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Reply To: Defining Myth


Hello Stephen and all,

I spend an inordinate amount of my time mulling the question of how to define a myth. 😊

Here are two ruminations I’ve come across recently – they’re good for when you’re in the mood for a longer read:


The Greek word Muthos, or, as it has now become, Mythos, means ‘story’ or ‘speech,’ the story that sets a pattern and has purpose and design within it, deriving ultimately from the Indo-European root of the verb mud, meaning ‘to think’ and ‘to imagine.’ As the dual meaning of story and speech suggests, these stories come out of an oral tradition and were told for centuries, if not millennia, around a communal fire, in the market place, inside the home. These were the sacred stories of the tribe, passed down the generations, offering an image of the deep heart of the cosmos and the place of humankind within it, exploring how to live with joy and meaning.

Generally, the words ‘story’ and ‘myth’ in our culture no longer reflect the depth and complexity contained in the original term Mythos. We have always to remember that we are bringing our largely secular minds to try to understand a sacred universe, structured on different principles, existing nearly 3,000 years ago. (The Iliad and the Odyssey, for instance, the earliest of the Greek stories to be written down, date to 700 BC). Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the language, and the values within it, have almost entirely lost their original meaning.

Generally, our culture dismisses stories as tales for children or ‘anecdotal evidence,’ something arbitrary and not to be taken seriously. Similarly, myth has become a term frequently used for a religion belonging to an earlier time or someone else, and, more widely, an illusion (‘just a myth’), and at best a framework of belief such as ‘the myth of progress.’

In ancient Greece, by contrast, Mythos was magically resonant of origins: it was the first imagining of how things are or might be or could be. As the American poet Wallace Stevens writes:

“There was a muddy centre before we breathed.
There was a myth before the myth began,
Venerable and articulate and complete.
From this the poem springs…”

Story-tellers all over the world still begin with ‘once upon a time.’

In early Greek thought Mythos came first and Logos arose out of Mythos. Originally, Logos simply meant speaking about Mythos, from the verb Legein, to say, to speak, deriving from the proto Indo-European root leg, to collect, and derivatively to speak, to ‘pick out’ words (as in ‘lecture’). It was the thing said, the discussion when the story had ended, conversations about goddesses and gods and their interactions with human beings. Logos accrued many other meanings, such as word, speech, statement, account, thought and reason – from which all our ‘ologies’ come: ‘mythology’ – the logos of myth; ‘psychology’ – the logos of the psyche, ‘anthropology’ – the logos of humans. Logos became ratio in Latin, which was interpreted as ‘reason’ alone, and, as with so many Greek ideas, lost its original complexity.

This ‘speaking about,’ or ‘rational discourse’ is necessarily outside the story, and was contrasted to Mythos as a different kind of consciousness, but it was a consciousness which did not, initially at least, leave the original story too far behind. Heraclitus (535-475 BC) was the first to extend the meaning of Logos from rational discourse by humans to a rational structure inherent in the world itself. Though when he writes “When listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that all things are one,” (Heraclitus) he is himself articulating the meaning of the sacred stories which speak of the world as one whole.

In ancient Greece, it was held to be crucially important to have a balance between these two kinds of consciousness, accepting that each had their own unique virtue and both were necessary to each other and the whole which they manifest. They came to embody two different but complementary ways of knowing the world, and so vital was this distinction that there were two different words for ‘knowledge’: Gnosis and Episteme. To relate these terms very broadly, and inevitably to over-simplify, we could say that Mythos is a story inspired by Imagination known through Gnosis – gnostic knowledge – while Logos is an account answerable to Reason, known through Episteme – epistemological knowledge.’ – From Mythos and Logos by Jules Cashford (Holistic Science Journal, vol 2, issue 3, Parallel Time).


‘Marina Warner: Since I wrote Stranger Magic, I’ve got more interested in this fantastic Florence Dupont book.

Omar Berrada: The Invention of Literature?

Marina Warner: Yes… She has this model of logos and mythos, which is not a contrast between oral and written but between two types of text. The logos text is institutional, legal, like habeas corpus or the Magna Carta or the length of a meter; whereas literature is mythos, a much more fluid expression, which is carried on the voice, though it remains textual. Mythos is a text in a state of constant metamorphosis, not least because it’s transactional; it’s performed, not enshrined. It’s something that happens between you and me, or between the audience in the theater and the cast of characters on stage. It is very elusive, very hard to trap — and doesn’t get trapped, except when print comes in. That’s Florence Dupont’s point: when print comes in we get a different concept of the canonical text, which turns literature into logos. So that books are tombs of sorts or, as she says, “death masks.” And she has a sort of metaphysical idea that the whole notion of the voice in the mythos, after print, is about reanimating the dead.’ – From

So maybe a myth is ‘a story inspired by imagination, known through gnosis, and in a state of constant metamorphosis’…?

Esther 🙂