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Myths Everyone Should Know?

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    There are so many.

    I approach this question from the perspective of a public school teacher in the United States, so tend to think of what myths are important in terms of understanding our culture (e.g., what do students need to understand the mythic references that infuse literature, religion, history, contemporary journalism, and the popular media),

    and then in understanding world culture,

    and finally in conveying core values.

    I’m not using “core values” as code for moral instruction (for example, one of the key values the knowledge of mythology conveys is awe of, and trust in, the human imagination – a realization that is morally neutral).

    Given today’s dominant culture emerged from the Greco-Roman cultural nexus of the Mediterranean world, a familiarity with Greek mythology seems essential to understanding so many developments of western culture, from art and philosophy to government and law. This is a no-brainer; however, the Greek (and, to a lesser extent, its Roman cousin) is often the only mythology to receive more than passing attention in public schools today.

    Usually, when teaching a unit on mythology in my literature class, I would ask my seventh-grade students to compile a list of at least 50 examples of mythic imagery in contemporary usage today. Most of the examples come courtesy Madison Avenue – branding that speaks to the power of the archetype when we realize images from archaic mythologies can still move millions today (if advertisers realize that and can wield mythic motifs to make money, seems this dynamic could be channeled in more positive directions as well).

    From Mercury (Hermes) delivering flowers for FTD (am I dating myself?), to a Mars candy bar, or the USC Trojans in a bowl game, or the Apollo space flights, or best-selling novels like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” mythic references surround us – but, absent any mythic context, these are just names floating in space with as much meaning as “Nissan” or “Datsun” or “Toyota” had to the American ear when Japanese exports first hit the auto market.

    So, answering the question “What myths should everyone know?,” a basic familiarity with Greek myth and the Olympic pantheon makes sense: The origin tale of each of the twelve gods (Zeus & Hera and their brood) and their relationship to one another, how they succeeded the Titans, etc.

    Apart from the gods, I would specifically include the tales of

    Pandora’s Box
    Psyche & Eros
    The Twelve Labors of Hercules,
    Jason & the Argonauts, Perseus & Medusa
    Theseus & the Minotaur
    The Illiad
    The Odyssey

    One needn’t get a doctorate in classical mythology, or even need read Homer to do this. A single work – say Ovid’s “Metamophoses,” Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” Robert Graves’ “The Greek Myths,” or even Bullfinch’s “Mythology,” should suffice to provide a sense of this mythic framework embedded in modern culture.

    While western culture has one leg in the Hellenistic world, the other is firmly planted in Jerusalem. So a familiarity with the Judeo-Christian mythic structure as well is key to understanding and living in contemporary western culture (one needn’t subscribe to Judaism or Christianity to recognize the relevance of these myths, anymore than one would have to sacrifice a goat to Jupiter to understand Greco-Roman mythology).

    Biblical myths everyone should know:

    Adam & Eve & the Serpent in the Garden of Eden
    Noah & the Flood
    Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael, in the Quran)
    Sodom & Gomorrah
    Joseph & His Brothers
    Moses, Pharaoah, & the Exodus
    Samson & Delilah
    David & Goliath
    Daniel & the Lion’s Den
    Birth of Jesus
    Life & Ministry of Jesus
    Crucifixion & Resurrection of the Christ;
    The Apocalypse and the Return of Christ.

    Again, it’s not necessary to earn a degree in theology – in fact, it’s difficult to avoid being exposed to most of these stories in one form or another, in the western world. These basic myths provide the foundation for the complex and elegant theologies that evolved in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and that fueled major movements from the Diaspora, to the adoption of Christianity as official religion of the Roman Empire, to the Reformation, and beyond; on a practical level, they present the mythic background to the tribal conflicts still roiling the Middle East today.

    However, I am also drawn to a number of specific myths or motifs from other cultures.

    Innanna’s Descent to the Underworld and the Epic of Gilgamesh are myths central to the Sumero-Akkadian civilization and it’s successors for over two thousand years, with motifs from each rippling through other myths (from the flood of Genesis, to Hades’ abduction and rape of Persephone, or the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ).

    Similarly, from Egypt, the tale of the Love of Isis, and her search for, and re-membering of, the dead Osiris.

    The Birth, Life, and Enlightment of the Buddha, from India – simple, sweet.

    King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table – which opens the door to the entire Arthurian cycle. Poignant as is the love of Tristan & Isolde, powerful as is the compassion that reveals the Grail to Parzival, it is Merlin and Arthur and companions who draw us into that realm. The Arthur cycle not only points the way to the potent realizations of a Wolfram von Eschenbach or a Gottfried von Straussburg, but provides a bridge back to half-forgotten myths and deeds performed in the guise of Celtic gods and heroes.

    Coyote tales – very short, and there are so many, drawn from the indigenous cultures in pre-columbian North America – everyone should know one or two or ten (I’m drawn to the one where Coyote eats the plant that makes you shit – he eats a lot of it, and, well, with friends like that, who needs enemas?).

    And not just Coyote, but I might suggest a separate section for trickster tales of all cultures

    … and speaking of Trickster, how can I leave out Loki? The Teutonic and Norse pantheons are never explored enough (apart from Wagnerian opera), and contain a colder northern perspective than the Mediterranean warmth of their Greek counterparts – making Asgard an Ibsen/Strindberg/Bergmann spin on Olympus?.

    I would certainly include the tale of Baldur and Loki as one of the myths everyone should know.

    There are so many more.

    What have i left out?

    Mything you,


    The Indian Epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha.
    The Krishna Cycle of myths.
    And introduction to the vast field of Indian mythology (someone will have to write a book on this)



    Looks like I completely spaced the Popul Vuh, which recounts a Mayan creation myth in the story of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.

