Myths are traditional stories passed on in the form of folklore or cultural storytelling. They often represent the fundamental and philosophical beliefs of the community, connecting generations through metaphorical but impactful narratives (Doty, 2014).
These tales usually involve gods, heroes, or supernatural beings, and are intricately woven with cultural, religious, and historical threads of the community they originate from.
The term Myth comes from Greece and there are many Greek mythologies. But, there are myths from just about every known culture.
Scholars such as Roland Barthes argued that myths are a type of communication, acting as a medium to convey complex ideas or values in a simpler and more digestible form (Barthes, 2013).
- The Tortoise and the Hare: A tortoise, tired of the hare’s boasting, challenges him to a race. The hare, confident of winning, takes a nap mid-race, while the tortoise perseveres and wins. This Aesop’s fable demonstrates that slow and steady can indeed win the race.
- Pandora’s Box: In Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman on earth, was given a box by Zeus, but was instructed never to open it (Rose, 2010). Overcome by curiosity, Pandora finally opened the box, inadvertently releasing all manner of evils, diseases, and pain into the world. The only thing left inside was Hope, symbolizing humanity’s solace in the face of adversity.
- The Journey of Odysseus: Homer’s epic, ‘The Odyssey’, narrates the 10-year journey of the Greek hero Odysseus as he strives to return home after the Trojan War. He faces numerous obstacles, including entanglements with mythical creatures like the Cyclops and the Sirens, the wrath of the sea god Poseidon, and the temptation of the goddess Calypso. Finally, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, reclaims his throne and reunites with his wife Penelope.
- Icarus and Daedalus: This myth tells the tragic tale of Icarus and his father Daedalus, trapped in King Minos’ labyrinth. Daedalus devised wings made of wax and feathers in order for them to escape, but advised Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. Ignoring this warning, Icarus flew too high, melting his wings and consequently fell into the sea and drowned.
- King Midas and the Golden Touch: King Midas is granted a wish by Dionysus to have everything he touches turn to gold. Initially joyful, his happiness turns to horror when he realizes even his food and his beloved daughter transform to gold, teaching a lesson about greed and its negative consequences.
- The Sword Excalibur: From Arthurian legends, Excalibur is the famed sword of King Arthur, gifted by the Lady of the Lake. The sword bestowed great power and victory in battles, symbolizing Arthur’s rightful sovereignty over Britain. Upon Arthur’s death, the sword was reportedly returned to the Lady of the Lake, disappearing forever.
- Medusa and Perseus: The Greek hero Perseus slew Medusa, the Gorgon who could turn anyone who looked at her into stone. Assisted by gifts from the gods, including a reflective shield, Perseus beheaded Medusa without directly looking at her. He later used Medusa’s head as a weapon in various battles, including the rescue of Andromeda from a sea monster.
- The Creation Myth of Japan: The Shinto creation story narrates that the Japanese island was created by the divine couple, Izanagi and Izanami. They created the islands of Japan by dipping a jeweled spear into the ocean and the drops solidified to form the islands. This myth created a divine linkage to the Imperial house of Japan, strengthening its status and rule.
- Thor’s Journey to Utgard: In Norse mythology, Thor, the god of Thunder, embarked on a journey to the giant city of Utgard. During the journey, Thor and his companions engage in several contests, only to realize they have been tricked by magic illusions of the giant king. This is one of the rare instances where Thor’s might does not guarantee victory, demonstrating the occasional supremacy of wit over strength.
- Osiris and Isis: In ancient Egyptian myths, Osiris, the god of the underworld, was murdered and dismembered by his brother, Seth. Isis, Osiris’ wife, collected all of his pieces and through magic, managed to revive him, albeit briefly. This act allowed Isis to conceive their son, Horus, and solidified Osiris’ role as the ruler of the Underworld.
- Tower of Babel: In biblical mythology, humanity, speaking a single language, planned to construct a tower reaching heaven to make themselves famous. God disrupted their project by confounding their speech, so they couldn’t understand each other, leading to the project’s abandonment and people scattering over the earth.
