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What is a myth?

"God made man, because he liked to hear a story." So say the Africans, and the rich variety of worldwide mythology proves that God chose wisely!

Myths are stories that are based on tradition. Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional. But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures. Myths are sacred tales that explain the world and man's experience. Myths are as relevant to us today as they were to the ancients. Myths answer timeless questions and serve as a compass to each generation. The myths of lost paradise, for example, give people hope that by living a virtuous life, they can earn a better life in the hereafter. The myths of a golden age give people hope that there are great leaders who will improve their lives. The hero's quest is a model for young men and women to follow, as they accept adult responsibilities. Some myths simply reassure, such as myths that explain natural phenomena as the actions of gods, rather than arbitrary events of nature.

The subjects of myths reflect the universal concerns of mankind throughout history: birth, death, the afterlife, the origin of man and the world, good and evil and the nature of man himself. A myth taps into a universal cultural narrative, the collective wisdom of man. An excellent illustration of the universality of these themes is that so many peoples who have had no contact with each other create myths that are remarkably similar. So, for example, cultures worldwide, from the Middle East to the distant mountains of South America have myths about great floods, virgin births, and the afterlife (more examples of these archetypal themes are in the Myths & Archetypes section of the website).

Unlike fairy tales, myths are not always optimistic. True to the nature of life, the essence of myths is such that they are as often warnings as promises; as often laments as celebrations. Many myths are instructive and act as a guide to social norms, taking on cultural taboos such as incest, fratricide, and greed.

Myths are also pervasive in the arts and advertising, for a very simple reason. From film to cars to perfume, advertising uses visual metaphors to speak to us. While artists of every generation reinterpret myths, the same basic patterns have shown up in mythology for thousands of years. A name, phrase, or image based on a familiar myth can speak volumes to those who have been absorbing these mythic tales since birth. When we hear the expression, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" or when we see a television commercial featuring a wooden horse full of soldiers, we recognize the reference to Odysseus, who tricked the Trojans into admitting an army into their city this way.

When Jacqueline Kennedy referred to her husband's tenure as a new Camelot, we understand that she meant it was a golden age, like that of King Arthur. When the Greek government dubbed a campaign to rescue ethnic Greeks from behind the walls of the Iron Curtain "Operation Golden Fleece," we understood that they were invoking an ancient name to communicate that these people belonged to them. Each generation of storytellers adds another layer of fact and fiction to the myths, such that the themes and characters of myths are timeless, and endlessly relevant, as they are reinvented and reapplied to the lives of each new generation.

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