(This was originally prepared in 2013 for students taking the Open University module A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. It represents my personal opinions, not those of the OU Module Team, and is not part of the official module materials. I’ve now moved it over here because I’m leaving the OU, and want to continue using this in my teaching.)
The question I want to address briefly here is ‘what is myth?’ This is, of course, a pretty fundamental question for most courses on mythology, including the Open University module A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds, and it does get addressed in the A330 Course Introduction (Emlyn-Jones and James, 2011, pp. 8–10). But after that, students on that course, or indeed on many other courses on myth, may find that the question gets slightly forgotten. This is because, in a lot of ways, it’s really quite a hard question. And the reason for this is that myth is one of those things where everybody knows what it is — but when it comes to seeking a hard-and-fast definition, that turns out to be a lot more difficult than you might expect.
As the Open University Course Introduction says, there are lots of different meanings for the word ‘myth’ (Emlyn-Jones and James, 2011, pp. 8–9). If you own a copy of the Open University publication The Arts Good Study Guide (Chambers and Northedge, 2008; a text, incidentally, which I recommend to anyone studying an Arts or Humanities course), you will find in there a section on ‘Some myths about exams’ (pp. 285–290). Of course, the authors are not talking there about a heroic struggle of a legendary figure to pass the examination for a course in mythology. They are instead using ‘myth’ to describe something that is commonly believed about exams, but is not (in the opinion of the authors) actually true. But this is not what we mean when we speak of ‘the myth of Heracles’ – because no-one actually believes that the story of Heracles is literally true.
The word ‘myth’ comes, of course, from the ancient Greek word μῡθος or muthos (sometimes transliterated as mythos). As students on the OU module Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds learn in Block 4 (Emlyn-Jones in James et al., 2011, pp. 112–113, 189–192), this originally simply meant ‘the spoken word’, and was contrasted with logos, the written word. Gradually, the meanings of both terms shifted, so that from its basic meaning, muthos came to mean a spoken story, such as, for instance, Homer’s Odyssey, recited by a rhapsode. That led to muthos having connotations of the made-up, and hence the irrational and the false, whilst logos in consequence represented the rational and the true. And as part of that, muthos came to represent, for the Greeks, what we would now describe as ‘mythology’.
But for a long time, ‘myth’ wasn’t the term that post-Classical scholars used. They preferred the Latin term fabulae, which means ‘stories’, or ‘tales’ (and later became the standard Latin term for a dramatic performance). The Greek term muthos only came into favour with the work of the German scholar Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729-1812), who found fabulae too slight for the weight he wanted to place on mythology, and so started using the Greek term muthos (also, as Morales, 2007, p. 57, notes, he wanted to use the contrast between muthos and logos to advance his case that the Greek myths belonged to a primitive stage of humanity, as opposed to the rationality of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment). From there muthos passed into English-speaking scholarship as ‘myth’.
But still, what is a ‘myth’? Mark Morford and Robert Lenardon, in their textbook Classical Mythology, do advance a definition in their first chapter. They say:
A classical myth is a story that, through its classical form, has attained a kind of immortality because its inherent archetypal beauty, profundity, and power have inspired rewarding renewal and transformation by successive generations.
(Morford et al., 2015, p. 26)
Is that definition acceptable? Well, for a start, it is, as Morford and Lenardon state, only a definition of a classical myth; it won’t do as an overall definition of ‘myth’, which has to encompass all the other mythologies, such as Norse, Chinese, Sumerian, etc. But even if we removed the specific reference to the Greek and Roman world, will what Morford and Lenardon say work as a definition of myth? I think problems remain. For one thing, this definition really only covers the famous and often retold myths. There are, however, many stories that are obscure, and rarely retold, such as Ovid’s tale of the crow in Metamorphoses, Book 2 (549–595). Are we to remove those stories from mythology, because they haven’t ‘inspired rewarding renewal and transformation’? I think not.
Another course on Greek and Roman mythology, run as an online MOOC by Peter Struck of the University of Pennsylvania for Coursera, adopted the following definition of myth (based on Burkert, 1982, p. 23):
a traditional tale with secondary partial reference to something of collective importance… told by someone for some reason.
Now, that’s a pretty vague sort of definition, one which covers a lot of ground. It’s certainly better than the heavily value-weighted definition of Morford and Lenardon. But even Struck’s course had to throw out this wishy-washy definition when it came to looking at Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work OU students study in some depth in Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Struck replaced his original definition with this definition of mythology:
a clump of stories, probably untrue, about ancient characters that may or may not have actually existed, with some deeper truths in them, or not. But they’re surely fun to hear.
