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…Who hold, unheeding this immense impact,
Immortal story for a mortal sin;
Lest human fable touch historic fact,
Chase myths like moths, and fight them with a pin.
Take comfort; rest—there needs not this ado.
You shall not be a myth, I promise you.

(from) The Myth of Arthur G. K. Chesterton

Basic Information

Mythology can refer to the study of myth, or to a body of myths. A collection of myths may also be termed a mythopia or mythos (not to be confused with mythopoeia or mythopoesis meaning the process of myth making, with the former often referring to deliberately constructed myths).

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and mankind came to be, often closely linked to religion. The cultures originally telling the myths generally considered them to be true. Myths often explain natural phenomena, or how various customs were established.

Myth, Legend, and Folktale

The difference between a myth and a legend is typically one of time and character. A legend tends to be about a recent or contemporary figure, generally a human. By contrast, the main characters in myths are usually gods or supernatural heroes, and many myths take place before the dawn of man. Like a myth, a legend is typically regarded as true in its original culture, but unlike a myth it is not a sacred truth. Denying a legend may be an insult to your ancestors, but it's not heresy - denying a myth is generally both.

The difference between a myth and a folktale has to do with the myth's status as a sacred truth. A folktale or fable may be about characters that would normally be found in a myth or a legend, but the folktale is understood to be fictional, allegorical, or at least debatable. No one's getting stoned for not believing a folktale. That said, some folktales are true, or have an element of truth. An Urban Legend is a modern form of a folktale, a story that happened to "a friend of a friend", and has been exaggerated or distorted with the retelling. (An urban legend can also evolve from something that was originally intended as a joke - things that were never intended to be taken seriously may end up being distorted into good faith anecdotes once a few re-tellings have ground off some of the context.)

A key element of many myths is the culture hero - a purported historical figure who is credited with one or more historical inventions … Prometheus/Coyote/(others) stealing fire from the gods, Tubal-Cain discovering metal-smithing or Romulus founding Rome … or some other great act (such as being a common ancestor like Utnapishtim/Noah/Deucalion in flood narratives). As a mythology evolves, significant deeds and inventions may be retroactively credited to those already remembered for other reasons. For example, a significant tribal leader may be remembered as a common ancestor — going from being "first man" of his tribe to being the only man and the entire tribe being descended from his immediate family — and then be assigned credit for the deeds of other people whose names were forgotten. As, for example, when we say a bridge was built be such-and-such a king, the years may erase the fact that he didn't actually build it himself, or that an invention that occurred during his reign, possibly with his sponsorship, was not actually his invention.

Myth-Ritual Theory

One possible explanation of where myths come from is Ritual. If this theory is correct, myths began with rituals, often magical in nature. When later generations no longer remembered why the ritual was conducted, or began to lose faith in it's magical power, a new explanation was needed to justify continuing to perform the ritual. These new explanations were narratives that incorporated the imagery of the ritual, and built up a religious context for the ritual. In such an interpretation, all myths are essentially coded myth, and what is encoded within them is the method of performing some ancient magical rite.

In the Glorantha setting for RuneQuest ritually re-enacting myths is a big thing, usually intended to build fellowship with the gods and hero-spirits featured in the myth and thus make them more likely to assist their worshippers. This is, apparently, based on real world practices.

List of Myths, Legends, and Folktales

This short list includes elements of myth that cannot be conveniently connected to a single body of mythology. For elements and stories of specific mythologies and cultures, see List of Mythologies.

See Also


Game and Story Use

  • Pretty much any setting can benefit from a deep background mythology - not just fantasy, but also science fiction, as the myth arcs of Babylon 5 (to name just one example) show. It immerses the player characters - and thus, the players - into their world.
    • However, care should be taken not to overwhelm the players with background information at the start of the campaign. Instead, they should gradually learn more as the campaign progresses - and also want to learn more.
    • Often worth saving the info-dumps for when the players make the mistake of requesting them: either by asking an appropriate NPC or by making effective roles against their own lore skills (bearing in mind that their characters should know the myths of their culture).
  • In a shamanistic setting, one or more PCs might well quest - whether ritually or otherwise - to echo a myth and so earn a favour from a god or spirit.
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