    What else would you include among myths everyone should know?


    I add some properly Latin American myths and mythological characters, whose importance commonly extends beyond the borders of a single country. Unpretentious to be exhaustive, only as a first approach.

    ✔️ Pachamama (myth of the indigenous peoples of the Andes mountains)
    ✔️ The myth of the original Selk’nam matriarchy (Tierra del Fuego)
    ✔️  The civilizing hero Bochica (Muisca Civilization)
    ✔️  The myth of Viracocha (Inca Empire)
    ✔️  The Popol Vuh (as Stephen said)
    ✔️  The solar God Huitzilopochtli (Mexica Culture)
    ✔️  The Tupi Guarani myth of the “Land without Evil”

    Its importance is capital, since each of them expresses a particular worldview, ranging from the relationship with the earth to human relationships and the link with transcendence.

    We will follow soon  👍


    Thank you so much, Juan, for your contribution. Pachamama, the Selk’nam, and Bochica were completely off my radar (I am excited, because now I have “new” myths to seek out and explore; as much as I love classical myths, they offer such a tired and limited perspective if that’s all one knows).

    I’ll add to my list above the relatively well documented, rich mythology of the indigenous Haida peoples in North America’s Pacific Northwest (straddling the boundaries of the United States and Canada). One of the best collections of this material is embedded in poet Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (which includes tales of the trickster Raven).


    Interesting references, Stephen. Thanks for sharing. I am going to review Bringhurst’s “opus” to delve into that mythology.


    Here are some Arabian myths that come to my mind, and I have even used the metaphor often, ‘Alladin’s lamp” when wishing for something not quite accessible.

    1. Alladin’s Lamp

    2. Ali Baba and the forty thieves

    3. The mythical creature of Shadhavar ( A mythical Arabian creature that came out of the medieval ages,  believed to be a unicorn-like creature with  one giant horn and 42 branches that spread out from this horn)

    4. Sindbad the Sailor (deals with magical  creatures, foreign lands, and triumphs over powerful monsters.)

    5. Zarqa’ Al-Yamama ( a powerful woman with incredible powers and magic. She had brilliant blue eyes which helped her foresee the future and predict events)


    Thank you for including the Arabian myths, Shaheda. I have always loved the 1001 Nights and the tale of Aladdin’s Lamp and flying carpets.


    Oh and I love Japanese myths.


    Animal Myths in general, from any/all cultures. At a time when so many humans are alienated from the natural world, at a time when children are for the most part unable to play outside alone or see animals unless at the zoo, the animal myths offer a way for humans to engage imaginally with the natural world.

    The Phoenix

    Native American animals/totems

    Firebird tales (Russian/Slovakian)

    Baba Yaga tales (Russian)



    Sumerian myths/pantheon

    Mesopotamian myths/pantheon

    Enuma Elish

    Myths of the Constellations and Astronomical Zodiac and Planetary Gods

    Norse Myths





      Oh and I love Japanese myths.

      Amaterasu    (


      Today’s Google Doodle added a new myth to my mythic vocabulary.

      Google Doodle


      Today August 25th, is the Qixi Festival or the Magpie day in Chinese Mythology. It’s also known as “The Chinese Valentine’s Day” .  It’s celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. The legend is that  two lovers, Zhinü, a weaver girls, and  Niulang, a  cowherd fell in love.

      “The Qixi festival inspired the Tanabata festival in Japan, Chilseok festival in Korea, and Thất Tịch festival in Vietnam.” (Wki)

      The Qixi festival is also called the the Night of Sevens, or the  Magpie Festival. The story is that they were not allowed to celebrate their love and were banished on opposite sides of the  Silver River, which symbolizes the milky way.   It’s said the once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies  form a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day. There are other variations to this story.

      In China, there are many rituals to celebrate this day, “Girls worship the stars in the sky, burn paper items. In some parts of China, girls wish for a loving husband, and display their needle work skills.  Toiletries are hung in honor of the  seven maidens.

      Modern day festivities include wearing red clothing(symbolizing passion), dancing, displaying needle work, gazing at the sky, crossing the bridge.

      Happy “Double Seventh Festival” to all lovers, and those in love. And those that are not romantically linked, may find their Valentine, soon, very soon. Cross the bridge anyway.


        There is not only this remarkable (unknown to me so far) and enlighting oriental bridge: …The legend is that two lovers, Zhinü, a weaver girls, and Niulang, a cowherd fell in love… , but also between corresponding ancient tales alike in the occident, to name Daphnis and Chloë only. And frequently investigating the the mythology department in the local and abundant bookstore, none of these or those are available that easely alas. Any more references are welcome!

        Yet this striking mirroring image where uni-formed man offer their supportive shoulders to the cooperative choosen promise building these temporarily featherlight bridge to reach for the untouchable heaven bringing it down to an earthly paradise… and all in heartly reds.


        Indeed, Mars – the more myths from different cultures we learn, the more striking that correspondence is. I appreciate Shaheda’s contribution (even when universities focus on myths of other cultures, like Africa, Latin American indigenous cultures, India, the Pacific islands, we rarely do more than scrape the surface of Chinese and Japanese mythology).


          …correspondance… getting equal.

          About the Pacific, tranquil it is and silent stones erect gazing to the distant ocean clouds. What stories from there? Throwing a chicken, a pig and a bunch of bananas into the canoe and they start rowing Rigel Kentauris as guide to the end of the world. The greatest seafarers of all history, unsurpassed by Vikings, Columbus-folk or oriental mariners alike. And guess what: they do have a legend of a deluge too!

          The said department about those stories is one meager shelf only…

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