CLAS203 Lecture 1 & 2 Notes
There is no easy way to package myth into a simple definition. There are times where a
story you recognize as a myth, but it does not fit into the definition of a myth.
The word myth comes from the Greek word “mythos”, which means “utterance”,
something that is said like a story of some kind, but not a written story but rather a
Myth is not limited to the Greeks; it is a universal phenomenon among human beings,
and of every culture.
Myths are as old as language itself, and before spoken language, myths could be
portrayed in stone tablets, artworks, etc.
Earliest written myth was The Epic of Gilgamesh which appeared around 7 century B.C.
Myths are terribly difficult to define. While some like Hercules are well known, others
like the many Titans or Giants are not always known individually. Therefore, it is hard to
define myth itself.
Myth is a “traditional story with collective importance.” Traditional from Latin: trado
which means to ‘hand over’ by mouth generation after generation. During that time as
one generation hands to another generation, the myth changes.
Myths were orally transmitted.
Myths maintain contact with past; the past of a particular culture or society.
Myths transmit inherited experience to future; what were the experiences of the people
living at the time of the creation of the stories of the heroes?
One of the functions of myth is to explain society to itself, its concerns and values.
Myths can have certain characteristics which apply to all myths:
Time: past or unreal
Place: real, surreal, past real
o Transmission: spoken, anonymous
Subject to constant change
Teller: no claim of responsibility for content
There are various ways of classifying myth:
o By principal character (central character of story)
Divine myth: focus on supernatural beings (Gods, Goddesses, Deity)
Personifications of natural forces (Sky, Sea, Earth)
Abstractions (Love; Eros)
Superior to humans in power
Control forces of nature
Supernatural characteristics: size, power, appearance
Events in unreal time and place
Legends: focus on human beings Hero: more than human (mortal)
Extraordinary qualities: courage, strength, beauty, skill
Divine parent/frequent divine input (most often from god, but
sometimes goddess; sometimes not born from god, but affiliated
afterwards to a god/goddess)
Doers of great deeds
o Great wars
o Great quests
o Slaying Monsters
o Founding of cities
Assumed by Greeks to have really lived
Set in distant past/unreal places
May contain element of historical truth
Folktale: focus on ‘ordinary men and women’
Are ordinary men and women