Folklore Resources What are Myths?

What are Myths?

A myth is a traditional form of narrative that accounts the deeds of a god or supernatural being or explains the relations of man to the universe. It may have religious value to the culture that birthed it or it may have arisen to ‘explain’ the existence of some social organization, a custom, or the peculiarities of an environment.

Mythology as a term implies both the mythic system of any race and the investigation of myth. The function of mythology is the investigation and explanation of myths or tales relating to the early religious and scientific experiences of mankind. It throws light upon the material, methods, and progress of primitive religion and science, for many myths are an attempt to explain physical as well as religious phenomena.


Mythology and comparative religion overlap at many points, but comparative religion is a branch of religious science or philosophy, whereas mythology deals with mere myths, or, under the more antiquated designation of ‘comparative mythology,’ compares the myths of different races. In myths too, however, we hear of the birth and nature of gods, the creation of the earth, and the reason for certain ritual acts. As these matters are also discussed by comparative religion or religious science, mythology and comparative religion often contemplate the same phenomenon at the same time. Mythology is therefore a part of religious science.

The study of myths, then, is assisted by comparative religion, while myths in their turn often explain gods, men, and the universe, and customs and organizations of society. Many of them, indeed, are early efforts at a reconciliation of the tales of gods and heroes with the religious sentiment, which recognized in these beings objects for worship and respect.


A good example is the story of Pacari Tampu, the ‘House of the Dawn,’ a legend of the Collas, a Peruvian tribe. From the caverns of Pacari Tampu issued four brothers and a sister. The eldest ascended a mountain and cast stones to all the cardinal points of the compass to signify that he had taken possession of the land. The other three were envious of him, and the youngest succeeded in inducing him to enter a cave, whereupon the youngest brother closed the mouth of the cave with a great stone and imprisoned the eldest there for ever. On pretence of seeking his lost brother he then persuaded the second to ascend a high mountain, from which he cast him, and, as he fell, by dint of magic art changed him into a stone. The third brother, scenting treachery, fled. The first brother would appear to symbolize the oldest known Peruvian religion, that of the thunder-god Pachacamac, the second that of an intermediate fetishism or stone-worship, the third the cult of Viracocha, the water-god, while the fourth seems to be the more modern sun-worship, which in the end triumphed officially over all, as is proved by the name of the youngest brother, ‘Pirrhua Manca’ (‘Son of the Sun ‘).


When Cronus had displaced Uranus, the first monarch of Olympus, he took to wife Rhea, one of the Titan race. Gæa, his mother, however, prophesied that as he had overthrown Uranus, he himself would be overthrown by one of his own children. So uneasy did he become in consequence of this prediction that whenever a child was born to him he tore it from its mother’s arms and swallowed it whole. Five children did he swallow in this manner, greatly to the grief of Rhea, who, lamenting to Gæa the loss of her offspring, was advised by her next time she had a child to take a stone and wrap it in swaddling-clothes and give it to Cronus to swallow as if it were the infant, at the same time carefully concealing the real child in some secluded place until it reached maturity. This Rhea did, and Cronus duly swallowed the stone she gave him, imagining it to be one of his own children and therefore his possible future destroyer. But Rhea hid the child in a cave in the island of Crete, where the goat Amalthea nourished him with her milk. There were placed in the infant’s vicinity armed men, who, whenever he cried, performed a war-dance, clashing their spears and shields to drown his wailing; and so within a year the boy grew to full manhood. At length Gæa gave Cronus a draught which made him vomit up the stone he had swallowed, together with the five children previously devoured—two gods and three goddesses. These young gods made war upon the elder deities, and after a ten years’ struggle were victorious over them, banishing them to the dismal region of Tartarus.

We find numerous myths similar to the Birth of Zeus in all quarters of the world. Bushmen tell of Kwai Hemm, the devourer, who swallows that great god, the mantis insect, and disgorges him alive with all the other persons and animals engulphed in the course of a long and voracious career. The moon in Australia, while he lived on earth, was very greedy, and swallowed the eagle-god, whom he had to disgorge. Mr Im Thurn found similar tales among the Indians of Guiana. The swallowing and disgorging of Heracles by the monster that was to slay Hesione is well known. Scotch peasants tell of the same feats, but localize the myth on the banks of the Ken in Galloway. Basutos’, Eskimos’, Zulus’, and European fairy-tales all possess this incident, the swallowing of many persons by a being from whose maw they return alive and in good case.”


The desire to know the ‘reason why’ early creates a thirst for knowledge, an intellectual appetite. Many myths are answers to such questions as, What is the origin of or reason for this or that phenomenon or custom? How came the world and man to be formed as they are? In what manner were the heavenly bodies so placed and directed in their courses? Why is the lily white, the robin’s breast splashed with red? How came into force this sacrificial custom, this especial ritualistic attitude, the detail of this rite? The early replies to these questions partake not only of the nature of myth, but of science, for one of the first functions of science is to enlighten man concerning the nature of the objects and forces by which he finds himself surrounded, and their causes and effects. These replies are none the less scientific because they take the shape of stones. Their very existence proves that the above questions were asked. They cannot be accounted for without the previous existence of these questions. Mythology is the early human’s science, their manner of explaining the universe in which they lives and moves.


