Zeus, The Headless Horseman, Paul Bunyan, and Bigfoot all have some commonalities among them–clearly there are supernatural and fantastical elements occurring in each story–but how are they different, and how do we know which is which? I used to struggle with the similarities and differences a while ago, but it gets to be pretty easy to understand if you look at each term’s timeliness and how they function in typical use. I will provide an example of each to hopefully clear up the definitions and give you a concrete idea of which is which.
What is a Myth?
The word “myth” is derived from the Greek word “mythos,” which means “story.” These stories have typically been rooted in religion or folk beliefs and help define the origin of a culture. “… myths can be used to demystify a supernatural or unresolved event. Myths present reality in a sensational way, often using creatures and gods,” reference.com states. For instance, if one hears a story of the origin of a holiday tradition–say the story of Old St. Nick–they are probably hearing a myth because Santa Clause is a “sensational,” god-like creature who surreptitiously visits homes on Christmas Eve and leaves gifts for children, and this rationale clarifies Christmas for younger folks and it’s passed down from the parents, as well.
These stories reflect societies attempts to understand how things in the world came to exist even though they use some kind of supernatural element, and that is why they typically feature nonhuman characters doing things that could be construed as “supernatural” (differencebetween.info). For a better understanding, think about the Greek gods and all the stories and movies you’ve heard or watched that detail their exploits and existence. Myths = Mt. Olympus. Those are myths!
What is a Legend?
Much of my original confusion between myths and legends came from their similarities and my unwillingness to see the nuances of their differences. Legends share many of the same qualities as myths—supernatural stuff, unbelievable characters, etc.—but the major difference is that they come from the recent past, are historical in nature, and are passed from one generation to the next.
Robin Hood and King Arthur fit the mold of a Legend because they come from the semi-recent past, have historical connections (they could be real), and their stories have been passed down through oral, visual, and textual mediums. Perhaps for a better understanding of this, think about Bigfoot, or, more accurately, think about The Legend of Bigfoot. We aren’t entirely sure what it looks like and it really only popped up as recently as the late 60s or early 70s but the story has grown and become so popular that it’s already been shared and passed down from one generation to the next.
Folklore is a bit more streamlined for understanding. It’s an oral history that is preserved via cultural traditions that include music, history, stories, and more; and, is a “collection of fictional stories involving people or animals” (reference.com). This last part is pretty important if you think about the stories of Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed. They are kind of like sagas that feature a protagonists completing tasks that shape the world as we know it.
Moreover, much like legends and myths, Folklore is passed down from generation to generation. As a noted difference, reference.com states: “Folktales often involve some sort of conflict that has to do with events that happen in everyday life.” Think about Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox Babe. Both are supernatural and their giant sizes are responsible for literally shaping parts of the US geography—well at least according to the folklorists.