Myth (a keyword)
Myth came into English as late as eC19, though it was somewhat preceded by the form mythos (C18) from fw mythos, lL, mythos, Gk – a fable or story or tale, later contrasted with logos and historia to give the sense of ‘what could not really exist or have happened’.
Myth and mythos were widely preceded in English by mythology (from C15) and the derived words (from eC17) mythological, mythologize, mythologist, mythologian. These all had to do with ‘fabulous narration’ (1609) but mythology and mythologizing were most often used with a sense of interpreting or annotating the fabulous tales. We have mythological interpretation from 1614, and there is a title of Sandys in 1632: Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz’d, and Represented in Figures, with the same sense.
Two tendencies can be seen in the word in eC19. Coleridge used mythos in a sense which has become common: a particular imaginative construction (plot in
the most extending sense). Meanwhile the rationalist Westminster Review, in perhaps the first use of the word, wrote in 1830 of ‘the origin of myths’ and of seeking their ‘cause in the circumstances of fabulous history’.
Each of these references was retrospective, and myth alternated with fable, being distinguished from legend which, though perhaps unreliable, was related
to history and from allegory which might be fabulous but which indicated some
reality. However, from mC19, the short use of myth to mean not only a fabulous
but an untrustworthy or even deliberately deceptive invention became common, and has widely persisted.
On the other hand, myth acquired in an alternative tradition a new and positive
sense, in a new context. Before C19 myths had either been dismissed as mere
fables (often as pagan or heathen fables), or treated as allegories or confused memories of origins and pre-history. But several new intellectual approaches were now defined. Myths were related to a ‘disease of language’ (Muller) in which a confusion of names led to personifications; to an animistic stage of human culture (Lang); and to specific rituals, which the myths gave access to (Frazer, Harrison; the popular association of ‘myth and ritual’ dates from this 1C19 and eC20 work).
With the development of anthropology, both this last sense, of accounts of rituals,and a different sense, in which myth, as an account of origins, was an active form of social organization, were strongly developed. From each version (which in varying forms have continued to contend with each other as well as with efforts to rationalize (q.v.) myths in such a way as to discredit them or to reveal their
true (other) causes or origins) a body of positive popular usage has developed.
Myth has been held to be a truer (deeper) version of reality than (secular) history or realistic description or scientific explanation. This view ranges from simple irrationalism and (often post-Christian) supernaturalism to more sophisticated accounts in which myths are held to be fundamental expressions of certain properties of the human mind, and even of basic mental or psychological human organization.
These expressions are ‘timeless’ (permanent) or fundamental to particular
periods or cultures. Related attempts have been made to assimilate this mythic
function to the more general creative (q.v.) functions of art and literature, or
in one school, to assimilate art and literature to this view of myth. The resulting
internal and external controversies are exceptionally intricate, and myth is now
both a very significant and a very difficult word. Coming into the language only
in the last hundred and fifty years, in a period of the disintegration of orthodox
religion, it has been used negatively as a contrast to fact, history (q.v.) and science (q.v.); has become involved with the difficult modern senses of imagination, creative and fiction; and has been used both to illustrate and to analyse ‘human nature’ in a distinctively post-Christian sense (though the mode of various schools using myth in this sense has been assimilated to Christian restatement and apology). Meanwhile, outside this range of ideas, it has the flat common sense of a false (often deliberately false) belief or account.
Extract from Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society
Myth (a definition)
Myth, a kind of story or rudimentary narrative sequence, normally traditional and anonymous, through which a given culture ratifies its social customs or accounts for the origins of human and natural phenomena, usually in supernatural or boldly imaginative terms. The term has a wide range of meanings, which can be divided roughly into ‘rationalist’ and ‘romantic’ versions: in the first, a myth is a false or unreliable story or belief (adjective: mythical), while in the second, ‘myth’ is a superior intuitive mode of cosmic understanding (adjective: mythic). In most literary contexts, the second kind of usage prevails, and myths are regarded as fictional stories containing deeper truths, expressing collective attitudes to fundamental matters of life, death, divinity, and existence (sometimes deemed to be ‘universal’). Myths are usually distinguished from legends in that they have less of an historical basis, although they seem to have a similar mode of existence in oral transmission, re-telling, literary adaptation, and allusion. A mythology is a body of related myths shared by members of a given people or religion, or sometimes a system of myths evolved by an individual writer, as in the ‘personal mythologies’ of William Blake and W. B. Yeats…. For a fuller account, consult Laurence Coupe, Myth (1997).
Extract from Chris Baldick, (2001) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, OUP.