Animism is the belief that everything has a soul or at least a personality. Animistic myths naturally show early ideas regarding the soul and as such is one of the earliest types of myth. Stories are found telling of journeys to the spirit land, of talking animals, of men metamorphosed into animals and trees, and these are all animistic or originate in animistic belief. Modern folk-tales containing such stories possess a very great antiquity, or are merely very old myths partly obscured by a veneer of modernity. Spirit stories which have obviously a historical setting or atmosphere are almost certainly animistic. Thus tales which describe the soul as a bird or a bee, flitting about when the body is asleep, are either direct relics of an older age, or have been inspired by earlier animistic stories handed down from that age. The tales of spirit journeys to the Otherworld, the provision of implements, weapons, shoes, and so forth, placed in the grave to assist the soul in its progress to the Land of Shadows, invariably point to an animistic stage of belief—the belief in a separable ‘soul,’ in an entity entirely different and apart from the ‘tenement of clay’ that has perished.


The fetish is an object which is believed to be inhabited by a spirit or supernatural being. Trees, water, stones, are in the ‘animistic’ phase considered as the homes of such spirits. They are often forced to quit their dwelling-places because they are under the spell or potent enchantment of a more powerful being. The fetish may be a bone, a stone, a bundle of feathers, a fossil, a necklace of shells, or any object of peculiar shape or appearance. Into this object the medicine-man may lure the wandering or banished spirit, which henceforth becomes his servant; or, again, the spirit may of its own will take up its residence there. It is not clear whether, once in residence or imprisonment, the spirit can quit the fetish, but specific instances would point to the belief that it could do so if permitted by its ‘master’

There is a distinct difference between a fetish-spirit and a god, although the fetish may develop into a godling or god. The basic difference between the fetish and the god is that whereas the god is the patron and is invoked by prayer, the fetish is a spirit subservient to an individual owner or tribe, and if it would gain the state of godhead it must do so by long or marvellous service as a luck-bringer. Offerings may be made to a fetish; it may even be invoked by prayer or spell; but on the other hand it may be severely castigated if it fail to respond to its owner’s desires. Instances of the castigation of gods proper are of rare occurrence, and could scarcely happen when a deity was in the full flush of godhead, unless, indeed, the assault were directed by an alien hand.

Myths showing fetishistic belief are few and obscure, but the Tale of Brounger from the fishing village of Newhaven, near Edinburgh, is a good example of a fetish myth and of the rise of a fetish to godhead. Brounger was an old fisherman who at one time resided at Newhaven. When unable to go to sea himself, the old fisherman used to ask his neighbors for a few oysters or fish on their return from fishing, and he cursed those churlish enough to refuse. Brounger’s curse was invariably effective, so that in the end the fishing community became anxious to propitiate an individual whose spoken word carried such weight, and regarded his demands in the light of an established claim. According to tradition, Brounger passed away, but his name remained a ‘thing to conjure with’—literally. For a Newhaven fisherman to be told “Brounger’s in your head-sheets” meant that the speaker cast on his vessel and all who sailed therein an evil spell, only to be broken by making the boat describe a circle in the water three separate times.

Why should the mariners of Newhaven fear and mistrust the mere mention of one who in days more or less distant levied a petty toll of oysters or flounders from their fathers? Because Brounger was ‘a flint, and the son of a flint.’ The flint is the fetishistic emblem of the thunder-god, and Brounger was a deity of the storm.


Totemism is a phase of religion frequently encountered in myth. The totem is an animal, plant, or inanimate object connected traditionally with a certain social group which takes its name from the totem or uses it as a symbol. The persons composing this ‘group’ suppose themselves to be descended from the totem animal or plant, or to be related to it. There is a magico-religious bond between the totem animal and themselves, and the totem may not be eaten by the members of the community of which it is the patron unless in a ceremonial manner and at stated seasons.

In the Roman myth of Jupiter and Leda, we encounter Jupiter in the form of a swan; many of the Egyptian animal-headed gods are totemic; certain swine-gods of the ancient Britons were of the same class; and we know that some of our ancestors would not eat geese, just as certain tribes will not eat beaver or racoon, because these animals represented, or represent, the beast-patron of their tribe.


It has been said that the chief divisions of myth correspond to the chief problems which the universe presents to the curiosity of untutored man. Thus we find that most myths will fall under such heads as the origin of the world, the origin of man, the origin of the arts of life, star myths, sun and moon myths, myths of death, myths of fire-stealing, hero myths (including tales of the adventures of demigods), myths regarding taboo, beast myths, myths of journeys through the Underworld or Otherworld, and myths to account for customs or rites.

Note: This edited excerpt is from An Introduction to Mythology by Lewis Spence, 1921.

Citation: Spence, Lewis. An Introduction to Mythology. New York: Moffat Yard and Company, 1921.This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.


S. E. Schlosser
S. E. Schlosser
Editor of and, S.E. Schlosser is the author of the Spooky Series by Globe Pequot Press. She has been telling stories since she was a child, when games of "let's pretend" quickly built themselves into full-length tales acted out with friends. A graduate of both Houghton College and the Institute of Children's Literature, Sandy received her MLS from Rutgers University while working as a full-time music teacher and a freelance author.