P, 2004, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

Pictures from:

Cline A, 2013, ‘Role Of Myth In Greek Religion’, http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/religion/blgrk_rituals05.htm

Heuser J, From Davies L, 2012, ‘5 Historical Myths About Real Scientific Discoveries’, io9.com/5962937/5-historical-myths-about-real-scientific-discoveries



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Audio Course: Peter Meineck, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’.

To help broaden my perspective, I’ve been looking for other resources that appear to be a good introduction to the subject. Rather than another book, I’m going to listen to this audio course from the ‘Modern Scholar’ series.



This course; ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, is by Professor Peter Meineck of New York University’s Centre For Ancient Studies. He has also held academic positions at the Universities of Texas, South Carolina, Princeton and the Harvard Centre For Helenic Studies. A former Royal Marine and West End Producer, Professor Meineck graduated in Ancient Studies at London University.

Professor Meineck is also the founder of New York’s Aquila Theatre Company. http://aquilatheatre.com/


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Square One

Welcome to Discover Mythology. This is where I record and reflect on the things I read, watch or listen to, as I explore my new favourite subject.


I’m starting with my first book about mythology: ‘Mythology for Dummies’ by Christopher W. Blackwell and Amy Hackney Blackwell (2002). I think these ‘For Dummies’ books are fantastic. They’re always entertaining, easy to read and get you started on any subject with good solid info. As a matter of fact, I’ve just reached the section on using WordPress in Birley and Gardner’s ‘Blogging For Dummies’ (2012).

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As you can see this is still in the planning stage. Once I gather my momentum I hope to be posting on a weekly basis or after each chapter, film or documentary I finish. Whichever comes first. If you’re here because you’re interested in mythology (and I assume that you are) you can follow my blog via email and you can always add this blog to any RSS reader you might be using.

Above all I hope you enjoy what you find here and encourage you to leave comments and use this blog as a forum for discussion.

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