Before exploring the realm of mythology, it is important to expand upon tradition, which is a body of beliefs handed down the generations. [22] Often discussions of tradition are limited to a particular scope, such as religious tradition or traditional drama, but it is actually an all-encompassing term. Tradition includes everything from folktales, legends, and myth to proverbs, aphorisms, and superstitions. [22]

In particular, a traditional element is something inherited from previous generations rather than an element invented by the current generation. [22] In this way, different cultural groups pass down wisdom to the newest generation before passing into death.

There are a number of traditional story types that are defined in relation with mythology. The rest of this article will explore the variety of story types and collection types that are often confused, conflated, or otherwise intertwined with myth and mythology.

A Brief Exploration of Terms

Because different story styles and literary values developed over time and in different cultures, there is a plethora of terms that apply to different kinds or forms of traditional stories. Consider the following terms:

  • Bed Time Story
  • Camp Fire Story
  • Ditty Epic (Poem, Tale)
  • Fable
  • Fairy Tale
  • Folk Ballad/Poem
  • Folk Song
  • Folklore
  • Legend
  • Lullaby
  • Myth
  • Mythology
  • Nursery Rhyme
  • Parable
  • Oral Lore
  • Saga
  • Song

While all of the above terms, and definitely many more, apply to traditional stories and wisdom, much of mythology is presented by way of story, even if the presentation of said myth is pictogram/hieroglyphics on rock or in a folk song. Sometimes, this is done because the story has to be translated from a "lost" ancient language, or because the meter and rhyme of the original is difficult to keep in translation. In other times, this is done for pure aesthetic.

Etymologically, this section should technically be referred to as "folklore" instead of "mythology." However, folklore is a less common term and a newer term, so mythology was given primacy.

Folklore and Mythology

Folklore is a complicated entity, just like mythology, but it tends to be a wider-umbrella as a term. W. J. Thomas coined the term in the middle of the nineteenth century, when he substituted "folklore" for "popular antiquities." [29] Varied conceptions and understanding of the term make it difficult to pinpoint, but many folklore societies have adopted similar definitions, many of which restrict it to unrecorded traditions of a given group. [27] Since W. J. Thomas's initial usage, folklore has been the collective name applied to all kinds of sayings, verbal compositions, and social rituals handed down primarily by word of mouth. [3]

In this way, folklore includes myth, legend, tales, riddles, nursery rhymes, charms, spells, omens, fairy tales, beliefs of all sorts, ballads, cowboy songs, chants/requiems, parables, fables, [28] and pseudoscientific lore, including animal, medicine, plant, and weather lore. [3] Because folklore also deals with superstitions, proverbs, aphorisms, axioms, and even customs, particularly those that deal with birth, initiation, courtship/marriage, and death. [28] A simpler explanation is that "Folklore includes all the human knowledge, customs, and beliefs that have been passed down through the oral tradition." [35]

Mythology, on the other hand, generally is restricted to stories of spiritual or religious significance; that is, a myth is generally a story in conjunction with a particular religion or spiritual belief. Both folklore and mythology are collections of different styles of story, including tales, chants, proverbs, and hymns or songs.

Where is the line between folklore and mythology? Often, the line seems rather arbitrary, especially when it is in relation to apocrypha vs. canon. Canon, simply put, is a criterion; in relation to folklore and mythology, canon applies to authorized or accepted traditional wisdom of any variety. [25] Apocrypha, meaning "spurious" or "doubtful," is applied to writings that have been attributed to either an author or a particular traditional group, but the stories have not been accepted into the canon. [24]

The best example of canon/apocrypha can be found in the Christian Bible. The Catholic version of the Bible has seventy-three books, while the Protestant Bible contains sixty-six, and the discrepancy comes entirely from the Old Testament. The Catholic version includes the following books:

  • The Book of Tobit
  • The Book of Judith
  • The Book of Wisdom
  • The Book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus)
  • The Book of Baruch
  • The First Book of Machabees
  • The Second Book of Machabees

In addition, the Protestant Bible does not include verses 10:14 to 16:14 of The Book of Esther or verses 3:24-90 and chapters 13-14 of the Book of Daniel. The Catholic version, however, includes these omitted verses, chapters, and books. Some Protestant versions are printed "with apocrypha," meaning these books are printed, usually between the Old Testament and the New Testament in a separate section.

Christians who use the Protestant version of the Bible will call these additional books in the Catholic version as "apocrypha." Sometimes, the information in these books is referred to as folklore rather than mythology, since it is traditional wisdom passed down, but not authorized wisdom, so to speak. Of course, additional books are excluded from both versions of the Bible, and Catholic and Protestant groups generally refer to these books as "apocrypha" as well.

Sometimes, however, the line between mythology is drawn between traditional knowledge and traditional knowledge associated with ritual or social customs. This becomes difficult when the tradition indirectly informs ritual or customs.