- Robin Hood: In English folklore, Robin Hood is a highly skilled archer and outlaw, who, with his band of merry men in Sherwood Forest, fought against injustice and tyranny, redistributing the wealth from rich nobles to the poor, establishing ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor.’
- The Labors of Hercules: Hercules, a demigod of ancient Greek mythology, was commanded by King Eurystheus to perform 12 daunting tasks as a form of punishment for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness induced by Hera. These included slaying fearsome beasts like the Nemean lion and the nine-headed Hydra, and bringing back the golden apples of the Hesperides. These formidable undertakings tested Hercules’ strength and bravery, further immortalizing him in Greek mythology.
- Rome’s Founding by Romulus and Remus: In Roman mythology, the twins Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf, are the founders of Rome. A rift grew between them over where to build the city, ultimately leading Romulus to kill Remus. Hence, Romulus became the first king of Rome, lending his name to the city he founded.
- The Fall of Troy: According to Homer’s Illiad, this myth tells how the Greeks besieged Troy for ten years without success. The war eventually concluded when the Greeks built a huge wooden horse, hid soldiers inside, and tricked the Trojans into bringing it within the city walls.
- Arachne and Athena: Arachne boasted that her weaving skill was greater than Athena’s, who challenged her to a contest. Athena turned Arachne into a spider when Arachne’s tapestry depicted the gods’ misdeeds. The story suggests that one should be aware of hubris and respect the gods.
- Narcissus and Echo: Narcissus rejected the nymph Echo’s love, leading to her fading away and only her voice left. Nemesis cursed Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection. He pined away at his own reflection, turning into a flower, signifying the perils of self-obsession.
- Prometheus and the Gift of Fire: Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humans, greatly aiding their progress. For this betrayal, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock where an eagle daily ate his liver, which grew back to be eaten again, symbolizing the eternal torture of defiance against the gods.
- Orpheus and Eurydice: Orpheus descended into the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back from death with his enchanting music. Hades agreed, but on the condition that Orpheus must not look back at her until they reached the sunlight. Near the surface, Orpheus turned too soon, causing Eurydice to vanish forever, emphasizing patience and faith.
- The Myth of Sisyphus: For his deceit, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to eternally roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down when it nears the top. This tale exhibits the theme of eternal suffering and futile labor.
- Isis and the Seven Scorpions: In Egyptian mythology, seven scorpions protected the goddess Isis and her son Horus from Set. An ungrateful wealthy woman shut her door to them, and a scorpion stung her son. Despite this, Isis healed the boy, showing divine magnanimity and the potential dangers of ingratitude.
- Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds: Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was abducted by Hades to be his wife. Demeter refused to let anything grow until her daughter was returned. A deal was struck: Persephone would live six months on earth (spring and summer), and six months in the underworld (fall and winter) because she ate six pomegranate seeds, symbolizing the change of seasons.
- Daedalus and the Minotaur: Daedalus, a skillful architect, built the labyrinth for King Minos to house the Minotaur. When Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus, Daedalus constructed wings for escape. The story warns about the repercussions of human pride and the dangers of messianic ambitions.
- The Legend of Faust: Faust, driven by dissatisfaction and desire for infinite knowledge and pleasures, makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles, offering his soul in exchange. Despite the worldly experiences he gains, Faust realizes the empty nature of hedonism and selfish ambition, providing a caution about the cost of compromising one’s moral integrity.
- Judgment of Paris: Paris, a Trojan prince, was asked to decide who was most beautiful among the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. Each offered a bribe, with Paris choosing Aphrodite’s promise of the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen, sparking the Trojan War, highlighting how personal decisions can have wide-ranging consequences.
- Dionysus and the Pirates: Sea pirates kidnapped Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, mistaking him for a prince. When they didn’t release him despite his warnings, Dionysus transformed into a lion, frightened them, and turned them into dolphins. This myth underscores the idea of divine retribution and the consequences of hubris.
- The Taming of the Shrew: In this Shakespearean tale, Katherina, a woman with a sharp tongue and fierce demeanor, is pursued by Petruchio, who seeks her substantial dowry. Petruchio ‘tames’ her through various means, indicating a commentary on gender roles and societal expectations.