The problem is, of course, that any mythology includes a whole range of different stories, created for different purposes. There are aetiological myths, myths that explain the origins of a feature of the natural world. This sort of story used to be familiar to children through Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902), which explain various features of animals, such as ‘How the Leopard got its spots’, and ‘How the Elephant got its trunk’. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of such stories, as anyone who reads that work will find out — one example from Book 2 (401–531) is the myth of Callisto, explaining the origins of the constellation of the Little Bear, and why that constellation never sinks below the horizon (from a Mediterranean perspective).
Then there are myths that probably have their origins in actual historical events, such as those myths concerning the Kings of Rome (though too much assumption of a historical background behind a myth such as that of the Trojan War brings its own problems).
And there are myths that are just funny stories, with no particular object beyond that. An example of this might be the story of Iphis and Ianthe in Metamorphoses Book 9 (666–797), a humorous tale about a girl raised as a boy.
And this is just to cover a few types of myth.
In their first chapter, Morford and Lenardon (2015, pp. 3–39) advance a possible method of rationalizing this complexity. They address the manner in which some scholars have divided mythology into ‘true myth’, which concerns the gods, ‘legends’ or ‘sagas’, which have a historical basis, and ‘folktales’, those stories intended as pure entertainment. They add a couple of subcategories of folktales: ‘fairy-tales’, those folktales with a high moral and/or magical content; and ‘fables’, for stories in which animals are the principal characters, best-known from the tales of Aesop, such as ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’. They make no distinction between ‘legends’ and ‘sagas’, though one could argue that ‘legends’ should be individual stories, and ‘sagas’ longer linked stories around a central character or event (such as the Trojan War).
There are several problems with this rationalization. One is the unnecessary importation of the term ‘saga’, a specific term from Norse literature, into the study of Greek mythology. Another is that not everyone uses terms in the same way — for example, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his 1939 essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (in Tolkien 2012), clearly includes in the category of fairy-stories the sort of high fantasy/mythology he had been writing since the 1910s, and which would soon be published in The Lord of the Rings.
But the biggest problem for this rationalization is the one that Morford and Lenardon themselves identify (2015, p. 4) — that few actual myths can be fitted neatly into these categories, and most include different elements taken from different categories.
This is a natural product of the constant retelling of the stories. A story intended to explain some element of the world around the original storyteller will then be retold for a contemporary purpose by an Athenian tragedian, or as an entertainment by Ovid. A mythology is built out of ‘true’ myths, legends, folktales, fairy-tales and beast fables, so it is important to know that some people make these distinctions—a former colleague of mine amongst the Open University Associate Lecturers, for instance, distinguished between the story of Aeneas, a myth of the foundation of Rome, and the story of Romulus, a legend of the foundation of Rome. But trying to categorize all mythological stories is fraught with problems, and I will continue using the general term ‘myth’—and should I use other terms such as ‘legends’, I don’t mean anything specific by this.
I’m still no closer to a precise definition of myth. But perhaps I shouldn’t be looking for one. In fact, there are a lot of concepts that resist easy definition in this way. As part of my scholarly portfolio, I do some work as a science fiction critic. Science fiction critics get very exercised about how to define science fiction. One famous definition was offered by the critic Damon Knight in 1956, in a work called In Search of Wonder. He says:
… it will do us no harm if we remember that [science fiction] means what we point to when we say it.
(Knight, 1996, p. 11)
That sounds like an enormous cop-out—it doesn’t try to tell you what science fiction is, it just tells you that you’ll know it when you see it. But in fact it’s the only definition that makes any sense. Most of us have a fair idea of what the core of science fiction is, but we’ll always be arguing about works on the edges of the genre. And those arguments will always undermine any attempt to more precisely define what we mean by ‘science fiction’.
The same thing happens in other genres. Let’s look at western movies, for instance. Everyone knows that The Searchers (USA, John Ford, 1956) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (USA, George Roy Hill, 1969) are westerns. But if one adopts a definition that says, for example, that westerns are set on the American frontier between the American Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century, one ends up excluding movies such as Red River (USA, Howard Hawks, 1948), which begins in 1851, a decade before the Civil War. Even if one stretches the chronological boundaries, to, say, from the Texas Revolution of 1835 to the start of the First World War in 1914 (or US participation in 1917), one excludes Bad Day at Black Rock (USA, John Sturges, 1955), set in the late 1940s, yet often included in lists of the best westerns ever.
To borrow a term from semiotics, science fiction, westerns, and mythology are all ‘analogical’ modes of communication, where meaning is articulated through proportion, expression and gradation, as opposed to ‘digital’ modes, where clear-cut definitions are employed. This means that there is general consensus about the core of such concepts, but there are grey areas at the edges, where interesting discussions can be had. As a mythological example of a grey area, one can consider the degree to which the emperor Augustus not only employs mythological imagery, but becomes himself, through the writings of Virgil and others, a mythological character. The same thing happens to Julius Caesar at the end of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.745–870). Can one therefore talk about the ‘myth of Augustus’ or the ‘myth of Caesar’? Obviously people do, but generally they mean the image that Caesar and Augustus presented of themselves, not Caesar or Augustus as mythological characters with the same status as Odysseus or Heracles.