In general, it is important to consider that the difference between mythology and folklore (and, as a consequence, myth and folktale) relates to this sometimes arbitrary separation of the two terms.

Fables, Fairy Tales, and the Separation of Seriousness

Certain types of stories earn their titles from having a specific audience requirement, or by being considered of more or less consequence to a particular tradition. Similarly, some stories are defined by location, yet these styles often include different literary or storytelling techniques. For example, camp fire stories and bedtime stories are defined by location, but because the location indicates a particular need or desire for a tale, different storytelling techniques are applied. Campfire stories are generally suspenseful.

The unfortunate effect of these different classifications is that certain stories are considered less important, or less serious, than others, simply because one is titled myth and the other fable. However, certain story styles are just as old as myth.

People have told fairy tales throughout all of history; in fact, a papyrus dating 1,700 B.C. reveals that Pharaoh Khufu (or, Cheops) was fond of fairy tales. [32] They became exceedingly popular near the end of the seventeenth century. [26]

Fairy tales are found all over the world, and many are exceptionally old, though constantly made anew, with newer incarnations passed down to current generations. [32] In style, fairy tales flow through image, moving from scene to scene with almost magical speed, often skipping or limiting narration that is non-visual. [33] By providing a style that mimics human dreams, and usually told with brevity, fairy tales remain incredibly popular. The most important aspect, the most timeless ingredient, is magic, specifically magic that mirrors the human imagination's ability to manifest reality by thinking. [33]

Poetic justice, where evildoers are punished and good folk are rewarded, is generally the same as fairy tale justice. [34] One reason for the popularity of the fairy tale style is that they suggest, or imply, that at the root of life, there really is such a thing as natural justice. [34] Yet, it is commonly believed that fairy tales are specifically for children (or the adults introducing children to them). The optimism within provides hope, and the struggles of the main characters provide excitement. [31]

A better example of the division of "serious" from "not serious" styles lies in fables and parables. It is arguable that the parables of Jesus enlarged the schism between the two terms, given parables a strong set of examples of serious stories in the style.

A fable, in a general sense, is a fictitious tale, particularly to a didactic story of which a moral forms an integral part. [4] Sometimes fable is simply defined as a brief tale told to point a moral, with central figures that either stem from or deal with supernatural or unusual incidents. [16] The beast fable, in which some or all of the characters are animals endowed with human characteristic in order to exemplify human follies, has been a popular form in almost every period of history. [19] Another less popular term for fable is apologue. [1]

A parable is a short narrative about human beings, presented in a way to stress a paralleled thesis or lesson. [2] Another definition in the same vein: A parable is a story that teaches a lesson, with the story paralleling, detail for detail, the situation the lesson for which the parable is being illustrated. [19] Parables, should they include animals, generally have animals sans-anthropomorphism, and feature human beings as the primary characters.

Despite the fact that fables and parables have the same basic goal, that is, to tell a story that points a moral or lesson, fables often fall into a "less serious" category of storytelling style. Fables and fairy tales, both being ancient and popular styles, are constantly considered "childish" or "youthful" stories. Parables, on the other hand, are considered more mature forms of storytelling.

Of course, there are stories that are specifically meant to inspire children, but fables and fairy tales are not restricted to young people in their effect. The unfortunate side effect is that these stories can be disregarded in the canon of folklore, despite their function in society.

An Historical Battle: Myth and Legend

Two other styles often confused are myth and legend, which are both traditional stories often involving the supernatural passed down through the generations. For the most part, the determinate factor is a dollop of history; legends are generally distinguished from myths because there is more of a historical precedence for the story. [30] For example, the primary characters of a legend may be factual people from a historical period either wrestling with or using superhuman, or even supernatural, powers.

An excellent example of this is The Legend of Saint George, which is a tale about an historical figure. St. George is an especially good example because of his status as the Patron Saint of England. During the Protestant Reformation, the Anglican Church became the religion of England, and Saint George had to be reinvented - literally to maintain his status as a Patron Saint of the country.

Like Saint George's, many legends are about the lore of a cultural group as an expression of racial or national spirit, rather than necessarily a religious or spiritual expression. [30] Of course, the obvious line between myth and legend breaks down when cultural or national heroes are also specifically religious or spiritual heroes as well. The best example of this ambiguity is the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings, which is considered national epic of the Persian-speaking world. The story, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, draws heavily upon the Zoroastrian religion and mythological stories. The Shahnameh is, therefore, associated with both legend and mythology, owing to is complex relationships with society and culture.

So, while legends tend to form around historical events or persons, many legends are also deeply tied to mythology or a part of the mythological canon.

Important Wisdom Techniques and Capsules

Mythology and folklore are generally associated with both long and sort narratives, but it is important to include other forms of tradition, too. This section will briefly review different capsules, or nuggets, of wisdom from tradition.