- Atlantis: The story of a monumental city of unparalleled wealth that fell out of favor with the gods and sank into the sea in a single day. The story of Atlantis, first introduced by Plato, serves as a warning to human societies about the dangers of hubris.
- The Odyssey Sirens: In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his men must pass by the alluring sirens whose beautiful singing lures sailors to their death. Odysseus fills his men’s ears with beeswax and binds himself to the ship’s mast to resist the temptation, showcasing the theme of self-control and quick-wittedness in the face of danger.
- The Sword in the Stone: The legend has it that the future king could be identified by his ability to pull an enchanted sword from a stone. The young Arthur, unknowingly of royal blood, does so easily, suggesting that leadership comes from divine fate and righteousness rather than brute force.
- Beowulf: The epic poem Beowulf narrates the story of Beowulf, a hero who slays the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother to protect the Danes. He later becomes a wise and popular king, underlining themes of bravery, loyalty, and the relationship between the king and his people.
- Loki’s Punishment: In Norse mythology, after causing the death of Baldr, the god of light and purity, Loki was severely punished. He was bound with the entrails of his son, with a serpent dripping agonizing venom onto him, embodying the theme of the retribution that is due for malevolent mischief.
- Theseus and the Minotaur: Theseus vowed to kill the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head, kept in the Labyrinth. With Ariadne’s help, he navigated the Maze, slain the Minotaur, and escaped, emphasizing courage and the triumph of heroism over monstrous evil.
- The Myth of the Phoenix: The Phoenix is a mythical bird that at the end of its life-cycle self-immolates and is then reborn from the ashes, symbolizing rebirth and cyclic renewal.
- The Tale of Genji: Often considered the world’s first novel, it is a Japanese classic about the life of Genji, a nobleman of high rank and his romantic relationships; it provides insights into the culture and aesthetics of Heian Japan.
- The Birth of Venus: In Roman mythology, Venus, the goddess of love, was born from the sea foam after Saturn castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea, symbolizing beauty emerging from chaos.
- The Rainbow Serpent: An Aboriginal Australian myth tells of the Rainbow Serpent, a powerful creator deity responsible for shaping the earth during a period known as Dreamtime, signifying reverence for the natural world and its cyclical processes.
- Achilles Heel: Demigod warrior Achilles was invulnerable except for his heel, his mother Thetis having held him by his heel while dipping him into the River Styx. During the Trojan War, he was killed by an arrow to his heel, coining the term “Achilles heel” for a single point of weakness.
- Jason and the Golden Fleece: Jason and his crew, the Argonauts, embarked on a perilous journey to retrieve the Golden Fleece, symbolizing authority and kingship. This journey involved a number of trials and tribulations, exemplifying heroic strength, intellect, and persistence.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh: An ancient Mesopotamian tale about King Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. Their adventures include battling gods and monstrous beasts, seeking immortality, and facing human mortality, presenting themes of friendship, the human condition, and death’s inevitability.
- The Legend of Quetzalcoatl: In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl the Feathered Serpent, was a god of wind, air, and learning who brought them the benefits of civilization, including the calendar and maize, symbolizing enlightenment and spiritual transcendence.
- Tristan and Isolde: A tragic romantic tale of knight Tristan and Irish princess Isolde who fall in love after accidentally consuming a love potion. It involves themes of love, betrayal, and tragic destiny, similar to Romeo and Juliet.
- King Solomon’s Mines: An adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard tells of a search of an unexplored region of Africa by a group of adventurers led by Allan Quatermain for the missing brother of one of the party, and the legendary wealth said to be concealed in the mines of King Solomon, portraying the clash of cultures and the allure of exploration.
- Sinbad the Sailor: This Middle Eastern tale narrates the adventures of a merchant named Sinbad, who embarks on seven fantastical voyages across the sea, meeting mythical creatures and overcoming tremendous challenges along the way, illustrating bravery and the wonder of exploration.
- The Tale of Cupid and Psyche: In this Roman myth, Psyche, a mortal woman of extraordinary beauty, wins the love of Cupid, the god of love, but loses him when she betrays his trust. She performs a series of impossible tasks set by Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite, to win back her beloved, demonstrating the trials of love and the strength of human spirit.
