Myths are often foundational tales, meaning that they provide the basis for stories such as that of creation, the elements, and humankind’s habits. They often involve characters like a god, human beings with extraordinary abilities, and other legendary elements. They are closely connected to religion and spirituality, with many societies structuring themselves around these stories.
Definition and Explanation of Myth
Myths are used to help human beings make sense of the world, especially parts of the world that are hardest to comprehend, such as its creation. The use of the word “myth” can be difficult to define the boundaries of. Today, we consider the Greek and Roman religion mythology, but in their time, it was just as real as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are today. The question of what is a myth and what is religion is often up to the believer.
Myths are used to confirm or express society’s beliefs and give credence to certain practices. They also often convey a society’s preferred behavior.
Examples of Myths in Literature
Paradise Lost by John Milton
In Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic and masterpiece, the poet leans on Biblical stories and mythologies in order to shape his story. He tells the story of the Fall of Man, the Garden of Eden, and the scheming of the fallen angels, now devils and demons. He plays on the image of Eve as a seducer of men and the cause of humanity’s ills.
In Eliot’s long poem, ‘The Waste Land,’ he alludes to the myths of King Arthur and the quest for the Grail as well as the Fisher King to help structure his verse. The latter refers to the last in a bloodline charged with keeping the Holy Grail safe. In ‘The Waste Land,; Eliot uses the idea of a land that needs revitalizing (specifically Europe after the First World War). This alludes to the waste that accompanied the kingdom of the Fisher King. At one point, he even assigns blame to the Fisher Kind for the ills of the kingdom. Eliot’s main focus in the piece is on the hopeless desolation at the end of the war and the desperation for something to change.
Examples of Myths
Apollo and Daphne
The myth of Apollo and Daphne from Greek mythology is one of the best-known Greek stories. The story tells of Apollo, who mocked Eros, the god of love, for using a bow and arrow. Eros pushes back, preparing one gold arrow and one made of lead. He shot Apollo with the gold on, making him fall in love with Daphne, a river nymph. He then shot her with the lead arrow, making sure that she harbors a hatred for Apollo for the rest of time. Apollo followed her wherever she went, and she grew desperate, pleading with the gods to help her. Peneus answered her and transformed her into a laurel tree.
The World Turtle
The world turtle, also known as the cosmic turtle, is a reoccurring theme in myths around the world. It can be found in Chinese and Hindu mythology as well as in the stories of the Indigenous people of North and South America. The turtle appears in Chinese mythology when the creator goddess cuts off the legs of a sea turtle and uses them to prop up the sky. In the other myths, the turtle appears as a world bearer, carrying the earth and everyone on it on its back.
Isis and Osiris
In Egyptian mythology, one of the most famous myths s that of Isis and Osiris, two of the four children of Nut, the earth goddess. They were married, and Osiris took the throne. Set, his brother, was jealous and killed him, cutting him into pieces and spreading his body all over Egypt. Isis traveled around the land, collecting the pieces and breathing life back into them. They conceived a child together, Horus.
Jörmungandr is a creature in Norse mythology, also known as the Midgard serpent and the world serpent. The snake is the child of Loki and Angrboda. Jörmungandr was tossed into the ocean and grew so large that it was able to surround the earth and grab onto its tail with its mouth. It is described that when Jörmungandr releases its tail, then Ragnarök will begin.
Characteristics of Myths
Myths include some or all of the following:
- Gods, goddess, and deities.
- Heroes with special powers or qualities.
- Supernatural events.
- Elements of a narrative.
- Fantastical elements like talking animals.
- Assert how life should be lived.
- Moral lessons.
Why Do Writers Write Myths?
Writers write myths in order to continue a story at the heart of a particular culture. When religion is conceived, the stories are written down so that others might hear the words, learn the lessons, and conform to one way of life and one belief system. Myths teach those who read them something about the world, allowing them a way to understand it that doesn’t require science or fact. By reading myths, modern readers can learn something about the culture that was conceived of them.
Related Literary Terms
- Folklore: stories that people tell. These include folk stores, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.