Shopping Cart

No products in the cart.

Defining Myth

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 22 total)
  • Author
  • #72166

    Mythology itself has a shapeshifting aspect – no two people define it quite the same. Thought I would share a handful of definitions I’ve collected over the years, and not just from Campbell. All ring true, more-or-less, in my experience, even when seemingly contradictory (in the field of myth, it helps to embrace paradox):

    Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence. – Rollo May

    Myths are like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure  which holds the house together so people can live in it.  – Rollo May

    Myths are public dreams. – Joseph Campbell

    Myths are metaphors. – Joseph Campbell

    Myth is the penultimate truth, of which all experience is the temporal reflection. – Ananda K, Coomaraswamy

    Myth, like science, is at once a method and a body of ordered experience. – William Troy

    Myth is … art and must be studied as such. – Richard Chase

    Myth is the central informing power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle. Hence the myth is the archetype. – Northrop Frye

    Myth has become a reflection on life without need for the literal enactment of the reflection. – Sophia Heller

    Myths describe the various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred. – Mircea Eliade

    This is barely scraping the surface. Please feel free to add to the list.


    Poet Robert Bringhurst’s take on myth:


    Speech itself is neither verse nor prose, and myth itself is neither fact nor fiction. Myth is a species of truth that precedes that distinction.”

    Robert Bringhurst, A Story Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World



      Here’s a golden oldie !

      ”Gwendolyn, Gwendolyn. Surely your not one of those undereducated boobs who believes a myth to be a set of exaggerated facts. A myth, you ought to know , is a method of describing, dramatizing, and condensing historical events and psychological states that are otherwise too complicated to be digested or appreciated by the prevailing society.” – Tom Robbins – Half Asleep In Frogs Pajamas


        Stephen; here are a few tidbits you might remember from the Wisdom Pool forum – Favorite Joseph Campbell quotations – on page, 8; back on the old CoaHO:


        “A mythological order is a system of images that gives consciousness a sense of meaning in existence, which, my dear friend, has no meaning––it simply is. But the mind goes asking for meanings; it can’t play unless it knows (or makes up) the rules.

        “Mythologies present games to play: how to make believe you’re doing thus and so. Ultimately, through the game, you experience that positive thing which is the experience of being-in-being, of living meaningfully. That’s the first function of a mythology, to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.”

        Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, p. 6″


        “If myth is translated into literal fact, then myth is a lie. But if you read it as a reflection of the world inside you, then it’s true. Myth is the penultimate truth.

        Joseph Campbell, from a 1986 Houston Chronicle interview by Leslie Sowers.”


        “Garry Abrams:
        Mythology, by Campbell’s definition, is a collection of metaphors, or “an organization of symbolic images and narratives metaphorical of the possibility of human experience and fulfillment in a given culture at a given time.”


        “A myth is something that never happened but is always happening. Myths are the plots of the psyche.”

        Tom Robbins


        More definitions of myth. Note the variety of both parallel and sometimes seemingly contradictory descriptions. Rather than viewing any one definition as correct and the others wrong, all provide a piece of the mosaic.

        “In common parlance, a myth is an ‘old wives’ tale,’ a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact.”

        – David Adams Leeming, The World of Myth (p. 3)


        “Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true. . . . Myth has two main functions.  The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as:  ‘Who made the world?  How will it end?  Who was the first man?  Where do souls go after death?’. . . . The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.”

        – Robert Graves, “Introduction,” New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (p. v)


        “Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

        – Sallustius, 4th cent. A.D. (quoted in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden)


        “The Myth, in a primitive society, that is in its original living form, is not just a tale.  It is a reality.  These stories are of an original, greater, more important reality through which the present life, fate, and mankind are governed.  This knowledge provides man with motives for rituals and moral acts.”

        – Veronica Ions, The World’s Mythology (p. 6)


        “By knowing the myth, one knows the ‘origin’ of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will.”

        – W. Taylor Stevenson, History as Myth (p. 17)


        “Greek mythology is largely made up of stories about gods and goddesses, but it must not be read as a kind of Greek Bible, an account of the Greek religion.  According to the most modern idea, a real myth has nothing to do with religion.  It is an explanation of something in nature:  how, for instance, anything and everything came into existence; men animals, this or that tree or flower . . . Myths are early science, the result of men’s first trying to explain what they saw around them.  But there are many so-called myths that explain nothing at all.  These tales are pure entertainment, the sort of thing people would tell one another on a long winter’s evening. . . . But religion is here, too.”