- The Legend of the Loch Ness Monster: This Scottish legend tells of a large creature that supposedly inhabits Loch Ness. Sightings—real and fictitious—of “Nessie” have fascinated people worldwide, embodying the human fascination with the unknown and unexplained.
- The Four Dragons: This Chinese legend tells the story of four dragons that, against the Jade Emperor’s orders, brought rain to drought-stricken lands, for which they were trapped underground as four rivers. The story exemplifies courage and self-sacrifice for the greater good.
- The Tale of El Dorado: Originating in 16th-century Colombia during the Spanish conquest, this myth describes a city of immense wealth, where the king covers himself with gold dust. Despite numerous explorations, El Dorado has never been found, highlighting humankind’s lust for wealth and the perils of greed.
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: This American folktale by Washington Irving narrates the story of Ichabod Crane, a superstitious schoolmaster who encounters a spectral headless horseman, emphasizing the power of fear and imagination.
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: This account describes an incredible terraced garden, said to be built in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Amyitis. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, though no archaeological evidence has been found, illustrating the grandeur and marvel of ancient civilizations.
- The Children of Lir: In this Celtic myth, Lir’s children are changed into swans by their jealous stepmother for 900 years, symbolizing love’s endurance and the transformative power of song.
- The Monk and the Yaksha: In this Indian myth, a monk is questioned about human morality and conduct by a Yaksha, a nature spirit. The insightful responses of the monk demonstrate the depth of wisdom present in ancient Indian culture.
- The Song of Roland: This French epic narrates the tale of Roland and his fellow Paladins who died in the Battle of Roncevaux, emphasizing chivalry and heroic bravery.
- The Legend of the Phoenix: This Greek myth tells of a purple and gold bird of unparalleled beauty that can live up to 500 years before it combusts, to then be reborn from its ashes, symbolizing renewal and the cyclical nature of life.
- The Story of King Arthur: In various British legends, Arthur is a noble king, who with his Knights of the Round Table, defender of the realm and upholder of chivalry, exemplifying courage, honor, and leadership.
- Cinderella: The folk tale tells of a kind-hearted girl mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters. With the aid of her fairy godmother, she attends a royal ball, captivates the prince, but leaves at midnight, losing a glass slipper. The prince finds her through the slipper, which fits only her, and they live happily ever after.
- Sleeping Beauty: Princess Aurora is cursed at birth by an evil fairy to die by a spindle prick on her sixteenth birthday. A good fairy modifies the curse to a deep sleep, which she eventually falls into. Eventually, she is awakened by a prince’s kiss, which breaks the spell.
- Little Red Riding Hood: The heroine, clad in a red cape, is en route to her sick grandmother’s house with food. She encounters a deceitful wolf who races her to grandma’s, eats the grandmother, and disguises himself as her. The wolf tries to eat Little Red Riding Hood, but a passing hunter rescues them, and they all live happily.
- The Ugly Duckling: A duckling, distinct from his siblings with his ungainly appearance, is ridiculed. He leaves his home, experiences hardship, and loneliness. Eventually, he matures into an elegant swan, recognized and praised for his beauty, highlighting the idea of personal transformation and growth.
- The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Hired to rid Hamelin of rats, the Pied Piper uses enchanting music to lead the rats away to drown. When the town refuses to pay him, he uses his music to lead the children away, never to return – serving as a warning about the consequences of breaking promises.
- Alice In Wonderland: Alice falls into a rabbit hole, leading her to Wonderland, a whimsical world with peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. Alice’s adventures involve strange encounters and challenges. The story is known for its exploration of logic, the fantastical, and the concept of growing up.
- Goldilocks and The Three Bears: In this fairy tale, Goldilocks, a young girl, stumbles upon a house belonging to three bears. Finding their porridge, chairs, and beds, Goldilocks tests out each one, finding one always “just right”. She is discovered by the bears, causing her to flee, teaching the lesson about respecting others’ property.
- Three Little Pigs: The tale is about three pigs each building a house of different materials (straw, sticks, and bricks). A wolf blows down the first two pigs’ houses, but the third pig’s brick house withstands his efforts. The tale promotes the virtues of planning and hard work.
- Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs: Snow White, of incomparable beauty, is pursued by a jealous queen. She takes refuge with seven dwarfs. The queen, disguised as an old hag, poisons Snow White, putting her in a deathlike sleep, broken by a prince’s kiss. They marry, marking a happy ending.
- Jack and The Beanstalk: Jack, a poor boy, trades his family’s last cow for magic beans that grow into a giant beanstalk. Climbing it, he encounters a ferocious giant with treasures, which he steals. He kills the pursuing giant by cutting down the beanstalk and lives prosperously thereafter.
- Aladdin and The Magic Lamp: Aladdin, a poor youth, discovers a magic lamp containing a powerful genie who grants him wishes. Using the genie’s power, Aladdin becomes rich, defeats the wicked sorcerer, and marries the princess, underscoring that humility and honesty are vital virtues.
- Rapunzel: Imprisoned in a tower by a witch, Rapunzel, with exceptionally long hair, uses it to let a prince climb up to her. When the witch discovers this, she cuts Rapunzel’s hair and banishes her. The prince finds Rapunzel, her tears restore his sight (blinded in his escape from the witch), and they reunite with their children.
- The Frog Prince: A princess befriends a frog, who is actually a prince under a spell that can be broken only with a kiss from a princess. Initially reluctant, the princess eventually kisses the frog, breaking the spell. The story signifies that appearances can deceive, and true value lies within.
- The Fisherman and the Golden Fish: A fisherman catches a golden fish who promises to fulfill his wishes in exchange for its freedom. The fisherman’s wife’s greed grows with each granted wish, leading to their downfall when the fish revokes everything due to their excessive greed.
- Beauty and the Beast: Belle, a beautiful girl, is taken prisoner by a Beast in his castle. Ignoring his gruesome exterior, she learns to appreciate his kindness. She falls in love with him, which breaks the spell on the Beast, making him a handsome prince again, highlighting the theme of inner beauty.
- Rumpelstiltskin: A miller lies to a king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The mysterious Rumpelstiltskin helps her, demanding her firstborn in return. The queen (the daughter) defeats Rumpelstiltskin by learning his name, revealing the importance of truth and keeping promises.
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf: A shepherd boy repeatedly tricks nearby villagers by crying out that a wolf is attacking his sheep. When a wolf eventually comes, the boy’s cries are ignored, and he loses his sheep. The tale emphasizes the destructive consequences of lying.
- The Legend of the White Snake: A Chinese tale of a powerful white snake demon Bai Suzhen who transforms into a beautiful woman and falls in love with a mortal man, Xu Xian, serves to comment on love transcending supernatural boundaries and human prejudice.
- The Tale of Urashima Taro: This Japanese folk tale narrates the story of a fisherman, Urashima Taro, who saves a turtle and is rewarded by a visit to the Dragon Palace under the sea. On his return, he discovers 300 years have passed, implying themes of isolation, reward, and the relentless passage of time.
- Legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill: This Irish myth tells of the giant warrior, Fionn, who acquired wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge and fought against supernatural beings, upholding themes of heroism, wisdom, and destiny.
The Social Purpose of Myths
The primary social purpose of myths is to influence social behavior and promote cohesion among the members of a community.
Consider, for example, the Native American myth of the Spider Woman, creator of the universe, who taught the people the art of weaving (Sando, 2010). This myth simultaneously addresses the inception of the universe, bestowing a cultural and creative significance to the craft of weaving for the entire community.
Furthermore, myths can also provide an interpretive lens— a code for understanding the world and human life—continuously helping to shape our social and psychological reality (Jensen, 2016).
By fostering a shared set of beliefs and values, myths contribute towards the establishment of social norms and rules, thereby reinforcing overall societal structure and order.
Barthes, R. (2013). Mythologies. Paris: The Noonday Press.
Doty, W. G. (2014). Mythography: The study of myths and rituals. Alabama: University of Alabama Press.
Jensen, J. S. (2016). Myths and mythologies: a reader. London: Routledge.
Sando, J. S. (2010). Spider Woman Stories: Legends of the Hopi Indians. University of Arizona Press.
Chris Drew (PhD)
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.