So I can’t provide a definition of myth. But you may have noticed that one word has recurred through these discussions. That word is ‘story’, and I would certainly assert that the principal feature of myths is that they are stories.
If no single definition of myth is universally applicable, it follows, as Morford and Lenardon say (2015, p. 3), that no single theory of myth explains the entirety of myth. This hasn’t, of course, stopped proponents of various theories asserting that their theory explains everything, whether that be Bronislaw Malinowski and the functionalists, who argue that myths legitimized aspects of society, or the Freudians and their idea that myth represents the collective unconscious of humanity. Many of these are ideas that can be useful for understanding individual myths — well, perhaps not Freud, but that’s an argument for another time (for a partial takedown of Freud, see Morales, 2007, pp. 74–79) — but they don’t explain everything. Familiarity with theories of myth is an important part of any course on myth. But inevitably, those theories must be used with caution.
I’ll end by saying something about what myth is not. Myth is not something that exists independently of the texts, literary or visual, in which it is recorded. This may seem obvious — of course we can’t experience myth except through reading or looking at images. But it is surprising how much the idea persists that the representations of myth are reflections of some concept that is referred to as the ‘original myth’, rather as Plato theorized that everything we experience is a manifestation of an ideal concept.
However, there is no ‘original myth’, at least not in any sense that is meaningful to us. Of course, there will have been a time back in the mists of prehistory when the story of Odysseus was first told. But we cannot recover that moment, or the form that the story took at that telling. We can talk about the earliest versions recorded, but even those are the products of countless earlier retellings that we no longer have access to.
We can also talk about ‘dominant’ versions. These are the versions that become the ones that people first think about when they consider a myth, and which later versions engage with and react against. These are not necessarily the same as the earliest surviving versions. For the story of Odysseus, Homer’s Odyssey, the earliest surviving version, is also the dominant version. But for the story of Oedipus, the dominant version is in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, and this differs significantly from the earliest surviving version, which is again that of Homer’s Odyssey. Sometimes these dominant versions are called ‘canonical’, but that implies that these versions are correct, and versions that differ are wrong. This is not, in my view, an idea that is useful.
Because there is no one ‘right’ version of a myth, it is impossible to treat sources for myths in the same way as one might treat historical sources. Many students trained on historical courses will be used to taking various sources, and fitting them together like a jigsaw, to create as true a picture as possible of the event. But in myth, that simply can’t be done. We have a collection of jigsaw pieces, yes, but each piece comes from a slightly different jigsaw. If those pieces are forced together, the picture created is inevitably a distorted one.
So this leads to a final comment: what do you mean when you talk about, for example, ‘the myth of Hippolytus’? Do you mean an embracing concept that includes all the variations on that myth? Or do you mean the version in Euripides’ play Hippolytus, which is the dominant version? Or do you mean a composite version that has been put together for the Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Grimal, 1991, p. 204), or some other reference work? You’ll have effectively grasped hold of the essential concepts of courses on myth when you are able to mean the first, rather than the other two.
Burkert, W. (1982) Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, Oakland, CA, University of California Press.
Chambers, E. and Northedge, A. (2008) The Arts Good Study Guide, 2nd edn, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Emlyn-Jones, C. and James, P. (2011) A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds: Course Introduction, 2nd edn, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Grimal, P. (1991) The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (trans. A. Maxwell-Hyslop; ed. S. Kershaw), London, Penguin Books.
James, P., Hughes, J. and Emlyn-Jones, C. (2011) A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Block 3: Ovid and the Reception of Myth; Block 4: Myth and Reason in Classical Greece, 2nd edn, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Kipling, R. (1902) Just So Stories, London, Macmillan & Co.
Knight, D. (1996), In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, 3rd edn, Chicago, Advent.
Morales, H. (2007) Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Morford, M.P.O. and Lenardon, R.J. (2007) Classical Mythology, 8th edn, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press.
Morford, M.P.O., Lenardon, R.J. and Sham, M. (2011) Classical Mythology, international 9th edn, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press.
Morford, M.P.O., Lenardon, R.J. and Sham, M. (2015) Classical Mythology, international 10th edn, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press.
Struck, P. (2012a) ‘Week 1 Lecture 4: Ideas on myth from the modern era’, Greek and Roman Mythology [Online]. Available at https://class.coursera.org/mythology-2012-001/lecture/8 (Accessed 15 September 2014).
Struck, P. (2012b) ‘Week 10 Lecture 4: Ovid—Background and themes’, Greek and Roman Mythology [Online]. Available at https://class.coursera.org/mythology-2012-001/lecture/94 (Accessed 15 September 2014).
Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012) The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays [ebook reader], London, HarperCollins.