        – Edith Hamilton, Mythology (p. 19)


        “Myth purports to offer an adequate explanation for everything–for the elements and laws of nature, for social structure, ethics and the dynamics of the individual psyche.”

        – Norman Austin, Meaning and Being in Myth (p. 2)


        “Myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance”

        – Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (p. 23).

        “A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition.”

        – Joseph Campbell (interview)


        “We still like to make up stories, just as our ancestors did, which use personification to explain the great forces of our existence.  Such stories, which explain how the world began or where the sun goes when it sets, we call myths.  Mythology is a natural product of the symbolizing mind; poets, when not making up myths of their own, are still commanding ancient ones.”

        – John Frederick Nims, Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (p. 41-42)


        “Mythology is the womb of mankind’s initiation to life and death.”

        – Joseph Campbell, “Bios and Mythos” in Flight of the Wold Gander


        “Myths concern us not only for the part they play in all primitive, illiterate, tribal, or non-urban cultures . . .; not only for the grip that versions of ancient Greek myths have gained through the centuries on the literary culture of the Western nations; but also because of man’s endearing insistence on carrying quasi-mythical modes of thought, expression, and communication into a supposedly scientific age.”

        – G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions (p. 2)


        This definition of mythology/myth is from the Bill Moyers program Joseph Campbell: Myths to Live By (Part One). It is dated April 17, 1981.

        BILL MOYERS: What is a myth?

        JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, let’s begin with what a mythology is. A mythology is a system of images that incorporates a concept of the universe as a divinely energized and energizing ambience within which we live. Do you understand what I am saying? And a myth, then, is a single story or a single element of the whole mythology, and the various stories of the mythology interlock — they interlock to be consistent within this great world image.


        Myth is the message of the Gods.  😉

        My English is horrible but hopefully you get the gist of it.


        Thanks, Lynn, for sharing this – it’s one of the more comprehensive definitions of myth (from anyone, not just Campbell), and of the difference between a myth and a mythology. Much as I appreciate his tongue-in-cheek characterization of mythology as “other people’s religion,” which always elicits a chuckle, this one I have found much more useful in conveying Joe’s ideas, especially to college students and their professors.



        I love this definition. Is this your own formulation?

        Of course, that begs the question of just who or what “the Gods” are that are sending the message . . .


        Drewie, I love this definition. Is this your own formulation? Of course, that begs the question of just who or what “the Gods” are that are sending the message . . .

        That is the question indeed but I stopped asking that question a long time ago. 🙂

        And I honestly cant remember if I read this somewhere or if it is mine but I remember it came to me when I was reading a lot of ancient Greek mythology from Greek authors and not very popular ones hence the plural in “Gods”.

        I always thought myths are not just metaphors or stories we tell ourselves for comfort, there seems to be a layer deeper than the psychological that sometimes we can tap into it. It must have been one of those moments.



        “You might say a mythology is a formula for the harmonization of the energies of life.”

        (Joan Marler, “Joseph Campbell: The Mythic Journey,” The Yoga Journal, Nov./Dec. 1987)


        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 🙂


        Thank you, thegoaloflifeisrapture (aka Esther), for sharing these passages from two amazing authors. Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess: The Evolution of an Image (written with Anne Baring) is one of my favorite post-Campbell works – a comprehensive study drawing on Campbell, Jung, and Hillman, among others. And Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers is an essential work on fairy tales (and winner of a Mythopoeic Award).

        Of course, I know you know that, but it’s worth mentioning for those who don’t (which just scratches the surface of these authors’ contributions to the field of mythological studies – not to mention how important their voices are in a field once dominated by a masculine perspective).

        Warner’s point especially resonates, given the tendency among the general public to assume a text in print represents the definitive version of a myth, as if such a thing exists. Fortunately, that’s an attitude more difficult to maintain today than in the past, thanks to the multiple reimaginings of myths available today (e.g. the many retellings of episodes from the Odyssey – from Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad to Madeline Miller’s Circe).


        Thank you, Stephen 😊

        The Myth of the Goddess is a work of wonder, isn’t it.

        One of the joys of these forums is learning from each other, and I’m heartily looking forward to learning about authors and thinkers who are new to me. In fact, that gives me an idea for a whole new (Ariadne) thread..!



      Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 22 total)
      • The forum ‘The Call to Adventure’ is closed to new topics and replies.