In many ways the history of these definitions has been a history of trying to ward off the numinous, life-changing power of the stories themselves. For instance, myth as a set of binary codes; as tribal “superstitions”; as blurred historic accounts of actual people (“euhemerism”); as enforced ideologies of gender or power; as anything less than the full, living presence of the myth!
By referring to myth as “other people’s religion,” Joseph Campbell highlighted the oversimplification and reduction tied to how we tend to think of myth in the Age of Science–an Age whose creation story starts with a Big Bang.
By “myth” we do not mean something untrue or derogatory. Quite the opposite. “Myth” for us points to sacred stories and spiritual truths. The Divine adorns itself beautifully and enduringly in uncounted diverse cultural forms.
A myth, therefore, is an oral tale with an anonymous origin long before the myth was written down. It depicts some aspect of how the human and the more-than-human connect. Because a myth is packed with metaphors, it gives us access (as Gloria Anzaldua pointed out) to the in-between places of culture and consciousness, the thresholds and crevices in which mainstream truths give way to edgy images and motifs.
We follow Chinese mythologist Yuan Ke in observing that myth, legend, and folklore ultimately overlap. Even so, some distinctions are available. Myths usually surface and take hold of large cultural groups, providing the storied glue (according to Cree elder Tom Blue Wolf) that holds them together. By contrast, legends tend to be more local and often grow up around people who actually lived, though not always, and around unusual circumstances described as having happened. Although legends are a form of folklore, folk tales (also known as fairy tales) feature often-anonymous clever animals and humans confronted by an unusual challenge or event.
Whether myth, legend, or folktale, the story must possess at least two important qualities to stay alive in the collective imagination: it must resonate with people’s deep feelings, and it must entertain.
© World Soul Books, 2014