Myths About Myths, and What a Myth Really Is

While we’ve had a great time on this site busting myths right and left, we’ve never really told you exactly what a myth is.

Well, in this article we’ll remedy that, and bust a few myths about myths along the way.

One of the biggest myths about myths is that any myth is just a made-up story, casually invented to explain something imperfectly understood. Well, that’s true, in the same way that Antonio Stradivari was a pretty good fiddle-maker. That is to say, there’s more to it than that — a lot more.

Sure, people are good at making things up, and describing things by comparing them to what we already understand: fiction and invention, metaphor and simile. But myths are nothing less than earnest attempts to understand the reality of the world around us. Admittedly, sometimes we’re so off-base it’s funny…

Teaching by example

One myth about myths is that they’re allegories, and the two types of stories do bear some similarities. Allegories are made up stories, true, but they’re made up to illustrate a point, not to explain something that actually happened or happens. They’re often used in religious texts.

Ultimately allegories are teaching fables, often staring anthropomorphized animals, designed to subtly transfer a lesson to the listener. For example, both “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper” advise us, in their separate ways, against both sloth and overconfidence.

The choking doberman

Another myth about myths is that they’re basically the same as urban legends. Well, not really. An urban legend is an apocryphal piece of folklore that passes from person to person, and nearly always happens to “a friend of a friend” — your cousin’s hairdresser, or your uncle’s teacher’s brother. You get the picture.

Again, you have a made-up story with a lesson to it, and it’s almost certainly untrue unless deliberately staged; but it’s not a myth, because it doesn’t explain anything. It just passes on a juicy piece of pseudo-gossip, like an account of an attack by a hook-handed maniac, or how an old lady once microwaved her dog.

Calling a spade a spade

If this site has taught you anything, it should be that one big myth about myths is absolutely untrue: that all myths are ancient. Many of us associate myths with Greco-Roman mythology, and all sorts of fancy (and brutal) stories about large, fussy pantheons of gods and how they made the world come about.

But anything, from dreams to cats to where the extra socks hide, can have mythology attached to it — because a myth is an attempt to describe the world using flawed logic or insufficient data. Sometimes it’s wishful thinking; sometimes it’s a lyrical placeholder, held onto only until something better can be found.

One thing to remember is that a myth isn’t intended as a deliberate fiction; rather, it’s a widely shared belief that can, in some ways, shape reality. A myth may or may not be true, but it’s not meant as a lie.

So see, there are even myths about myths to think about!