Aphorism is a concise statement of principle and/or precept, specifically given in brevity and blunt terms. It can imply specific authorship. [23]

Ana is a collection of miscellaneous sayings, gossip, scraps of information, and anecdotes about a particular person, place, or event. [5]

Ara is a lengthy, formal curse or malediction. [7]

Charm is related to the forms of spell, curse, and riddle. It is definite as a primordial, formulaic utterance, specifically designed to have magical influences on life circumstances. A charm may seek to obtain luck or to ward off evil influences. [12]

Curse is an invocation that calls on a supernatural being or force to visit evil on someone. [14]

A ditty is a song or refrain. As a term, "ditty" is used for any short, simple, popular melody, or it can be used, in the sense of theme, to refer to any short or apt saying running throughout a composition. [15]

Maxim (or Adage) is a concise statement drawn from experience to inculcate some practical advice. [18]

Proverbs, originally preserved by oral tradition, are brief sayings that memorably express a recognized truth about life. [20]

Brief Definitions of Other Story Styles

This section with give a concise overview of the different kinds of styles that are a part of folklore and/or mythology that are either less popular or incredibly specific (and hence less known) than the aforementioned and explored terms.

Anecdote is a short narrative detailing a particular interesting episode or event, applied most commonly to refer to an event within the life of an important person. [6]

Aubade is a lyric about down or a morning serenade. It is also a song of lovers parting at song. [8]

Ballad is a form of verse to be sung or recited. The form is characterized by its dramatic and exciting episodes, contained in a simple, narrative form. [9]

Chant is loosely defined to be a song. More particularly, a chant signifies the intoning of words to a monotonous musical measure. An important element of chant is cadence, which is usually one note (the "reciting note") that is use for a series of successive words and/or syllables. Chants are considered less melodies than songs. [11]

Chantey (aka Shanty) is a sailor's song, marked by strong rhythms and used to accompany certain forms of repetitious hard labor performed by sailors working in a group when sailing. The leader of the singing is the Chantey Man, who is responsible to sing a line or two that precedes a refrain that is sung by the entire Chantey Group. Of course, shanties are also sung off of ships. [11]

Coronach is a song of lamentation or funeral dirge, typically sung by a woman. [13]

Epic is a long, narrative poem that presents characters of high position in adventures. The language and style are elevated, and the events can span drastically, since the unifying feature of an epic is the heroic character. [36] Many epics have known or attributed authors, such as Homer's The Odyssey and or Virgil's Aeneid. Folk epics, on the other hand, are of unknown or unattributed authorship, and they are generally assumed to be produced by way of communal composition. [37]

Ghost Story is a tale that involves spirits or ghosts, generally meant to encapsulate a frightening or supernatural situations of people who have died. [17]

Nursery Rhyme is comprised of brief verses, often anonymous or attributed to a general unit, such as "your grandmother's grandmother taught her this..." Most nursery rhymes are traditional, and they have percussive rhythm and frequent, heavy rhyme, being written for young children. The first important collection of English-language nursery rhymes was by "Mother Goose," which appeared in the eighteenth century. The collection included songs, counting-out games, and even nonsense verse that could have been, seemed to have, links with important British political history. [38]

Requiem is a chant for the repose of the dead, or a dirge or solemn song. [21]

Saga, in the strictest sense, is a set of Icelandic or Norse tales of the medieval period giving accounts of heroic adventures, especially of members of families of importance. Sagas tend to blend mythological stories and figures with legends and history. [39] In the newer sense of the word, a saga is a narrative sharing the aforementioned characteristics of the Icelandic sagas. [39]

Tall Tale is a funny story (particularly a folktale) that is characterized by extreme exaggeration with events that do not involve magic or the supernatural. [41] They were extremely common on the American frontier. [40] In many cases, a tall tale is about an event that has actually happened, or could have happened, but it is pulled and stretched to ridiculous extremes. The humor comes from this stretching of reality, and the main characters of the story tend to be humans. [41]


  1. Abrams 5
  2. Abrams 6
  3. Abrams 70
  4. Brewer 391
  5. Harmon 19
  6. Harmon 26
  7. Harmon 39
  8. Harmon 46
  9. Harmon 50
  10. Harmon 86
  11. Harmon 87
  12. Harmon 89
  13. Harmon 118
  14. Harmon 134
  15. Harmon 157
  16. Harmon 203
  17. Harmon 229
  18. Harmon 301
  19. Harmon 363
  20. Harmon 408
  21. Harmon 432
  22. Harmon 511
  23. Holman 30
  24. Holman 31
  25. Holman 66
  26. Holman 180
  27. Holman 188
  28. Holman 189
  29. Holman 188, Harmon 212
  30. Holman 243
  31. Philip 8
  32. Philip 10
  33. Philip 11
  34. Philip 12
  35. Tembo 15
  36. Harmon 185
  37. Harmon 212
  38. Harmon 346
  39. Harmon 452
  40. Harmon 504
  41. Lynch 108

For more information on footnotes and references, please see the bibliography.