Myth, Legend and Folklore

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Mythology is a genre of works, one of the oldest genres recognized (that is, codified as a genre) today, and is also a major contributor to the origin of the Fantasy genre. Though often thought of as a "dead" genre that only contains ancient works, mythology exists in most religions and cultures, and continues to be invented and reinterpreted all the time. The genre is generally divided into myths and legends, although the differences between them are fuzzy, subjective, and somewhat culture-specific.

Mythology has been passed around using several different media: while the genre certainly began with Oral Tradition, it also includes Literature composed in writing from the start, as well as Music, visual arts, and Theatre.

Because bodies of mythology have huge numbers of authors and are continually developed over centuries or millennia, any given story is likely to come in multiple versions, so internal contradictions are pretty much inevitable, so beware of Continuity Snarls. Most religions (especially the non-Abrahamic ones) do not have a defined Canon that accepts some stories and excludes others. Because cultures, religions, and theology change over time, myths and legends from different centuries may handle the same subjects, deities, and human characters in very different ways, leading to constant Adaptation and re-interpretation. For this reason, it is not a good idea assume that any story is Older Than Dirt just because it's mythical.

Myth

In English the words "myth" and "mythology" are often used to mean "widely believed falsehood" or "total fiction", which is why many people object to using such words for their own culture. However, the older meanings of these words lack the negative connotations. "Mythology" is also the study of myths and legends, and as a genre myths are not automatically defined as false or untrue. Though myths can be analyzed like fictional stories, the reality behind them is usually theological subject, especially when divine figures are involved.

Myths are sacred narratives dealing with subjects such as deities, God, acts of creation, the afterlife, the nature of human souls, and the origin of good and evil. They may tell a Creation Myth or Just-So Story, express theology and cosmology, or relate themes and tropes to human nature. Most cultures and religions have some mythic narratives, though people both within and between traditions differ in how literally or metaphorically they interpret and believe their myths.

Non-narrative works about theology and cosmology are sometimes also considered to be myth or mythology, even if nobody turned them into an entertaining story yet.

Legend

Legends are often closely related to myths, and may be connected to them in works and larger narratives, but they may also wander from culture to culture more easily. They're mostly about human heroes and ancestors rather than religious concepts. However, it is important to note that the idea of distinguishing religious and non-religious stories and concepts is a recent one — before the Industrial Revolution and the development of Western modernism and secularism, religion as such did not exist separately from culture in general, and most stories had some of what we would call religious themes.

Legends may concern the ancestors of a particular culture or family, or the origin of a human group, institution, or practice. They often also cover what we call history today.

Folklore and Fairy Tales

The term "folklore" was coined in the 19th century as an umbrella term for the entirety of the traditions of a people, ethnic group or subgroup. Folklorists (people who research folklore) divide their subject of study into four areas: physical (artefacts, folk art, traditional costume), behavioral (customs, rituals, festivals, traditional games), cultural, and oral. The part of folklore that interests us on this wiki is typically the oral one, also called Oral Tradition.

Oral folklore is not strictly separated from Mythology and Legend, though the term folklore is broader than both of these. In contrast to these other genres which are predominantly concerned with gods and heroes, folk narratives are typically much closer to the everyday life of the common folks and don't exclude the mundane. Folk beliefs and creatures of folklore are sometimes summarized under the term "Low Mythology", in contrast to “High Mythology” that focuses on gods and cosmology.

Typical forms of folk narratives are folk tales, folk legends and folk ballads. Even shorter forms of oral tradition include folk songs, nursery rhymes, riddles, proverbs, and jokes.

Folktales are often equated with Fairy Tales, though folklorists prefer the former term as "fairy tale" is a somewhat vague term that has no hard definition. The classification of folktales is a matter on which much ink has been spilled; the following is a list of common categories, though these are not necessarily complete nor mutually exclusive:

  • Wonder tales: Quintessential fairy tales, which deal with mostly young heroes or heroines overcoming supernatural enemies, Curses or enchantments; often receiving equally Supernatural Aid in the process. Examples: "Rapunzel," "Sleeping Beauty," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Snow White," and many more.
  • Realistic Tales (a.k.a. "novellas"): Tales where supernatural elements play only minor parts or none at all (though the plot may not necessarily be probable). Examples: "King Thrushbeard," various stories of the "Judgment of Solomon" type.
  • Stupid Ogre Tales: Clever, usually young hero outwits a stupid ogre, giant, devil, or some other non-human enemy of that kind. Examples: "The Brave Little Tailor," "Jack and the Beanstalk."
  • (Beast) Fables: Moral tales that very frequently use animals, with their associated stereotypes, to exemplify a lesson. Examples: Aesop's Fables, "The Farmer and the Viper" type tales.
  • Animal tales: Tales with animal heroes. They rely on the same Animal Stereotypes as beast fables, however they aim for pure entertainment, not moral lessons. Almost always, the tale is about how an ostensibly weaker animal outwits a larger, stronger or otherwise seemingly superior one. Examples: "The Hare and the Hedgehog," "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids."
  • Religious Tales: Superhuman/divine forces punish evil or foolish behavior and reward honest or morally exemplary behavior. In the West, they often took the form of "legends of Saints," but the type itself is not tied to any specific religion. See "Honest Axe"-type stories; even Perrault's comical "The Ludicrous Wishes" is at its core a religious tale.
  • Just-So Stories: What it says. Can be moral in tone, funny, or both. Example: "How the Bear lost its Tail"
  • Cautionary Tales: Tales told specifically to children to deter them from undesirable behaviour by means of Scare'Em Straight. Consequently they often result in a Downer Ending. "Little Red Riding Hood" is a quintessential cautionary tale.
  • Nursery Tales: Tales specifically intended for smaller children. They often take the form of a "chain tale" (or "cumulative tale") –- the same loop repeats over and over again (though with a little change each time). The plot is usually quite silly, as the fun is more in telling them lively, and they often contain verses that children can learn. Typical nursery tales are "The Gingerbread Man" and "Goldilocks" (a.k.a. "The Three Bears").
  • Tall Tales: Obvious absurdities for entertainment's sake. The name derives from a specific type of such stories about people or things that are improbably tall, such as the Paul Bunyan stories. But Tall Tales are not necessarily about tall things; the Tom Thumb stories, about a hero that is impossibly small, are (ironically) rooted in the Tall Tale genre too.
  • Joke Stories and Anecdotes: Funny stories about people that are exceptionally dumb, clever Tricksters that make fools of their fellow men, and other droll stories. Often satirize human flaws like avarice, hypocrisy and foolishness.

Folk Legends differ from folk tales in that they have an (at least vaguely) fixed setting in time and space. In their origins, they are passed down as something that really happened, or at least possibly happened; this is their difference from folk tales, which are always considered to be non-factual. Of course, the modern age has made this distinction a little more blurry, as we don't believe any more in the historical reality of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (a folk legend) than we do in the story of "Hansel and Gretel" (a folk tale). Even today, however, the notion that there is "a true core" behind legends is still quite common. Many folk legends are ghost stories; others extol the memorable deeds of Folk Heroes. To think that all folk legends are products of past ages is a mistake, though: The modern age continues to spawn its own folk legends, commonly called Urban Legends.

Folk Ballads are not so much a separate genre, but rather folk tales or folk legends packaged in folk song (see Narrative Poem).

Works pages for myths and legends:

(This list is a work in progress.)

Heroic Legend

Arabian

English

Finnish

Mesopotamia (Sumerian/Babylonian/Akkadian)

Persian

Russian & Ukrainian

Welsh

Religious Legend

This category is for stuff like the Christian legends of saints.

Folklore

Folktales and folktale characters

[Literary Fairy Tales will go only on Fairy Tale, traditional fairy tales will be on both indexes.]

Beast Fables

Folk Legend

[remove from Fairy Tale]

Individual legends

... and other Characters of Folk Legend

Folk Legend Subcategories

Folk Ballads

Beings of folk belief

Egypt

Ireland

Japan

Northwestern Europe